Stress: Part 2A: Filling up the Tank

The Better News

The last post sounds like bad news. There’s some good news, too. First, knowing that certain events are more stressful that others, we can cultivate some measure of intention about what we say “yes” to. If you’ve had some big stressors in life lately, it might not be the best time to sell your house (31 points on the Holmes Rahe Scale) and move (25). Second, knowing that stress is, in part, biological, we can cultivate rest, play, and exercise to replenish the reserves (stress reserves are another of Selye’s ideas).  Third, knowing that stress is unavoidable and that some years are full of unavoidable stressors, we can give ourselves permission to be less than our best selves (more on Self-Compassion in the next post). It’s just not realistic to expect that we’ll live through a series of major life changes and still do our best work, feel utterly calm, and never snap at the children when they’re chasing the cat around the house trying to give him a “haircut” (hypothetically speaking, of course, this has never happened at Team Kell Headquarters. ahem).

Saying “yes” and saying “no”

Most of chronically overestimate our ability to cope with new stressors. So we say yes too often. We do it for any number of imminently defensible reasons: we really want to, we are afraid of what will happen if we say no, we have an internal switch that defaults to “yes,” the opportunity really is too good to pass up. What’s important is to know why we say yes, and to cultivate the ability to say no when we really should. As my friend Steve Brown at Mercer University’s Career Services office once quipped to me, “you know counselors. We don’t care what you do as long as you know why you are doing it.” If you find yourself saying yes to everything and frequently wind up burned out, resentful, and overwhelmed, it might be wise to wonder what your internal script is around saying yes or no. I’m biased, but I think talk therapy helps here. And remember Brene’ Brown’s wonderful “boundary mantra:” “Choose discomfort over resentment!”

Doing Non-Doing

2007.03.09 063
2007.03.09 063 (Photo credit: sartzsche)

Adequate rest, fun, and down-time are essential ways to re-fill your stress resilience reserves. A story to illustrate: before I started a tough graduate program back in 2003, I was an avid rock climber. I went to the crag twice a month and to the climbing gym (fake plastic rocks) three times a week. Within a few weeks, I was going climbing only once every couple weeks. The wise manager of the gym mentioned that he’d been seeing less of me. I told him about the new stresses and busy-ness and how I felt I had too much to do to devote more time to climbing. “When you have too much to do, you have to give more time to non-doing,” he said. “Otherwise, you risk getting out of balance. And then you burn out and can’t do anything.”

Doing non-doing feels counter-productive, even scary, to those of us who derive some (or all) of our self-worth from being needed, being busy, being useful. But I’m increasingly convinced that to cultivate the ability to rest, to sit, to play, and to just be when we feel pressed to do more is one of the more important secrets to living a good life.

There are different kinds of non-doing. There are physically active pursuits like fun excercise (exercise is good for you even if it’s not fun, but why not do something you like instead of something you have to waste valuable willpower on by forcing yourself?), playing, gardening, building, yoga, walking the dog after dinner, and so on. There are the quiet ones, like making a craft or art, writing, reading for pleasure, meditating, or lingering over dinner with your loved ones and friends. It’s important to cultivate both kinds. When you are feeling panicky, that is no time to knit. Go for a jog.


Stress is Unavoidable and Cumulative

I think all therapists have a handful of themes they return to over and over. One of mine is “stress is cumulative.” Lots of people who seek help in offices like mine could list current stressors in their lives that would bring anyone to their knees. The other names people give to their problems–kids’ behavior, marital problems, depression, anxiety–are made worse by the pile-up of life events that have eroded the family’s ability to cope. In some ways, for nearly every problem, stress is part of the problem.

Some background:

English: Bust of Hans Selye Magyar: Komárom - ...
English: Bust of Hans Selye Magyar: Komárom – Selye János szobra a Tiszti pavilon udvarán Slovenčina: Komárno – socha Jánosa (Hansa) Selyeho vo dvore Dostojníckeho Pavilóna (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Has Selye was an endocrinologist in the middle of the last century, a prolific researcher who coined the term “stress” in the way that most of us use it today. He noticed that organisms (people and mice!) who had many demands on them seemed to have more problems, emotional, medical, and social. To describe this phenomenon, he borrowed a term from metallurgy. “Stress” is what happens to an object when forces press against it repeatedly. With enough stress, the substance will bend or break. Same with people. When many forces are pressing, we may bend or break too. Selye defined stress as “a nonspecific demand for change.” Translated into everyday language, stress is any new or repeated demand on our time, energy, or attention. He also noted there are good stressors like promotions, new friendships, or marriage. And there are bad stressors like not having enough money or a hole in the roof. He also noticed there are three states in the biology of stress responses: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. When we first experience a new stressor, our systems rev up to adapt, producing more physical and mental energy. After awhile, we settle down into the resistance stage, where we draw on our reserves to cope. When our reserves are depleted, we get burned out, or exhausted. This sounds dire, but the good life is about growth and change. So there is no getting out of new demands. Stress is unavoidable.

Not long after Seyle’s initial research, two physicians, Holmes and Rahe, noticed that patients were more likely to get sick after they had experienced stressful events in life. They came up with a list of stressful life events, weighted for how much impact they seemed to have on people: from “death of a spouse” (100) to “revision of personal habits” (24) to “Christmas” (11). They called the list the “Holmes-Rahe Stressful Life Events Scale” (of course). The more points you get in a year, the more likely you are to get sick. Stress is cumulative.

More to Come:

I started this post three weeks ago, but kept thinking of more I wanted to put in. Soon, it was way part internet-attention-span length. A web designer I knew from Mercer said, “Never put anything you want people to read below the fold.” I got way past the fold. Way. So, there are two posts to come: One on Saying “No” and Making Time for Rest and Play, and another on Cultivating Self Compassion

The [perfectly normal] Silent Teenager . . .

In my thoughts about downtime and boredom, I alluded to my belief that getting your teen to talk may involve a lot of hanging around before s/he decides to open up. That comment has garnered a surprising amount of attention.

And a couple weeks ago, when I was talking with Lorra Lynch Jones about Putting Kids in Charge of Play, she asked if the idea would work for teenagers, too. She even suggested a board game as an activity. I regret blowing off the idea, since it’s such a good one after all. (one thing I love about begin a therapist: you get to think out loud slowly–there’s not so much pressure to say the right thing the first time). Fear not: I intend to make it up to Lorra. Watch on July 30th.

It seems that many parents of teens are wondering how to get them to talk. Tall order. Following are a few tips, not guaranteed to change anything:

  • I think the most important thing to remember when you are wondering why your formerly loving, affectionate child has turned into a monosyllabic  recluse is; “this is normal.” Make this your mantra: “it’s good that my teen doesn’t want to talk. It’s normal. If s/he needed me for every little problem, that would be bad.” Try to get into the habit of “reframing” your child’s behavior as part of his or her healthy development. For example, your child looks grumpy and won’t tell you why. It probably does not mean that s/he suddenly hates you (although it may feel that way). It probably means her/his primary developmental need is to establish an identity separate from yours and the family’s. Maybe s/he wants or needs to solve whatever problem it is by him- or herself.
  • Think about how talking to you might feel from his or her perspective. Do you give unsolicited advice? Do you rush to fix? Do you minimize his or her feelings? If you went to a trusted friend with a painful social problem and she said “Oh I used to feel that way until I got more mature,” how inclined would you be to seek her support next time? When your teen opens up to you, Wendy Mogel recommends the following acronym: WAIT: Why Am I Talking? To illustrate, she suggests making use of two responses most of the time: “‘wow,‘ or with slightly more approbation,  ‘whoa.'”
  • Find ways to connect other than talking. A wise dad I know loved to take his daughter to play tennis because she was more likely to talk on the court than anywhere else. As your kids get older, establish some activity that will be your “thing” with that child, a special time together that nobody else shares and s/he knows you value. It could be a sport, a special restaurant, taking walks, or even driving to lessons, rehearsals, or games.
  • Remember your village.  I have seen children whose parents wondered if they had been struck mute have hour-long chats with youth pastors and coaches. It is hard to accept for some of us, but our kids may have found other adults to talk to about their struggles. I think this is why it is so important to connect with a community of people you trust and who share your values. That way, if your teen picks a friend’s mom to talk to, you know that mom and her values will complement your own. I’ll say it again: this can be hard to accept. I’d encourage you to be kind to yourself as you decide what it means that your child talks with the coach and not you. It’s not because you aren’t understanding or supportive or open enough. It’s probably because you are the parent.

Teens are funny creatures. She feels like a completely different person every time she changes clothes. His emotions are way stronger than they have ever been in his life; and have become that strong before he has the capacity to think through emotions the way he will later. Of course they are hard to live with. Loving them through adolescence is not for wimps. Keep at it.

Put Your Child In Charge

Your Child 6/25/13

The 15 minute parenting prescription: once a day with each child, set aside 15 minutes during which he is completely in charge of what you do. As long as it is safe and within your house rules.

The Rules for You:

Be Fully Present. Treat this time as sacred.

No taking over! Probably you will just comment on what she is doing: like a play by play announcer:

“I see you have the blue block on top of the red one.”

“You look like you are being a kitty.”

“The guy in your video game is building a wall.”

Resist the urge to judge it: You might be tempted to say “I like how you stacked the blue block.” Don’t. Just comment. It could be your child does not like how the block is stacked. You don’t want to say it’s good if s/he thinks it’s not.

Resist the urge of ask lots of why questions. How questions are good: “You want me to pretend to be Catwoman. How does she act?”

What are the benefits?

For you: You learn to appreciate the child and develop an internal “love map” of her world. this will help you to slow down and tune in. It’s almost a mindfulness practice.

For the child: S/he will develop confidence and autonomy. By putting the child in charge, you send the message that s/he is competent, capable, and able to direct him-or-herself.

Practicing Gratitude

This also will run in the Jones County News:

I recently heard that people who really experience joy in their lives “practice gratitude.” I was curious about the phrase “practice gratitude,” since I’m used to thinking of gratitude as something we just feel from time to time rather than something we practice like a musical instrument or a sport. Maybe you’re like me; maybe you’ve noticed that if you just kind of operate on “autopilot” all the time, gratitude is pretty far down the list of feelings you notice on a day-to-day basis. But like so many good things in life, if you want more joy, you have to do some work at it. So here is one little trick that won’t require a lot of effort or money that can make a big difference in your happiness. A gratitude “practice” that is actually clinically proven to increase your satisfaction with life. And it will only take you 10 minutes a day. I’ll tell you how first, and then why.

The “What Went Well” (also known as “The Three Blessings”) exercise:
Every night before you go to bed, write down three things that went well and why they went well. They can be big things like “I finally found a job” or small things like “the kids put their dishes away after supper.” Anything that went well. Next to each event, you write why it happened: for the new job you might write, “because I never gave up looking for a job” or “because by brother-in-law knew the HR woman at the company.” For the dinner plates, you might write, “because they do what they are asked,” or “because I have sweet kids.” The only rule is you have to write it down. This is so you can look back over it in a few weeks or years and remember the positive events in your life. I keep one of those black and white composition notebooks on the table right beside my bed. There’s a pen in it so it’s ready when I get into bed for the night. Some nights, there are more than three experiences I want to write down, so I take extra time to write more. Other nights, it’s a real struggle to find three. But it’s important to keep thinking until you can find three things that went well, even if it’s as simple as “I had food to eat for dinner,” or “I kept breathing all day long.”
Why does “what went well” work to make us happier? Because most of us tend to think more about the aspects of life we wish were different or to dwell on the painful aspects of life. WWW trains us to pay attention to the positive. We know that the more we pay attention to what is good, the better we feel. Paying attention to the positive also makes us more likely to notice and enjoy positive events as they happen. And we know that savoring these moments, really paying attention to them as they happen, makes them seem to last longer. I also think WWW helps us to get into the habit of noticing the parts of life that are going well. Over time, trends emerge that can give us clues about what we really treasure about our lives. For example, I’ve noticed that my children make an appearance on my WWW list nearly every night.
WWW is from a book by Martin Seligman, Fourish. Seligman is a former president of the American Psychological Association, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and a no-nonsense scientist. He actually tested the WWW exercise: 471 people tried it for one week, and six months later were happier, less depressed, and less anxious than people who didn’t do WWW.
So, there you go: WWW is clinically proven to increase happiness in 10 minutes a day.

How Boredom Fosters Creativity: The Follow Up

Here’s the anticipated (by me) spot on 13WMAZ. Thanks very much to my new partner, Alicia Gregory LMFT of Reflections Psychotherapy for setting me up. 

Your Child: Boredom Fosters Creativity

Of course, I over-prepared. This will surprise nobody who knows me well. And although Frank Malloy was great and easy to talk with, I left with more I could have said. Here’s the long version:

You say ‘A little boredom is good for your child,’ What do you mean?

A lot of us are tempted to over-schedule the summer with camps, sports, activities, and trips. The result is we wind up busier in June and July than we are during school and summer becomes more stressful that the school year. Besides the sheer stress of it, I think there are problems with this busy-ness for two reasons:

First, boredom is the place where a lot of creativity begins. Most of us adults can remember the crazy games we used to play or the adventures we used to have as children. If we fill up our kids’ lives with scheduled activities, we take away the chance for them to be creative and find something to do.
Second, downtime with the family is such an overlooked blessing. Especially if you have teens or pre-teens, you have probably noticed that it’s not usually during your scheduled “quality time” activities that they open up to you. It’s at the most unexpected in-between times. So much of staying connected with your teen is being lucky enough to be around when they feel like talking. For that, you need some down time.
Is there such a thing as too much boredom?
Yes. Especially unsupervised down time. We used to think siblings got into arguments and fights because they were competing for parents’ attention, but we know now that they do it because they are too bored. And there are some kids who are more likely to get into mischief or trouble when they have too much unstructured time with their friends. It is important to know how much freedom your child can handle because it’s different for every kid. But I’d say if you’re seeing too much mischief or fighting, you might need to consider finding time to be with them or planning more adult-supervised activities. 
My family is already too busy. What can we do?
You’ve got do decide what you can give up.
The first thing to look at is screen time. The average kid over age 8 spends 6.5 hours a day consuming some kind of digital media, while the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends less than 2. Even adults could spend less time looking at screens. Those things are stressors.
The second principle I tend to recommend is to ask yourself questions about the big picture. What is the most important thing you spend your time on? What are you and your kids spending time on that are less valuable to you? What message do you want to send your kids about using time and are your choices sending that message?
I thought Frank asked a great question that I didn’t think quickly enough on my feet to answer thoroughly: The kids will come to us and say “we’re bored!” What should we do then? 
We should expect them to. Especially if they (and we) are used to being super busy all the time. The adjustment can be tough. So much of parenting is knowing what you can ignore so that your kids learn to cope with life without your help. We can ignore “I’m bored!” from most kids over about 5. Maybe have a stock phrase like, “Wow. What can you think of to do about that?” When we ask for their ideas, we empower them and show confidence in their creativity. Under 5, they may need us to help narrow the options or even to take a few minutes to play with them. I know a really good mom who has a kind of backup plan in her head for long afternoons. Her preschoolers love the sandbox and the water table, so she keeps them put away and saves them for times when everyone gets a little too bored. Then she sets them up in the shade, pours herself a lemonade, and sits down to watch them play.
Boredom is uncomfortable. It is supposed to be. When we get bored, our brains fire up and start looking for ways to get occupied. Sometimes it is amazing what our kids come up with if we just allow them the space to find something to do.

Resilient Kids Presentation

Resilient Kids Presentation.

For years psychology focused on helping suffering people to suffer less. And got pretty good at it. We can now cure or see significant improvement in many of the most common mental illnesses. What took longer for us to understand was how some people seem to be able to flourish in spite of terribly difficult circumstances. (for a really interesting perspective on this history, I recommend Martin Seligman’s TED talk) How is it that those people can go through experiences that would lay the rest of us low with equanimity? They feel sad, or afraid, or angry, or unsure, of course. But they go on. What is different about them?

“Resilience.” It turns out there are identifiable traits, habits, and relationship qualities that contribute to the ability to flourish in spite of difficulty or tragedy. Here’s a link to a presentation I gave with Tina Wootan at Stratford Academy to the Stratford Interested Parents meeting November 2012 about fostering resilience in your children.

(also: prezi=so cool)

Hey, I’m going on TV!



Hey, I’m going on TV!

I’ll be on 13WMAZ’s “Your Child” feature next Tuesday, 28 May. We’ll be talking about why a little boredom is good for your child.

(NB: the link is to the WMAZ front page. Yesterday, I clicked on the link and the first thing I saw was an article about the Warner Robins mayoral race. I’m not running for mayor of WR.)

Meet Shaun

Meet Shaun

Shaun P. Kell, MFT, LMFT
Shaun Kell has been in practice as a couple and family therapist since 2007. Earning a bachelor’s degree with majors in Philosophy and Religion from Mercer University provides him a perspective on helping people that moves beyond merely minimizing symptoms to addressing questions about meaning, happiness, and flourishing. He earned his master’s degree in family therapy at Mercer School of Medicine. Shaun has helped individuals, families with children, adolescents, adults, and couples in educational, mental health, and primary medical care settings. Although Shaun has helped people facing a wide range of issues, he has the most experience with problems like ADHD and learning disabilities, anxiety and depression, and coping with chronic illness or disability. Working with a warm and easygoing style, he believes that everyone can make positive changes happen in his or her life and relationships. His job is to find the barriers.