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Stress management techniques

On the previous page, we looked at some of the common causes and effects of everyday stress. Here are three key ways to manage stress effectively:

1. Recognize the symptoms of stress.

Individual reactions to stress may include irritability, headaches, backaches, restlessness, or sleeplessness. In relationships with other family members, there may be an increase in arguments, sarcasm, or criticism. Communications may break down, children may develop behavioral problems, or angry feelings may remain unresolved.

Deeper problems may show up in the form of substance abuse, eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, physical abuse of spouse or children, or chronic depression. Rather than trying to place the blame on one family member, it is important to recognize that the entire family is under stress.

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2. Identify the sources of stress.

Take a careful look at what is going on within an individual member and what is happening within your family. What kinds of changes have occurred recently? Were these changes expected or unexpected? Were they seen as positive changes or negative changes by family members?

Remember, even the expected, positive changes in life disrupt the family system. Most families consider weddings as a time of great joy, but anyone who has been through the planning and cost of such an event knows just how stressful it can be.

Identifying the sources of stress is very helpful in working through stressful family times. This helps place the focus on the events rather than on individuals. Identifying probable sources of stress before they occur will help prepare you and your family to manage the situation.

3. Take action to reduce stress.

When stressful events occur, you do not have to be a helpless victim. Usually: at least one of four steps can be taken. By taking one or more of these steps, you will not eliminate all the stress but you may be able to reduce its negative impact on you and your family.

Check to see if you can control the events. You can control at least some of the events in your life by:

  • planning ahead. Plan, with your family, coping strategies before a crisis occurs. For example, establishing a regular savings plan for a child's college education while the child is relatively young will help prevent a financial crisis when the child reaches college age.
  • setting priorities. Learn to deal with life in bite-size pieces. Decide what must get done today or this week and what can wait.
  • making your family a high priority. Those other people that you call family are in special need of time and attention. Learn to say "no" to things that interfere with quality family time.
  • anticipating strains on the family. If a child is starting a new school or a parent is changing jobs, you know that things will be different for a while. Go easy on one another, and make the changes as smooth as possible.
  • simplifying your life. In a materialistic society, it is difficult not to compare our family with others. Status, more than personal need, motivates many families to over-extend themselves financially. By simplifying our lives, we reduce our economic dependence on others, and we recognize that our family is unique and special just as it is.

Try to change your attitude about a stressful event.

Back in 1959, a classic study by Reutien Hill, a social scientist, showed that family crisis involved both a stressful event or series of events, and the meaning of the event to a family. How you and your family look at events will largely determine the kind of impact they have upon you. Sometimes it is not possible to change an event, but you may be able to change how you look at the event. Some ways of controlling attitude might include:

  • Learning to be adaptable. Go with the flow. During times of stress, be less rigid about family rules.
  • Having realistic expectations of yourself and others. Expecting too much of yourself or others sets you up for disappointment, frustration, or anger.
  • Looking at the big picture. Will the stressful situation really make a big difference in the future?
  • Looking at the challenge within your crisis. Sometimes our greatest growth as human beings comes from successfully overcoming difficult situations.
  • Allowing yourself to be human. Recognize your successes; forgive your failures.
  • Being flexible with family roles. If the wife and mother works outside the home, other family members can share in chores like cooking, dishwashing, laundry, and cleaning.
  • Avoiding rushing yourself and others. If getting to church on time is important to you, for example, plan to get up earlier and avoid being anxious or arguments about always being late.

When possible, try to change your responses. You have some choice as to how you react to stressful events. Family members need not react with sarcasm, blaming, and criticism, which only increase the chances that others will react with anger and hostility. Some healthy ways to control responses to stress might include:

  • Opening communication channels. Deal with the issues rather than attack the other person. Listen, really listen, to the other person's views. And don't forget to listen for the feelings behind the words. Through listening, you reflect a genuine respect and concern for the other.
  • Having regular "one-on-one" time with each family member.
  • Working and playing together as a family, while maintaining times for each individual's privacy.
  • Encouraging the honest expression of feelings. This will help prevent larger conflict or problems in the future.
  • Try to exercise regularly, eat a balanced diet, and get sufficient rest. Your body will deal better with stress if it is in good working order. Studies suggest that anti-inflammatory foods like dark chocolate and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (such as fatty fish, flax seeds and chia seeds) may help protect against neuron damage caused by chronic stress.
  • Taking time out from your anger. Allow yourself some cooling down time. You might want to go for a walk, chop wood, or knead bread. Counting to 10 (or higher) before expressing your anger will go a long way toward resolving conflict.
  • Keeping your work in perspective. Try not to allow the workplace to dominate you to the point that you don't have time for yourself or your family.
  • Learning to relax. During stress, it is difficult to relax. Yet just a few minutes in a comfortable chair can work wonders. Muscle relaxation, or meditating will help in relaxation -- and meditation may even reverse cellular damage caused by chronic stress. There are many different books which teach a variety of techniques of relaxation, such as The Relaxation Response or Less Stress in 30 Days.
  • Meditating or praying. Get in touch with your inner resources. Life does have a spiritual dimension; stress can be reduced by addressing your spiritual needs.
  • Pampering yourself, and allow other family members to do the same. You may choose to take a hot bubble-bath, enjoy a sunset, take a mental vacation, play your favorite music, practice deep breathing, get (and give) a back rub, or whatever else you can do to pamper yourself.

Another important way of taking positive action in confronting stress is to recognize and use available resources. Reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness; it is recognizing that all people have limits and need help when they are stretched beyond those limits. When we feel overwhelmed by stress it is a sign of strength task for help from a physician, a counselor, a clergyman, or a mental health professional.

As we develop the tools and take time to use them, we may become able to manage stress more creatively. If we are willing to learn and practice some of the coping techniques mentioned above, and to seek professional help when needed, our lives and our families will be less stressed and much happier.


  • Managing Your Stress, North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, HE-403

Suggested Reading

  • Adams. J. (1989). Stress: a new positive approach. London: David & Charles.
  • Faelten, S., Diamond. D., et aI. (1990). Tension turnaround: the 30-day program for inner calm, confidence and control. Emmaus, P A.: Rodale Press.
  • Gillespie, P. and BechtaI, L. (1989). Less stress in 30 days. New York: Signet.
  • Metcalf, C.W., and Felible, R. (1992). Lighten up: survival skills for people under pressure. Reading, Mass.: AddisonWesley Publishing C.
  • Schriner, C:(1990). Feel better now: 30 ways to handle frustration in three minutes or less. Rolling Hills Estate, CA.: Jalmar Press.

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