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The thoughts that keep us awake at night

By Susie Hopkins

There’s not a mum alive who doesn’t wonder what the future holds for her children. This causes a whole other level of worry though if your child has a disability. With my son, Harry, for example, I have no idea whether he will be able to live independently or not as an adult. Harry is autistic and at age seven he is developmentally still three in many ways.

Even to look at and listen to he appears very young for his age. He’s very small, and people who we meet at playgrounds assume he’s four or perhaps five, and while he’s always seemed to have incredible language in certain ways, he struggles in many others and has been having pretty intensive speech therapy for over two years.

He can’t manage any self-care activities independently, except perhaps washing his face with a face-washer and eating, though he makes a mess as if he were still a toddler most days.

There is simply no way of knowing how much support he will need in coming years. There is no cohort of kids with Harry’s ‘level’ of autism that have received the support he has received in his early years so I have absolutely no idea how independent he is likely to be.

He was assessed as being level two autistic but many autistic people tell me this way of assessing need is problematic because mental health issues and other factors mean that support needs for autistic people change a lot over their lifetime. At the moment he is considered to have moderately high support needs.

As a solo parent who is older than most (I turned 50 this year having had Harry at 42 using IVF) I can’t help but worry about how he will manage when I am gone. Yet thankfully, I don’t stress about it too much. I plan for the day and I have faith that he will be OK. But I have worked on not ruminating about worries for the future for many years.

Acceptance through mindful awareness is key

It’s normal and healthy to experience the full range of emotions when contemplating our kids’ futures – including challenging emotions such as worry, fear and sadness – and the thoughts that accompany them. In this article we’re going to describe some healthy ways to respond to difficult thoughts and feelings so that they hopefully cause you less distress than they might otherwise.

At times when there is more stress and worry in your life, you may find that you experience many difficult thoughts and emotions. This is also normal. However, it’s important to seek help if they are interfering with your enjoyment of life much of the time over a period of more than two weeks or so.

Developing your ability to be present by learning about and practicing mindfulness has been the biggest game-changer for me. Once you learn how to pay attention in the present moment and without judging our experience anywhere near as much, you can choose to respond to difficult thoughts and feelings instead of simply reacting. This enables you to reframe where appropriate.

For example, if we see challenging thoughts and feelings as a problem in themselves, we will generally push them down and cover them over by developing unhealthy habits such as overeating, drinking too much, oo even shopping or scrolling way too much. When we do this, these feelings are not dealt with and are likely to play out in our lives in unhealthy ways.

Difficult v negative thoughts and feelings

Most don’t give much thought to our inner world. You may be inclined to label thoughts and feelings as good or bad, or positive and negative. It is important to acknowledge that all thoughts are feelings are valid and are neither good or bad.

It can be helpful to instead see them as either pleasant or unpleasant and to try not to judge them but instead bring an attitude of curiosity to them as they arise. In this way you can create a little more objectivity and possibly not be so overwhelmed in the moment.

Thoughts and feelings are closely related and their relationship is complex. There is a chicken and egg relationship between them. Challenging emotions often lead to challenging thoughts and vice versa.

In a nutshell, thoughts are how we make sense of the world. Feelings are the emotions and felt sensations that occur in our body in relation to what is happening both internally and in our environment.

Mindful awareness helps you learn how to be with difficult experiences without shutting down unpleasant emotions so that they can be processed. There is a growing body of research that demonstrates that developing awareness of and acknowledging your thoughts and feelings can make you more psychologically resilient.

Observing your thoughts

Most of the time, and especially if things are going well for you, you’re unlikely to notice your thoughts much at all. However, if you’re especially worried or something has upset you, you may notice that you have a ‘racing mind’ and that the same challenging thoughts occur over and over in a loop.

It’s common for these kinds of thought patterns to ‘keep you up at night’ accompanied by unpleasant emotions (for example worry or guilt). When you experience thoughts in this way often, over time it can impact your psychological resilience.

Thoughts can be either harmful or helpful but to sort out the difference and respond accordingly you need to notice them first. Mindfulness can be so helpful in this way. When you notice challenging thoughts, you are in a position to question them.

For example, you can mentally ask yourself questions such as:

  • Are these thoughts accurate?
  • Is there evidence that what I’m worried about is a real concern?
  • Is there good reason for these thoughts?
  • Has my imagination got the better of me?
  • What’s the worst thing that could happen?
  • What’s another way I could look at this problem?
  • Are their assumptions I have made that are incorrect?

By questioning your thoughts, many people find that this lessens their power over them. Sometimes the help of a counsellor or therapist can help you develop these skills, particularly ones that use mindfulness as part of therapy.

Feeling and labelling sensations and emotions

In much the same way, most of us usually don’t notice bodily sensations or the impact of emotions on our body. The only time we tend to notice how our body feels is if it’s in pain or you feel unwell. Even sensations that indicate hunger, thirst, needing to go to the toilet or an itch that we need to scratch elicit a reaction without us spending a moment noting what the sensations were that led us to act on them.

Emotions are actually sensations in our body though many of us think they happen in our heads. Tuning in and noticing sensations and feelings is a simple yet powerful way to help with managing challenging emotions.

There is substantial evidence from a number of studies that show that when you consciously notice and put into words what you’re feeling, this settles the stress response leading to less intense and out of control emotions.

The idea is, when you experience difficult emotions, it can helpful to purposefully tune into your body and your senses and name what you are feeling. The more often you do this, the easier it becomes.

Having a more consistent mood and being able to better manage emotions is frequently reported by people who practice mindfulness, other forms of meditation and movement-oriented practices that cultivate more awareness of sensations and emotions such as yoga and Tai Chi. 

You are not your thoughts or feelings

Lastly, it’s also really helpful to remember that you are not your thoughts and feelings. Thoughts and feelings ebb and flow and constantly change. Watching them arise and fall away like the weather may help you feel less overwhelmed when they’re particularly challenging.

When you describe how you feel, try to use language that is less personal. Instead of “I AM so devastated” you can say “I FEEL so devastated” or replace “I am so ashamed” with “I feel so ashamed”.

In this way you may become less ‘identified’ with your feelings and therefore consumed by challenging emotions when they arise. You may be able to remember more easily that you are so much more than the difficult thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing and that they, like everything, will pass.

Learning to deal with the huge worries that we all have about our kids’ futures and all the other challenging thoughts and feelings that are part of being human in a healthy way helps ensure that we are as mentally resilient as possible. And when we’re as mentally resilient as possible, we’re most likely to make good decisions today and tomorrow that will help to set our gorgeous kids up for success well into the future.

References:

https://psychcentral.com/news/2018/01/27/are-emotions-universal/10999.html

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1600-0447.2011.01704.x

https://www.healthline.com/health/cognitive-restructuring#self-monitoring

https://dial.uclouvain.be/pr/boreal/object/boreal:169734/datastream/PDF_01/view

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02012/full

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Jump on a call with me any time here: https://lilowellnessbookings.as.me/


Learn how to feel less stressed in under an hour

A FREE crash-course for parents of kids with special needs – Because when you’re less stressed your whole family benefits.

Specially designed for time-poor parents and carers, this concise course is packed full of actionable insights to help you create a life with less stress for the whole family.

It has been created by Susie Hopkins who is a Registered Nurse, has a Masters of Public health and yoga and mindfulness qualifications. She has been teaching stress management for almost 10 years and is also the sole parent of an autistic child. 

Click on the link above for more information.

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