May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and at Mighty Oaks we are focusing on understanding stress and being mindful. This past year has been tough on us all, but our hope is to give some tips and ideas to help children, adults, and families face their stress and be more mindful, as we enter the summer!
Before getting into more understanding about stress, and more specifically stress over the past year, take a moment to close your eyes (or just soften your gaze). What do you think about when you hear the word stress? What image pops up for you? It may be an overworked person at their desk, with piles of papers. It may be the old Cathy cartoon, where she is pulling her hair out. The image of stress may look different for all of us, but we all experience it.
One thing that has been on my mind this past year, while we were forced to change our daily lives, was the reconsideration of what work and stress look like. Overworking is glamorized in our country. The early bird gets the worm. No matter how hard you work, someone else is working harder. Even in the fitness world, we hear harder, faster, stronger is better. But all of these take a toll on our minds and our bodies.
Stress has become a buzz word, just like self-care (which we will talk about later). So, what is stress?
Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. Stress is your body's reaction to a challenge or demand. In short bursts, stress can be positive, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline. A principle of fitness is the SAID principle—Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands; the body only learns to grow stronger when it is asked to perform outside normal parameters. Long term experiences with stress, can make us tired, fatigued, unmotivated, overwhelmed, etc. We have all been living in a stress state for the past year.
I know, for myself, stress has manifested itself physically and mentally. I know I am not alone in my experience last year. Within a few weeks’ time, I transitioned my entire counseling practice online, my husband quit his job to help run Mighty Oaks, and we were making online content to support our clients and families. We made kids yoga videos, workout videos, social story lessons, and mindfulness lessons. Many days, at the end of the day, my muscles were fatigued, I was dizzy, and exhausted. Holding the attention of the person in front of you on Zoom, while trying to hear and see them, can take a lot on your physically. Zoom fatigue is real. And, while we may not be on Zoom on or those calls as often these days, we are still having effects from these experiences.
Did you feel fatigue in your body? Do you still feel it? Take moment to think “How am I doing physically?” “How am I doing mentally?” “How am I doing emotionally”? Try to do this without judgement, just an awareness.
Signs of heightened stressed can look different for everyone, but here are a few thoughts. This can apply to your teens, too:
Sleeping too much or too little
Eating too much or too little
Sounded disinterested in everything
Being “spaced out” a lot, or having a hard time focusing
Rambling a lot, or not talking at all
Losing track of time
Making cynical comments, often about yourself
Pushing people away
Rubbing your eyes and head a lot
Avoiding certain situation
Before talking about stress and your family, remember what they say on the airplane. You have to put your oxygen mask on first, before others in your family. I think we sometimes set ourselves up to not be successful when we think of our own self-care. Your oxygen mask does not have to be 45 minutes on the Peloton, or something grand. It can be 5 minutes sitting outside, a cold shower, a song that makes you happy, watching a funny cat video, or taking 5 deep breaths.
So, how can stress affect your family? The New York Times published an article, with information from organizations like Zero to Three, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, to help us understand what stress looks like at different ages.
For young children, if your child’s routines have been disrupted during the pandemic, or if your family is coping with divorce; illness; job loss; problems with mental health or substance abuse; or a death in the family, it’s normal for little kids to experience a regression of skills that they previously mastered. If your child is fully potty trained, for example, you might notice more bathroom accidents.
Preschool-aged children may “ruminate on stories of monsters and other dangerous creatures, have difficulties in both sleeping and staying asleep, and report having nightmares,” said Kathleen Mulrooney, the program director for infant and early childhood mental health at Zero to Three. Some preschoolers will become angry, when normal activities are changed. They might express anxiety and sadness in their everyday play. They might also develop separation anxiety. These are all developmentally-appropriate responses to stress.
Eating habits can change, too. Some kids eat more when they are stressed, and others eat less.
Keep in mind that it’s normal for little kids to regress at different points in their development, or to sometimes eat a lot one day and very little the next. And every child becomes more difficult if they are hungry or tired. But if you notice more intense behaviors that make you concerned or distressed, like longer, more frequent tantrums, for example, trust your gut and consider getting additional support to help you cope
You may already know it, but our older kids are struggle right now. In a recent American Psychological Association survey of 1,000 teens between 13 and 17 years old, 43 percent report an increased level of stress over the past year (I would argue it is actually higher). Teens may also pull away from family and friends, become hostile or easily frustrated, or complain more than usual. They may cry, sleep too much, or too little, and/or eat too much, or too little. Concentration is hard and they may experience somatic experiences like headaches, stomaches, or muscle tension.
Negative self-talk is another sign of stress, that both young children and teens experience. When we are stressed, we all seek to be in control as much as possible. If we don’t feel like we are handling things well, or notice other kids doing better academically, socially, etc., we can feel like something is wrong with us. If we are stressed and can’t focus, negative talk can occur, too. For example, if it is hard to focus and finish homework, it can feel like something is wrong with us. This can be normal for all of us, but we can also try to combat the stress.
I recommend the Big Life Journal, as a tool for those that are experiencing negative self-talk.
I will say, we have seen a rise in negative self-talk, self-harm, and suicidal ideation this past year, especially in our teens. I say this not to scare parents and caregivers, but to be aware our kids are under more stress than we can imagine. Take a moment and look back at how hard adolescence was for you, now add in social isolation and coping with a pandemic. If you notice a big change in behavior, or how your child talks about themselves, it is okay to ask for help.
Before moving onto how to cope with stress, I want to quickly talk about our window of tolerance. This is the amount of stress we can deal with and tolerate. With persistent stress, our window gets smaller. If we are above our window, we experience hyperarousal: anxiety, anger, feeling out of control, our fight or flight mode…our reactions take over. If we are below our window, we experience hypoarousal: spacy, zoned out, numb, shut down, tired…we are in our freeze or fawn mode. If you think about stresses going up and down, when our window is smaller, it is easier to go above or below. Our coping skills help us stay in our window.
So, how do we explain stress to kids? Believe it or not, a lot of kids understand the term “stress”, whether it is because of our language, or just a normalized thing in our country.
- I talk with clients about flight/fight/freeze/fawn, to reduce shame with our reactions. This is true for adults, too! Imagine there is a tiger suddenly in our room. What happens? Our body reacts. We may sweat, our temperature may rise, we would most likely have an increased heart rate. We most likely flight (or runaway) but depending on where we are in our window of tolerance, we may freeze.
- This is based on the Polyvagal theory. It is okay to react and experience these reactions, because their main goal is to keep us safe. If we didn’t have these reactions, we would not know we are in danger. However, what we CAN work on is regulating ourselves to make a decision. When we are in persistent stress or have a threat that we can’t see (like an “invisible virus”), we stay above or below our window. Sometimes, we need to tell ourselves we are safe, and then make a decision on what to do.
How can we stay more in our window? We can participate in activities that help us down-regulate. Now, remember, regulation comes from connection, so your children may need help at the beginning to regulate. Also remember, we cannot regulate someone else, if we are not regulated. A wonderful thought is to be a thermostat, not a thermometer. So, what does that mean? While we experience stress and get triggered, it is important to try to stay at the same “temperature” when helping our kids, instead of going up and down in temps.
“When parents are stressed and worried, kids become stressed and worried.” Do your best to understand your stress. We know this is hard, and can be a resource to help.
SO, WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
Mindfulness is being in the moment. Mindfulness allows us to be present in our parenting, choosing a skillful response, instead of succumbing to our visceral reactions.
When we are stressed, we tend to be mindless. Have you ever driven home from work and thought “how did I get home”? Mindlessness can also look like scrolling through social media for long periods of time, vegging out with Netflix, mindless eating, etc. We all need some mindlessness, but we can be more intention about being mindful.
Mindfulness can help children improve their abilities to pay attention, to calm down when they are upset and to make better decisions. In short, it helps with emotional regulation and cognitive focus.
Its help to practice yourself before teaching to your children. Let’s try it now. Close your eyes and away from your screen. Notice any noises around you. Try to not label them, but just notice. Notice noises far away. Notice noises close, maybe in your room. If your mind wanders, that’s okay. It is what minds do. Breathe in and out and open your eyes.
Something this simple can increase our awareness. Tapping into other senses can help us be more mindful. Something you can teach your children is to tap into other senses as well. When we feel dysregulated, notice 5 things you see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste. Especially when we are so used to looking at a screen, tapping into other senses can help us regulate.
Mindful eating is also helpful. You can head over to our Mighty Oaks YouTube page to find a video on how to do this.
Other ideas are to be mindful on your walk. What do you notice? Do you notice colors? The temperature? The breeze? New growth in the grass? Bigger trees? Animals? Smells?
There are many books out there that help with mindful breathing. Our Mighty Oaks YouTube page has some ideas, too. One of our favorite books is “Alphabreaths” by Dr. Christopher Willard and Daniel Rechtschaffen. Dr. Willard is a leading researching in mindfulness in children. I highly recommend his work!
In our house, we work to establish a gratitude practice (even though it is hard some days). Gratitude is a fundamental component of mindfulness and teaches our children to appreciate the abundance in their lives, as opposed to focusing on all the toys and goodies that they crave. This can be done at the dinner table, or bedtime. Ask yourself, what is one thing I am grateful for today?
While this was a long read (thanks for sticking it through!), it is not exhaustive. Remember, the main goal of mindfulness is to notice, to be in the moment, and help our stress reduce. If you have more questions about sitting with stress and implementing mindfulness, don’t be afraid to reach out. There are days that may feel harder than others, and that is okay. I have been attempting to sit down and write this for over a week. Give yourself grace, and self-compassion, and know you are doing your best.
Hang in there, friends!