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Managing stress after unexpected change

Unexpected changes such as unemployment, a disaster, divorce or the death of someone you love are among the most stressful events a person can experience. Managing your stress during these times is important for your overall wellbeing.

Personal crises are stressful for families.

In a personal crisis, you may feel tense and angry. You may have mood swings and find yourself lashing out at family and friends. Feelings of frustration can lead to arguments. Or you may feel depressed and discouraged. These feelings may be normal and common. Your family members and friends usually share some or all of your emotions, either directly or indirectly. While sharing your feelings of loss and despair, they may also have to deal with your depression, frustration and anger. Allow yourself and others to express feelings. Don't talk about "snapping out of it." This denies the seriousness of someone's feelings. For more tips, see communicating under pressure.

A personal crisis may force you to make rapid changes in your life. It can disrupt your habits and normal routines and give you too much or not enough free time. Maintain your daily routines as much as you can. Try to fill your time in satisfying and rewarding ways.

If you are dealing with unemployment or underemployment, you may be able to spend more time with your children, spouse or other family members; work on household projects that you haven't had time to do, or read up on a topic you've wanted to learn more about. 

Every member of a family feels stress during tough times. Support and communicate with one another. Some roles and responsibilities may need to be changed until the crisis is over. Be flexible and willing to try new things. Studies show that families who meet challenges head-on are the most likely to successfully cope with crises.

Change can be difficult, but all family members need to pull together during a crisis.

Take care of yourself.

In order to better cope with family stress, create a practice of self-care. One approach to coping with stress overload is to take a break from the stressful situation. Another approach is to use relaxation exercises to reduce excess muscle tension. Although relaxation exercises do not get at the causes of stress overload, they provide a physical release from tension. Learning to achieve the relaxation response is a skill that takes practice. Practice one or more of the easy relaxation techniques described below at least twice a day. Follow these guidelines:

  • Find a quiet place.
  • Get into a comfortable position — lie down on the floor or sit with uncrossed legs.
  • Breathe easily and naturally.
  • Keep muscles loose, limp and relaxed.

Easy relaxation techniques

Belly breathing

Sit or lie in a relaxed position. As you slowly breathe in, let your belly expand. Think of it as a balloon filling with air. As you exhale, let the air out of your "balloon" slowly. Place your hands on your stomach. You should feel it rise and fall as you breathe.

Slower respiration rate

Slow down your breathing rate by seeing how few times you can breathe each 60 seconds. When you begin to get tense, take a few minutes and simply slow your breathing down to about three to six breaths per minute.

Shoulder exercise

Try to touch your ears with your shoulders. Hold it for a count of four. Then let your shoulders drop. Now rotate each shoulder separately toward your back. Do each shoulder 5 to 10 times. Then do both shoulders together.


Massage the back of your neck, concentrating on the part that feels tense. Cup your thumbs at the front of your neck and massage on both sides of your spinal column, letting your head fall limply back against your rotating fingers. Use your fingers to massage around your hairline and under your jaw and your cheekbones.

Mental vacation

Enjoy the pleasures of a vacation through your imagination. First, close your eyes and think of some place where you would like to be. Then go there in your mind. Perhaps you will go alone. Or you might imagine being with someone. You may be quietly watching the sunset, a mountain, the woods, or an ocean. Or you may be active in hunting shells or rocks, hiking, playing some sport or game, climbing a mountain, or cycling. Enjoy the experience.

Sharon M. Danes, retired Extension specialist and professor in family social science

Reviewed by Cari Michaels, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2023

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