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Coping strategies, including healthy eating, can reduce stress

This is the seventh in a series about 21st Century families.

Q: What are effective coping strategies for family stress in all family types?

A: Melinda Smith, M.A., and Robert Segal, M.A., wrote about a formula for stress management called the four A's. The first two strategies are directed toward the situation: avoid the stressor or alter the stressor.

In avoidance, there are several suggestions. Learn to say no to demands that exceed one's limitations. Spend as little time as possible with people who stress one out. Learn to control one's environment by avoiding stressors such as heavy traffic. Use some other less-traveled route. If a person hates grocery shopping and crowds, choose a time when few people are in the store. If certain topics set someone off, refrain from discussions that lead to arguments. Prepare to-do lists, and eliminate the tasks that are low-priority.

With altering the situation, there are other strategies. Expressing one's feelings instead of bottling them up prevents resentment and explosive episodes. Be willing to compromise. If asking someone to change, that person also has to be willing to change. Being more assertive and facing problems is much more preferable than procrastinating. Along with avoiding procrastination, a person needs to improve time-management skills. By planning ahead and not overextending, people can eliminate a lot of time stress.

The next two strategies for managing stressors are accepting things that cannot be changed or adapting to the stressor. When circumstances are beyond one's control, attention needs to be redirected to problems that can be solved. In addition, people can re-frame problems as opportunities for growth. Learning from one's mistakes makes people stronger.

Sharing feelings when stressed is helpful. Talking to a friend, family member or counselor is helpful. Many times, people figure out what to do when verbalizing their dilemmas to someone trustworthy. Learning to forgive frees people from negative energy.

Adapting to stressors means learning to redefine stressful situations so they are not so distressing. One effective way is to view stress in the big picture: Will this problem really matter next year? Or even next month? Modifying one's standards is appropriate, especially for perfectionists. People need to learn to do the best they can and then move on. When all else fails, reflecting on the good and positive aspects of one's life refocuses a person's attention.

In addition to the four A's discussed above, families need to nurture themselves by making time for fun and for relaxation. Strategies include spending time in nature, working out, keeping a journal, spending time with friends, playing with pets, working outside, scheduling a massage, reading a good book, listening to music or watching a funny program or movie.

The important principles for taking responsibility for one's own relaxation include setting aside time to relax every day, spending time with positive people, doing something fun or relaxing every day and keeping a sense of humor, including the ability to laugh at oneself. Laughter reduces stress.

Finally, Smith and Segal recommend adopting healthy lifestyles. The basics include regular exercise daily or at least three to four days a week. Eating healthy is necessary to keep bodies well-nourished and energized. Reducing caffeine and sugar if they occupy a significant role in one's diet is recommended. Eliminating alcohol, other drugs and cigarettes also is recommended, as they do nothing to solve problems and they provide short-term relief. The last cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle is adequate sleep. Sleep deprivation increases stress and can lead to poor problem-solving.

The Michigan State University Extension published an article titled "Coping Strategies for Family Stress." First in strategies for coping is identifying the stressor and one's response, de-emphasizing the negative, and setting up an action plan. Along with that strategy, families need to develop support networks and use them to talk about feelings.

The Extension article reiterated many more coping strategies. Keeping busy is important. Practicing deep breathing releases stress. Other strategies named already have been mentioned, such as spending time outside, getting enough rest, using time efficiently, and avoiding drugs and other harmful substances. An additional guideline is learning when to seek professional help.

A survey from the American Psychological Association in August 2010 was administered online by Harris. Parents reported family responsibilities were a source of significant stress, with 73 percent of parents reporting that percentage. More than two-thirds of parents believed their children were not affected much by their stress. But only 14 percent of teens and tweens reported they are not affected by parental problems.

The survey by APA also gathered information about stress and health. Obese parents reported 34 percent experience high-stress levels compared to 23 percent of normal-weight parents. The APA recommends parents evaluate their family lifestyles with the goals of modeling healthy behaviors. Children are more likely to practice healthy habits if they have healthy families.

Another recommendation for families is to change one unhealthy behavior at a time. Attempting too many changes simultaneously causes overload and is discouraging to family members. Families can set healthy goals for themselves so everyone has input and feels a commitment to change.

In an article from an online website titled Street Articles, the strategies listed included two recommendations not found elsewhere: Parents should not try to be all things to everyone to please others. They also should keep their promises and refrain from making promises that have little chance of happening.

* Next week's article will discuss how parents can teach children coping skills for stress.

Judy Caprez is associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State University. Send your questions in care of the department of sociology and social work, Rarick Hall, FHSU.