Dealing with Summertime Stress
Summertime means long, sunny days, no school, lazy weekends, family vacations – and lot's more time with the kids. Most parents LOVE having their children around more. But it's a mixed blessing since it also means that we're dealing more with day to day child management (if kids are spending less time in school or daycare), and with hassles and sibling quarrels and schlepping kids to and fro. Plus long car rides and standing in lines at amusement parks and taking care of sunburns and . . . and . . . Plus arguing more with our mate, maybe, about how to deal with all of this. Yikes!
So summertime – ". . . . when the living is easy" . . . . yeah, right! – is also a time when it behoves parents to be really on top of their game in terms of keeping the needle on their personal stress meter out of the red zone. That's good for us personally: we stay happier and more centered in our loving heart, plus it helps boost our immune system and keep our hormones balanced. It's good for our relationship, since everyone is easier to get along with when they're not frazzled out of their gourd (plus we all know what getting stressed does to any inclination toward affection or lovemaking). And it's especially good for parenting. Our kids need us to stay patient, hold our temper, and remain able to think clearly when they start squirting sunscreen at each other.
Sure, it's relaxing to go to a spa or sit on a mountaintop for a weekend, but what do you do when you come back down? You need ways to prevent stress right from the start or release it once it happens, that you can do right on the spot. And you need something deeper than the usual advice along the lines of "visualize fluffy white clouds."
Here are ten great ways to weave stress relief into the fabric of your everyday life. They are fundamental principles, with one or more examples for each one
1. Remember That You Matter
Throughout the day, remember that you are entitled to stress relief for two important reasons: your inner experience matters in its own right, plus nurturing yourself is the absolute foundation of caring for your children. For example:
- Carry a picture of yourself as a child next to your driver's license, so that you'll see that precious child is just as deserving of love and care as your own children.
2. Let Go Of Stress Lots Of Times A Day
Since little moments of stress add up to wear and tear on your body, mind, and relationships, do small things every day to prevent or lower stress, like:
- Taking a big breath each time the phone rings
- Washing your hands or face lovingly in warm water whenever you use the restroom
- Staying mindful of the tension in your shoulders and letting them relax if they start climbing up toward your ears
3. Deeply Relax At Least Once A Day
Going to sleep is a great time for this, since it's the body and brain's way of wiping the slate clean of stress and getting ready for the next day, so:
- When you're lying in bed, imagine that your body is very heavy, and sinking down into the welcoming earth
- Try to get a sense that your hands are warm (a particularly good trick if you have insomnia)
4. Have Realistic Expectations For Yourself
Much stress comes from pressuring ourselves to live up to unrealistic or impossible standards, like comparing ourselves to mothers in advertisements who never have a hair out of place. Instead:
- Notice it when you're getting hard on yourself, when "judging mind" is in full swing.
- Remember that you can't compare yourself to your own mother since she lived in a very different time, plus your memories are distorted by the rose-colored glasses through which a child views her mother.
- Focus on all of the positive things you are already doing.
5. Deal With The Childhood "Turbocharger"
Thoughts and feelings carried over from everyone's childhood increase stress today. They lead us to misinterpret events or fasten on just one part of the total picture, get unmet (and today, unmeet-able, alas) childhood needs mixed in with realistic, adult, and meet-able needs, and amplify our emotional reactions.
- Bring compassion to the young parts of yourself.
- Sort apart the intensified "young" reactions from the more moderate, here-and-now ones.
- Try to let go of the deepest, youngest level of your distress, like making sure you pull out the tip of the dandelion's root to prevent it from growing back.
6. Accept Yourself As You Are
Easier said than done, of course, but if we take on self-acceptance as an ongoing practice, rather than seek it as some sort of done deal, then that's something we can actually succeed at.
- Remember that there is nothing shameful about whatever arises unbidden in your mind: accepting it is not the same as acting on it.
- Tell yourself several times a day: "I accept myself just the way I am." Or: "May I accept myself as I am."
7. Build Up Positive Emotional Memories
We've evolved with a brain that instantly registers negative experiences – because that's how to survive in the wild – but hardly notes positive moments; for instance, one scary experience with a dog is more memorable than a thousand good ones. Unfortunately, the result is a growing residue of negative experiences in our emotional memory banks that shade and tinge our sense of who we are. Therefore, we have to be active in recording positive feelings so they become a lasting resource inside and increase our sense of well-being. Here's how:
- Look for things to feel good about throughout the day.
- Let the positive event register as a positive experience (not just seen merely intellectually as a nice thing).
- Take a few extra seconds or even minutes to savor the experience, feeling it fill your awareness and your body.
- Imagine/sense that this rich experience is sinking deeply into your being, becoming a part of you, lodging deeply in emotional memory.
- For a bonus, you can imagine/sense that the positive experience is sinking down into the places inside where you have felt hurt or let down as a child, and dislodging and replacing those old and painful experiences; simply have the new, positive experience be in the foreground of your awareness and the old, negative one be softer and in the background – fading away . . .
8. Be Proactive
Overall, be active in your own mind, ultimately in charge of it, like the skillful rider of a high-spirited horse.
- Adopt the attitude that stress is your adversary – a pernicious influence that is bad for your health, your mood, your children, and your marriage – and that you are not going to let it get the best of you!
- Identify the stress factors in your life that happen again and again – like trying to get too much done in the morning so you're always rushing – and make a plan with your partner or a friend to really change those factors that you can, one by one over time.
- Actively argue against the thoughts and beliefs that make you more stressed, such as "I've got to make sure that this trip to the lake goes really well."
9. Commit To Some Daily Practice
Many parents once had some sort of daily activity that calmed and uplifted them, but which fell by the wayside after having children. Either return to or start afresh something – even for just one minute a day – that feeds your soul and deepens your capacity to stand apart from the inevitable, endless ups and downs of your inner and outer worlds. Examples include:
- Journaling, creative writing
- Meditation, prayer, inspirational reading
- Time in nature (perhaps simply walking the dog)
- Playing or listening to music
- Doing arts or crafts
- Dance, yoga, tai chi
10. Consider A Personally Meaningful Spirituality
We'd be remiss if we didn't mention what is for many the ultimate form of stress relief: a personally meaningful form of religious, spiritual, or philosophical awareness. Whether it's cultivating a peaceful sense of the interconnectedness of all things, attending church or temple, or taking on a serious discipline of self-transcendence, you probably know in your heart what would be good for and your family in this regard. Trust that quiet inner voice, and let it carry you down the path that will quiet your mind and help your heart sing.
Rick Hanson is a clinical psychologist, Jan Hanson is an acupuncturist/nutritionist, and they are raising a daughter and son, ages 11 and 14. With Ricki Pollycove, M.D., they are the authors of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships, published by Penguin. You can see their website at www.nurturemom.com or email them with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.