By Susie Hopkins
Should. Sometimes I wish the word should were banned from the English language.
There are so many things us mamas ‘should’ be doing to look after ourselves. Yet for most of us, caring for ourselves is usually at the bottom of the list due to the huge load we’re managing. Which is why I want to share with you some super easy ways to manage stress that you don’t even need to put aside time to do, and that are perfect for keeping you sane.
The trick is to fit things into your day as you go about caring for your family, and not just when you’re stressed, as this can lower your overall stress levels. If you have lower overall stress levels, the moments when you are experiencing a LOT of stress happen less often, and your body and mind will recognise what you are doing when you start a relaxation practise and respond more quickly and easily.
Here are three simple techniques to try that you can do anytime, anywhere.
The simplest and easiest of them all, breathing deeply and gently down into your belly is one of the most effective ways there is to settle the body’s nervous system. When you breathe deeply and gently, the breath naturally slows down. When we’re relaxed our breathing is slower so by consciously slowing our breathing down the body responds by activating our “relaxation response”.
- Sitting or standing, make sure your spine is long and straight but not stiff
- Breathe in and out through your nose
- As you breathe in, allow your belly to expand but not in a forceful way
- As you breathe out, allow your shoulders and your whole body soften
Do as many deep breaths as feel right for you, perhaps eight to ten in a row, perhaps five or more times a day. Tune in to how it feels to breathe slowly and intentionally in this way making sure that your breathing never feels forced.
If you practice deep breathing regularly, when you find yourself in a particularly stressful situation practicing deep breathing will be more effective to help you feel less stressed.
Note: Very occasionally focusing on the breath can make people feel anxious or nervous. If this happens to you, try focusing on the sensations of your belly rising and falling and if it’s still very unpleasant, stop the practice and try another relaxation exercise instead.
Watch this short video to give it a go.
Tuning into your senses
This relaxation exercise is particularly effective if you a feeling overwhelmed with stress and/or anxiety. In simple terms, the reason it works so well is that when we activate part of the brain that tune into our five main senses, it can settle other parts of the brain that are active when we’re feeling intense emotions. The steps are as follows:
Look around you and notice:
- 5 things you can see: For example, your hands, the sky, the floor, but it can be anything you can see
- 4 things you can physically feel: For example, whatever your hands are touching, your back against a chair, your weight pushing down where you are sitting
- 3 things you can hear: For example, traffic in the distance, the breeze outside, your breath
- 2 things you can smell: For example, your clothing, coffee
- 1 thing you can taste: The taste in your mouth, or a drink or food if you have some nearby
By placing your awareness on your senses and your surroundings in the present moment, you can give your mind a break from the business of your thoughts and settle your body and mind and feel calmer. However, as I mentioned, focusing on the senses actually settles the fight/flight response allowing the body and mind to calm down.
There is a growing body of research that shows that counting your blessings is incredibly good for mental wellbeing and resilience. It shows that gratitude may be associated with better physical and mental health, increased happiness and life satisfaction.
At times when things are really hard, you can also simply conjure something you’re super grateful for in your mind. Having practiced gratitude for many years, when times are tough, I find I naturally do this these days and it makes all the difference.
I recall one time in particular, before we had an autism diagnosis for my son, Harry, and things were so, so hard. He was about two and was incredibly unwell – for about 3 months – with viruses, gastro, horrendous pain caused by food intolerances, and then he started having big seizures.
I remember so clearly being in my kitchen holding him in my arms trying desperately to calm and comfort him on one particularly awful night. And, somewhat amazingly, I couldn’t stop thinking how lucky I was that we had a roof over our heads during all of this, that we weren’t living somewhere in squaller or in a refugee camp.
Studies also suggest that gratitude may encourage other virtues including patience, humility, and wisdom and it has also been linked to more generosity, kindness, helpfulness, stronger relationships and a more positive workplace culture. Actively practicing gratitude is so important for resilience particularly if you find you feel sorry for yourself or hard done by a lot. (Some of this is fine too of course, but it can be a big problem if you get stuck feeling this way).
If you are able to set aside some time, to develop more gratitude in your life try the following:
- Write down three things you’re grateful for
- Sit with this and tune into the feeling of gratitude
- Now, write down at least one reason why you are grateful for each thing
- Again, sit with what you have written and tune into the feeling that gratitude
Many people write down what they’re grateful for each morning when they wake or just before sleep. This is an excellent way to promote a good night’s sleep as it releases endorphins which are great for stress levels and sleep. You can also practice gratitude actively with your kids, perhaps once a week or even every day, maybe at dinner time.
Gratitude practices have also been linked physical health including lower blood pressure, decreased chronic pain, increased energy levels, and even living longer. Check out this video to learn some more ways to practice gratitude.
These are three of my favourite ways to manage my stress levels. I sincerely hope they help you experience less stress and more joy. Because when you’re less stressed it benefits the whole family, and as I have mentioned, you can model these and other strategies to your kids to help them manage their emotions too.
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.