Stress: Inherited <em>and</em> Learned?

While stress definitely can be contagious, it's also true that how our parents or great-grandparents responded to stressful situations may in part determine how we handle ourselves today. My mother was a perfect example.
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A recent news item that certainly got my attention announced that stress is contagious. This is something that I have known to be true ever since childhood. My mother was a stresser, a person who was highly emotional and given to panicky reactions. Her stress level affected the entire family, those who lived in the house and the larger extended family.

While healthy individuals look for ways in which to cope with negative emotions, that was not the case in my home. Stress tended to overwhelm my mother and cause her to react to us in a negative way. Lashing out in anger or speaking negatively to her family was a byproduct of the stress. As I grew older and became the family observer, I saw that how my mother handled stress seemed to be not only contagious but inherited. Her parents reacted to stress the exact same way.

While stress definitely can be contagious, it's also true that how our parents or great-grandparents responded to stressful situations may in part determine how we handle ourselves today. My mother was a perfect example.

As individuals, we all respond to situations in our own unique way. The way you react to every situation determines the level of stress you will experience. We've all known people who we see as "laid-back," and those we term "emotional." The same situation that causes panic and deep anxiety to one person barely disturbs another.

Handling stress is inherited and learned. As a child of stressed-out parents, you are less likely to be able to handle stressful situations positively in your own life -- partly through the genes you inherited and partly through watching your parents react to stress badly in their own lives. It is like an unwelcome gift handed down from one generation to the next.

Certainly I didn't like the way my grandparents and mother would overreact to situations that required a cool head. And it was definitely unfortunate that there were times that, as an adult, I found myself reacting in the same way to other stressful issues that occurred in my life. I didn't like feeling drained by my reactions, and a change had to be made.

But the news isn't all bad. Though you may initially begin to have the same reactions to stress as your other family members, you can and should learn to retrain yourself to handle it. It took time and concentrated effort, but I was able to teach myself more positive coping skills than I learned as a child. The key is to make a commitment to positive changes in how you react.

These five basics tips are practical, simple and very workable in your daily life. Try them!

  1. Take care of your body, physically and emotionally. Stop putting your own needs last. Get into the habit of making healthy eating, physical activity, mediation and adequate sleep necessary top priorities in your daily life before you tackle anything else. That includes dealing with people and problems that create stress. Any type of stress is easier to handle when you are healthy. You'll be surprised by how easily taking care of yourself becomes a habit.

  • Be kind to yourself. Don't allow negativity from your own self or from anyone to be a part of your life. Decide what is best for you. Treat yourself with respect and expect the same from others simply because you deserve it.
  • Seek complimentary relationships. If you're in a relationship that causes discord and unhappiness, you are emotionally vulnerable. I've said it before in my workshops, and I will say it many more times: a healthy relationship is one that enhances your life. Respect and kindness should be at the top of your relationship "want" list. (This applies not only to a couple's relationship but to all other ones, as well).
  • Make positive changes. Make a career change (what would you really enjoy doing?), seek out new friendships (remove yourself from negative or complaining people) or enroll in a class just for the fun of it (act, dance, paint, express yourself). Make changes that will reduce everyday stress and produce a feeling of action and accomplishment. Stress takes a back seat when you feel good about life.
  • Have a conversation with your inner self. Try to understand why you react to stress the way you do. Are you repeating your "inheritance"? Do you like the way you react? Write down what you have done in the past when confronted by stress-filled situations, and then write how you want, and are going to, act in the future. You are the one in charge of your own life, not anyone from the past. Make a commitment to yourself and how you want to live.
  • It was once believed that much of our physical health was predetermined by our genes. In 2011 we now know that, though our genetics may play a part in our lives, we can pretty much determine, and change, our own destiny by creating and living a healthy lifestyle. The same concept applies to inherited stress and our reactions to it as adults. We can create a healthy and positive pattern of dealing with stress that allows us to see stress as only one part of our lives.

    To read more from Kristen Houghton, peruse her articles at and visit her Keys to Happiness blog. You may email her at Read her book, "And Then I'll Be Happy! Stop Sabotaging Your Happiness and Put Your Own Life First."

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