You might think September would be the most wonderful time of the year for parents as they watch their children climb back onto the school bus. But while the long, hot road trips of summer vacation time might be over, a whole new bundle of stressors is about to take their place.
There's plenty of advice aimed at mothers trying to manage the stress of managing a family. But many dads play just as active a role in shepherding kids from dance to drama class, and fathers don't always realize when they need to take a break.
"The same stress response systems for a charging lion are activated when we're stuck in traffic," says Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist. "And these activations are not good for us in the long haul."
Hanson is author of Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. He says that humans evolved to resolve stress quickly; once you escaped from a hungry animal, the pressure was off. That same fight-or-flight response can be activated by a toddler spilling cereal on your tie. But since there's often no immediate resolution to modern problems, the system stays "on" and this can lead to chronic stress.
Jon Crownover knows what it's like to face the pressures of modern family life.
"Being the typical guy, I'm a fixer. When the kids are upset and it's something I can't fix and make better, that's what agitates me," Crownover says.
The busy father of two boys says when he starts to feel stressed, he tries to take a moment and look at the big picture, something Hanson says is actually very effective.
"Activating the soothing parasympathetic nervous system is the antidote to the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system. The two are connected like a see-saw," Hanson says. "If you activate the parasympathetic system, that end goes up and you feel calmer and better."
Hanson says that since the parasympathetic system handles exhalation, breathing out a few times will have an immediate calming effect.
Two other stress-busters include "giving yourself a moment of self-compassion," meaning to wish yourself well, and taking time to take in the good.
"The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones," Hanson says. "If we just stay with the positive experience for a few seconds, we can build it into our brain."
If taking a moment to stop and smell the roses sounds less than manly consider this: even professional athletes are reaping the benefits of busting stress through similar means.
Neil Underwood works for Tula Studios in Toronto. The trained yoga instructor says that along with the considerable physical benefits of yoga, men are seeking out the mental benefits as well.
"At the beginning of any practice, there's a meditative practice where we are calming the mind and the spirit," Underwood says. "(Our studio) is located in downtown and we see a lot of professionals coming in after work to de-stress."
Underwood says yoga's emphasis on proper breathing helps calm the body and a number of baseball and hockey players have used yoga to improve physical and mental conditioning.
"There have been significant athletes in the last eight to 10 years who've prolonged their careers with yoga," he says. "Guys are a lot more open to it now."
Crownover says laughter and a chill attitude have made his life pretty Zen.
"When my son was little, I would tickle him so I could hear him laugh. As they got older, I'd crack a joke as much for my benefit as theirs," he says. "I just don't let a lot of little things bother me."
Instant mind calmers
- Breathe out: This counteracts the stress-inducing flight-or-fight response
- Wish yourself well: What would you tell a friend under the same pressure as you? Now say those words to yourself.
- Take in the good: Negative experiences are wired into the brain more easily than positive ones. So take the time to savour good moments and keep them in your head.