Managing Your Family's Stress

Life is incredibly busy, particularly when you are balancing the needs of a whole family, and the busier you are, the more stress can seem to pile up on your shoulders. This stress can manifest itself in a lot of different obvious ways, such as tight muscles, headaches, weight gain, and insomnia, but it can also impact your body on a cellular level, causing many other health concerns both in the short and long term. In addition, the stress that you are experiencing is likely impacting other members of the family, namely your children, and their little bodies are even more susceptible to its effects.

Most people are familiar with the hormone adrenaline and automatically link it to stress, but adrenaline is more typically associated with the “fight or flight” response and is released in extremely high stress and emergency situations. Cortisol is the hormone that the adrenal glands produce in response to everyday stressors, which for most people means that it is being secreted in small amounts throughout most of the day. Though cortisol will help us to respond to stress by predominantly increasing blood glucose, enhancing the brain’s use of glucose (promoting short-term memory), reduces inflammation, excessive cortisol will result in some obvious as well as more invisible side effects.

The buildup of cortisol that occurs over time can lead to insulin resistance, visceral weight gain (fat buildup around the abdominal organs), high blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease, obesity, bone mineral loss (resulting in osteopenia and osteoporosis), decreased gut lining (impacting immunity and increases risk of IBS and ulcers) and inhibits thyroid function. These are significant concerns for most of us as aging adults, but there are also serious concerns for young children, whose brains are developing rapidly. High levels of cortisol impairs learning and memory, which is very important for these developing minds.

The challenge with stress is that it is not always possible to eliminate or modify external stressors, and some of them are impossible to avoid. The onus is thus on us to build safeguards into our lives to allow
us to better handle the daily stresses that are more predictable (work, relationships, children, finances) as well as be better prepared when the unpredictable ones pop up, both to protect the adults and the children in your families.

Here are six basic ways to arm your family against the effects of cortisol:

Exercise - Regular exercise helps people stave off many of the effects of stress and overactive adrenal glands. Many people tend to abandon exercise in periods of extreme stress because it feels like one extra thing to fit in, but it can help so much to moderate stress. It is important to be aware, however, that overexercise can result in an excessive production of cortisol and actually predispose you to feeling the impact of a stressful life.

Meditation - It can be difficult to fit meditation into your daily life, but the payoff is better sleep, improved response to stress, and longevity. The benefits are even greater for the young people in your life for whom ongoing stress is an even bigger issue. There are many tools to help you get started including great apps like “Headspace,” which has a version for kids.

Communication - Talk to each other. The more open you are with your friends and family, including your kids, the better. Kids will learn that it is ok to talk about what is bothering them which will lighten their load.

Sleep - Sleep hygiene is critical for stress management. The term “hygiene” simply refers to your practices around sleep and improving your sleep hygiene can involve anything from reducing screen time an hour before bed to placing a diffuser in your room with a calming essential oil blend. Take a good look at your family’s sleeping spaces and consider what changes you can make to improve the quality and quantity of your sleep.

Diet - If goes without saying, but having a healthy diet full of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables and quality protein, and low in sugar and caffeine can help your body to manage episodes of stress. Caffeine actually
promotes cortisol production, which augments the effects of stress, and having blood sugar imbalances can be taxing on your adrenal glands.

Boost - Even if you do everything right and manage the daily stresses with finesse and ease, life will throw a few curveballs at you so it might be helpful to have a few tricks up your sleeve. Find a good herbal adaptogenic formula and keep it in your cupboard for those curveballs. Some of my favourite adaptogenic herbs include ashwaganda and schisandra, which can be good tools to help your adrenal glands cope with life’s big challenges.

Stress is a part of everyday life and learning to deal with it is an ongoing process. Teaching your kids the tools to manage stress when they are young will better enable them to manage it as adults and result in them having better health overall - both physically and emotionally.