People Skills

Social skills for kids and everyone else.

Holidays Are Great—Had Enough Stress Yet?

Use easy, proven ways to improve your stress that you can teach kids as well!

You have three, maybe five things to do and time to do two of them. You're supposed to have family or friends for dinner, arrange the logistics of your family and maybe work in an outside job as well. Money, health issues or relationships might be on your mind. You're supposed to be cheerful! Thinking about all this, much less living it, is stressful. This stress limits your ability to think clearly, to react calmly and to be effective.

Many scientific studies have shown that stress causes physical change in your body; it's not "all in your mind." Your body has a physical reaction to stress whether you're actually faced with the stressful situation or even just THINKING about it. Most of us spend a large amount of our time dwelling on what's happened or worrying about what's going to happen, so many of us have chronic stress. Physical symptoms of chronic stress include everything from poor concentration, headaches, stomachaches and sleep problems to lowered immune systems and even infertility.

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There are scientifically proven tools to deal with stress that actually heal these changes in your body. They are free, readily available and easy to use. You can use them yourself and teach them to your kids. Do these together!

Powerful techniques are relaxation and meditation. These techniques teach your body to undo the chronic stress reaction: you learn to be in the present moment and to let go of your thoughts. After consistent practice, all you need to do is a minute of these techniques and your body will relax. In time, you'll become more stress-resistant.

There are many ways to meditate. All you need to do is breathe, focus on something and return to that focus when you start thinking. You can't mess it up—we all start thinking. What's important is to let the thoughts go when you're aware of them. Your focus can be muscle relaxation, repeating a phrase or word, counting, visualization, being aware of your breath, being aware of sounds or feelings in your body, listening to music, walking, yoga, tai chi.. pretty much anything that works. CDs and apps for practicing relaxation or meditation are easy to come by online or in app stores.

Once you're used to relaxation/meditation, you can practice it anywhere, and as little as twelve to fifteen minutes works. You can start with only a few minutes a day. Think about it - something proven to reduce your stress and heal your body that's free, portable and has no side effects. Not bad.

Another simple technique scientists have found to make people feel happier is to keep a gratitude journal. (There are actually apps for this.) We all tend to focus on what went wrong—I went to the drugstore and forgot Advil—rather than what goes right. It's human nature for many. Write down two or three things each day that go right. These don't have to be momentous. Getting an email or text from a friend, taking a moment for a cup of tea, or noticing a pretty sunset can all be on the list.

A third technique that will surprise you is to have plants around. Scientists found that having plants around helps us concentrate. Matched groups of children in classrooms with shrubs or trees (not just grass) outside the window got better grades on the same tests. Have some plants indoors, or take walks outside. You don't need a green thumb; some plants tolerate being ignored.

You don't need a lot of time to use these; you can fit them in when you have a chance, although I'm more likely to meditate when I have a regular time. Try them out. You might actually feel better.

Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D., is an attending faculty in the Department of Psychiatry at Norwalk Hospital.

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