"Stress Management Tips" for the REAL world

DIY Stress Management for the Busy Mom

The stress of modern parenthood has received a lot of attention and analysis. From generational differences, to shifts in gender roles, to how the internet has changed the world, there are myriad reasons we are stressed out. This stress can be dangerous, and I don't say this as an alarmist, but as a health psychologist. There is more and more evidence for how stress directly affects our immune systems, how our major organs work, our lifespans, and our emotional health. So besides running away to a Hawaiian island far away from it all, what can we do?

I am considered a “specialist” in stress management. Overwhelming stress is a thread that runs through all different symptoms and life problems that bring people to therapy. I spend my whole working week helping others figure out a variety of more effective coping strategies to feel better and live better.

When it comes to my own life, though, as much as I try to practice what I preach, it’s hard. As much as I love each of my children more than life itself (see how I have to qualify to make sure you know I really do love my children), three children can be a lot. I know parents of six children who seem to have it all figured out, but for my husband and me, the daily pace can be relentless.

Just this past weekend, our kids woke us up at a normal time on Saturday morning around 6:30, but this Saturday they included the announcement that the dog had peed in their room. Our dog is twelve, and does not pee in the house. As I literally rolled myself over the side of the bed to start the weekend, stumbling into lucidity, I heard my husband shout “Oh God!” And our weekend started with cleaning up dark brown puddles of sickness from our white-ish carpet. I won’t go into more detail.

This started our weekend after a highly stressful week full of existential job crises and a flat tire that led to very expensive replacement of all four minivan tires. Apparently, the weekend was not going to give us a break. We ended up with a visit to the vet, costly lab work, and instructions to feed our dog mashed potatoes and boiled ground beef. Add that to my husband and I both trying to fit in our own work and the endless list of weekend chores, all while driving the kids to activities, doing errands, etc.

My favorite stress management strategy

My favorite stress management strategy

Money. Parenting. Health. Work. School. Family. So many balls to juggle – so many chances for one or all to fall. There are seriously times I don’t know how we are going to get through the day – some nights when everyone seems to be falling apart in their own way and our family’s rhythm is totally off.

So many of those “stress management tips” that pop up on a search are more aspirational than practical. Even though I know all of it is true, when I see the list -- Get good sleep! Eat right! Exercise more! Avoid caffeine and alcohol! Journal! – it makes me feel even more defeated. Insomnia comes after me no matter what sleep strategies I use, I love potato chips and french fries, and a cup of coffee is my lifeblood to start the day.

When we wake up every day to stress big and small, we can be realistic about ways to use our minds and bodies in the moment to take down that stress even one notch. Here are some of my own Jedi mind (and body) tricks that keep me relatively okay through it all:

Just Breathe

This seems laughably simple, but I swear, it’s life-changing to get in the habit of taking breaths deeply from the diaphragm when you start to feel muscles tensing, heart racing, and the mind obsessing. I usually do at least three breaths to truly settle down my nervous system, and more if I need to. It saves me from even more yelling and saying something I regret to people I love. I teach meditation practice, but I will admit I make less time for this than I would like, although I do fit in about 30 minutes of yoga once a week. It’s actually amazing how even a little bit of breathing/yoga/meditation can help us have a clearer head and calmer body. I promise you don't have to be Buddha on a beach for an hour, even a few minutes of meditation a day can change our brains.

Focus on the now

The human mind loves either dwelling in the past or jumping a million steps ahead into the future. When I notice this, I ask myself, What do I know to be true today? What can I do about this problem today? If nothing, I give myself permission to stop thinking about it until I can or need to do something.  When I find my thoughts spinning, I also do some mindfulness of grounding myself in the moment. If my son is playing Paw Patrol, as tempting as it is to stay distracted in my thoughts about various stressors because Paw Patrol just isn't that interesting, I work on focusing on him and the game he is creating, listening to his stream of consciousness, and watching his cute 3-year-old body move clumsily, appreciating the world from his perspective for just a few minutes. 

Feel the Good Feelings

Negative emotions are incredibly powerful because our brains are wired by evolution to respond to them. Bad experiences stand out and get much more of our attention than good ones. So I make an effort when consumed by daily stress to connect with SOME positive. Despite a hectic day followed by a tumultuous evening routine, sitting on the couch with my husband after the kids are in bed feels good. We don’t have to talk, but just being there and in this together feels nice. Enjoying some quality TV together, we don’t have to solve all our problems or even think. When one of my kids runs up to give me a spontaneous hug as I'm washing dishes and talking about work with my husband, I take a moment to squeeze back and feel that love that keeps me going.

This Too Shall Pass

I'm not a big fan of overused cliches, but I make an exception for this one. Last weekend was hard. Not that weekends are actually relaxing anymore, but they can be fun. Last weekend was not fun. It would be easy to get caught up in the resentment that we didn’t get some fun in after a hard week, but there’s always another weekend. This is true on the larger scale too – there can be months or years of different kinds of struggles, and then they change and lift. When my daughter woke up several times a night and only wanted me, for over a year, it felt like it would never end. I would wake up in the morning in tears because I was so tired, convinced I could not survive this sleep deprivation torture. But it ended, and she is in fact the best sleeper of the bunch. Reminding ourselves there WILL be an end to a stressful situation can help loosen its grip on us.

Gratitude

This has gotten a lot of Oprah-like attention lately. I do not keep a gratitude journal, but I do see it as a state of mind. Our minivan got a flat tire, but this happened the morning AFTER our road trip. Imagine if we were hundreds of miles from home with cranky, impatient kids. Our dog stained our carpet, but at least it’s old carpet that needs to be replaced anyways, and her tests came back normal, so she is healthy. Especially when big stress looms large -- a parent's poor health, job instability, more serious concerns about our kids' emotional health -- taking moments to connect with what we are grateful for can help ground us just enough to deal a little bit better.

Acceptance

Our natural temptation is to "fix" negative feelings, to somehow NOT feel irritated all day, or to feel happier. The act of pushing against these feelings, though, can actually strengthen them, causing even more frustration and stress. There are days that I say to myself, "this is a hard day and I'm super irritable and I hate how this feels . . . but I know this won't last forever." It kind of takes the wind out of the negativity sails to simply acknowledge without trying to change, which sometimes actually helps it lift sooner. We can't feel great all the time, so no reason to push ourselves to do it, adding stress in the process.

The beauty of these strategies is we don't have to make some big change (get up at 5 am every morning to run? yeah right), spend money we don't have, or count on someone else. Our minds are going all the time, why not use this on and FOR ourselves? It may feel hard at first as we train our brains to think a bit differently, but practice makes it easier and easier, and it feels better.  

As I was working on this blog post, my husband asked our 6-year-old where the rest of the petals were for her Girl Scouts vest, which require me to iron them on. She got it exactly right: "Oh, Mommy fell behind." She had no idea how apt that observation was. I may be perpetually "behind," but I'm taking care of myself in the process.