Skip to Main navigation Skip to Left navigation Skip to Main content Skip to Footer

University of Minnesota Extension

Extension is almost done building a new website! Please take a sneak peek or read about our redesign process.

Extension > Family > Live healthy, live well > Healthy minds > Getting through tough times > Controlling stress

Print Icon Email Icon Share Icon

Getting through tough times

Pencil writing stress and then breaking

Controlling stress

Sharon M. Danes, Extension Specialist and Professor — Family Social Science

Revised July 2015 by author.

English | español

Unexpected income changes are among the most stressful events a person can experience. Unemployment, a disaster, divorce, or the death of someone you love can be personally devastating and can trigger the same reactions.

Listen to the related audio: Controlling stress audio.

Personal Crises Are Stressful

In a personal crisis, you may feel tense and angry. You may have mood swings and find yourself lashing out at others. Feelings of frustration can lead to family arguments. Or you may feel depressed and discouraged. These feelings may be normal and common. Other family members 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 other family members 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 the 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 (Danes, 2006; Major, Klein, & Ehrhardt, 2002; Masten, 2001; Oughten & Wheelock, 2003).

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 stress, keep your body healthy. Eat balanced meals, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly. For more tips, visit Healthy bodies.

One approach to coping with stress overload is to take a break from the stressful situation. Here are some suggestions:

Another approach is to take action to reduce excess muscle tension by using relaxation exercises. 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:

Easy Relaxation Techniques

Belly Breathing. Sit or lie comfortably 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. 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.

When To Get Help

Sometimes things may get so difficult and out of control that you may need to get professional help. In every community, resources such as the family doctor, mental health professionals, support groups, and faith leaders exist. They can help you deal with extreme levels of stress and the physical and emotional trauma that often accompany them. The following symptoms indicate a need for outside help:

Before your problems become too big to handle, find a trained, skilled counselor to help you and your family cope with this crisis. A family counselor can help you handle your fears, adjust to your present situation, and plan adequately for the future. Health insurance may help pay for counseling costs. Some counselors charge on a sliding scale — depending on your ability to pay. Your faith leader may provide counseling at no cost to you. For a list of agencies that can help, see Community Agencies That Can Help.


Boelter, L. (2006). Managing Between Jobs: Deciding which bills to pay first. Madison, WI: Division of Cooperative Extension of the University of Wisconsin-Extension.

Danes, S. M. (2006). Tensions within Family Business-owning Couples Over Time. Stress, Trauma and Crisis, 9(3-4), 227-246.

Major, V. S., Klein, K. J., & Ehrhart, M. G. (2002). Work time, work interference with family and psychological distress. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(3), 427.

Masten, A. S. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56(3), 2227-38.

Oughton, E., & Wheelock, J. (2003). A capabilities approach to sustainable household livelihoods. Review of Social Economy, 61(1), 1-22.

Related resources

Identifying sources of support and friendship — It’s helpful to reexamine how we communicate during stressful times.

Dealing with stress: A Web-based Educational Series — Online workshops help you identify and battle the stress. For those in agriculture or anyone experiencing stress.

Change: Loss, Opportunity and Resilience — How to cope with change and possibly see change as an opportunity. Includes a booklet and a free one-hour online course.

Center for Spirituality and Healing — Information and classes on creating a healthy lifestyle.

Rural Minnesota Life — Provides information for Minnesotan rural families, including the other 16 Getting through tough times fact sheets.

  • © Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.
  • The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer. Privacy