Stress Toys for Kids?

We know stress is bad for creativity.

Turns out, stress is really bad for a lot of things, most especially your heart. Let’s remember that heart disease is the number one killer in the US for both men and women.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that some of the top “toys” of 2017 are actual stress relievers for kids.

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On the top toys list…

I want you to think about that for a moment. Kids are so stressed, that top toys for Christmas are basically colorful versions of adult stress aides. In the top 20 toys, there are four different items that are designed to help reduce stress.

WTF?!? I mean seriously, when did it get to this?

Sure, yeah, I get it. Kids have never had an idealistic existence. Once upon a time, less than a hundred years ago (1938, to be exact. My skeptic wonders how much of that was to keep kids from taking adult jobs in the Great Depression rather than to protect kids, but I digress), poor kids worked to help support their families. Okay, poor kids worked so there was food on the table.

But in 2017 middle-class America, which is what these advertisers are marketing to, I was blindsided by seeing anti-stress balls marketed alongside “twins” for your child to play make-believe with.

I’m not entirely sure when this happened, but I shouldn’t be shocked. The most stressful years of my life were high school and college. I had to make excellent grades in high school to get into a good college.

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Being smart wasn’t enough. I was a poor kid and needed scholarships. And I wasn’t getting special treatment because my parents were alums anywhere. So, I had to be in sports, volunteer, find ways to make myself stand out.

I don’t remember there ever being a weekend where I had nothing to do. I’d try to get homework done on Friday night and Saturday morning so I could at least have Saturday night. It seldom worked. All this while making it through the coursework and trying to find my way through teenage hormones and a far less than ideal home situation.

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But I did it, and then came college. Now everything was on the line. I wasn’t going to be working for the rich family I didn’t have (unlike some of my classmates), so every future employer was going to be looking at that GPA for the rest of my life. It didn’t matter that my grandmother died or I had a massive allergic reaction to something that almost closed my windpipe. I had classes to attend, projects to finish, and tests to take. All so I could get a job at the end to pay back the loans I still had to take.

Yeah, I remember those days. And not fondly.

Apparently, the stress on kids is starting earlier and earlier. I’m not entirely sure why.

Perhaps because 44% of American children are living at or near the poverty line.

No, I didn’t mistype that number. I actually looked it up several places to verify it. It shocks me. And it saddens me. To climb out of poverty, to try to focus on school and work when you’re hungry, maybe that’s why people are buying a stress ball for Christmas.

For the other 56%, some are saying it’s because kids are too busy. Parents are so focused on trying to give them what they’ll need to succeed, that kids aren’t getting any time for relaxation and play.

This feels a lot closer to what I’m seeing. Now that I have kids, I see how much of my life is taken up just getting them to where they need to be. Once at dance class, soccer, or swimming, the kids are now in organized activities with a whole new level of stress on them. How good am I at this sport or activity? Am I good enough to compete? What do I have to do outside of class to get good enough?

When I was a kid, we couldn’t afford such things. Frankly, only the rich kids in my schools ever did such activities. Now, it’s expected of parents to provide these enriching experiences.

All of this is before you add in the stress of trying to figure out things like how to put your dress on the right way each morning. How to make new friends on your first day of school. How to handle peer pressure. And everything else kids have always faced.

I know how I feel about this, but I’m not really sure what to do about it. Children aren’t mini-adults. They do so much learning through play. I worked my tail off and waited until later in lie to have them because I wanted to give my children a good life. Not a life that includes stress balls for 5-year-olds and high blood pressure medication when you graduate high school.

 

How about you? Have you seen this phenomena? If so, how have you addressed it?

 

What Common Household Item is Killing Your Children?

We’ll tell you, tonight at eight.

Except, if it really is killing my children, shouldn’t I get a news flash across my phone telling me what it is and how to get rid of it, much like an Amber Alert?

I have ignored traditional news media for years, getting most of my news from the Economist.   Yes, it’s a paid subscription and an expensive one. I’m fortunate that my company is willing to reimburse me for it. Still, it’s some of the best and most in-depth analysis I’ve seen. Positions are well thought out, and their research is impeccable.

For those of you shaking your heads thinking it’s an ultra-conservative news outlet, you may be surprised at how liberal many of their social views are. Why? Because allowing things like gay marriage, religious tolerance, and immigration are actually good for the economy.

Remember who is writing it.

They care about making economies prosper and the generation of wealth. In a recent piece, they actually call for allowing people age 16 and older to vote rather than 18.    Why? Because we need to teach this habit like any other. And people must vote or you undermine the very concept of democracy. It’s an interesting article. I recommend it.

As I’ve been entering the social media sphere because authors “must”, I started getting caught in the news cycle. The drama. The “end-of-the-world” mongering.

The fear.

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I decided to stop following people on Twitter or Facebook that post a lot of “news”. I stopped clicking on any and all links to news articles. I stopped looking at anything that remotely resembled click-bait.

Yes, I know a lot of things are going on right now, bad things, but the constant stress was making me crabby and interfering with my sleep.

If you’re rolling your eyes and thinking I’m a snowflake, here are six reasons why research says you should consider changing your news consumption habits.

 

1. It’s Here to Make Money, Not Inform

With the wave of “fake” news lately, this hardly needs explanation. But we need to remember that news doesn’t usually cover what’s important anyway. They’re looking for the “human” element, the element that sucks you in and gets you to keep watching or clicking.

If it bleeds it leads.

If a building burns to the ground, what do you think the media is going to focus on? The building. The people in the building. Injuries. Fatalities. All of which is relatively inexpensive to produce. They don’t actually have to dig to get to the guts of the story. Do they ever tell you why the building burned? Changes to the fire code that should be enacted to save those lives?

No, because those don’t get clicks.

Because of this emphasis on the dramatic, we focus on the wrong things, and those things are then overblown in our minds. We all fear terrorism, but no one thinks too much about chronic stress. Total US deaths, worldwide, due to terrorism from 2004-2014 was 112.  Think about that for a moment. 112 people in ten years. That’s 11.2 people, on average, per year.

How much news did it get?

But how many people die each year of heart attack? Stroke? Cancer? Yet, how much emphasis has any of this gotten?

Stress, on the other hand, affects 143M Americans and 81M are under extreme stress.    The causal connection between chronic disease and stress is growing .

So why don’t we hear more about this? Reducing stress is something we might actually have control over, and it can have a direct impact on our lives. Imagine if reducing stress could reduce the number of people with heart disease or cancer by 10% or even 1%.

The news doesn’t cover this because it doesn’t get clicks.

News is a for-profit organization. They are not here to inform. They are here to make money.

 

2. Doesn’t Really Matter to You

How many news stories have you watched or read in the last year? The last month?  What did you do because you read or watched it? What decision did it help you to make, particularly about anything of consequence? Did you become a better parent? A better spouse? Did you make a serious financial decision? Do something to improve your career?

I ask this is all seriousness. If it is meant to inform you, it should be doing so in a meaningful way. We’ve already established that it’s not really informing you. Rather, it’s telling you things to get you to tune in, and we should be challenging the value of tuning in.

I can honestly say consuming news did little to engender action from me. News stories didn’t even help me make a decision on the candidates I voted for. I got that from their stated positions on their websites.

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3. Teaches You Not to Think Too Hard

This article really says it all. News programming is designed to make you think you’re seeing both sides of a story and getting the low-down, but you’re not. Most of what we get are news bites, little pieces of information meant to fit into an allotted amount of time. Deep, complex subjects require time to digest. Truly difficult concepts can’t be understood in the five minutes of time they get.

We’ve all heard “climate change”, but how many of us have actually taken the time to understand what it is and why it’s happening? What are the macro effects? What does it truly mean to the planet and to us? (Give you a hint, the planet doesn’t care. It’s already survived numerous mass extinctions.) What are we really sacrificing by not dealing with it, and what would it really take to reverse it?

You see this superficiality with a lot of “news” reports.  They are interested in giving you bite-sized pieces, but nothing too meaty. They don’t make money informing, remember? They make money on you tuning in or clicking.

Yet, without this deeper level of understanding, you lose sight of the bigger picture. Events become singular and contained instead of part of the broader view. Hard to make truly informed decisions when you see a very small piece of the whole issue.

 

4. Seek Conforming Opinions

With the sheer volume of news out there, we no longer have to expose ourselves to ideas that don’t conform to ours. If we don’t want to believe in climate change, we can find plenty of articles denying it to fill our screen.

As Warren Buffet said, “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

If this is true, then we’re really not seeking information or enlightenment. We simply want to be told that everyone already agrees with us. That we’re right.  That’s called confirmation bias, and it’s very detrimental.

It means you never hear the other side, you never have the chance to understand their way of thinking. You can’t find a compromise because why would you compromise when “everyone agrees with you?”

But what if you’re wrong? Even Albert Einstein was wrong on occasion.

 

5. Induces Stress 

News, particularly what’s splashed across our networks, triggers our  fight or flight response. The same stories that tend to get clicks, tend to activate this center.

When you hear about a family dying in a fire, you have a very different reaction than if you’re hearing about alternate routes to avoid a fire. That’s why so many of us felt panicked and twitchy after all of the 9/11 stories, particularly as we watched people, human beings, plummet from those upper stories.

That’s one image I will never, ever forget.

The “human” side of these stories release glucocorticoid  which has a whole slew of effects on your body. It’s the fight or flight response. And what does this constant fight or flight response bring? Remember that stress we were talking about and how we know it contributes to heart disease, stroke and cancer? Yeah, that. 

It’s like being constantly told there’s a monster under your bed, and knowing there is nothing you can do about it.

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6. Crushes Creativity

I’m not sure if news in general does this, or just bad news.  I won’t say this is an unbiased or researched article, because I couldn’t find any with hard facts, but it states what I’ve seen myself.

The more news I consume, the less creative I am. Or, perhaps, the less time I have for creativity.

Not sure, but I do know that switching off the news, even for a week, made it much easier to work on my novel. I completed as much in a week with it off as I had in three with it on. I felt more relaxed, more able to focus, and able to bring more of myself to my writing.

Why?

Not sure, but I figure the reduced fight-or-flight response is part of it. As is not allowing the news to snatch at my already divided attention. Of course, tuning out the world burning may not be ideal, but there is very little I, personally, can do for the suffering people in Syria other than donate to the White Hats.

 

Yet, despite the stress, lost creativity, and lack of information, we keep coming back to the news. Makes me think they’re in the same camp as social media. They’ve figured out how our brains work and how to keep us coming back for more. How to suck our precious time from us for profit.

I, for one, am done.

I will continue to read the Economist, and I will never know what household item is slowly killing my children until they send me an Amber Alert to my phone.

 

How about you? Do you watch the news? Do you get anything out of it? Does it inform your decisions? Has it ever affected your sleep or given you nightmares?

 

10 Ways to Conquer Stress and Bring Back Your Creativity

We know stress kills creativity. And, given what most of experience in modern life, stress isn’t going anywhere.

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Me during the height of budgeting

So, what can we do about it? How do we tame the stress and let our muse come back from vacation to help inspire us once again?

First, I think it’s important to know what stress is. In a nutshell, stress is a physical response. Your body thinks it’s under attack and goes into fight or flight mode. Your body releases a whole bunch of hormones preparing you for physical action.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. During our hunter-gatherer days, this helped us escape from predators or defend ourselves and our tribes.

Where the issue comes is that our bodies haven’t adapted to modern life. A boss with an impossible deadline triggers the same fight or flight mode, instead of a focused calm so we can at least try to make the deadline.

What this means is that we don’t have the opportunity to burn off those stress hormones. This is what causes the jittery feelings and racing heartbeat.

So, how do we deal with it?

I’ve read a bit on this, and here is what the “experts” say:

  1. Get enough sleep – because it’s so easy to sleep when you’re already stressed
  2. Eat Well-Balance meals – Already doing this. It hasn’t helped, but I suppose it doesn’t hurt.
  3. Limit Alcohol and Caffeine – Gave up both when I was pregnant, never took up either since. Very liberating to not need that cup of coffee in the morning.
  4. Count to 10 (or 20) – This has helped me when dealing with my children, but not for the bigger things like when those children are ill.
  5. Take deep breaths – Okay…
  6. Take a time-out. Practice yoga, listen to music, meditate, get a massage, or learn relaxation techniques. Stepping back from the problem helps clear your head. Because I totally have time for this!
  7. Learn what triggers your anxiety. – Impossible goals like trying to balance work, children, a spouse and writing.
  8. Maintain a positive attitude.
  9. Get involved. Volunteer or find another way to be active in your community, which creates a support network and gives you a break from everyday stress. – Which gets back to my time issue . . .
  10. Welcome humor. A good laugh goes a long way. – Clearly what some of these coping strategies are. For me, anyway.

 

I could go on, but the one thing that’s helped me the most is learning that it’s a hormonal response. These hormones need to burned off, and I’ve started doing that by walking. I try for at least a 30 minute walk at lunch, and this has helped tremendously. I burn off all my pent up stress hormones and come back to the afternoon more focused.

Sometimes, this isn’t enough, and I take a brisk walk through the halls. Other times I’ll walk out to the shop floor and back. Something to get me up, get me moving, and burn those stress hormones.

Now that I know stress is physiological in nature, it helps me deal with it.

My bigger issue is when I don’t have an outlet. It is dark when I get up in the morning, it is dark when I come home from work at night.

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This means walking before work or in the evenings is a no-go.

I’m still trying to figure something out, especially with the kids. I have a treadmill and an elliptical in our finished basement, but it’s an act of Congress to get down there. Including the negotiating, pleading, and filibustering.

What do you do to deal with stress? Any of these tips more helpful for you? Do you find it easier to burn off the stress hormones with physical activity?

Black Friday 2016 – Not According to Plan

It’s the day after Thanksgiving, also known as Black Friday. While many Americans are out starting their Christmas shopping, I’m not because I’m almost done.  All eight of my nieces and nephews are bought for and wrapped. My children are done, and we have them half wrapped. The family gift exchanges are purchased. We’ve bought the gifts for our extended family.

I have one gift left to get for my ninety-year-old grandmother. Yeah, she’s hard to shop for.

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Can’t even imagine the stress…

So, yes, I’m one of those people. I plan ahead. I like things to be organized and predictable. When you combine this  with my crazy work schedule from mid-November until the end of the year, I want my shopping done so I’m able to enjoy the holidays as much as I can. And, I like to have the best possible selection of gifts available so what I’ve planned to buy isn’t back-ordered.

I do, indeed, make an Excel spreadsheet of everyone I have to buy for what, I plan to get them, and whether it’s been purchased and wrapped yet. Making a list, checking it twice…

While Christmas shopping has followed my plans, the rest of the year hasn’t. From my daughter having some medical issues we’re still working through, to a more recent job loss and the potential loss of medical benefits, stress has been a constant companion.

My muse doesn’t much care for stress, and she takes a vacation to a tropical island at the first hint of trouble.

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If you look closely, you can see her in the water.

 

Of course, my response is pretty predictable. I keep looking for her, trying to get her to come and play, before the realization sinks in. She’s left me, and she’s not coming back.

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Muse?!?  Don’t leave me!

No, she’s not terribly reliable, especially when you need her. I guess I don’t blame her. When I’m that tired and anxious, I’m not much fun to be around.

But I’ve still been writing and reading. Maybe less of both than I should.Especially reading. I can be a critical reader, and have been trying to train my brain to do a better job of dissecting why a book is good or why it isn’t.

When I’m stressed, however, my ability to handle stupid characters drops to almost zero. If the characters are too stupid to breathe, I’m done with them. I don’t care if they get their happily-ever-after. I was 30% of the way through a book last week, and I just put it aside. I didn’t need to add to my stress or frustration with fictional characters.

Despite all of this, I’ve managed to finish two novels this year, and I’m working on revising them for publication. Then comes the really awful part of querying them, but that’s still a ways away.

My work isn’t as inspired as it would be if my muse would hang around more, but I am pushing through. I need to prove to myself that this endeavor is worth the time commitment, even when things aren’t going as planned.

Stress and Creativity

I came across some interesting articles recently about the effect of stress on creativity.

This one, from the American Psychological association, pertains more to grad students, but many of us who work full time and try to fit in writing, family, and whatever else we do have a similar stress load. Even if you don’t, there could be other equally stressing factors.

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Most days feel about like this, but I don’t look so graceful or poised.

 

One from Forbes talking about the effect on creativity and competitiveness at work.

There are quite a few more as it appears this is an area of study, many of which are scientific enough that I have to get out my Six Sigma stuff to understand the statistical analysis.

But this brings me to my point: the scientific community knows that stress kills creativity. While the brain is expending resources on the lower order functions in a fight or flight response to keep us alive, it’s not giving much of anything to higher order functions like creativity.

Makes sense. Your brain doesn’t really differentiate from the stress caused by a lion attack and the stress caused by an impractical deadline at work. So your brain is going to “save” you from the “lion”.

I have been on this fight or flight roller-coaster since early May.

At that time, we learned DD2 was developmentally delayed, and we’ve had to spend a lot of time and money to figure out why and then start her treatment. As part of her treatment, I learned quickly that the medical profession in my area expects you to either be a stay-at-home mom or miss lots of work as there’s no such thing as early morning, night, or weekend appointments. Not even Friday appointments in the summer, as it turns out.

We then got to experience first-hand the joys of insurance denying everything, even things they had told us previously they would cover. Lots of stress fighting them and mostly losing.

About 3 days after my daughter was diagnosed, I was asked to start a massive cost-benefit analysis of shutting down a plant that has been around since 1946. Had to be done completely in secret. So lots of sneaking around and asking weird questions with made-up reasons. The analysis confirmed what the executives expected, the announcement was made, and now I face the constant daily stress of working through the plant closure and reporting out on it.

So, yeah, no wonder my creativity dried up in May and hasn’t really returned.

I need to find a better way to deal with the stress than I have been, but I’ve yet to figure it out.