Stress. We all have it; we often complain about it. Even the word itself generates an anxious reaction when you hear it. The American Institute of Stress states, “There has been no definition of stress that everyone accepts.” Knowing that it’s almost undefinable makes it difficult to measure and even harder to manage.
However, there are ways to cope with our stress levels, and in Beijing we have an abundance of experts to help us. Living in China provides perhaps even more options for taking control of the stress in our lives, from Western medical advice to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). And let us not forget the numerous affordable massages.
First, we must understand that some stress is good. We all need a little bit of it to learn. Even babies experience stress. So when we accept that it’s unavoidable, how we deal with it is largely in our control.
In It Together
“Stress is a family affair,” says Dr. Alan Mease of Beijing United Family Hospital (BJU). Putting it very simply, happy parents equals happy children. This is not to say that all stressed kids are a result of stressed parents, but having harmony in the house as a “safe” place certainly sets the foundation for the coping strategies of children. Parenting is stressful in and of itself, so educating yourself on what’s “normal” for each child’s age and stage of development is crucial for having realistic expectations of your child’s response to stress. To better understand a child’s developing mind, Dr. Mease recommends the book, The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Survive Everyday Parenting Struggles, and Help Your Family Thrive.
While there are very specific stressors for adults (work issues, pressures of parenting, holidays) versus those of children (school work, friendship dynamics, developmental changes), there are many more common factors that family members share as expats.
Every member of the family deals with the effects of culture shock, a new workplace or school, and daily anxieties to navigate while living abroad. There’s often at least one parent who travels more often than before, which can be a strain on the family and marriage. Frustration with communication and language is a key factor for both parents and children, says Rod Tyney, elementary school counselor for the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB). It can be traumatic to be thrown into an environment where the school is large and there are different spoken languages.
Managing It All
It’s most important for parents to keep their own anxieties in check, for themselves and for their children. Allowing kids the autonomy to learn stress management is a huge life lesson. If all things are done for them, or there is extra pressure they cannot handle, kids don’t have the opportunity to learn how to “manage” themselves. Quality time with kids is important at any age, and it’s beneficial for both the parent and child. If you have younger children, let them play. For older kids, provide them the space they need to grow, creating a mutual respect that leads to a lower stress level for all.
Dr. Setsuko Hosoda of BJU, says it’s important to recognize when stress is out of control and feels overwhelming. We all have to learn to say no. There are the A, B and C priorities in life: “A” being the things we need to do; “B” being the things that can be done later; and “C” being the things that simply aren’t necessary. People tend to jumble up priorities, when just knocking out some of the “C”s in our lives can reduce a great deal of stress.
Learning to deal with it at an earlier age helps prevent health issues in the future. Too much stress in children can actually impair their developmental growth. As we grow, it can decrease the immune system and increase inflammation within the body. Stress can affect blood pressure, stomach issues and even fertility. Stress is often about control, or lack thereof. Adults can benefit from learning to let go and remembering the big picture. If you’re planning a vacation to relax, for example, don’t lose sight of the “relax” part with all the details of planning it so perfectly.
There’s a direct correlation between how your mind receives stress and how your body reacts to it. Dr. Hosoda leads mind-body classes for adults, where students learn about breathing techniques, and explore the physiology of stress. For those interested in keeping track of their stress management, she recommends a computer program from www.HeartMath.com.
The Homework Factor
International schools are full of multicultural children. Many of them move regularly, but that doesn’t mean it’s easier for them to adjust to new surroundings. At WAB, there are regular small groups that welcome new students, and offer them a forum to express what they miss about “home” or what worries them. They have buddies that help them along the acclimation process, too.
Bernie Longboy, a WAB high school counselor, feels that the “net is set high for when the kids stumble” by being in this international school environment. Processes and programs allow for the professionals to watch the students and help them with any stress issues they may be experiencing.
For younger students, Tyney suggests, Slurping Soup and Other Confusions: true stories and activities to help third culture kids during transition, as an excellent resource for helping kids express their feelings during stressful times. It’s an outlet, and it allows the parents to also see how their children could use support.
While older students have different stressors, usually inclusive of pressure from exams and college preparation, Longboy feels they have an amazing ability to use their growing organizational skills to manage their time wisely.
When You’ve Got the Blues
Having the “winter blues” is a real affliction called seasonal affective disorder. It’s common during the cold months when days and daylight are shorter, typically causing a depression lasting the season. Vista Medical Clinic psychiatrist Dr. Mickie Xu says that this can certainly add to stress levels, so she suggests doing something different. Change the color of a room or the color of your clothes. Switch your perfume, or add scented candles to an area of the home where you spend a lot of time. Try listening to a different genre of music. Buy fresh flowers every week. While these easy changes may seem almost too simple to work, she says, “Just try it.” Our senses are jolted by the changes, almost always resulting in a positive effect. For more on winter blues, see what Dr. Richard Saint Cyr has to say.
Countless articles and books have been published on the topic of stress. Everyone’s triggers and levels are different, making it impossible to give a one-size-fits-all approach to allevviating stress. However, on the following page, we’ve included some common reported effects of stress, as well as remedies – both familiar and lesser-known – for you and your family to try.
Common Effects of Too Much Negative Stress
high blood pressure
lower immune system
developmental growth impairment
tightness in chest
New Idea for Managing Stress
• Drink water: Even mild dehydration stresses your body.
• Add warm colors to your room or clothes to add a change in your life.
• Stimulate your sense of smell with new fragrances, candles and fresh flowers.
• Practice good posture, because easier breathing puts less strain on the body.
• Speak slowly: It’s calming and resists the temptation to talk too much.
• Plan rewards for yourself: Provide something to look forward to.
• Mind-body exercise classes: Learn new techniques for stress management.
• Eat right:
• High fiber foods regulates blood sugar levels.
• Blueberries and oranges are high in fiber and high in vitamin C.
• Dried apricots are rich in magnesium.
• Turkey contains an amino acid that triggers the release of serotonin.
• The protein in low-fat milk regulates blood sugar levels.
• Some green vegetables contain potassium to calm our nerves.
Familiar Stress Busters
plenty of sleep
take a walk
Dr. Alan Mease (developmental and behavioral pediatric services director)
Dr. Setsuko Hosoda (family medicine physician)
Beijing United Family Hospital and Clinics, 2 Jiangtai Lu, Chaoyang District (5927 7000) 朝阳区将台路2号
The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Survive Everyday Parenting Struggles, and Help Your Family Thrive
By Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson.
The American Institute of Stress
Rod Tyney (elementary school counselor)
Bernie Longboy (high school counselor)
Western Academy of Beijing, 10 Laiguangying Donglu, Chaoyang District (5986 5588) 北京京西学校,朝阳区来广营东路10号
Dr. Mickie Xu (psychiatrist)
Vista Medical Center, Kerry Center B29, 1 Guanghua Rd, Chaoyang District (5907 3296 朝阳区光华路1号北京嘉里中心B29
Mind-Body Classes for Adults
Held by Dr. Setsuko Hosoda of BJU (firstname.lastname@example.org)
www.heartmath.com (VPN required)
Slurping Soup and Other Confusions: true stories and activities to help third culture kids during transition
By Maryam Afnan Ahmad, Cherie Emigh, Ulrike Gemmer, Barbara Menezes, Kathryn Tonges, and Lucinda Willshire. Available at BabyGro, The Bookworm, the WAB PTA shop and monthly INN meetings. (email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org) www.slurpingsoup.com