Episode 40: Stress Management with Dr. Valerie Hruska

We’re excited to have Dr. Valerie Hruska joining us on this episode of the Healthy Habits Happy Homes podcast! Valerie was a Masters and PhD student with the GFHS where she researched how stress can affect families. Tune in to hear Valerie’s top tips for managing stress in your family, and how to help kids navigate stress and develop strategies for handling stress on their own. 


Episode Transcript: 

Lisa Tang  0:05 

Hello and welcome to the Healthy Habits, Happy Homes podcast hosted by the Guelph Family Health Study.


Sabrina Douglas  0:11 

If you’re interested in the most recent research and helpful tips for a healthy, balanced living for you and your family, then this podcast is for you. In each episode, we will bring you topics that are important to your growing family, and guests who will share their expertise and experience with you.


Lisa Tang  0:27 

Our quick tips will help your family build healthy habits for a happy home.


Lisa Tang 0:38

Hello, and welcome back to The Healthy Habits, Happy Homes podcast. I’m Lisa Tang.


Sabrina Douglas  0:43 

And I’m Sabrina Douglas. And this week, we’re excited to welcome Dr. Valerie Hruska to the podcast. Listeners might not be aware but Valerie’s actually been part of our podcast team for a while, mainly as the editor of the podcast. And, today we’ve convinced her to come out from behind the scenes and talk to us a bit about her PhD work, where she looked at chronic stress and its impact on families. So, welcome to the podcast, Valerie.


Valerie Hruska  1:07 

Thank you so much for having me.


Sabrina Douglas  1:09 

Of course. So, to get started, um, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role with the Guelph Family Health Study?


Valerie Hruska  1:18 

Absolutely. So, I have been at Guelph for three degrees. Three in a row.  I did my undergrad in Biomedical Sciences, and then, I did my masters in the Applied Human Nutrition department. And then, I finished up with my PhD in the Human Health and Nutritional Sciences department. And, I was lucky enough to be with the GFHS for both my masters and my PhD program over the past five years. And, aside from my thesis work, I was involved in the recruitment of new families to the study. So, I may have been someone that you met while handing out bubbles and info cards at some local kids events. I also did a lot of behind-the-scenes work for the study, including some administrative tasks for our team meeting, making some infographics you might have seen on social media and some of the production work on this podcast. So, I’ve been in studio while episodes were being recorded and helped to edit them afterwards. So, it’s very exciting for me to be on this side of things.


Lisa Tang  2:11 

And, Valerie,  your research is so interesting, and so timely, and really very applicable to a lot of families, including my own. So, I wanted to know what made you interested in pursuing a PhD in stress among families?


Valerie Hruska  2:29 

Yeah, thank you. It’s always nice to hear that my research is interesting to other people, because I think it’s the coolest thing ever. So, I’ve always been a really big fan of puzzles and brain teasers and challenges like that. And, for me, exploring health science research feels a lot like that. There are so many things going on in our bodies, and so many ways that we interact with our environment. I feel like it’s impossible to know absolutely everything, but we try. But, what I wasn’t seeing a lot of in the research I came across was the concept of mental health and physical health together. I think it’s common to imagine our brains as, kind of, a whole separate world from the rest of our bodies, but there’s a ton of overlap in the way that our brains process information and the signals that that our brain send to the rest of our bodies, and vice versa, too. So, I took the opportunity to explore this brain-body connection a little bit further. And, I looked specifically at chronic stress and how that’s linked to our risk of chronic disease.


Sabrina Douglas  3:25  

I think that’s really interesting, the way that you frame that, kind of, like, mental health and physical health and how you’re trying to, kind of, solve the puzzle of how that all fits together. Can you tell us a bit about how stress and mental health can affect our physical health and the way, like, our body feels?


Valerie Hruska  3:42 

Yeah, so the stress response is kind of like our built in fire alarm that alerts our body to potential dangers, and prepares you to overcome a threat. So, back in the days of our ancestors, we were a lot more familiar with the idea of running away from predators or things that were trying to attack us. Today, that’s not so much the case. It’s more either imagined threats or things that aren’t really going to hurt us, but they bother us just the same. But, regardless of what type of stressor or thing that stresses us out, we encounter, our body sets off the same response each time. So, we set off this cascade of hormones throughout our body. And, that’s really what’s known as the fight or flight response. And, it can take a while for our body to reset to normal, but we’re pretty strong we can usually handle it. Problems develop when our stress response is activated too often and our body has trouble resetting back to normal. And so during those times of chronic stress, you may experience several behavioural and physical symptoms. Some common signs include feeling overwhelmed, maybe you have trouble sleeping, low energy, headaches, irritability, upset stomach or changes in appetite. And, overtime that chronic stress can contribute to anxiety, depression and other chronic diseases. So, to better manage or avoid these symptoms, it’s important to develop skills to calm the stress system and support your body’s physical needs.


Lisa Tang  5:16 

Thanks so much, Valerie, really great explanation. Together, you and I, we co-authored a paper about stress and media parenting practices. And, that was kind of — it was an interesting paper for me, of course, and thinking about my own family. But,I’m wondering if you wanted to share from your perspective, what you think might be applicable to those listening right now about our paper.


Valerie Hruska  5:41 

So, in this project, we had looked at how different forms of stress were associated with the media parenting practices that you had explored in your research, Lisa, and what we had found was that when parents were feeling stressed, they were a little bit more likely to engage in some of those practices that you had found were linked with greater overall screen time for kids, and a little bit less likely to engage in what we would consider, kind of, the screen time limiting practices. And, we can make some inferences about what that would mean for children’s health. They’re spending that much more time being sedentary, and all those other things that screen time is known for. And specifically, we found that general life stress was associated with more modelling screen use among mums, so more using your screens in front of your kids; a little bit less monitoring screen time and a little bit less limiting. And, for dads, it was interestingly found to be associated with a little bit more limiting, so there was, kind of, some mixed results. And then, for parenting distress, which is, kind of, the stress and strain associated specifically to being a parent, we found that dads were a little bit more likely to use screens during meal times, mums again, were a little bit more likely to model screen use or use screens in front of their kids. And dads were a little bit less likely to set limits. And, then, we also looked at a third measure of stress, which was household chaos. And, chaos really refers to how busy or noisy or disorganized your home is. I mean, things can be chaotic and still be very loving and warm. It just means that things are a little bit more stressful. And, with more household chaos, we found that mums and dads were both a little bit more likely to monitor screen time. And, dads were a little bit more likely to limit which was really interesting, because it contrasts with some of the other research, or results that we had found.


Sabrina Douglas  7:44 

Really interesting. So, did you two, after finding the results for your study, did you have any conclusions or recommendations based on your results that you would give to families regarding screen time and stress?


Valerie Hruska  8:00 

Yeah, so, one of the things that we noticed right away was that mums and dads seem to behave a little bit differently. So, I think it’s unfair to, kind of, paint all family members with the same brush. And, we need to look at, kind of, some specific contextual factors that influence each family member when it comes to, kind of, household level stresses. And, take those into account when we designed some strategies to help families manage screen time.


Lisa Tang  8:26 

I’m wondering, thinking about my kids and just how busy life can get, I’m wondering if you have any suggestions on how to help kids develop their own stress management skills? I feel like that’s such an important skill to, maybe, you know, for kids to develop. And, I’m wondering if you had any thoughts around that?


Valerie Hruska  8:46 

Absolutely. So, stress management has always been important, but, I think the pandemic has made it very, very obvious what happens when we don’t have those good skills in place. And, not all signs and symptoms of stress in your kid are easy to recognize. So, kids may show some behavioural signs like mood swings or acting out, they might change their sleeping patterns, they may even wet the bed or develop some new habits like thumb-sucking, hair twirling or nose picking. And, then, physically, they might complain a little bit more about stomach aches or headaches. And, they may also overreact a little bit to what you and I would consider to be small problems. They might have a little bit more nightmares, they want to be left alone, or they might demand more attention. And, they might have some difficulties keeping up with their schoolwork. So, helping kids develop effective and positive stress-management skills is something that will help them throughout their life. There’s a really great self-care checklist from Kids Help Phone that has some really great options that you can scale up or scale down to meet your kid’s needs. So, some examples are “being kind to myself,” “giving myself encouraging words,” “spending time in nature” and “talking to someone I trust when I need help.” There’s a bunch more, I’m happy to share that with link with you to put in the show notes, and there’s plenty of other resources out there, too, that can help you have these important conversations with your kids.


Sabrina Douglas  10:07 

Amazing. Thanks for sharing all that, we will definitely put the links in the show notes for the listeners.


Lisa Tang  10:14 

I actually wanted to share — you just got me thinking, Valerie, it was so funny, sometimes with my kids, I have this phrase in my house that I use very often, which is “I don’t have the capacity.” I can’t do it, like, so if my kids come up to me, because they were having a disagreement over some kind of perceived injustice between the three of them, and they come up to me to solve the problem,  I’m like, “I don’t, I don’t have the capacity.” I say that a lot, right? And then, they, I guess, I overheard my kids, of course, arguing over some kind of, I’m sure very silly, perceived injustice, and, I heard one that one of my kids, Matteo he yells, “No, I don’t have the capacity.” And I thought, “Oh, okay, well, clearly they mimic.” But,  I thought that was funny. For some reason, I was, just I, when you were talking about, you know, limits and, kind of, kids recognizing that, at least I thought, “Well, hey, he doesn’t have the capacity, doesn’t have the capacity for the argument.” So, that’s great.


Valerie Hruska  11:13 

I love that I find myself saying a similar thing in my own life, just, “It’s not in my budget for today. I haven’t set aside enough energy to deal with that. So, that’s going off the budget, I won’t be bothered by it.”


Lisa Tang  11:28 

I love the budget, I might throw that into my new, I might throw that into my vocab. “I don’t have the budget. Bank is empty.”


Valerie Hruska  11:36 

It reminds me a little bit of, there’s a concept in disability research called Spoons Theory.  And, it’s basically the idea that, if I can co-opt it for kind of non-disability applications, the idea that everyone starts out the day with a certain number of spoons, and that’s all they have for the day. And, then, once the spoons run out, there’s no more. And, for folks with disabilities, it takes more spoons to accomplish some tasks. But, I really like the idea of there being just a set number of resources that you have to get through the day, and being very wise and strategic about where you devote that energy. It’s, it’s something that I can visualize very easily. And, I do often find myself going “Nope, not my budget,” or “I’m not putting a spoon towards that today.” And, if something like that is a good, tangible metaphor to use with your kids, I think the more power to them. I do love the idea, though of your kids running around going, “Nope,  no capacity for that today.”


Sabrina Douglas  12:43 

Yeah, speaking of not having capacity, we often hear phrases like, “I need to recharge,” or one that I like to use is “I need to fill up my cup.” So, can you talk a bit about what this means and maybe some strategies for how busy families might be able to “recharge their batteries” or “fill up their cup?”


Valerie Hruska  13:02 

Yeah, it’s such an important concept. And, I think something that’s also very easy to visualize is just the idea of feeling low and needing to do something about it. When we had done — as the Guelph Family Health Study — when we had done, kind of, our COVID survey about a year ago to check in with families about how they were doing, parents reported that they were looking for some resources to figure out how to manage stress. And, so, I put together a little bit of a “recharge your batteries” infographic that I can share some of the highlights from. And, first and foremost, I think it’s important to prioritize yourself and your own self-care. And, the example I like to use is, if you’ve ever been on an airplane, and you’re going through the, kind of, in-flight safety procedures, and, they say, you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you can help others. The reason they say that is it’s no good you passing out while you’re trying to help someone else, because then there’s two people who need help. And, I think that applies to parents, as well.  There was a really great example that I read in a book called “Untamed,” by Glennon Doyle.  She talked about many, many things, but what really stuck out for me was, she made a comment about her approach to her own mental health and happiness and well-being, and she said, “Because I love my kids so much, I’m only going to give them the best version of myself.” And, that led her to make a number of life decisions and, kind of, revamp her own health and happiness. And, I really stuck to that idea of it’s an act of care for others to look after yourself. And, I think that’s so important for families to keep in mind. And, so prioritizing your own self-care, making sure you’re going for a walk, getting enough sleep, choosing healthful foods. It does add up, those little things do add up. It’s also helpful to set a schedule, regularly routines can help reduce stress for the whole family. It keeps everyone on the same page and it reduces the uncertainty. And, so, if you can get your kids involved in making family routines that have a balance of things for learning, playing and relaxing, that might help your family a little bit, too. I also find it helpful to try unplugging for a little bit. And that’s simply because our brains are just constantly on all the time absorbing information and getting so much stimulation. Even if it’s good things, it’s information that we have to process. So, if we want to give our brains just a little bit of a break, I’d like to either turn my phone off or leave it in another room or turn off any notifications that aren’t absolutely essential. And, even to do it for a couple of hours while I get busy doing something else, it’s a really good break for my brain. It’s also very important to use your social support network in whatever way that it looks for you. So, keeping connections with the people who help us feel loved and supported and listened to is super important. So, if that’s virtual play dates, or phone call coffee hours, I have a friend who calls me on her drive to work some days, and it’s just such a nice moment to check in and remind myself of the support network that I have. And, the last tip I have for recharging your batteries is to get moving and have fun where you can. Any little bit of activity is really good for stressed bodies. There’s a bunch of resources on the GFHS website for fun games you can play to get the whole family moving together. And, just try and squeeze out those little moments of fun wherever you can.


Lisa Tang  16:45 

Thank you, Valerie, those are really, really great tips. And, I especially like that quote, “Because I love my children so much, I’m only going to give them the best version of myself.” I really, really like that, and actually it rings true for me too. I’m thinking like, I need to say that quote. I need to put it up on my washer mirror, maybe, I can put it up with one of those window writers you know, what I like, those Crayola window writers. Anyway, I really like that because, it sometimes as a mom, I find it hard to justify taking time for myself when there’s so much that I need to do for the house or for the kids or for whatever it is. And, it’s hard to justify taking moments for myself. And, that quote is really helpful in, not that you need justification, because the whole point is to kind of fill that cup, recharge yourself, but it really does help for me to think about that, quote, to give myself justification. To take time for myself, even though I have a pile of laundry upstairs, and the lunches need to be cleaned up after the kids get home or made in the morning or whatever, all those things can get done, but they’ll probably get them better if I have the best version of myself. So…


Valerie Hruska  17:59 

The laundry will always be there. There’s always more laundry, there’s always more dishes. But, there’s not always another moment to just hang out with your kids or to take that time to have a really good hot shower and rinse off some of that anxiety. I think it is important to, kind of, contextualize things in the bigger picture and remind ourselves that, no, we do deserve to feel good about ourselves and about our families. So, it’s okay to let the To Do list slip a little bit if it means that we are happier at the end of the day.


Lisa Tang  18:32 

Right. “Wear those socks two days in a row, kids. Mama’s taking a shower.” Okay, so you gave some really great resources. You talked about the Kids HelpLine, kind of, checklist for kids. And, you talked about the Guelph Family Health Study. Were there, and there may not be, but I thought I asked anyway, were there any other stress management resources you would recommend for kids or adults or both?


Valerie Hruska  18:56 

Absolutely. So, I’m a big believer in doing whatever works best for you. So, I won’t ever say that there’s one right way to go about things. I have compiled a list of resources that folks might find helpful on the GFHS website. If you go down to the stress section of our family resources, I’ve listed some links for professional and evidence-based resources. There’s some workshops through the Guelph Family Health Team, for example, some resources from the Canadian Mental Health Association, including some stuff for kids, and also some pandemic-specific resources. If families want to check that out. It may take a little bit of time to figure out what strategies work best for you and your family. But, luckily, there’s lots of organizations out there that are super happy to help.  Your workplace might have some other opportunities to check out, too, if you’re willing to ask some questions about your benefits plans, or, if chatting with peers is more your style, I would encourage you to check out local parenting groups or online network of parents in similar positions. Personally, I use cooking as an outlet. I really enjoy spending I’m in the kitchen and experimenting with new recipes, especially when I can share those with families, or friends and family. I go on a lot of walks in my neighborhood and I make a little game to count the dogs that I see, which is an example of just squeezing that little bit of fun out wherever you can. I’m curious, though, do you have any Go To’s for your bad days? Lisa and Sabrina?


Sabrina Douglas  20:23 

Oh, wow. Putting us in the in the hot seat. Yeah, I share the cooking. I think a lot of us here at the Guelph Family Health Study enjoy cooking as a stress management strategy. I also enjoy running especially in nature and on trails. And, I also — I don’t count dogs — but I count bunnies, because I go early in the morning. And, there’s often lots of bunnies on the trail. So, I like to count how many I see. How about you, Lisa?


Lisa Tang  20:54 

I typically… I’ve it’s less now with COVID, but swimming was my main stress outlet, and now instead of swimming, I do more walks. But, hopefully, I’ll be able to get back into swimming soon. And, I… one of the other things I do to, kind of, “fill my cup” is actually turning off all media. So, I actually do turn off my cell phone, and just spend time with my kids doing something that they like, that’s, kind of, calming or relaxing. So, I’ll you know, go for a walk with them, or I’ll play with the puppy with them, or I’ll do something but the key is for me if I want to refill my cup, and I’m with my kids, that the phone is nowhere near me. Because, I find that being or seeing that little red light on my phone sometimes doesn’t let my cup get as full as it should, because I get distracted. So, just having that quality time with my kids I find is recharging for me.


Sabrina Douglas  21:58 

Yeah, that’s a great reminder, Valerie, that we all kind of need to take time to figure out what works for us. So, not every strategy will work for everybody. And, we, kind of, need to figure out what works for us. So, to close out the podcast, you know how it works here at the Healthy Habits, Happy Homes podcast, we like to give families three take home tips. So do you have three tips to share with our listeners?


Valerie Hruska  22:21 

Absolutely. So Tip Number One is to put yourself first, recharge those batteries just like the oxygen mask on the airplane. And, the benefit of that as well is if your kids see you prioritizing yourself and your happiness and your own well-being they’ll learn that they deserve that, too. So, there’s kind of a wonderful trickle-down effect of that, as well. Tip Number Two is just go back to the basics when everything else seems like too much to handle, just go back to “Am I eating food that tastes good and is good for my body? Am I moving my body? Am I getting enough sleep?” And, kind of, by narrowing down everything else and just focusing on those basics, it can help us provide a solid platform that we can move forward with. And, setting some schedules may help to provide that structure if you need a little bit more support for long-term maintenance of that. And, Tip Number Three is to just find those moments of fun wherever you can. And, thinking back to my own childhood, I still have vivid memories of things that our family did that didn’t take a ton of extra time. They didn’t take a lot of extra effort. And, it was just as simple as having breakfast for dinner one night and mixing things up that way or going for walks together or exploring new places. And it doesn’t need to be a huge added burden on you to plan those little moments of happiness. But, they do stick with you.


Sabrina Douglas  23:54 

Amazing. Thanks so much, Valerie, and thanks for coming on the podcast today. We’re glad we could get you out from behind the scenes and introduce you to our listeners. I think you shared a lot of really helpful information and that the families listening will really appreciate all the resources you have to share. So just as a reminder again, we will link everything in the show notes for people to check out. Thanks again, Valerie.


Valerie Hruska  24:18 

Thank you so much for having me. This was fun.