As the Coronavirus global pandemic continues to be a major crisis, we all are in uncharted territory in our lives and our country. The stay at home orders continue and schools are closed through the end of the school year here in Michigan. The unknowns can be very stressful, where do we even begin to manage this stress? In addition, taking on new responsibilities of becoming teachers to our kids, managing the complete shake up routines, some have lost jobs and income – these are all incredible stressors. We are navigating being in close quarters with the same people day after day, as well as the fear of getting this novel virus. Social distancing also causes us to miss out on important socialization and support of our community. And on top of all of this, families of kids with autism and other special needs have additional unique stressors to manage!
So where do you even begin to manage your own stress so that you can be a more effective and present parent and partner to your family? Let’s first start with understanding how stress impacts our bodies and what it can look like so you can identify it. Then we’ll look at our perspective in stressful situations and how we can direct it. And then finally we’ll provide a variety of tools and techniques to help you manage your stress.
Stress and Our Bodies
Our bodies were designed to engage in the stress response for life-threatening situations – fight, flight or freeze response. Think lions in the brush. So, even when the stressor is not life-threatening, our bodies react inside like it is. Hormones in our bodies lead us to the fight, flight or freeze response. When our stress response kicks in, our behaviors and thinking patterns becomes less flexible. Also, chronic stress breaks down the body leading to a weakened immune system and an increased likelihood of disease.
What Stress Might Look Like
- Trouble thinking clearly
- Memory problems
- Can’t concentrate
- Short attention span
- Poor judgement
- Anxious or racing throughs
- Constant worrying
- Tightness in muscles
- Aches and pains
- Headaches, trembling, sweating
- Nausea, dizziness
- Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
- Loss of appetite
- Lack of sleep, nightmares
- Easily upset or hurt
- Irritability or short temper
- Agitation, unable to relax or keep still
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Sense of loneliness and isolation
- Depression or general unhappiness
- Eating more or less
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Isolating yourself from others
- Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
- Using alcohol, cigarettes or drugs to relax
- Nervous habits like nail biting, pacing, etc.
5 Myths About Stress
- Myth: In an ideal world, there would be no stress.
Truth: A little stress is natural and healthy and can help motivate us.
- Myth: What is stressful to me is stressful to you.
Truth: Perspective, culture & personal history play a role.
- Myth: Only unpleasant situations are stressful.
Truth: New job, new home & a new love can all be positive AND stressful.
- Myth: No symptoms, no stress.
Truth: Symptoms are a warning sign but might not be present or you might not be tuned into symptoms.
- Myth: Stress is inevitable, so you can’t do anything about it.
Truth: Techniques can be learned to prevent some stress & be less impacted by stress that you can’t control.
Perspective Is Key
Our perspective of the situation we are in is KEY. Worrying about things we cannot control is not only fruitless but can be self-destructive. There are certain behavioral patterns associated with interpreting events less stressfully:
- Viewing potentially stressful events as interesting and meaningful
- Considering change as normal and an opportunity for growth
- Believing oneself as capable of having influence on some events
You Have a Choice in How Your Respond to Stressful Situations
In most situations, stress begins with a thought. We may not be able to control the event, but we can control our response to the event. Our choice is to respond with curiosity, interest, and an open-mind (solution-orientated) or to respond with a closed mind, negative, dismissive & hopeless.
More effective ways to respond to a stressful situation include:
- Gratitude: “I appreciate….”, “I am thankful for…”
- Acceptance: “It’s ok….”, “I can go with the flow…”
- Discovery: “I wonder…”, “What can I learn from this?”
- Observation: “I am noticing….”
Identifying and Understanding Your Values
80th Birthday Party Exercise
A great way to identify and understand what your values are is to think about what you would want people to say about you at your 80th birthday part. Write down the qualities and characteristics you want people to know you for. Assess what is most important in your life. When your choices are guided by the values and goals that are most important to you, your life can be full and active, yet not stressful.
The Choice Point
Your choices either take you toward who you want to be, or away from who you want to be. The Choice Point is being in a difficult moment and experiencing difficult sensations and making a choice to move towards your values or away from your values. Taking action at a point in time that leads you towards your values, leads you to a more fulfilling life. Take a look at this video – The Choice Point: A Map for a Meaningful Life.
As mentioned earlier, our stress response kicks in, our behaviors and thinking patterns becomes less flexible. So here are some ways we can train ourselves to have psychological flexibility.
- Being here now means being in the present moment (as opposed to thinking of the past or the future).
- Accepting the way I feel means not avoiding unpleasant thoughts or feelings. Instead, sitting with them, experiencing them with compassion, curiosity and acceptance until they pass.
- Noticing my thoughts means seeing thoughts as just thoughts. They come, they go. They are just what the brain does, makes thoughts. I don’t have to buy into my thoughts. They do not define me.
- Doing what I care about means taking action to live life in accordance with my values.
Are Your Thoughts Helpful?
Check in with your actions or ‘away moves’ that take you away from your path, sometimes they are “good”, but not for long periods of times. If you are buying in to the story your mind is telling you, first take a moment to check out its WORKABILITY. Workability is when we see if our story helps us follow the path toward our meaningful life or does it move us away?
Thank your mind for your thoughts. This means you don’t have to buy into your thoughts. You can see them for what they are, thoughts. It also means you are not trying to replace your thoughts with more desirable thoughts, nor are you trying to stop or reduce your thoughts.
Avoiding our negative feelings and thoughts will not lead us to our values but to more suffering.
Avoidance of thoughts actually increases those thoughts in both frequency and strength and therefore their burden upon us.
Instead of avoiding our thoughts and feelings, embracing the present moment and sitting with those thoughts and feelings, in a non-judgmental way, with curiosity and acceptance, helps us move toward our values. Mindfulness is the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment.
A few mindfulness resources to check out:
5 Myths of Mindfulness – Dr. Russ Harris (3:25 min)
Body Scan – Dr. Joseph Ciarrochi (27 min) http://josephciarrochi.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/body_scan.mp3
Awareness of the breath – M. Rassmusen (10 min) https://contextualscience.org/files/Mindfulness%20of%20Breath%20Rasmussen%20mp3.mp3
Managing Your Stress
It’s important to find some relaxation methods that you can incorporate into your life for better management of your stress, which leads to better health!
Taking care of yourself
Some of these seem like a no-brainer, but it’s a good reminder that during stressful times, these basic elements can help tremendously in managing your stress.
- Exercise – Even minimal exercise leaves you feeling better!
- Good Food – Fuel your body with healthy foods. Whole grains, fresh fruits and veggies.
- Sleep – Find ways to get that 8 hours of sleep. Get creative if needed.
- Be realistic with your expectations for yourself and others.
- Have patience and grace with yourself and others.
- Use perspective taking to help understand other people – How you express your emotions, might not be the same as others.
- Take a moment away for yourself when you need it.
Guided Imagery & Meditation
Guided Imagery & Meditation are essentially methods of focus. Focus on the breath, on a light, on a mantra. Benefits include decreased stress, increased focus, better sleep, improved heart health and immunity. Many exercises can be found on-line. Find one that resonates with you and find a quiet place to focus on yourself.
Yoga has many variations. Find the one that fits your needs and a quiet place to practice. Yoga increases strength, flexibility and mindfulness and improves balance, focus and posture. It has been demonstrated to decrease stress, anxiety, improve health factors such as heart and immune health, improve sleep and focus. Many apps and YouTube resources are available for your quarantine time.
The Joys of Quarantine?
It may seem like an oxymoron but try to find the joys of quarantine. It could be any number of things.
- More time with your children
- More time to connect as a family
- Getting back to basics
- More time to be mindful
- More time to ponder our values
How to Manage Your Stress Recap
Check in with your stress levels during this unprecedented time. Look to see how your perspective is influencing your thoughts. Look at your choices to respond. Remember your values and what actions lead you toward them and which ones lead you away from them. Be psychologically flexible: “I am here now, accepting the way I feel, and noticing my thoughts, while doing what I care about.” Avoidance of negative thoughts just gives them more power, acceptance is more adaptive. Utilize stress management techniques like intentional focus on taking care of yourself, mindfulness, yoga, guided imagery and more! We hope these recommendations and resources are helpful as you seek to manage your stress during these challenging days.
Need Additional Help?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Resources
- Get Out of Your Mind and into Your Life by Steven C. Hayes
- The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris
- Act Made Simple by Russ Harris
Seek out professional support. We and many others have telehealth counseling services available during this time. And our counselors understand the complexities of being a parent to a child with autism. Contact us today for more details.
This content is from a webinar Dr. Jennifer Badalamenti, PhD, BCBA-D, LBA, Director of Clinical Standards at Healing Haven, and Danielle Harrison, MA, LPC, Counselor at Healing Haven presented to parents. You can download a copy of the slides here.