As a parent of a child with complex needs, (along with a host of other grown up responsibilities), I often find myself somewhat overwhelmed. For instance yesterday while driving my son to therapeutic horseback riding I got pulled over. I couldn’t figure out what I’d done wrong, I was driving perfectly.
Turns out my registration had expired–10 months ago! Yikes. The police officer asked me why I hadn’t taken care of it and I told him life had been really hectic lately. He told me that was no excuse, but I really wasn’t trying to make excuses, I was just being honest, hectic is my normal state of being. Of course my son was late to his therapy which further stressed me out, on top of now having to pay for a ticket.
Life is hectic, if he only knew. My son gets a headache, a major stress in our household, is it a new stroke? He acts strange, at all (and as a 10-year-old boy strange is pretty normal) we are wondering if this is normal kid stuff or a seizure. He’s having more than the usual trouble walking, we’re heading to the ER.
Even a normal kid problem like a cut requiring stiches means I have to mix the medicine for his bleeding disorder, load the syringe and pop an IV before we can leave to get the stiches. Top all that off with the meltdowns and behavioral disturbances common among children with brain injuries, and it’s fair to say that stress and I are like old friends. Old friends with a complicated relationship.
It seems that we spend a lot of time talking about stress, “I’m stressing out,” “this is so stressful,” “I can’t take all this stress.” But how well do we really understand stress and how it affects us?
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Well it turns out that there is an American Institute of Stress that has some helpful ideas. Hans Selye coined the term stress in 1936 according to the American Institute of Stress. He defined stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” However, interestingly, Selye adjusted his definition later in life at that time describing stress as “the rate of wear and tear on the body.” According to the National Institute of Stress “Selye had noted in numerous experiments that laboratory animals subjected to acute but different noxious physical and emotional stimuli (blaring light, deafening noise, extremes of heat or cold, perpetual frustration) all exhibited the same pathologic changes of stomach ulcerations, shrinkage of lymphoid tissue and enlargement of the adrenals. He later demonstrated that persistent stress could cause these animals to develop various diseases similar to those seen in humans, such as heart attacks, stroke, kidney disease and rheumatoid arthritis.”
I found that list sort of amusing (blaring light, deafening noise, extremes of heat or cold, perpetual frustration), they exposed mice to these and they became ill, so I don’t know how I am getting by day to day.
Blaring light, well yes, if I remember my sunglasses one of my kids ends up wearing them. Deafening noise, yes, nearly constantly! We’re loud when we’re playing happily, but the screaming during a meltdown, well that’s a whole other level of loud. Extremes of heat or cold? Coaching track in July, check. Sledding in January, check. Giving up my sweater on a chilly day because other folks didn’t think they needed one (even though I told them to bring one along), check. Most amusing though, perpetual frustration. Yep, I think that describes most days of my life pretty accurately.
Alright, back to my point. Stress is a big problem folks. Stress can lead to emotional and physical health problems. Chronic stress, well, that’s an even bigger issue. The Mayo Clinic explains that “your body is hard-wired to react to stress in ways meant to protect you against threats from predators and other aggressors.” They are talking about the idea of the fight or flight response.
During a stress response, our bodies emit a series of stress hormones to get us through until the short term stressful situation has passed. For instance, the hormone cortisol curbs bodily functions to only those that are essential to deal with that fight or flight situation. All of this makes sense, and is generally a healthy response to short term bouts of stress. The Mayo Clinic explains that “Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels and other systems resume their regular activities.” However for many of us parents of children with special needs, stressors aren’t brief. We are in a state of constant hyper vigilance that leads our body to feel under attack all of time.
The Mayo Clinic explains that “the long-term activation of the stress-response system — and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones — can disrupt almost all your body’s processes.” I would hazard a guess that most of us special needs families have a close but complex relationship with stress that is not only making us feel bad emotionally, it’s making us physically ill.
I hope I have convinced you that dealing with stress is important. For me it’s often one of those things that I don’t give the priority it needs because so many other things are much more demanding of my immediate attention. However, in an effort not to be a hypocritical blogger, I will work harder to manage my stress if you will.
So how do you manage stress? Doing something for yourself is a strong start, check out my recent article with a list of 100 Ways Moms of Kids with Special Needs Can Take Care of Themselves. There’s bound to be a couple of ideas buried in there that appeal to you. Breathing is often under rated and can be an excellent way to reduce stress.
Try It: Lay Down and Just Breathe
Try lying down and taking several deep belly breaths, put your hands on your stomach and feel it rising and falling with each deep breath. Breath in through your nose and slowly out through your mouth. There, now don’t you feel a little better already? Can’t lie down? No problem, take a deep breath in whatever position you happen to be in at the moment, let it out slowly and notice your shoulders move ever so slightly down. Hopefully those shoulders are no longer attached to your ears in your chronic stress position. If they are, try another deep breath.
Try It: Meditate
I also find it helpful to listen to a relaxation script. I find they help me fall asleep when my mind is racing. Scripted meditation or self hypnosis can also be helpful. Speaking of sleep, make sure you get enough of it. Aim for eight hours, I know I am pretty used to living on 6 but I feel much more like a human being when I get eight.While we’re talking about the basics of life here, yes, eating a healthy diet and drinking enough water are also important to keep your system running as efficiently as possible. Exercise is also key as the act of exercising is often relaxing, and it helps your body function at it’s best. The last piece of advice I have is probably the most difficult, manage worry. Trust me, I get it, we have several thousand legitimate worries, so I won’t tell you not to worry. But try to manage it, prioritize it, choose not to think about, change the subject in your own headspace to something that is less stressful. If you can’t manage the worry and it’s starting to take over, seek counseling.
Remember, you are no good to your kids if you aren’t healthy. Managing stress is important to keep you healthy, so let’s all work to make it a priority!