This article was contributed by: Olivia Tartakow, LCSW, M.ED, Director of Community Directions at Alpert Jewish Family Service
As we are poised to enter a New Year and a new decade, this is an opportunity to look at new ways of dealing with stress and to rethink how to make stress work for us rather than against us.
“You can choose your friends, but you cannot choose your family.” Family stress will not just disappear, but you can look for ways in which you can reduce the strain. First, it is important to understand that stress is normal and unavoidable. It is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, nervous or even excited; it is your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand. In short bursts, stress can be a positive motivator, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline. However, if this mechanism is triggered too easily, or when there are too many stressors at one time, it can undermine a person’s mental and physical health and become harmful. There is not a single perfect way to survive the stressful events in your life. It is more of a process of figuring out what works best for you at a particular point in time.
As we light a candle each night for the eight days of Hanukkah, here are eight new coping strategies for stress in relation to family issues.
- Breathe – Think Before We Speak And Think Before We Act. When in doubt or angry, take a deep breath and try not to react impulsively or say something we may regret. Wait for a better time or place to have a more effective discussion. A good place to start is by taking the 5-5-5 deep breaths. Take a long deep breath in from your nose for 5 seconds, hold it for 5 seconds and let it go out of your mouth for 5 seconds. Do this 5 times. This method should bring more oxygen to your brain and body, reduce your anxiety and help you to access your rational mind rather than your reactive mind.
- Acknowledge Your Emotions To Yourself: Sometimes just acknowledging that you are annoyed, sad or angry is enough to give you room to deal with a stressful situation. Sometimes acknowledging your sadness, frustration or anger in a calm manner to the other person, will help them understand what you are feeling. You can manage your own emotions by telling yourself, “They don’t mean to be annoying,” or “Things will calm down once I get settled,” or whatever other phrases may work for you.
- Stay Rational: Your annoying aunt asks why you are not married yet, or your parents scream at you to help them with something before you have even had a chance to close the door. Going in with a clear mind and making a deal with yourself to take on any situation in a rational way is a good start. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that you have the right to become upset by others’ unthoughtful actions. The crucial part is to know that just because you are upset does not mean you have the right to act out from those emotions. In fact, it will probably only make the situation worse if you retaliate. If you are too agitated, say you will talk about it later. That will give you time to relax and think about how you want to deal with the situation rationally and if you want to talk about it at all.
- Be Right or Have a Relationship: We need to ask ourselves, “Is it more important for us to be right or is the relationship more important?” The next time we are frustrated or angry with our parent, child, spouse, or other family member, by reminding ourselves of what is important, we may be able to defuse a stressful situation and respond in a more compassionate way. Some people have to be right all the time at all costs. These people will never admit that they may have been wrong. By understanding this is the way the person behaves, by not arguing with them, we save ourselves much stress.
- Boundaries: Set reasonable boundaries for what you are willing to do for another family member. Sometimes caregivers in a family end up neglecting their own well-being by focusing exclusively on their loved one(s). This type of behavior may ultimately end up in a cycle that amplifies stress and the caregiver becomes resentful and angry. The loved one may expect you to do everything for them and may not even appreciate it. In these types of stressful family situations, it would be helpful to understand that you need to take care of yourself first; otherwise, you may not be able to take care of your loved ones. Carve out some personal time; even giving yourself 10-20 minutes a day for yourself helps you to step back and calm down.
- Reality: Accepting the reality of a situation is a key ingredient to managing stress. This begins with accepting our family members for who they are and accepting ourselves for who we are, knowing the things we can change and knowing the things we cannot change. Often, we try to change others into the version of who we think they should be. I frequently hear people express their dissatisfaction with how an adult family member is treating them. When asked how long this has been going on the response is, “They have always been this way but it has become worse.” We have to accept that this may be someone’s personality and we are not going to change him or her. If you have communicated how you feel to this person and it has not worked, it is not always necessary to respond to negative behavior – say, “I will speak with you when you calm down,” and then walk away to another room, outside, or leave.
- Off Limit Topics: Know that some topics are absolutely off limits. Know that some topics are absolutely off limits. Period. History and experiences should tell you that these subjects should be avoided at all costs. That is not to say that important issues should be permanently avoided. Rather, if your experience dealing with certain issues has left you stressed out or emotionally depleted, and the discussion has not progressed sufficiently along to represent a rapprochement, then it is best to avoid the discussion until a time when both parties are willing to move it forward in a constructive way.
- It’s Not About You…Usually: Yes, it is hard not to take things personally, especially when we are attacked or made to feel responsible for someone else. Understand that family relationships are complicated, have a long history and patterns that have developed over the years. Different things trigger everyone at different times. If it was a friend or someone you did not know well, you may take things less personally. If a stressful situation with a family member comes up, pretend they do not belong to you. Seriously, this is a method to detach yourself from a dysfunctional, unhealthy family dynamic and then be able to approach your family member in a more rational, supportive and compassionate manner. Take a step back and say to yourself, “How would I respond if it wasn’t my mother, child, spouse, but someone else.”
As a good rule of thumb to deal with all of the suggestions above, seek people whose opinion you trust, and get specific advice when issues arise.
“Surrender is the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to, rather than opposing the flow of life.” ~Eckhart Tolle.
Olivia A. Tartakow, LCSW, M.Ed, is the Director of Community Directions at Alpert Jewish Family Service and has served the Agency for 27 years. Olivia leads the Intake, Information and Referral Program (I&R), which provides confidential assessments, information and referrals over the phone. Alpert JFS’ I&R department is staffed by Master’s level professionals who have in-depth knowledge of child, adult and senior issues. Callers are able to get assistance with issues such as counseling needs, psychiatric support, senior services and reliable information about other health and human services in our community for those in need. Our I&R services are available by calling 561-684-1991.