What is stress and how can I unwind?

women stressed with chalk drawing

I held his hand as the anesthesiologist put a small mask over his mouth and nose, and I watched him fall asleep. I squeezed his shoulder and kissed his cheek as his eyes lost focus and gently closed. After four days of GI, my oldest son, Jack, was “under” for his colonoscopy and endoscopy.

As I mentioned in this post, our son has been ill for eight months. We’ve spent those months in pursuit of a diagnosis, the right specialists, and a course of treatment that will return Jack to his former, vibrant self. Four years before this illness, Jack was diagnosed with autism and ADHD. And while both diagnoses come with their challenges, they have also given Jack a brilliant mind, a contagious laugh, and a joy-filled personality.

Eight months ago, he lost those traits to illness. He has had dozens of specialist appointments, several ER visits, two hospitalizations, and weekly lab work for months.

Along the journey, I’ve learned time and again how human I am. I’ve lost my cool. I’ve cried. I’ve even said “I don’t know how much more I have left in me for this.” Have you ever felt this way, too? These feelings are triggered by stress.

WHAT IS STRESS?

Everyone encounters stress from time to time, but special needs parents experience it more often than most. In fact, a study showed “mothers of adolescents and adults with autism experience chronic stress similar to combat soldiers.” So, what is stress?

Stress is the way we experience pressure, both mentally and physically. When we perceive pressure, our body signals hormones to create an automatic response, often referred to as fight-or-flight.

Taking the definition a step further, stress falls into one of two main categories: acute and chronic. Acute stress is situational and passes quickly, typically within a day or even within a moment. Whereas, chronic stress is long-term. Chronic stress drains the body mentally, physically, and emotionally. And the challenge for special needs parents is that chronic stress often becomes a way of life.

SO, WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT IT?

Mindfulness and mindlessness are both important in treating stress. Mindfulness is when you are aware of your thoughts, feelings, and any tension present in the body. Mindlessness is when you allow your mind to wander and retreat in a healthy way.

The best way to get both? Go outside.

START A GARDEN

Before this year, I didn’t feel confident in my ability to grow a garden. But after a little research, I decided to go for it and have never looked back. In their post 10 Simple Ways for Parents to RechargeUnderstood writer Kate Kelly puts it well; “You get immediate rewards from weeding and long-term satisfaction from watching something beautiful grow.”

There are so many parallels between parenting and gardening. Progress may feel slow at times. There may be more weeds that need plucking and plants that need pruning, but progress is also steady. Week by week, month by month, your garden will reveal the fruit of your sticking with it.

WALK OR RUN

Walking increases ‘bilateral stimulation,’ which occurs when the body engages in rhythmic, left-right movements and is achieved by doing something as simple as taking a walk around your neighborhood. This type of movement balances left brain and right brain activity. When both sides of the brain are balanced, feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress decrease. In fact, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports “just 30 minutes per day of walking can help boost your mood and reduce stress.”

If running (or jogging) is just as comfortable for you, the benefits are wonderful. This kind of exercise can have a therapeutic effect on emotional processing. As mentioned above, mindfulness and mindlessness are equally important for de-stressing:

Another big mental benefit to gain from running, one that scientists haven’t quiet yet managed to pin down to poke at and study: the wonderful way your mind drifts here and there as the miles go by. Mindfulness, or being here now, is a wonderful thing, and there is a seemingly ever-growing stack of scientific evidence showing the good it can bring to your life. And yet mindlessness — daydreaming, or getting lost in your own weird thoughts — is important, too (from this story in New York Magazine).

RECHARGE IN NATURE

There’s nothing quite like being outdoors and soaking in the natural world around you. David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist, shares that:

Our brains…aren’t tireless three-pound machines; they’re easily fatigued. When we slow down, stop the busywork, and take in beautiful natural surroundings, not only do we feel restored, but our mental performance improves too.

Put simply, being outdoors is good for the mind and the spirit. As special needs parents, we need to recharge our batteries in nature as often as we can. Taking a hike on a local trail, walking in a local park, or simply relaxing in your backyard are all ways we can connect more deeply with ourselves and the world around us. By doing so, we can also become more present and able to process our children’s special needs.