When he was 3 years old, my son was Curious George for Halloween, but the Tasmanian Devil may have been more apropos. His intense, highly regimented preschool had been stressing him out, and my normally boisterous but sweet kid started lashing out—targeting his classmates and even his teacher. Yikes!
Stress is inevitable, for all of us, whatever our age, especially in times of transition (like, say, you just got divorced and you’re facing single parenthood). The key is in how you cope with it, right? My son’s preschool has been an instructive example of How To Totally Lose It. There’s a long list of factors that contributed to his freakout, and I pulled him out of the school in the end, but let’s focus in on a few things he was dealing with that can turn the best of us into a whirling bundle of negative energy. In honor of my favorite cartoon devil, I’m calling them The Taz Factors. Try them at home, if you’re having a particularly challenging month as a single parent! I promise you’ll be worse off.
TAZ FACTOR #1: Don’t get enough exercise. When my son’s misbehavior started, I asked the teacher how often the kids get to the gym or the playground. “When the academic schedule allows” was her answer. In other words, not every day. Most experts recommend a minimum of one hour of vigorous activity each day for this age group. But here’s the more significant problem: Exercise is perhaps the number one most effective way to relieve stress! Such as, say, the stress of being dumped into a rigorous 8-hour preschool program after a lifetime of one-on-one attention and free play.
The endorphins that exercise causes your body to release make you feel calmer and happier, according to about a billion studies. Whatever your age, if you’re under stress, you can’t afford to skip exercise—you need to make an extra effort to get to the gym, run around the block, do jumping jacks, whatever!
TAZ FACTOR #2: Skip snacks and meals. To better accommodate the academic activities in this preschool class, the kids didn’t have a set snack time. They could ask for their snack if they think of it. My son, being three years old and in a stimulating new environment, apparently never thought of it. Result: No snack. And a pattern of losing it shortly before lunch. Hmmm. Coincidence?
Let’s review some common symptoms of low blood sugar: You get irritable and less effective in your work (which makes you even more irritable). I’ve been there, haven’t you? On a stressful day I try to power through without food. It always backfires, making me crabby and less productive.
Years ago, my doctor recommended that I have a small, protein-rich meal or snack every 2-3 hours (your body digests protein more slowly, which helps keeps your blood sugar—and your mood—on an even keel). When I follow that plan, I do a lot better.
TAZ FACTOR #3: Skimp on Sleep. Sleeping on a cot in an exciting, brand-new environment surrounded by 10 other kids was apparently not my son’s cup of tea. So he stopped napping, thus subtracting 2 hours from his daily sleep total.
Here’s a summary of the results of a 2005 study on sleep deprivation: “Normal subjects typically show acute worsening of mood, with complaints of irritability, depression, and decreased motivation.” Sounds about right. And sleep deprivation is cumulative. Even getting an hour less sleep each night will start to build up and affect you in worse and worse ways.
If you are going through a stressful time, you need to get serious about your bedtime and be sure to clock in at least 8 hours. (Last night I went to bed at 9:30—’nuff said!)
THE TAZ PLAN: Use it and lose it! (Do you think I can start marketing it on late-night TV?) There’s plenty of research to back up my plan, but I can also attest to its effectiveness from personal experience. When I follow the Taz plan, I’m more likely to grind my teeth than to hit my boss (I guess there’s something to be said for being older), but I’m sure to be in a foul mood, with a short fuse.
Do you, like me, tend to skimp on exercise, healthy eating and sleep during times of stress, when you most need those things? Do you then turn in to Taz? Or have you learned how to take good care of yourself when times are tough? Tell all!