Monday, December 02, 2013

Some stress is good for you

Stress for Success

December 3, 2013

Given the plethora of stress information, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that stress is bad for you. Of course, this isn’t always the case. In fact, if you successfully got rid of all of your stress, where would you be? Dead! Stress is a very normal part of life. The trick is to have the amount of stress in your life that motivates you to want to get out of bed every day to tackle what’s in front of you. In fact, being overly bored with too little pressure can be as stressful as being overly challenged.

Harmful stress is called “distress,” while good stress is called, “eustress.” As I have written many times before, stress is in the mind of the beholder so the following examples of distress and eustress are not universal. It depends upon how you perceive these events. But here’s an attempt to provide examples of each.

·         Motivates you, focuses your energy and improves your performance;
·         It’s shorter-term;
·         You believe the challenge is within your ability to handle;
·         It can be exciting;
Such as:
ü  Any new sought-after opportunity such as a promotion at work;
ü  Marriage or child birth;
ü  Buying a new home;
ü  Vacation;
ü  Retiring;

·         Causes anxiety, worry, and harms performance;
·         Can be short- or long-term;
·         You don’t think you’re up to the task;
·         It can lead to illness and disease development;
Such as:
ü  Death of a loved one;
ü  Divorce;
ü  Illness, disease, or injury to yourself or a loved one,
ü  Interpersonal conflict;
ü  Financial stress,
ü  Sleep problems;

Eustress can certainly turn into distress:
·         That new job becomes too demanding;
·         The marriage isn’t working out well;
What determines whether a particular stressor will be eustress or distress is determined by how you perceive your ability to handle it. For example, you see a work situation as a challenge (more likely eustress) but your colleague sees it as an imposition (probably distress). Another example, you stick your head in the sand when confronted by conflicts so will probably face distress. A more assertive person may assess their conflict resolution skills as high and deal with and resolve the conflict.

Turning distress into eustress then requires a feeling of competence in handling the situation. To experience more eustress and less distress you may either need to have more confidence in what you’re capable of handling and/or become more skilled where you are lacking.

It’s also helpful to understand that symptoms from your stress response are normal and helpful, assuming they aren’t in the panic range. In research done by Dr. Jeremy Jamieson of the University of Rochester, study participants gave a public speech. Before beginning, half were coached on the benefits of the stress response. The other half received no such information. The group instructed to see the stress response as adaptive increased their cardiac output and gave better speeches compared to participants who received no instructions. So, in your own stressful situations reframe your stress symptoms. Assure yourself that your sweaty palms and pounding heart are an asset to help you think faster and better.

Finally, all change equals stress due to the unknowns associated with change and to the fact that perception of insufficient control is one definition of stress. It’s hard to control the unknown, after all. Think about some of the good changes you’ve experienced: a new job, marriage, the birth of your children. All of these also brought you stress. Without eustress in your life nothing would change or improve.

So embrace more of your stress and see it as necessary to spur you on to greater things.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S. is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.  Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at  Email her to request she speak to your organization at

Monday, November 18, 2013

I challenge you today to list what you’re grateful for

Stress for Success

November 19, 2013

Thanksgiving reminds us to give thanks for the blessings we have in our lives. This balances stress by providing a better perspective on life; it reminds us that sure, we have challenges, but we also have much that is good. Taking time to appreciate the good should happen daily, not just at this time of the year.

Listing what you’re grateful for in difficult situations also limits the potential stress hormonal damage done to your body. Even, and perhaps especially, in those little daily hassles, like when stressed by a traffic jam remind yourself you’re grateful your car isn’t overheating, there’s good music to listen to, etc.

Today I challenge you to stretch your conscious awareness of what you’re grateful for. This serves as a reminder that life is significantly better than it sometimes feels.

Here’s my partial list. I’ll start at the beginning.

I’m grateful I was born to my parents who encouraged curiosity, personal responsibility, self-confidence, kindness, etc. in all of us six kids. They passed on their love of music and supported our vocal and instrumental musical development, opening up a life-time of joy. The challenge of reading, learning and performing with the Symphonic Chorale of SW FL gives me bliss.

I’m also grateful my parents encouraged me to pursue whatever I wanted, which led me to a great education and a 27-month stint in the Peace Corps in the 1970s. This experience greatly expanded my mind through adventure, learning a second language and forming and maintaining fascinating relationships. It led me to realize that I need to work in the world of ideas, which has fueled my professional motivation ever since.

The warm and fuzzy feeling of blood being thicker than water after fun family gatherings is also very refreshing.

I’m eternally grateful that I married a loving, kind, intelligent, creative and funny man; my best friend for almost 37 years. I’m thankful for the trust we have and the security that engenders. This loving existence almost certainly contributes to our on-going good health, for which I’m also very thankful.

I’m eternally grateful for our wide circle of dear friends. We’ve helped each other through great times and not-so-great ones. We’re always there for each other. We laugh and we cry - together.

I must include our local weather: no hurricanes this year - again, just plenty of nourishing rain. The jungle-like growth of the trees and hedge we planted is fast making our new house an enveloping and peaceful home.

We’re grateful the economy seems to be truly on the mend this time. We’re even grateful for the significant increase in local traffic including the many work trucks buzzing around too fast. More people are working again. Hallelujah!

I’m grateful for sunsets and sun rises, the sound of the wind through the pine trees, no mortgage, funny people, my husband’s great cooking, and our beginning steps to leave SW FL in the summers. I’m thankful for a good night’s sleep, meditation, a commitment to things that are bigger than myself, and that I virtually never get bored.

And finally, I’m grateful to be going on Medicare December 1. I made it!

What are you thankful for? Write down a very long list. Review it, especially when times are difficult. Let it filter into your daily awareness more and more so it leads you to a grateful life, not just an occasional burst of thankfulness.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S. is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.  Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at  Email her to request she speak to your organization at

Monday, November 04, 2013

“Status stress” creates health problems for a life-time

Stress for Success

November 5, 2013, Week 440

It seems unfair that whom you’re born to influences your stress, hence your health, for your entire life. In general, the greater the family’s affluence and the lower the “status stress,” the better the lifetime health. Conversely, those born into poverty have a lifetime of poorer health.

The reason, according to much research, involves perception of control. The more helpless one feels - the less control one perceives - when facing stressors the more lethal those stressors’ effects. Perception of control typically declines the further down the socioeconomic ladder you go, with potentially severe consequences.

Perception of control influences all areas of life. If you grew up believing your responses to life’s challenges can influence your outcomes, you’ll likely look for and find plenty of options. Your “self-efficacy” will be higher, automatically reducing your stress and making you a healthier, better problem solver.

If you grew up in poverty, you may have learned “there’s nothing I can do” to make things better. The greater this belief the more you’ll suffer from “learned helplessness,” the most stressed personality of all. Learning to feel helpless means you won’t try the many options that are available to you to positively affect your life.

For example, as an infant a childhood friend was unfortunately adopted by a cruel family. She became morbidly obese during grade school over which her mother relentlessly berated her. Her father beat her regularly with no consistency as to why, leaving her unable to determine which behaviors to avoid to minimize the beatings. Throughout her life, she suffered significant learned helplessness. One example was when as an adult she wanted to buy a condo but didn’t approach the bank for a loan because she knew they wouldn’t give her one even though she had a high enough income.

Consider how the following research about learned helplessness and status stress affects the less fortunate of us:
·         Indiscriminate electric shocks given to animals sent them into a form of depression, dulling learning and memory. But, when the animal had control over the shocks’ duration, they remained resilient. Having control over the length of the pain was more important than the pain itself. This has important implications for:
o   A consequence of children growing up with low control is their brains get wired for learned helplessness, limiting their options, therefore their lives;
o   The racial differences in longevity: In the US, whites live on average five years longer than African-Americans. A 2012 study by a Princeton researcher computed that socioeconomic and demographic factors, not genetics, accounted for 70 – 80% of the difference. The single greatest contributor was income, accounting for more than half.
o   Subjective experiences of racism by African-Americans correlate with visceral fat accumulation in women, which increases the risk of metabolic syndrome, thus heart disease and diabetes. In men, they correlate with high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
·         In primate experiments low status females are more likely to develop heart disease and greater inflammation compared with higher status females. When eating junk food, they more rapidly progress toward heart disease. High-ranking males heal faster than their lower-status males who are more likely to choose cocaine over food than higher-ranking males.
·         Rockefeller University neuroscientist, Bruce McEwen, says, “Poverty gets under the skin.” He refers to “biological embedding” of social status. Parental social status and early life stress wire your brain, increasing vulnerability to degenerative disease and infection decades later. Carnegie Melon scientists exposed volunteers to a common cold virus. Those who’d grown up poorer, measured by parental home ownership, resisted the virus less effectively and suffered more severe symptoms.

These findings raise important questions about the role of status stress and learned helplessness in hampering life successes. Martha Farah, University of PA neuroscientist, found differences in the capacity to learn. Socioeconomic status correlates with children’s ability to pay attention and ignore distractions. Other researchers have observed differences in the function of the prefrontal cortex, the brain region associated with planning and self-control, in poorer children.

Farah said, “… seeing an image of the brain with specific regions highlighted where financial disadvantage results in less growth reframes the problems of childhood poverty as a public health issue, not just an equal opportunity issue.”

In our polarized political climate there is unlikely to be any significant attempt to address these health differences and their causes, so they will continue to cost each and every one of us.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S. is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.  Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at  Email her to request she speak to your organization at

Monday, October 14, 2013

Lower social status typically means more stress

Stress for SuccessOctober 15, 2013

A fascinating TV program reported research about status and stress with Stanford neurobiologist and my guru of stress physiology research, Dr. Robert Sapolsky. It featured a female researcher in Africa studying this phenomenon with apes, whose lowest status members sported huge rolls of abdominal fat! It was astounding! (An Internet search for her name yielded no results.)

Why would the lowest status apes store so much fat? They’re wild animals. You’d think they would be lean and muscular.

The reason, as researchers have long agreed upon, is that the more helpless one feels - the less control one perceives - when facing stressors the more lethal those stressors’ effects. This perception of control typically declines the further down the socioeconomic ladder you go, with potentially severe consequences. This was first noted decades ago when the assumption was that top executives who had the greatest responsibilities would have the highest corporate stress. To the early researchers’ surprise, it was secretaries, at the bottom of the influence ladder, who had the most stress. They had plenty of responsibility but very little control. Top executives had the control.  

Researchers have found those of least status:
·         Are more than three times as likely to die prematurely as those at the top;
·         More likely to suffer from depression, heart disease and diabetes;

Additionally, early childhood adversity produces consequences that remain decades later, such as:
·         Increased inflammation;
o   When chronic, it increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes;
·         Telomeres, the tips of chromosomes, appear to be shorter, which may indicate accelerated aging;
·         A higher risk of high blood pressure and arthritis;

Even those who later succeed economically may show persistent effects of early-life adversity by remaining more prone to illness than those who were never poor. Becoming more affluent can lower the risk of disease by increasing one’s sense of control and by providing greater access to healthier resources and social support.

In other words, people are not doomed by their upbringing. But the effects of early-life stress tend to remain, particularly because those peoples’ nervous systems are unfavorably molded and may even accelerate their aging.
“Early-life stress and the scar tissue that it leaves, with every passing bit of aging, gets harder and harder to reverse,” says Dr. Sapolsky. “You’re never out of luck in terms of interventions, but the longer you wait, the more work you’ve got on your hands.”

British epidemiologist Michael Marmot calls this, “status syndrome.” He found a direct relationship among health, well-being and social status. “The higher you are in the social hierarchy,” he says, “the better your health.” He explains that unlike those of lower rank, both a top executive and a worried affluent parent have resources to address their stressors. The poor have far fewer.

So the stress that kills, Dr. Marmot and others argue, is characterized by a sense of insufficient control over one’s fate often referred to as, “learned helplessness.” We’ll look more closely at this phenomenon in my next article.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S. is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.  Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at  Email her to request she speak to your organization at

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Help develop your kids’ emotional maturity

Stress for Success

September 17, 2013

Empathy means seeing through another’s eyes to understand their point of view, a skill licensed counselors are trained to develop and a vital trait for parents, as well.

Empathy is valuable for everyone. For example, as an older patient, wouldn’t you want your younger physician to understand the physical challenges from aging? A study had young, healthy medical students simulate the difficulties of old age by wearing, for example, transparent tape-covered goggles to mimic cataracts. After the experiment, the students showed greater empathy towards the elderly, preparing them to be better physicians (Varkey et al 2006).

Another powerful example was presented by a theater group of schizophrenics helping others understand what they experience. They placed a non-schizophrenic volunteer in a chair. Then, several schizophrenics swooped in and out whispering disturbing thoughts into the volunteer’s ears. You could hear a pin drop in the room. The volunteer turned white. Do you think greater empathy for the schizophrenics was achieved?

As parents you must role-model this trait for your kids if you want them to develop it. Benefits to them include managing their own emotions better thereby becoming more emotionally mature and lower stress than kids who don’t have much empathy.

To teach empathy here are five ideas from anthropologist, Gwen Dewar, Ph. D., ( 

1.    Use stories from books and TV programs to encourage your kids to look through the characters’ eyes and guess what they think, want and feel. What is the character communicating verbally and nonverbally to lead them to guess as they do? This helps them understand how others’ minds work and demonstrates that not everyone interprets situations the same way.

2.    Play the game, “make a face.” Tell your children to make a sad face and they can actually experience the sad emotion. Researchers tracked brain and physical activity during this game and found kids’ brains, heart rate, skin conductance, and body temperature change (Decety and Jackson, 2004.)

To build greater empathy with someone, imitate their facial expressions. People who are naturally empathic automatically do this when they listen to someone who’s distraught. This mirroring builds rapport so the person feels more understood therefore trusting of you.

3.    Help your children develop a strong sense of morality that depends upon internal self-control versus rewards or punishments.

Studies have shown that children become less likely to be empathic when they are given material rewards for doing so. It makes sense, doesn’t it?

Kids are more likely to develop an internal sense of right and wrong when administered discipline is rationally explained including the moral consequences of their misbehavior versus random rules and harsh punishment. To help them develop moral principles, show them how their wrong-doing affects other people (Hoffman and Saltzein, 1967).

4.    Teach your older kids about moral detachment. Frightening research demonstrated that average, well-adjusted people can be persuaded to harm others, even torture them, as long as they are given the right justification. Yale University’s Stanley Milgram’s experiments told psychologically “normal” research subjects that they were participating in an experiment that required them to administer painful electric shocks to another person (Milgram, 1963). The experiment was fake (no real electric shocks or victim). The subjects, however, administered what they thought were real shocks to screaming victims. Almost 65% of participants continued to press the button even after the victim appeared to be unconscious! Why? Because they were told to by a credible authority figure. Kids can also experience moral detachment.

My mother explained to us to not assume we’d keep our grip on morality when we insisted that had we been Europeans during WW II we would definitely have protected Jewish people in our homes. She wisely said that we couldn’t know that unless we actually experienced the atrocities.
5.    Give the gift of security and love to your kids through caring interactions and physical affection to boost their oxytocin levels. Oxytocin, a hormone, helps mitigate some of the damage of the stress hormones.

Higher levels of oxytocin may also help people better understand others’ nonverbal behavior. Researchers had 30 young adult males inhale oxytocin and then examine photographs of other people’s eyes. Compared to men given a placebo, the oxytocin men more accurately interpreted the photographed people’s emotions (Domes et al 2006).

Kids can better interpret others’ emotional signals if they regularly experience positive interactions at home like hugs, smiles and positive feedback (Uvnäs-Moberg 2003).

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S. is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.  Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at  Email her to request she speak to your organization at

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Empathy is a stress reducing trait in anyone, especially in childrens for Stress for SuccessSeptember 3, 2013

Empathy means understanding, compassion and responsiveness. When you’re upset and someone empathizes with you, your load is lightened - at least a little.

Like my six travel weeks from hell when I experienced seven flight cancellations forcing me to travel all night five times to get to my next destination in time for my 9:00 a.m. workshop start time. Toward the end of these exhausting and very stressful weeks I landed in Toronto around midnight, which was OK since this trip didn’t involve any cancelled flights. I got a cab quickly and gave the driver the address of my hotel. We arrived at the address only to find that it was a convention center with no hotel. “Of course,” I thought. The driver took me to the nearest hotel, but, there were no available rooms. “Of course,” again. The hotel staff called other nearby hotels to find me a room then had their bus driver take me to one with a vacancy. This was excellent service, which helped alleviate some of my exhaustion.

But do you know what really lifted my spirits? As I got onto the bus the driver said to me, “Tough day, huh?” He hit the nail on the head (although “tough month” would have been closer). My exhaustion lifted considerably and my usual optimistic attitude returned. It was miraculous!

Showing empathy toward others can be just that – miraculous, especially for the person on the receiving end of it. In fact, without this human trait relationships would eventually erode.

Encouraging this trait in your children is very important to their ability to coexist. When they can see life through another’s eyes and make a good guess as to what that other person is feeling and convey it to that person, it connects them together. Practiced regularly, empathy keeps us civil, discourages cruelty and allows trust and cooperation between people to build. It makes the world a better place in which to live.

In past weeks I’ve covered the importance of teaching kids empathy along with some ideas on how to teach it to them (past articles at
·         Empathic kids are good at regulating their own emotions;
·         By helping your kids get their own emotional needs met at home and teaching them how to bounce back from stress, you make it much easier for them to develop a strong sense of empathy towards others;

Here are two additional ways to teach empathy.
Model empathy yourself
Always remember that you are your kids’ number one role model during their most formative years. To anchor empathy in them, model it toward others yourself. Do this when your children are younger before you lose influence over them.

Family systems therapy teaches us that children take on roles based on their parents’ roles. So, if you express empathy toward them rather than being judgmental, they can relax and open up. If you’re more judgmental they’ll likely get defensive with a fight (argue) or a flight (withdraw) reaction to you. To get a different response from them you need to change your response to them first. For example, bullying has become very pervasive. When you and your children witness this in real life or on TV, instead of ignoring it change your role to discussing how that person must feel. Developing empathy for the victim helps them to be less likely to bully anyone themselves.

Help kids identify common ground
A very natural human tendency is to feel the most comfortable with others who look and act like you yourself do. Suspiciousness of differences evolved over the millennia to help our ancestors survive.

The down-side however, is with others who are different from you in age, race, gender, etc., it may be more difficult to give them the benefit of the doubt. When you notice your kids being more judgmental of those who are different, encourage them to identify how they and the other are actually more similar than they realize. My mother used to ask us to guess why another kid might be behaving badly to help us think beyond our initial and judgmental assumptions.

To impact your children’s empathy development parents must look for opportunities to model empathy and to identify commonalities versus differences. The reward will be not only a better world but a better family life, as well.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S. is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.  Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at  Email her to request she speak to your organization at

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Kids’ development of empathy is aided by Cognitive Psychology

Stress for Success

August 20, 2013

Empathic kids handle stress better, according to Gustavo Carlo, the Millsap Professor of Diversity in the Missouri University of Human Development and Family Studies. Carlo explained, “Empathetic kids are generally good at regulating their emotions and tend not to lose their tempers. … you’re less concerned about yourself and more considerate of others. On the other hand, impulsive children are more self-focused and have difficulty engaging in problem-focused coping.”

To develop greater empathy for others, we need to start by developing it for ourselves. To do that, it’s important to understand how thoughts, feelings and behaviors are intertwined.

Teach your kids Cognitive Psychology
Most kids, and frankly many adults, have no idea that their thoughts, emotions and behavior are inextricably linked. First, understand Cognitive Psychology (CP) so you can then teach your children about it. This will help them handle all stress better and enhance understanding of everyone’s behaviors, thus allowing more empathy to develop.

Here’s the basics of CP:
          Your thoughts (self-talk) determine your emotional reactions, which determine
          your behavior, which greatly influence your outcomes in situations.

 If you don’t like your outcome you must change your thinking. So lesson number one is to become more aware of your thoughts. Kids typically are not.

It’s important as a parent, then, to have on-going and age appropriate conversations with your kids about how their emotional reactions are not completely caused by an event but are far more caused by what they say to themselves about the event.

For example, a seventh grade girl came home from a school dance swearing to never return to another. She explained that none of the boys asked her to dance because she’s such a “frump”. Can you see that her upset is more from her calling herself a frump than the situation of not being asked to dance? What else might she be telling herself about it?

 Tempting as it is, don’t just automatically respond that she’s not a frump. Instead, explore her interpretation further. Say something like, “If I felt like a frump I wouldn’t want to return to another dance, either.” Let her continue to talk about it. Paraphrase her along the way. You may discover that she’s also telling herself, ““I’m such a loser. No one will want to dance with me.” 

 Once it feels like she has expressed herself and she feels understood by you, you can make the point that most of her upset is from what she’s saying to herself. Ask her how she thinks she comes across when she’s feeling like a loser and frumpy. Does she look away from boys? Does she frown? Help her make the connections between her putting herself down in her thoughts leading to her lack of eye contact making her less attractive to the boys not asking her to dance.

Teach her how to change her interpretation - her self-talk - to change how she feels emotionally. She could learn to say, “OK, I feel uncomfortable in these situations but I need to make myself look interested in the other kids by looking them in the eyes and smiling.” Over time she can learn how her thinking (based on her beliefs about herself and the world around her) determines her emotions, which then go on to determine her behavior bringing about the outcome of not being asked to dance.

Teach her to change her thoughts to change her moods.

 Explain that simply thinking positive thoughts won’t necessarily produce her desired results. “I’m beautiful and all boys want to dance with me,” is unrealistically positive. It’s far more important to be rational and reasonable in your thoughts.

 In these conversations be sure to respect that your child’s emotional reaction and accept that it isn’t wrong. She feels what she feels based on how she’s interpreting the situation. Your parental challenge is to get her to understand that changing her interpretations is not only within her control, it will lead to better moods and a greater understanding of what everyone else experiences, as well.

 Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S. is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.  Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at  Email her to request she speak to your organization at

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Developing empathy helps adolescents cope with stress

Stress for Success
August 6, 2013

Some kids are simply born luckier than others; like those who are born to emotionally mature parents. When children grow up in an emotionally stable environment, where they feel nurtured and safe, they can afford to be less focused on themselves and experience the luxury of taking an interest in others, a necessary condition for developing empathy. Those children born to emotionally immature parents who do not attend to their children’s needs are at a distinct disadvantage.

Empathy is very important trait for kids – and adults - in dealing with life’s stressors. Gustavo Carlo, the Millsap Professor of Diversity in the Missouri University of Human Development and Family Studies and his team surveyed 1557 students between the ages of 12 and 15 years in Valencia, Spain to measure various behaviors: their feelings toward others, past pro-social and physically aggressive behaviors, and their emotional stability and how they deal with stressful situations.

Carlo points out that adults deal with stress through problem-solving, while infants relieve stress through crying. He identified adolescents’ coping habits and how these affect their behaviors toward others. 

In an August 8, 2012 article, the researchers reported, “… empathetic youngsters were more likely to use problem-focused coping to manage their stress. They were also more likely to perform pro-social behaviors benefiting others like helping friends with problems, donating money or volunteering. In contrast, emotionally unstable and impulsive young people tended to rely more on emotion-focused coping including avoidance or distraction, and also more frequently displayed signs of aggression.”

Carlo explained, “Empathetic kids are generally good at regulating their emotions and tend not to lose their tempers. … you’re less concerned about yourself and more considerate of others. On the other hand, impulsive children are more self-focused and have difficulty engaging in problem-focused coping.”

So how can you teach empathy to your children? To a significant degree it’s determined by their ages. With very young kids, the best way to teach them empathy is as parents to model it yourself. Listen more than you have in the past. Feed back to your children and to others what you hear them say versus put out your own views without acknowledging their perspectives.

Anthropologist, Gwen Dewar, Ph. D., ( offers advice on teaching empathy to children. She notes that empathy is a complicated trait made up of several skills:

·         Self-awareness and the ability to distinguish one’s own feelings from others’;
·         The ability to understand another’s perspective;
·         The ability to control one’s own emotional responses;
Everyone regardless of age benefits from having appropriate empathy. It’s not always easy, however. Those who have trouble coping with their own emotions find it more difficult to show empathy toward others.

Dewar suggest strategies, inspired by scientific research, to develop stronger empathy. I’ll cover one of hers today and additional ones in my next article.

1.    “Address your child’s needs and teach her how to bounce back from stress. Studies suggest kids are more likely to develop a strong sense of empathy when their own emotional needs are met at home (Barnett 1987). When kids have secure attachment relationships, they know they can count on their caregivers for emotional and physical support, they are more likely to show sympathy and offer help to other kids in distress (Waters et all 1979; Kestenbaum et all 1989).

Additional research indicates that kids are more likely to show empathic concern for others if they have parents who help them cope with negative emotions in a sympathetic, problem-solving-oriented way.”

 What kind of a grade would you give yourself as a parent on this first skill? Are you too hurried with your frustrated child? Would you teach better empathy if you would slow down, take a deep breath and truly listen to his frustration? Rather than telling him how to handle a stressor, what would happen if you asked him what he thinks his options might be?

 As parents, you can’t teach what you don’t know, so expand your own empathy skills first if necessary, then help your kids expand theirs. It would make for a much better world.

 Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S. is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.  Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at  Email her to request she speak to your organization at

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Reminders to help live life more easily

Stress for Success

June 4, 2013, Week 434

When racing through life, mostly doing the same things day after day, it’s easy to lose track of what you’d be wise to change. Here are some reminders of necessary, ongoing tune-ups:

1. Listen to your thoughts: Wherever your thoughts are going, that’s where you are going. And thoughts determine emotions. But often you’re unaware of these thoughts because they’re unconscious. Suffice it to say, if you’re feeling depressed you’re thinking depressed thoughts.

• If depressed, ask yourself how you’d rather feel. Then think thoughts that carry you toward that feeling. Recall experiences from your past when you felt your preferred emotion and recall that memory over and over and over again to gradually re-wire your brain for greater emotional health. Be patient. When you make progress it’s easy to slip right back into feeling depressed, especially if it’s your predominate emotional state. But the more you redirect your depressed thoughts to your preferred ones, the easier it gets and the longer it lasts.

• Listen for rigid beliefs like, “I have to get it all done.” “I shouldn’t worry about me because that’s selfish.” Rigid words like should, shouldn’t, have to, must, can’t, slam the door on options. Others like everyone, no one, always and never exaggerate your reality. All hold you in rigid reactions so nothing changes. Substitute should, shouldn’t, have to and must with choose, prefer and want. Replace can’t with choose not to, always and never with specific examples of when. No one and everyone with specific names. Change your thoughts, change your life.

• Learn from the psychologist who demonstrated an important stress management point holding a half-full glass of water. Her audience expected the lesson was about the half-empty metaphor. But her point was about holding up the glass and its effect over time on the person’s arm. The longer it was held, the heavier it became. Just like with life’s stressors: the longer you hold onto them the heavier they become.

2. Listen to your emotions: Your emotions also speak to you. Observe yourself feeling what you feel when you feel it: sadness, anger, insecurity, jealousy. Sometimes all you need is more rest to feel more emotionally balanced. Sometimes you need to change a relationship with another – or with yourself. Let your feelings guide you in determining what needs attention.

3. Listen to your body: Your body speaks to you all of the time. It tells you when it’s overloaded with too much stress. The trick is to not only listen to it but to act on what it tells you.

• Too much stress over long periods of time leaves your body with too much of the stress hormones floating around inside you doing their insidious, gradual damage. Become far more consciously aware of your body’s symptoms when too stressed: an increase in muscle tension, headaches, shortness of breath, insomnia. What are your symptoms?

• If you’re aware of the causes of your stress, deal with them. If you’re not aware, at least do something nourishing for your mind, body and spirit to relieve the pressure.

4. Prioritize time investments: I train people how to treat me,” Dr. Wayne Dyer once said. If you insist on doing everything you teach those around you that you’ll do everything. When you do more than your share of work while no one else does anything, ask yourself, “Why should they?” Tell them you’re going to do only your work and not theirs and see what happens. Most will pick up more of what they should have been doing all along proving by changing your behavior you get a different outcome.

• At work and at home decide your top priorities. Then look at how you spend your time for a week or so. Become aware of how often you do things that aren’t close to being priorities. Let some of those things go. For example, if spending time with your kids is a top priority but you’re spending significant time cleaning the house, do fewer chores, with less perfectionism, and spend more time with your kids. Make conscious choices that support your priorities.

• Set Limits. “I can’t say no; that wouldn’t be nice.” If you think you can’t, you won’t. Ask yourself if the others’ requests help or hinder achieving your priorities. Let your answer influence your choice. Sometimes it’s fine to help if you have the time. But when you’re overloaded and continue to say “yes” you’re teaching others you’ll always help them so they’ll expect you to help the next time, too. Learn assertive skills to set appropriate limits. It’s very freeing.

5. Self-care: Make yourself and your wellbeing a priority by taking 30 to 60 minutes daily to feed your mind and body. Staying well allows you to be better for those around you.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S. is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach. Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at Email her to request she speak to your organization at