STRESS MANAGEMENT for parents of a child with disabilities is a serious and highly individualized concern.

Serious because we are under a lot of it. And if left unchecked stress has the potential to result in anger, despair, chronic health problems (and more). Each result on its own is damaging. When combined, the results can be devastating and sometimes irreversible. (Underlying message: deal with your stress NOW!)

It is highly individualized because how a person reacts to stress depends on how his brain is wired both cognitively and emotionally. As different as each of us is from one another, so will be how we deal with stress. (Underlying message: you know best what you need and what likely will work for you; speak it out.)

Successful stress management will result from:
1. Understanding how the brain responds to stress
2. Deciding to actively reduce your stress
3. Identifying your specific causes of stress
4. Learning how to prevent stress and how to respond when you feel stressed

1. Understanding how the brain responds to stress (A more detailed explanation can be found in Not What You Expected, by Dr. Rita Eichenstein. A highly recommended read for parents like us.)

Our brain “thinks” (in the neocortex) and “feels” (in the limbic system). There is constant interplay of these two brain functions. When everything is “ok” your thinking and feeling reactions are in balance. But if a situation makes you feel sufficiently anxious, your “emotional brain” will override your “thinking brain.” (Later, you might describe that moment by saying: “I lost it. I just reacted without thinking.”) If your anxiety is severe enough or persists for long enough, the brain can lose its emotional balance for extended periods of time. Your logical thinking ability will become significantly compromised.
Imagine an infant choking on a piece of avocado. If you are in balance, your initial panic reaction to seeing your child choke directs you to the magnet diagram on the refrigerator telling you how to dislodge the avocado. If you are out of balance, you are screaming and rapidly losing control as your child turns blue.
Chemical reactions occur in the brain in response to stress. In high stress situations the flood of cortisol in the brain releases fears, anxieties, and defenses which may clog logical thinking. Your ability to parent effectively becomes seriously hampered when your logical thinking ability disappears.
The brain processes everything which confronts it. In turn, we react. We aim to have in balance our emotional and thinking systems. But more often than we care to remember, we parents of children with disabilities easily lose our balance.
But take comfort. You can learn how to prevent severe reactions and how to calm yourself if you do react severely. Understanding how your brain works is the first step.

2. Deciding to actively reduce your stress
• This is Step 2. It will take some effort and time (potential stressors) so unless you decide to reduce stress actively you probably will not.
Actively means that you work at it until you are successful.
• You have taken Step 2 when you make the decision.
• Go to Step 3.

3. Identifying your specific causes of stress
• Mindfully look at your day.
• Stop doing everything else and honestly look inside yourself.
• What do you do that you don’t like doing?
• What does your child do that pushes your buttons, or worse?
• What fears, doubts, or anxieties do you carry around with you?
• What events, people, agencies, rules, etc. outside your home rattle you?
• Write down your actual and potential stressors. (Don’t be afraid of looking at them all. Some you can knock off quickly and doing so will make dealing with others easier. But all of them can be attended to in one way or another.)

4. Learn how to prevent stress and how to respond when you feel stressed
Prevention (there is a lot you can do)
Be self-compassionate. Parenting a typical child is one the most challenging professions on earth. Parenting an atypical child increases the challenges beyond what you imagine you are capable of handling. Give yourself a giant break. Acknowledge to yourself (and to significant others) all that you are doing. And then reward yourself. Even if the reward is nothing more than saying to yourself: “You got his teeth brushed. Good work.”
Cultivate optimism. Accentuate the positive; decentuate the negative. Glass half-full; not half-empty. Begin to talk to yourself like this: “Life may not be perfect, but I am doing what I can to make it good. Sometimes I am successful; sometimes I’m not. But I’ll keep trying.” (Here’s a big one:) There are no mistakes; only learning opportunities. Optimism is contagious; the more you express it, the more you see of it in yourself and in others.
Take care of your physical and mental health.
• Make sleep a priority. Nap when possible (Even 5 minutes helps.)
• Eat real food. (Crock pot recipes; make double portions and freeze one)
• Vitamin supplements (especially C and B complex)
• Exercise (Royal Canadian Air Force program, 11 minutes a day )
Meditate (Try upon awakening in the morning, midday, before retiring for the night. Sit quietly and ask your Higher Power to help you. Or whatever words are in your heart/mind.)
Build a support group for yourself.
• Meet a parent with a child like yours. Find out that what you are dealing with is not typical, and that you are not alone. Get and give comfort and strength.
• Ask family and very close friends for help. Be very specific about what they can do for you (go to the pharmacy, pick up a sibling at soccer, etc.).
Learn to Reframe (change the perspective of how you look at your situation to find what is positive and what works)
Click the HELP ME icon REFRAME
• Explore Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT, developed by Dr.Jon Kabat-Zinn)
• Learn to intentionally shift your perspective and to notice your feelings without reacting to them.
• Check the RESOURCES menu for more information about MBCT. Look under STRESS MANAGEMENT.

How to respond when you feel stressed
• Name your stressor when it hits you. Say to yourself or someone nearby: “Sammy is chewing on his hand and is bleeding.” Naming your stressor gives you a bit of distance from it.
• From a list of positive self-talk statements (that you have prepared before stress hits) select one and say it to yourself. Eg., “It crushes me to see Sammy mutilating himself, but right now he can’t help it. My job is to stop him and bandage his thumb. That is how I can help him now.”
• Stay focused on what is essential in the moment. Decide if there is anything you can actually do right now to relieve the stress. If so, do it. If not, tell yourself that the stressor needs attention which you will give it when you can. Worries about finances, the meaning of test results, the outcomes of scheduled meetings with professionals, (future event stressors) can be responded to this way.
• When the crisis has passed (and Sammy is bandaged and playing on his iPad) your feelings of stress may linger. Now is the time for an herbal tea (coffee, chocolate, your choice) break. Relax your body from the tension of stress. You could do a yoga stretch or run in place for 2 minutes. Give your body a rest (so it will be ready for the next event). Take seriously the physical effect of stress on your body.
• Empower yourself in the moment. Faced with stress, tell yourself: “Here it is again. I am in charge of my thoughts and feelings. I am capable of dealing with whatever comes my way. I will come out on top of this one, too.”

Stress Management is multi-billion dollar market (therapy, medications, supplements, advice, attending medical needs). My “prescription” above is only meant to let you know that you can manage your stress.

Contact me if you would like assistance designing a personalized stress management plan of action.

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