A few months ago, I woke up with a stiff neck. By day five, I couldn’t move my neck at all. I got in the car to drive my kids to school and realised that I couldn’t quite turn around to look behind me. That’s when I knew I was in trouble — and it was all because of stress. In previous weeks, I had faced a number of stressors. My work piled up. I was drowning in unmet deadlines. There always seemed to be somewhere to be, something to do, or some forgotten item from the shopping list. My stress levels were elevated (to say the least) and that triggered a spasm in my neck and shoulder that stopped me in my tracks.
It was a few weeks of rest, heat, and working from my bed before I returned to some version of normal. When at last I could move my neck freely, I vowed to take control of my stress level from that day forward.
It’s no big secret that stress is everywhere. Families encounter any number of stressors on any given day in any given year. Things like finances, illness, parenting, relationship problems, deadlines and work (to name just a few.) And here’s the thing: mums are less happy and more stressed than dads. In fact, a team of researchers from Cornell University found that although parents generally enjoy parenting, mums enjoy it less because they do more of the work and have less of the fun. Parenting can be a lot of fun, but it can also feel like a full time job with no holidays. Cue elevated stress levels.
Parents hear a lot about “finding balance” and scheduling “me time” to combat stress, but that’s easier said than done. There are ways, however, to make small changes that will help you feel empowered, even when you’re stressed out.
1. Know your limits, and stick to them. Once you know how much you can handle, you need to learn to say no. The P+C won’t fall apart if you step down for a year. Your company won’t face financial ruin if you call in sick. It’s okay to say no to running the school fete, hosting a play date, or managing the soccer team.
2. Practise the art of self-talk. Talking to yourself might feel a little strange at first, but it just might be the answer to managing your stress level. Using self-talk helps you take control of your emotions and let go of stress. It empowers you to work through your obstacles. When you’re faced with more commitments than you think you can handle, for example, you might say, “I can reach out to friends about carpooling, I can decrease our daily activities, and I can get a babysitter to fill in the gaps.” When we say things out loud, we take ownership and work through potential complications.
3. Focus on the present. Anticipatory anxiety is a huge source of stress for many parents — and it’s hard to avoid. Our brains are wired to look for potential problems and get ahead of them. In doing this, however, we bring future worries into the present. This compounds the worries we already face. Take control by creating a calming mantra to remind yourself to focus on today. You can’t predict what might happen tomorrow or the next day, but you can deal with what’s happening right now. While looking ahead might help you prepare for major transitions (like moving house, changing schools, etc), I often encourage parents to say, “This is a future worry, not a today worry” when stress feels unmanageable.
4. Get outside as much as possible. Parents spend a lot of time worrying about how much outdoor playtime our kids get, but how often do we pay attention to our needs for sunshine and fresh air? A Stanford University study showed that walking through nature helps lower levels of blood flow to the area of the brain associated with negative thinking. You don’t need to hike a mountain track to reap the benefits of nature. Grab your coffee or the pram and stroll through the nearest park to increase positive thinking and relieve a little stress.
5. Eat well. Parents are great at packing healthy lunch boxes for kids. We’re always making sure they have protein, fruit, vegetables, and a love note. Then we grab a handful of pretzels and a lukewarm coffee and call it “lunch” while we drive from here to there. Prioritise your own nutrition to feel energised throughout the day. Try packing lunch for yourself when you’re doing the kids’ lunch boxes. I’ve found that prepacking bags of cherry tomatoes to grab on the go or keeping an extra apple in my car helps me make a healthy and energising choice when fatigue sets in. I learned from an old friend that fifteen minutes of packing snacks on Sunday leads to a week of healthy choices. Give it a try!
6. Schedule downtime. We all need time to rest and recharge, but it can be hard to find that time. If we don’t schedule it, we won’t do it. Make sure to pencil in “downtime” on your daily calendar (for you and the kids). To get everyone invested in the downtime fun, have each family member fill in a daily downtime goal in the morning by finishing the phrase, “Today I will relax by…”
7. Do a digital detox. Technology keeps long distance friends and relatives connected, it makes it easy for kids to check in with travelling parents, and it can also be a lot of fun. But it also has a downside. The constant connection makes it easy for work to bleed into family time, it decreases face-to-face contact among family members, and it leaves many people feeling like they need to check in with technology every few minutes in order to avoid missing something important. But, digital detoxes — say screen free weekends — are a great way to let go of the pull to connect digitally. They also helps restore balance to the family.
8. Schedule your own play dates. Why should the kids have all the fun? Parents need time to decompress with friends just as much as kids do. Let go of mum guilt, work guilt, and any other guilt that holds you back from spending time with your friends. We all need human connection and time to enjoy friendships to keep our stress levels low and increase our own personal happiness.
Parenting might feel like a never-ending to-do list at times, but when parents take the time to evaluate their own sources of stress and find activities and solutions to decrease their stress levels, they learn that attaining that magical “balance” they hear so much about isn’t so difficult, after all.