Have you noticed that we seem to be in the midst of a stress epidemic? Many of us have been conditioned to be productive, forever multi-tasking as we ignore any distress signals from our minds and bodies. If your child struggles, the stress load is even greater.
Whether your child is dealing with learning and attentional issues, developmental differences, emotional or behavioral challenges, or a complex medical condition, it can be all-consuming. In an effort to help our kids, we chase down therapies, adjust our lives… and worry. The problem is that we weren’t made to run on high alert constantly.
One study by Marsha Mailick Seltzer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison found parents of children with autism had stress markers comparable to combat soldiers. We may not be under military attack by grenade and gun, but our bodies react to stressful home situations in the same way: by releasing a cascade of stress chemicals (like cortisol and adrenaline) that mess with our health and happiness.
My experience confirms these findings. About ten years ago, my doctor told me I didn’t have any more adrenaline. I was wiped. One too many stress factors – including having a child who proved to be complicated – was more than my system could manage. That wake-up call was the beginning of a determined quest to restore my well-being, and let me tell you what I discovered: It is possible to neutralize stress and restore your spark, no matter how challenging life is in your family.
Making just a few micro changes to your mindset and daily habits – things you can do anytime, anywhere – will make an astonishing difference. Over the years, I’ve experimented with a slew of stress busting techniques. What works for you will be personal, but I’ll tell you three things that have made a huge difference for me – and you can try them right now. There’s no time like the present to buffer yourself from stress and boost your well-being. Set an intention to try these each day for two or three weeks and see if you start to notice a change. (And if you miss a day, let it go!)
Three stress busters to begin your self-caring lifestyle:
1) Be here now
It’s easy to get overwhelmed. To counter that, anchor yourself in the present. Try tuning into all the sensations of a mundane task, like chopping vegetables or washing dishes, or take a moment to really pay attention to what’s happening right where you are. What are all the sounds you can hear? Are you feeling the ground beneath your feet? Holding your breath? Try to relax your forehead, unclench your jaw and pull your shoulders down from your ears. It may seem unbelievable that being in the moment, even just for a moment, could make a difference. But it can!
By resetting your mind like this, you give yourself a reprieve from dwelling on the past (“oh crap I didn’t handle that very well!”) or anticipating the future (“how will we ever get through that meeting tomorrow?”). Now you may be wondering “but what if I’m in the midst of calamity?” For example, say your child is having a massive meltdown and you’re either terrified, or feeling like ripping your hair out. I’ve found that it helps to take a deep breath and say to myself: “Okay, this is hard, but it will pass.” Just having the awareness to zoom out and put things in context will help you avoid getting swept up in the storm.
2) Treat yourself like a friend
If nobody else will give you a break, cut yourself one by being kinder in your own head. When you catch that internal voice harping at you about what a loser you are, how you could have done anything and everything better and you’re just not good enough, counter it with a self compassion mantra. Say to yourself “This is hard. I’m doing my best. I’m a good mom / dad.” Even if you don’t quite believe it, keep telling it to yourself. It’s amazing, but thoughts create chemistry. While a critical internal voice activates all those stress hormones, a kinder internal voice will actually soothe your nervous system, giving your body and brain more space to be creative and confident in facing challenges.
3) Reach out
With stressors and stigma hitting parents from all sides, sometimes it just seems easier to isolate. Don’t! Social connections are like medicine. Reach out and touch someone. Call a friend, Skype your sister, hug your partner… even gaze into your dog’s eyes. Connections like these activate that happy hormone oxytocin which will help drown out those nasty stress hormones and give you a boost.
We all know we don’t make our best decisions when we’re strung out on stress. Sometimes we just keep marching forward because we figure we can endure the stress – for now. But what we don’t realize is that the cumulative effects of stress can creep up. These three micro changes can be the the beginning of a life-changing self-care plan. Try writing them on a Post it and putting it on your mirror or your fridge as a reminder. Caring for yourself in these small ways will protect you and give you the grace and strength you need to keep going. When you take actions towards enhancing your well-being, you’ll find you’re a better parent too. Why wait?
I wish you the best as you test these small steps. Let me know how it goes!