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The More Happy Blog Becoming Stress-Proof: How To Reduce Stress From Your Relationship With Your Children

Becoming Stress-Proof: How To Reduce Stress From Your Relationship With Your Children

03/17/2024


This is an interview I had with Savio Clemente of Authority Magazine. The original article can be read here.

With all that’s going on in our country, our economy, the world, and on social media, it feels like so many of us are under a great deal of stress. Parenting, in particular, can be stress-inducing. We know chronic stress can be as unhealthy as smoking a quarter of a pack a day. It is also challenging to be a present parent when your relationship is under stress. What are stress management strategies that parents use to become “Stress-Proof? What are some great tweaks, hacks, and tips that help reduce or even eliminate stress? In this interview series, we are talking to authors, parenting experts, business and civic leaders, and mental health experts who can share their strategies for reducing or eliminating stress. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jessica Lyonford.

Jessica Lyonford is an ICF-Certified Life Coach and the visionary founder behind Project More Happy, a company dedicated to spreading the science of happiness. Drawing from positive psychology, her framework of The Eight Pillars of Happiness helps people design lives rooted in purpose and joy. Jessica is also host of the Project: More Happy podcast and serves as a certified provider on the zant app.

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Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to know how you got from “there to here.” Inspire us with your backstory!

Of course. And thank you for asking me to join such an important conversation.

My childhood was fairly typical. I grew up middle-class in good schools with lots of opportunities. I did well academically and was involved in sports, choir, and art. From the outside looking in, most people probably thought I was succeeding, whatever that means.

But I always felt the heaviness of the boxes and labels I was supposed to fit into. I was “supposed” to be a good girl, daughter, sister, student, and Christian. Those expectations weighed heavily on me as if there was a right way to do and be all of those things. Most of the time, I felt like I was failing.

When I went off to college, I followed a career path people said I would excel in (which I did) to get a job that would pay me well (which it did) so that I would be successful. But it turns out that chasing other people’s versions of success doesn’t lead to happy ever after.

When my husband and I welcomed our oldest into our family almost nine years ago, I was working in a career that wasn’t aligned with the life I wanted for myself. Yet I felt stuck because it was the only path I knew. There was a lot of anxiety and stress due to the value misalignment. Throw a layoff, a newborn, and postpartum depression into the mix and it made for a really challenging time. A really, really challenging time.

But it was during this time that I started the hard inner work of defining success and happiness for myself, on my terms. I had to teach myself how to be happy, and how to design a life I would love. That ultimately led me to change careers and launch Project More Happy.

The science of positive psychology literally changed my life, so now my life’s work is sharing it with others.

What lessons would you share with yourself if you had the opportunity to meet your younger self?

I would tell her to focus on what lights her up and to forget about everything else — the labels, the expectations, and the stories other people told about her and who she is.

Living authentically and loving who I was and the gifts I had would have given me the confidence to follow my own path, instead of the path I thought I was “supposed” to be on.

None of us are able to experience success without support along the way. Is there a particular person for whom you are grateful because of the support they gave you to grow you from “there to here?” Can you share that story and why you are grateful for them?

My partner was the first person I felt truly comfortable being myself around because he was such a safe place. I had never been in a relationship — familial, platonic, or otherwise — where there wasn’t constant judgment and criticism from myself or the other person. It was freeing to not have to fit into any boxes or wear any masks.

So yeah, I’m beyond grateful for Eric and the amazing person he is. But I’m also grateful that he showed me what it feels like to be seen, heard, valued, and loved. That feeling is what I try to create for all my clients and students now because it’s so life-affirming.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think it might help people?

I always have several things in the pipeline to help spread the science of happiness to others.

I recently relaunched the Project: More Happy Podcast and am loving sharing the science of happiness in that way again. All these incredibly smart humans are doing life-changing behavioral research to uncover what leads to human flourishing, and I get to share that knowledge in easy-to-access, actionable nuggets. It’s way too much fun for me.

I’m also getting ready to do the first big print run of the Happiness Workout Deck, a science-backed tool for practicing The Eight Pillars of Happiness. That project is currently with beta testers and will hopefully be launched as a Kickstarter campaign soon.

My goal with any project is to make the science of happiness accessible and actionable so that people can design lives they love. And so that together, we can design a world we love.

Ok, thank you for sharing your inspired life. Let’s now talk about stress. How would you define stress?

In the simplest of terms, stress is when we perceive that the demands on ourselves — on our time, energy, and resources — are beyond our capabilities. That is to say, we tend to feel stress when we don’t feel like we’re able to meet the demands of life.

These perceived demands can literally be life and death (think cavemen running from carnivorous animals), or they can be perceived scarcity (not enough time or money, knowledge, or health).

In the Western world, humans typically have their shelter, food, and survival needs met. So what has led to this chronic stress? Why are so many of us always stressed out?

Great question. Chronic stress is the state of constantly living with stress. Our bodies never have the time and space to recover physiologically from the initial stress before the next cycle begins.

Part of why we end up in this constant cycle of stress is because our brains haven’t evolved to manage today’s stressors any differently than when we were cavemen fighting for our survival. That is to say that our brains and bodies respond to small stressors as if it were all life and death. That makes things really hard for us.

So when you’re sitting in traffic trying to get to the office, but you’re at a standstill, and the clock is ticking, your brain perceives that stress as survival stress. And then, when you finally make it into the office only to be greeted by an angry boss, the stress hits again. By the time you’re back home with the kids who want ALL THE THINGS RIGHT NOW, you’ve been in a stress cycle for a good eight hours already. Throw in financial stress and marital stress, and it’s no wonder we’re all stressed, all the time.

And all of those stressors — big and little — add up if we don’t learn how to manage them.

What are some of the physical manifestations of being under a lot of stress? How does the human body react to stress?

When you’re under a lot of stress, your body has a very physical way of showing it. This is because your body’s alarm system is going off, signaling something isn’t right. This sets off a chain reaction that prepares you to face the threat, whatever it is. But again, our bodies are still responding to threats with those fight-or-flight responses of our evolutionary ancestors.

So, what does this feel like? Have you ever felt your shoulders creep up to your ears when you’re stressed? That’s one of the first signs. Your muscles all tense up as if they’re bracing for impact.

At the same time, your heart starts beating faster, and your blood pressure rises. This is your body’s way of preparing to face the threat, pumping more blood to your muscles. Your muscles also need more oxygen to react, so your body pumps oxygen there, leaving you breathing faster and struggling to catch your breath.

Our body’s stress response also triggers sweating, which is your body preparing to cool you down after that fight-or-flight response it’s currently gearing up for.

These physiological reactions all take place VERY quickly. And if we work through the stressful event, our body is designed to return to normal fairly quickly afterward. But as we’ve discussed, in today’s world, we tend to go from stressor to stressor without letting our body come back down.

Over time, our immune systems take a hit because our body’s defense systems are stretched too thin. They’re too busy dealing with stress to ward off germs, right? Our sleep patterns get all out of whack because our mind constantly races with thoughts about everything we are stressed about. And if we do manage to get some sleep, the constant stress still leaves us feeling tired all the time because our bodies are physically exhausted from sustaining that fight-or-flight response.

Again, our bodies are built to manage these stress responses. Our bodies are amazing like that. But we must work through each response individually and not let them pile up. Because that’s when stress becomes chronic, and our body really struggles to take care of itself.

Is stress necessarily a bad thing? Can stress ever be good for us?

ur stress response is a natural survival system. It lets us know that we need to pay attention and, most likely, do something to address what’s happening. This amazing physiological response is what allowed our species to flourish. It truly is amazing.

In our modern world, this stress response can let us know when we are in danger, when we need help, when we’re out of alignment, when we need rest, when we need a doctor, and a million other things.

Again, stress is simply our body telling us to pay attention to something. How we respond to that message is what really matters in terms of our overall happiness and well-being.

Is there a difference between being in a short-term stressful situation versus an ongoing stress? Are there long-term ramifications to living in a constant state of stress?

Yes, absolutely. The stress cycle is supposed to be relatively short. First, our body sends us a message, “Pay attention to this! I think it’s super important!” Then, we decide what action to take, take that action, and move on. Stress requires we close the cycle, working through it and eventually moving on from the stressor.

When we don’t work through this full process, or when we are met with the next stressor before we’ve addressed the first, we carry the stress response with us, and we let it build. Research shows that this lack of release takes its toll on us physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in our body. It suppresses our immune systems, upsets the digestive and reproductive systems, increases the risk of heart problems, and can actually speed up the aging process. It can also physically rewire our brains, leaving us more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

The longer we live in this heightened physiological stress response, the greater the impact on our bodies.

Let’s now focus more on the stress of parenting. This feels intuitive, but it is helpful to spell it out in order to address it. Can you help articulate why being a parent can be so stressful?

There are so many beautiful, wonderful things about parenting. As a society, we tend to focus on and romanticize all the good that comes with having kids. And there is a lot of good.

Yet this narrative can actually have really detrimental effects on our parenting journey, specifically when it comes to managing stress. Because we’re told that it isn’t supposed to be that hard, right? So, if you’re struggling as a parent, we layer in shame as our response to stress. And the shame amplifies the stress. It’s just too much.

Parenting is hard. It’s a role we must learn as we go, with each kid having different personalities and needs. It’s a role full of unhelpful labels and external expectations, heightened by the perfectly curated lives we watch unfold on social media. It’s full of constant worry as we try to keep our kids safe, healthy, and happy. Being a parent comes with huge financial commitments that keep us juggling to manage wants and needs with time and energy. And if your kid is neurodiverse, differently-abled, or marginalized in any way, there are whole new levels of anxiety, worry, and pressures that you’re carrying with you.

It’s a lot. And it’s no wonder we carry this stress with us day-in and day-out.

Can you help spell out some of the problems that come with being a stressed parent?

When we are drowning in stress, we are not thriving. This is true both at work and at home. And it affects our relationships across the board because it changes how we are able to respond to and show up in the ways we want. We all want to be good parents. We’re all trying our hardest with what we have.

I think it’s essential for us to recognize that — we are all doing our best.

But when we are stressed, our body can’t always respond with the patience, love, and support we long to provide our kids. More than anything, we want our kids to feel seen, heard, valued and loved. Yet when we are exhausted, when our body is in a constant fight-or-flight response, we can show up instead as distracted, impatient, and unavailable.

And then, when we see ourselves falling short of our expectations as a parent, that triggers a new stress response. Only this time, we’re going to layer in guilt and shame. And it becomes this really damaging cycle, both to ourselves and our bodies and also to our kids and our relationship with them.

We yell instead of hug. We control instead of guide. We demand instead of converse. And sometimes, we unintentionally shift our guilt and shame onto them through blame. We don’t have the time, space, or energy to complete our stress cycles, so instead, we bring them along for the ride.

We are all doing our best. We just need better tools for managing and working through the stress that we’ve let accumulate in our lives.

Can you share with our readers your “5 stress management strategies that parents can use to remove some of the stress of parenting?”

I appreciate that you qualified these strategies by stating they can remove “some” of the stress. Because parenting will always be in a relationship with stress. Remember, stress is a good thing when managed well. That’s what these strategies will help with — managing stress so that you can better show up as the parent you want to be for your kids.

Strategy One: Catch your breath. Deep breathing is one of the quickest ways to stop our body’s automatic stress response, which can help us regain composure before reacting in those stressful parenting moments. My go-to is box breathing, where you inhale slowly for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale slowly for a count of four, and hold for four again. It usually helps to repeat this 2–3 times.

This strategy is beneficial when we’re already stressed going into another stressful situation. Pausing to breathe allows us to respond with more patience and intentionality.

Strategy Two: Prioritizing your needs. We are all human first. Our humanity requires that we recognize and address our own needs. It’s the whole “put your own oxygen mask on before helping others” thing. We can only take care of our kids and loved ones to the extent that we’ve cared for ourselves. So, set aside time to take care of yourself. Take a nap. Go for a walk. Read a book. Do whatever it is that feels life-giving for you.

This strategy helps us complete our stress cycles so that we don’t bring them into our relationship with our kids. It has the added benefit of teaching our kids the importance of self-care.

Strategy Three: Practicing gratitude. Gratitude is one of The Eight Pillars of Happiness. It helps us shift our focus from recognizing constant stressors to noticing the goodness and joy around us. I am in no way advocating for a culture of toxic positivity — that is just as unhealthy as chronic stress. Instead, I’m suggesting that we slow down and take the time to truly notice all the good in our lives.

This strategy helps us change our body’s physiological state from one of stress and scarcity to one of joy and abundance. Your entire demeanor changes when you practice gratitude.

Strategy Four: Defining success as a family. One of the most freeing feelings comes when you are able to acknowledge that success looks different for every parent and every family. There is no one perfect version of what it means to parent. We get to decide what success looks like. And we get to change the definition as we grow. It’s an awesome responsibility that so many of us forget to take the time to do. So, what does success look like for your family during this phase?

This strategy helps us prioritize the things that deserve our attention because it forces us to decide what actually matters to us as parents. When we know what we want, we are able to drop the expectations and labels that no longer serve us and our family.

Strategy Five: Setting boundaries (and holding to them). Now that you’ve defined success for yourself, you get to set healthy boundaries around your time and commitments. This will allow you to make time for what matters without feeling shame or guilt about saying no to what doesn’t. It puts you in control of designing a life that works for you and your family.

This strategy puts safeguards in place to keep us from overcommitting and comparing ourselves to other parents and families. It keeps the focus on the things that serve us and our dreams.


Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have inspired you to live with more joy in life?

I am a naturally curious person who is always looking to do life better, so I am always reading and listening and trying to learn. Here are a handful of resources that have had the biggest impact on my life and work.

The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a favorite I’ve probably read five times now. Brene Brown’s books and podcasts have been very inspiring on my journey toward happiness. And I really enjoy Dr. Laurie Santos’s podcast out of Yale, The Happiness Lab. Her The Science of Well-Being class was also super informative in the application of the science of happiness to life itself.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I want the whole world to understand the science of happiness so that we can design systems, structures, and communities that are life-giving; that enable flourishing for all. That is the goal behind Project More Happy — spreading the science of happiness. Because I know in my core that if we develop educational models, economic systems, and civic structures that are rooted in an outcome of happiness and flourishing, our world would be a drastically better place. For all of us.

What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?

Thanks so much for asking. Follow me on Instagram @themorehappycoach or subscribe to the Project: More Happy podcast wherever you listen to podcasts. You can also find me on the zant app. Just search Coach Jess and book a session.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.

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About The Interviewer: Savio P. Clemente, TEDx speaker and Stage 3 cancer survivor, infuses transformative insights into every article. His journey battling cancer fuels a mission to empower survivors and industry leaders towards living a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle. As a Board-Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), Savio guides readers to embrace self-discovery and rewrite narratives by loving their inner stranger, as outlined in his acclaimed TEDx talk: “7 Minutes to Wellness: How to Love Your Inner Stranger.” From his best-selling book to his impactful work as a media journalist covering resilience and wellness trends with notable celebrities and TV personalities, Savio’s words touch countless lives. His philosophy, “to know thyself is to heal thyself,” resonates in every piece.


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