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Your questions about stress answered!
May 4th, 2012
08:06 AM ET

Your questions about stress answered!

Editor's note: CNN contributor Amanda Enayati ponders the theme of seeking serenity: the quest for well-being and life balance in stressful times.

Earlier this week we put out a call over social media for your questions about stress and anxiety. We received a slew of insightful queries, covering a wide spectrum of life’s stressors.

Due to the number of submissions, we had to combine some questions and divide our lightning round into two parts. Make sure to check back next week for part two, along with a synthesis of our experts’ advice.

Our panel of experts includes:

  • UC Davis professor Jay Belsky, a developmental psychologist and an internationally recognized expert on the role of nature and nurture in shaping children and families
  • Dr. Judith Orloff, professor of psychiatry at UCLA and bestselling author of “Emotional Freedom
  • Dr. Rajita Sinha, professor of psychiatry, neurobiology and child study at Yale University and director of the Yale Stress Center

I love my kids but...

I adore my four little (but lively) children, but they stress me out. How can I better handle the stress of raising children, along with everything else that I have to do?

This is a very common concern among parents. You need to find ways to relax and reduce your anxiety, whether it’s having a glass of wine (but not 3 or 4!), going to the gym, talking to a friend or meditating. Take time to remind yourself of the purpose of what you are doing, says Belsky. There is nothing more important than taking care of your children.

There are also ways to make life with children less stressful. For example, institute a quiet time during some part of the day, when each family member goes someplace and does an activity by him or herself, like reading or listening to music.

Learn how to set good boundaries, suggests Orloff. Set aside time alone to replenish because you cannot keep going non-stop. Mini-breaks can do wonders.

Sinha recommends seeking family and social support, when possible. This also benefits children, who love to interact with and hear stories from other family members, like grandparents. Sinha also emphasizes the importance of taking breaks.

Financial catastrophe

I lost everything. First my job, then my savings and finally my home. What now?

People have to deal with major adverse life events. This is uncontrollable stress, and it has the worst kind of impact in terms of a person’s ability to function.

First, accept what has happened and then attempt to move beyond it. The most important thing is to optimize your own regulatory capacity, because it can affect your ability to problem-solve and come up with solutions effectively. Unrelenting stress can break that down.

And though your circumstances may be challenging, it’s crucial to keep yourself in a positive and optimistic place. Seek help, get support and remember that there are many examples of people going through incredible catastrophes and coming out stronger.

Belsky emphasizes the importance making external, rather than internal attributions about the cause of the adversities. Never forget that in many cases you are the victim, not the culprit, he says.

“Don’t take ownership and responsibility for something you did not do. That’s not going to put money in your pocket but it will prevent you from beating up on yourself.”

Be super-present and do not catastrophize the future, recommends Orloff. Focus on what you have. You must come at this issue from a very calm and centered place. People tend to work themselves up with worry. They can’t eat or sleep and then the situation deteriorates even further. Consider what you can do in the present moment.

Nature or nurture?

How much of stress and anxiety is nature versus nurture?

You can’t attribute a set percentage of stress to genetics versus nurture, says Sinha. Nature gives us a certain predisposition, a basic structure for stress response. Some people are more reactive and some are less so. Nurture overlays that genetic structure and can support either the suppression or expression of those genes.

Belsky also observes that some people tend to have a lower threshold for stress. A bit of noise can discombobulate one person, whereas another can tolerate cacophonous sounds. For some, nature is more important and for others nurture is. But, he cautions, we can’t truly ever know whether someone’s high anxiety levels are due to nature or nurture; it could be low tolerance or it could be because the person never learned to cope.

While some of us may have been born more stressed-out and anxious than others, according to Orloff we create a lot of our own stress with the stories we tell about it. Many of Orloff’s patients create inordinate amounts of anxiety because of their unrelentingly negative thought patterns. She suggests taking control of your mind to create a more positive reality.

“Be grateful for your breath, your life and what you have. If you choose your thoughts, you won’t get sucked into the vortex of negativity.”

You versus food

Food is freaking me out. I have no idea what we’re supposed to be eating anymore. It’s as if everything is bad for you and will kill you.

Don’t be obsessive, says Orloff. There are people out there who won’t allow themselves a treat, but then the deprivation leads to binge eating. The bottom line is that you have to have a balanced attitude about food.

Sure, it can be complicated, observes Belsky. But it can also be simple. The less junk food, the better. The more fruits, vegetables, cereals and whole grains, the better. And you certainly don’t have to aspire to eat a perfect diet all the time.

Sinha recommends seeking the help of a nutritionist or certified dietician; both are often covered through health insurance plan as a health and wellness visit. These experts can help you track your present diet and make suggestions for healthier alternatives. They can also help develop sensible and sustainable meal plans.

Family and other black holes

My mother is the black hole of joy, but she’s my mother. How do I deal with her negativity?

You have made a good start by having an understanding of who your mother is and how she makes you feel, says Belsky. You have to give yourself credit for understanding the situation because that will help guide how you proceed.

Orloff addresses “emotional vampires” in her book, “Emotional Freedom.” These are people who will suck you dry and, unfortunately, some mothers can be emotional vampires.

Orloff warns against engaging negative people. “Don’t give emotional vampires any energy because they will keep going.”

When they get negative or begin criticizing, set limits (by leaving, for example) or change the subject. People go wrong when they start engaging or believing the vitriol.

We cannot control others’ behavior and outlook, observes Sinha. People frustrate us because we want them to be different. There are two key points here.

The first is that you must accept people for who they are - good and bad. Their lives, genes and stressors have helped to shape them. Perhaps understanding where someone came from may help explain who he or she is now. But there is no light switch to make a person change; only a process of accepting him or her.

The second point is that you do not have to change who you are. You have the right to have positive interactions and good energy in your life. Sometimes to make that happen, you need to get away from someone - and that’s okay too! But either way, the first step is acceptance.

Next week we'll look at caretaker blues, internalizing stress, single parenting, the evolution of stress and information overload.

Follow @amandaenayati on Twitter or on Facebook.


soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. Tom

    I identify completely with the point about financial catastrophe. In fact, I know too many others who have experienced the same thing. Acceptance was key. And as weird as this sounds, what helped me was to almost see it as a game. I stepped outside m
    yself and acted as if I was giving someone else advice on what to do next. Doing so helped me detach emotionally (at least a bit) from the situation and see things more clearly and decide on next steps. I also realized that lots of people have gone through a similar situation and life moved on. They survived and – in some cases – even thrived a few years later.

    May 4, 2012 at 14:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Carol

      Being 56 and out of work for almost a year threw me into extreme anxiety and depression. I did find a fairly decent job at more than fifty percent less than what I was making. I was lucky in that I did not lose my house. The depression and anxiety are going away...but only slowly. The part of your last sentence helped me more than the article where you stated "...in some cases – even thrived a few years later".

      May 5, 2012 at 08:33 | Report abuse |
  2. Gen W

    My sister is the black hole of misery and there's no getting away either because she's mean and knows all the right buttons to push, and will not be ignord. Lord help me and my other sister.

    May 4, 2012 at 14:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. palintwit

    I find that throwing darts at photos of Sarah Palin helps relieve a lot of stress.

    May 4, 2012 at 15:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JS

      palintwit: Palin is not a problem. She is a symptom. The problem is what stresses me the heck out.

      May 4, 2012 at 15:24 | Report abuse |
  4. Jennifer

    Great article.

    May 4, 2012 at 20:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Bert

    i   d o n ' t   h a v e   s t R E s S .   i   w a T c h   T v   a l l   d A y .

    May 5, 2012 at 07:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Steve

    The author really did not talk enough about food. My wife and son have gluten reactions. Both get very wound up and can be more stressed. After all carbs are just a giant sugar bomb one stepped removed. Unless she needs the energy(spending the day in the garden), grain is avoided and we eat Paleo. This is not a case where worries about food cause stress, but the insulin yo-yo from sugar can chemically induce stress.

    May 5, 2012 at 09:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. abbydelabbey

    Some people are simply toxic and just as you would not ingest something poisonous you should avoid toxic people.

    That said:

    My mother was not only an emotional vampire but also emotionally and physically abusive, especially towards me. I learned a long time ago that she would not change having found that she could thrive, albeit unhealthily, upon the misery of others.
    However, when she was diagnosed with two debilitating illnesses my husband and I made the conscious decision to take care of her for 3 years until she needed 24/7 professional care due to the advancement of her Alzheimer's disease. During that time we learned that she had been the victim of emotional and physical abuse. We came to understand why she was the way she was. She never appreciated what we did for her, but we never expected her to do so. Nevertheless, we know that in the end we did the right thing. Her soul had been tortured and that's all she knew or understood. I chose to rise above the past; she could not.

    May 5, 2012 at 12:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • BL

      You are incredible and you just now completely shifted my perspective about my own parent. Thank you!!

      May 5, 2012 at 13:32 | Report abuse |
    • Sabina

      Good for you for taking care of your elderly ill mother. I did the same thing for my toxic father and no one could understand why I did. But when I read your post, I felt like finally someone did understand. I took care of my dad because it was the right thing to do for a helpless sick old man who happened to be my father. He took me for granted but I did it anyway and am glad I did. I have no regrets now and can live with myself without guilt. Thank you abbydelabbey!

      May 7, 2012 at 08:54 | Report abuse |
  8. Nat Strafaci

    A Great Piece Amanda. A lot of useful, helpful info. & easy to do practices. Thank You

    May 5, 2012 at 15:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Rose

    If you’re serious about reducing your stress, by all means check out the non-profit Recovery International. This self-help method, developed by Dr. Abraham Low, teaches ‘how’ to stop & think about what you’re thinking – and even supplies a set of ‘secure’ thoughts to replace those negative/insecure ones that are keeping your stress-related symptoms at a high pitch. Does it work? Absolutely! I KNOW from personal experience. Even if you were born with a ‘sensitive stress receptor’ as I was – your entire life can change for the better.

    May 5, 2012 at 16:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Victor

    This is a good article and a good start for people...I would only add...if you are dealing with a lot of stress and are overwelmed check out Buddist practice or certain books that could be life savers such as "Radical Acceptance" by Tara Brach. The basic teaching which you may find helpful is the ability to treat yourself and your reactions to the worls with compassion. To solve any issue you can't descned into a spiral of self-blame, but must be able to step back, see reality for what it is, and then logically and compassionately, find a solution that works for you. I know this is easier said than done, but I have had many major set-backs and challenges in my life and this has helped me a lot towards being a very positive and happy person. Good luck everybody!

    May 7, 2012 at 11:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Diana

    Another amazing article, from an amazing writer.

    May 8, 2012 at 00:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Luce

    A fine article– you can tell the writer put a lot of thought into this piece.

    May 8, 2012 at 00:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Rebeccah

    What an article on how to manage stress! Very wonderful and great! Keep it up!

    May 9, 2012 at 05:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Yulieth

      I just wanted to iornfm you how much I actually appreciate every little thing you've discussed to help increase the value of the lives of people in this theme. Through your articles, I've really gone through just a beginner to an expert in the area. It truly is truly a honor to your initiatives. Thanks

      September 13, 2012 at 20:18 | Report abuse |
  14. Adri

    You really make it seem so easy with your praientetson but I find this matter to be really something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and extremely broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

    September 11, 2012 at 16:33 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.