Letting Go of Stress

by Jan and Rick Hanson

By the end of the day, I feel frazzled and chock full of pent up feelings and thoughts. I don't want to let all that out on my kids or my husband -- and I hate it when I do -- so do you know any ways to get rid of this stuff without exploding?!

It's really normal to feel like you describe. A mom is dealing with so many feelings and needs and wants in her children and partner that the stress builds up over the course of a day. Plus many women have been taught in various ways to keep a stiff upper lip and not to say anything that seems like a complaint -- which just keeps things bottled up and festering.

Of course, it is important to be able to say what needs to be said to your husband or to your kids or to other people. But it's always also helpful to be able to let go of painful feelings, thoughts, stress, or tension entirely within your own mind. Plus, you can adapt these skills for your children, from the age of preschoolers onward, which will be very, very helpful to them.

Here's a summary of practical methods for letting go - and you can learn more from the other recent columns on our website.

Relaxing Your Body

It is almost impossible to be upset when your body is relaxed. Try one of these relaxation skills, even in the middle of a challenging situation:

  • Breathe slowly and deeply while imagining that tension is leaving your body with each breath.
  • Try to inhale and exhale for the same amount of time (e.g., inhale for a count of four, exhale for four). Imagine that the breath is going in and out of the region of your heart. Meanwhile, recall or think about things that give you an appreciative, grateful, loving feeling. (For more on this simple but powerful technique, check out the books from the HeartMath Institute in Santa Cruz.)
  • For a young child, a little trick that will help her breathe deeply is to ask her to exhale fully and then hold the exhalation for a couple of seconds - when she inhales, she’ll naturally take a big breath.
  • Deliberately relax certain trigger points, such as the jaw muscles, pelvic floor, or the "third eye" between the eyebrows.
  • Recall or imagine a very happy, peaceful scene.

You can deepen your capacity to relax when the fur starts flying by practicing relaxation techniques at calmer times, like right before bed:

  • Systematically put your attention on each major part of your body, starting with your feet and working up to your head. If it helps, think a phrase like "relax," or "locate a point" for your left foot, right foot, left ankle, right ankle . . . all the way up to your scalp.
  • Tense your muscles for about five seconds and then relax completely.
  • Imagine that you are v-e-r-y heavy, sinking more and more deeply into your bed
  • Imagine that your hands are very warm, like holding a cup of hot cocoa (this one is especially good for insomnia)

For kids, bedtime is a great time to train them in these techniques, since they'll put up with more mumbo-jumbo to keep you in the room. The point is that you will initially take them through some of the methods above, and then over time you will expect them increasingly to use the methods themselves at night -- as well as during the day, in real-life situations.

Releasing Painful Feelings

Yes, life has its share of suffering, and we are certainly not suggesting that you resist difficult feelings or suppress them. Instead, we're talking about simply helping them on their way.