We all know the frenzied feeling that pulses through us when stress takes hold, but what’s actually happening on the inside? “When your body perceives a threat, your nervous system reacts by stimulating a fight or flight response,” says Mubina Jiwa, a naturopathic doctor and assistant professor at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto, Canada. Adrenaline and other stimulating hormones are released, which increase your heart rate and blood pressure to get you ready to react to the threat. A helpful response hundreds of years ago—if you were, say, being chased by a saber-toothed tiger—but with so many stressors coming at us, like work, school, and endless to-do lists, the response is typically a serious case of overkill. In the short term, stress results in symptoms like headaches, sleep problems, nausea, and irritability. But in the long term, stress can actually take a toll on the body in the form of heart disease, digestive issues, lowered immunity, inflammation, and even decreased fertility, Jiwa says. The good news is that getting a handle on how you and your family react to stress can help avoid these health issues.
Major stress events—such as job loss or relationship problems—during pregnancy may increase the likelihood of childhood behavior problems like anxiety and depression, according to recent research from the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research in Australia. “Increased stress can affect a baby’s brain development, and possibly the baby’s own stress response system,” says study author Monique Robinson, Ph.D. But the issues don’t have to be big; daily stressors (like being stuck in traffic) can be just as damaging.
Get moving! Exercising at a moderate level releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins that prevent the body’s ability to detect stress-inducing threats and improve your mood. Two to three 45-minute sessions a week of yoga, walking, and swimming are all great choices for moms-to-be, but taking a time out for any physical activity you enjoy that gets the okay from your doctor will do the trick (and pass along health benefits to your baby). Post-sweat session, you’ll be equipped to tackle challenges with a clear head.
You might not think a little person who spends most of her time napping, eating, and playing would feel too tightly wound, but babies experience stress just like the rest of us. “Babies receive a huge amount of sensory information that they have to process every day,” says Megan Faure, author of The Babysense Secret. “Their brains haven’t mastered the ability to filter out information that isn’t important, so exposure to too many things at once can cause them to become overly sensitive and stressed.”
Babies and toddlers recharge their sensory threshold through sleep, so the right amount of Zzz’s is essential. “Think about the two-year-old who misses his daily nap, then snaps when his toy breaks—his level of tolerance for normal events has dropped,” Faure says. Help your child stick to her regular nap and sleep schedule (find a baby sleep chart at here), and watch for signals that indicate she’s reaching her sensory limit, such as sucking on her hands, playing with her ears, avoiding eye contact, and crying.
Much as we might love to think otherwise, kids aren’t carefree. “Children are aware of a lot of things we don’t expect them to be—they’re quick to pick up on negative emotions, family struggles, or other problems that are going on even when you don’t talk about them,” says Sarah Watamura, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Denver who studies stress responses in kids. The result? Stress from worrying about the unknown.
Give your child a sense of reassurance and control. “If your family’s going through a stressful time, like financial trouble or a family illness, you should acknowledge the situation with your child—and let him know that you have a plan to take care of it,” Watamura says. Also providing a heads up on upcoming events and giving your child options on how to react helps, too, says Watamura. If a grandparent has been sick, for instance, let your child know that you might be spending more time at the hospital, and that he has the option of visiting one evening after school or on Saturday morning. The same idea works for minor stress situations, too, like letting him know you’ll be away next Friday evening—but he can choose if he wants his favorite babysitter or his favorite relative to stay with him. “This helps keeps kids feel in control and have an idea of what’s coming next,” Watamura says.
Between school, homework, extracurricular activities, and social commitments, preteens have a lot on their plates. And when there are too many things that need to get done, it’s often more difficult to fully accomplish any of them.
Mindfulness meditation, or taking a time out to focus in on the present moment, has been shown to enhance a person’s ability to pay attention and minimize distractions, finds recent research from Harvard Medical School. And when there are fewer distractions, tweens will be calmer, better able to concentrate on the task at hand, and more efficient, says Kristen Race, Ph.D., a psychologist in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and founder of mindfullife.com, a company that helps families manage stress. The next time your tween is feeling overwhelmed, help him try this simple meditation exercise: While sitting in an upright position, have him close his eyes and then spend three minutes focusing on his inhalations and exhalations (without trying to change them). If he notices his mind wandering to other thoughts, tell him to simply bring his attention back to his breath without judgment. “Taking a few minutes each day to sit and focus on breathing in and breathing out is a simple act, but it can yield great relaxation benefits,” Race says.