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Stay focused on what is really important . . . family!

Aadron Rausch Published on 03 February 2010

One of our readers writes – “Times are tough and our guys are coming home each day in foul moods. We need tips on how to stay positive in negative times. With hints on how to explain to the kiddos that Dad is stressed.”

You know, times are tough and it is hard to turn the mind off like a water faucet as we walk away from work. We have the stress of our own jobs, the economy and a lot of unknowns; and we often hear about the tough times our employees are having as families struggle to make ends meet. It is because we care that we find it hard to manage stress and create balance in our lives.

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Mental health professionals say that it is not the reality of a situation that weighs heavy on us, but the worry brought about by the possibilities and the unknowns. The fact is, we can stew over the “what-ifs” so much, we can convince ourselves that the possible situation will be far worse than any reality we may face.

Coping with the stress and strain of work is tough, but cope we must if we want to create a place of respite at home where we can connect and reenergize with family. Failure to draw an invisible line in the sand to create work-family balance can lead to mounting stress, causing problems at work and at home. Family support and respite are essential to coping with stress.

Recognizing stress
One of the first steps to coping with stress, or supporting others who are experiencing stress, is to recognize the symptoms of stress. We have to remember that stress can sneak up on us, and we may not be able to recognize the symptoms of stress in ourselves. It may be a family member who is the first to express concern, and we have to be open to listen and pay attention to what others are sharing about their interactions with us. Let’s take a look at some symptoms of stress you or your family members may begin to notice when work-family boundaries become blurred and work stress begins to creep into your home life.

Emotional symptoms

Excessive worry, apathy, withdrawal, depression or feelings of helplessness

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Physical symptoms

Headaches, difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or sleeping too much, weight loss or weight gain, frequent illness or feeling very tired most of the time

Behavioral symptoms

Excessive drinking or smoking, extreme mood changes for no apparent reason, increased outbursts of anger and depression

Psychological symptoms

Inability to concentrate, difficulty making decisions, confusion and memory loss

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Reacting to others
During times of stress, we may find ourselves especially sensitive to the reactions of others. You may snap at your son who raises his hand to you and states, “May the Force be with you!” While your son may be using humor to deal with your preoccupation or shortness, at this point in time, it just feels disrespectful. When your wife reminds you that it is bears, not people, who need to eat enough to hibernate through the cold winter, you may not appreciate her use of humor to point out your overeating. But we need to keep in mind that individual personality, upbringing and communication skills all influence our interactions with one another. Expecting someone to react in “just the right way” may simply increase stress.

Communication in the family is essential to creating a supportive and healthy home life – especially when things are stressful. Understanding individual communication styles and needs can make all the difference between supportive and unsupportive interactions.

Before you communicate, consider how you communicate:

Communicate to put people at ease

• How do I demonstrate that I care?

• How do I express patience with someone’s individual communication skills?

• How do I encourage people to share feelings and perceptions?

Demonstrate that you are open to hear thoughts and feelings

• How do I show a genuine interest in understanding others?

• How do I express openness to others’ opinions?

• How do I show that I am listening?

Make sure your tone matches your message

• What tone do I use to convey my feelings?

If you are disappointed or angry but your tone is light and jovial, you may send a mixed message and confusion. Match your tone to the message you want to convey.

Rephrase to make sure you understand what is being shared

• How do I make sure that I understand and show that we are on the same page?

Your husband shares that he needs time to himself and time to unload the day’s stressors before he can let go and relax.

You may say, “So, I hear you saying you need some alone time when you first get home, but you also need an opportunity to share with me what has gone on at work so you can get it off your chest and relax.”

Make sure what you say and don’t say match – verbal/ non-verbal communication

• Am I showing what I am feeling and what I am communicating?

• Do I lean towards a person who is talking to show I am listening?

• Do I smile or nod to show my interest and openness as I listen?

• Do I send signals of impatience or disinterest by watching the clock?

Once you have thought through how you will communicate, it is important to identify a strategy that can help draw out what exactly is causing the stress. Many people can recognize that they are under stress and that they are bringing stress home; however, they may not know how to identify what exactly is causing the stress, which makes it hard to identify how to cope with the stress. Helping family members identify the causes of stress can lead to specific actions to control stress.

An activity to help identify and cope with stress
Identifying the cause of stress is essential to managing stress. Dr. Judith Meyers-Walls, Purdue Extension specialist, suggests using objects to identify stress in our lives. This may also be a good way to involve children in understanding stress while at the same time teaching a method for identifying and managing stress.

You may use just about any objects you wish (blocks, spools of thread, spice jars, etc). Give each person a group of objects of varying sizes. Have each person name each object as a stressor and share the information with others. (This block represents the additional work put on me since Tom has been out and recovering from his surgery; this block represents that I am working two hours later every evening, which is tiring; this block represents my worry about missing time with the family when I am working late, and so on).

The next step is to determine ways individuals and families can (or are) cope with the stressors. Again, we can use objects to talk about resources. Have available some rubber bands of different sizes and thickness. Explain that each of the rubber bands represent a resource that the individual or family has available to them; for example, one rubber band may represent someone’s positive attitude (personal resource), another rubber band may represent a co-worker who is always willing to help or a family member who is especially patient and helpful (informal resources), and another rubber band may represent a child’s teacher who is flexible with parent/teacher conference times or a church group who is helping with some chores at home while the family gets through this tough time (formal supports). Have each person share what their rubber bands represent and then try to bind the objects together using the rubber bands.

In using different size rubber bands, you can also talk about personal differences in coping styles. For example, a thin rubber band may represent someone’s ability to deal with a lot of different stressors at once because it has greater flexibility and can stretch easily when compared to a thick rubber band that is not very flexible. The thin rubber band may represent someone who is very flexible with the way she handles stress, but the thin rubber band is not very sturdy and can also represent a person who does not handle accumulative stress over time. The thicker rubber band is sturdier and may represent a person who can handle a lot of stress over time, but he is not very flexible in how he handles the stress, which can be another challenge.

This exercise can help people identify the stress in their lives and individual coping styles; and it can also help people recognize the resources available to help them cope. Part of learning how to cope with stress is to identify personal, informal and formal resources available to help during tough times.

Once going through the exercise, families can discuss ways they can either 1) remove stressors, or 2) add resources to help people cope.

Accepting stress and putting it in a positive light
Stress is a normal part of everyday life. However, stress that goes on over a long period of time or accumulative stress, can lead to emotional, physical, behavioral and psychological symptoms that can become overwhelming.

Work stress is particularly difficult if there is not strong work-family balance that allows individuals to use home as a place of respite and a time to reenergize. Learning to balance work stress is essential to a strong family life; and at no time is this more obvious than when work is at home and drawing the line in the sand between dairying and family can become challenging.

Learning to cope with stress can help families make it through tough times. Involving children in coping strategies can help children learn and prepare to handle their own stress and understand others who are having a tough time coping during stressful times. Developing strong communication skills can help families understand individual communication styles and learn ways to support one another not just in tough times, but all the time.

Step One: Identify symptoms of stress

Step Two: Study your own communication style

Step Three: Identify specific causes of stress and resources available to cope.

Step Four: Recognize stress is a normal part of life and can be positive when handled well. PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request by emailing .

Aadron Rausch
  • Aadron Rausch

  • Director of Strategic Engagement
  • Email Aadron Rausch

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