Strategies to cope with family stress

Coping strategies to guide you and your family when dealing with everyday stress and crisis situations.

Woman sitting with her head in her hands, visibly stressed.

Stress is a normal part of life. We all encounter stress in a variety of different situations, forms and amounts. What causes stress for one person may seem like no big deal to someone else.

Stress can come from seemingly small events like heavy traffic or a long line at the store, or it can be a result of a crisis event, like the loss of a job, a death in the family, a pandemic such as that caused by the novel coronavirus, the virus that causes the infectious disease COVID-19, or the catastrophic flooding experienced in mid-Michigan.

The most important thing to do is to recognize, accept and manage your stress to avoid negative physical and emotional consequences. Stress that is not managed can manifest into chronic stress. Chronic stress has been shown to suppress your immune system, increase blood pressure and blood sugar levels and exacerbate underlying conditions like anxiety and depression.

Figuring out what stress management tools work best for you can be a process. While there is no perfect way to manage stress, here are some tips that may work for you and your family:

  • Know your own stress cues. For example, when you’re stressed, do you become forgetful, short tempered, clumsy or something else? Think about what gets your attention the most. Observe your kids and other family members for signs of stress and ask them to do the same for you. Sometimes other people notice our stress cues before we do.
  • Take time to do something that is meaningful, relaxing and fun to you and your family. Read a book, sit on the porch and enjoy the scenery, enjoy coffee with a friend, or have a family movie or game night.
  • Practice deep breathing or mindfulness. When you start to become anxious and extremely stressed, try sitting and breathing for a minute or so. It helps if you actually say in your mind, “I am breathing in, and I am breathing out.” It may sound silly, but it keeps your mind focused on something you can control: your breath. It helps to quiet your mind and help you relax. Teach kids how to use their breath to calm down. Incorporate family breathing breaks throughout your daily routines. The more you practice this when you are not stressed, the easier it is to tap into when you need it the most.
  • Get enough sleep. Most health experts recognize that individuals who get at least 8 hours of sleep are less stressed, less sad and can manage anger Try an afternoon nap to supplement your sleep needs, if possible. Some people find that even a 15-minute “cat nap” can feel very refreshing. Just try not to sleep the afternoon away so you can still fall asleep at night. Make sure you are keeping a healthy sleep schedule for your kids too.
  • Accept your emotions and feelings. It is OK to feel sad, anxious, angry or stressed. Noticing these emotions and naming them can help us be compassionate towards ourselves. Console yourself like you would your best friend: “Wow, I am sorry to hear you are feeling stressed/anxious. I am here for you. Need a hug?” You can help your children accept their stressed or anxious emotions if you recognize and name them and follow up with a hug.
  • Consider the emotional needs of your family members. Our priorities may shift suddenly in a crisis. Make sure you understand and honor the needs of family members or other household residents during the recovery process. According to North Dakota State University Extension, it is important for adults to model appropriate emotional responses for children, as maintaining balance and calm will help them to navigate through their own emotions.
  • Conserve your energy for things you can control. There are countless things that happen of which we have no control. Instead of spending energy on what if scenarios, devote your energy to tasks and actions that you can complete to begin the process of restoration, healing or returning to normal.
  • Develop or use your support system. Your support system consists of the people who may or can fill different roles in your life. Use your support system to talk about your feelings and help you. If you are limited from in-person socializing, reach out to people on social media, text messaging, email or video calls to help you feel more connected to your support network. You may be helping them feel more connected as well.
  • Laughter is the best medicine. Humor and laughter are great stress relievers and promote well-being. Find some family-friendly comedies. Have a family joke-telling contest.
  • Focus on your health and the health of others in your family. Often during stressful times, individuals will turn to alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism. These behaviors can lead to more stress and anxiety afterwards. Instead, concentrate on healthy habits, such as eating more fruits and vegetables and drinking more water. Try to fit in at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day. You can do this by taking a walk around the house or neighborhood or putting on some music and dancing. You could even have a family dance contest where each person teaches the others a new dance move.
  • Get professional help. If you are feeling overwhelmed, seek assistance from an outside source such as your primary care provider or a mental health professional. Mental Health America is a great resource for information on self-help tools and mental health screenings.

Michigan State University Extension has a variety of classes to help people learn to manage stress. Please visit our website to find offerings and experts in your area.

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