Stress and Family

Last week in our series, we looked at how stress affects our sleep. Today we look at how stress impacts family functioning.

In my family, which is made up of my wife and I, our two children, and our dog, I can honestly say stress is never too far away at any given time, even more so during the Covid-19 pandemic era.  

Stress impacts everyone in our family system, my wife and I as a couple, as parents, our children, and even our dog. When one member in the family is stressed, it can easily impact the whole family. For example, when I am stressed, I tend to be crabby with my wife, and then we as parents tend to be harsh with our children. And then our children are stressed, and the cycle continues.

But the good news is that we can help the whole family manage stress better by first taking care of ourselves. I remember every time I have flown on an airplane, flight crew members always remind passengers during an emergency to put on their own oxygen masks first before helping their children or others. At first, this did not make sense to me because in some ways I was brought up with the idea to always put others first before me.  This oxygen example now makes sense to me because if I as a husband and a parent am able to reduce my own stress, then I can deal with my children and others in a calmer way. This can lead to better parenting and happier children and ultimately may lead to a happier family.

So, let’s look at some examples of how we can “put on our own oxygen masks first.” In the previous blogs we have already learned about eating well and sleeping well. Here are some additional ideas:

  1. After a long day at work before coming home, perhaps listen to your favorite song.
  2. Couples can also do joint physical activities, which have been shown to increase greater relationship satisfaction and commitment. Children could also join in regular family physical activities like walking or bicycling. Generally, doctors recommend about 30 minutes of moderate activity 5 days per week for adults.
  3. You may have heard “laughter is the best medicine.” Being light-hearted in the midst of a tense conversation can help us calm down. Perhaps watching a comedy movie as a family can help the family be in positive mood.
  4. Another great way to decrease stress in the family is for family members to think positively about their lives. For example, instead of focusing on each other’s wrong doings or mistakes, we can focus on each other’s strengths.

Use one of these ideas, or others that you have found helpful, to take care of yourself so you can take care of your relationships.

Written by Anthony Santiago, College Projects Specialist and Licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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Improving sleep during a pandemic

Many people experienced insomnia or had some difficulty sleeping before the pandemic. Now, with all the additional fear, uncertainty, isolation, and economic challenges, many with no prior sleeping concerns are struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep.

Getting at least 7 hours of quality sleep each night is even more important now, since it provides the foundation for our daily functioning, moods and decisions. Getting quality sleep also strengthens the body’s immune system, which is essential during a pandemic. Not getting enough sleep each night, on the other hand, is associated with weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure and depression.

Here are some tips to help you get to sleep and stay asleep. 

  • Have a going to bed ritual: Just like children, who have a book read to them prior to bedtime, adults need ritual signs that tell our brain it is time to sleep. That may involve listening to relaxing music, reading a book or taking a warm bath.
  • Don’t use your bed as your office: Many are working from home during the pandemic and it may seem that a bed would be a comfortable place to work. Unfortunately, this just confuses the brain, rather than training the brain that a bed is a place to sleep.
  • Get some exercise during the day: Exercise reduces stress and possibly improves sleep since it tires the body.
  • Don’t take long naps: A short 15 to 30 minute nap is OK, if it’s not too late in the day. However, sleeping longer can disrupt your sleep cycle.
  • If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t sleep, get out of bed: Again, a bed is for sleeping, not tossing and turning, so getting out of bed helps you reset. You will want to keep the lights low and then follow your going to bed ritual.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine: Caffeine use before bedtime may make it more difficult to get to sleep and even though alcohol might help a person fall asleep, it does not necessarily help a person to stay asleep or sleep well.

If you are struggling with stress related concerns, contact the Iowa Concern Hotline at 1-800-447-1985.  Iowa Concern provides confidential stress counseling and resource/referral services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

Free virtual counseling and consultation is also available through COVID Recovery Iowa at to any Iowans impacted by COVID.

Written by David Brown, Behavioral Health State Extension Specialist

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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Reducing Stress through the Benefits of Nature

As daylight hours dwindle and the air becomes crisper, thoughts and activities tend to focus less on the outdoors and more on the long winter months inside. And yet, the benefits of the outdoors and experiences with nature in reducing stress apply all year round.

Cortisol, an important stress hormone, has been mentioned a few times in this series on stress. Conditions associated with the pandemic, like decisions related to activities, continued cancellation of events, financial changes and health considerations are all potential sources of stress that can increase cortisol levels. Cortisol may cause our muscles to tense, impact our appetite, and decrease our concentration. Getting outdoors, it turns out, has been shown to reduce cortisol and stress for all ages!

  • A University of Michigan study found 20 minutes outdoors can drop cortisol levels in adults by over 20%.1
  • A review of research on college students discovered as little as 10 minutes in nature increased happiness and reduced both physical and mental stress.2
  • Studies on access to nature have repeatedly shown positive impacts for children related to physical activity, weight, attention, mental health and stress.3

How can you apply the stress reducing benefits of nature to you and your family as the seasons change? Most outdoor advocates insist there is “no bad weather, just bad clothes”, so start with planning ahead for what you might need in colder weather. Dig out hats, scarves, mittens, and coats now, so layers are available when temperatures shift. Next, be intentional about increasing your time outdoors. Take short walk breaks during the daylight hours, pausing to enjoy the changing autumn colors or the crisp scent of snow. Iowa is one of only a few states with a county conservation system – take advantage of this incredible resource! Many county conservation locations have outdoor programs all year where you can try new activities, like fall scavenger hunts or snowshoeing. If you need ideas to get children engaged outdoors, check out resources available through trusted sources such as Nature Explore and Project Wild.

Finding time to get outdoors, especially as the seasons change, can be a challenge, but the benefits related to stress are worth the effort!

  1. Hunter MR, Gillespie BW and Chen SY-P (2019) Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers. Front. Psychol. 10:722. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00722
  2. Meredith GR, Rakow DA, Eldermire ERB, Madsen CG, Shelley SP and Sachs NA (2020) Minimum Time Dose in Nature to Positively Impact the Mental Health of College-Aged Students, and How to Measure It: A Scoping Review. Front. Psychol. 10:2942. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02942
  3. Together in Nature: Pathways to a Stronger, Closer Family (2013) Children and Family Network.

Written by Cindy Thompson, Human Sciences Specialist-Family Life

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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Eating and Stress

I’m so stressed! I need chocolate!

Last week we started our series on stress and discussed in general how stress affects the body. Today, the focus is how stress affects eating habits.

With many of us experiencing higher levels of stress the past few months, you may have noticed that your eating habits have changed. I know at my house, we have had more chips and ice cream in the house than we normally do.

Stress can cause both a loss of appetite and also overeating. Studies show that in the short term stress tends to shut down appetite. The nervous system causes the body to release a hormone called adrenaline which helps trigger the body’s fight or flight response and temporarily puts eating on hold.

However, if the stress continues, the body releases another hormone called cortisol, known as the stress hormone. Cortisol increases the appetite and may ramp up the motivation to eat.

Stress also affects food preferences. The higher levels of cortisol increases cravings for sugary, salty, and fatty foods. Now you know why there are more chips and ice cream in my house!

Here are some tips to help manage the effects stress has on your eating habits:

  1. Know that it’s okay to eat sugary, salty, and fatty foods sometimes. Having something like chips or ice cream now and then will not ruin your health. So don’t stress out about eating them!
  2. Plan ahead for meals and snacks. This way you will have healthier options on hand for snacking and meal time. Keeping yourself nourished during times of stress helps keep your blood sugar steady so when you are stressed your emotions aren’t further effected by being hungry or having low blood sugar. Check out our meal planner and recipes for ideas.
  3. Be mindful when you are eating. Put your phone down, turn off the TV, and move away from your computer so you are not distracted. When at home, get in the habit of eating in the kitchen and not in other rooms in the house. Mindless eating can lead to eating more than your body needs and not enjoying the food you are eating.
  4. Get moving. While cortisol levels vary depending on the intensity and duration of exercise, overall exercise can reduce some of the negative effects of stress.

If you are feeling stressed, consider how you might use these tips to care for your body.

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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Strength in Stress

The past seven months have been stressful, so over the next few weeks we are going to have a series of blogs on stress. Contributors to the blogs who have expertise in the area of stress will teach us more about what it is, how to manage it, and how to use stress for good! The blogs will include how stress affects the body, eating habits, physical activity, sleep patterns, and family relationships. Today’s blog was written by Share Kelley, an Iowa Concern Hotline staff member, and will cover how stress affects the body.

Think of your body like a computer. It takes in information, and puts out responses. Pressure can be useful or harmful, which can result in brief responses like ‘Fight or Flight’. If our body had to respond all day, every day, it would drain our system. Like any computer, the body needs breaks.

Here are six ways you can recognize when your body needs a break:

  1. Headaches: Stress can trigger and intensify tension headaches. Drink a lot of water, avoid caffeine, take brain breaks, and limit screen time.
    1. Pro Tip: Schedule water breaks throughout the day.
  2. Stomachaches:  Stress can make tummy aches, nausea, and GI upset worse. Make healthy food choices for meals and snacks. Choose vitamin rich fruits and vegetables.
    1. Pro Tip:  Plan regular meals and snacks to refresh yourself.
  3. High Blood Pressure:  Stress tightens blood vessels causing high blood pressure. Schedule time during the day to do some deep breathing.
    1. Pro Tip:  Try 4-7-8 deep breathing. Inhale on a count of 4, hold for 7, exhale on a count of 8.
  4. Tense Muscles:  Stress tightens muscles causing stress aches in the head, neck, and back. Take time throughout the day to loosen tight muscles.
    1. Pro Tip:  Use muscle relaxation. Tighten then fully release one muscle group at a time from your toes all the way up to your forehead. Then sit with all muscles fully relaxed.
  5. Insomnia:  Stress can make it hard to fall asleep. Try reading, listening to relaxing music or guided meditation. Avoid screens before bed.
    1. Pro Tip:  Schedule sleep and block interruptions during that time. No calls, texts, or screens.
  6. Frequent Illness:  The immune system cannot function as well when the body is already stressed.
    1. Pro Tip: Use the tips above to create a routine so your body is ready to fight infections.

If you are struggling with stress or if you would like more information, check out the Iowa Concern website.

In addition, the State of Iowa has received federal funding to offer free virtual counseling and assistance to those affected, in any way, by COVID-19. COVID Recovery Iowa provides counseling, virtual activities, referrals and help finding resources to any Iowan seeking assistance or a listening ear. For more information, visit

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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