How to Handle Holiday Stress

Focusing on gratitude, having reasonable expectations and giving rather than receiving will help you deal with holiday stress. Common parenting potholes include excessive pressure to perform, succeed or to be perfect. Past memories can also trigger stress.  When you avoid worrying, focus on realistic expectations and practice expressions of gratitude for what you have rather than what you want – stress is reduced.

Look at your holiday plans and don’t allow gift size and cost inflation to make you feel overwhelmed or inadequate. Think small. Allow success to build your energy and positive outlook. Avoid asking “What if?” questions. Such questions increase stress. Do a personal inventory of your stress and focus on taking action that calms you down. By taking care of yourself first and slowing things down the sensory overload of the holiday season can be better controlled and managed.

Road trips and out of home visits also add stress to the holidays. Sleep and meal schedules change and feelings of control decrease. As you lose self-control your ability to cope decreases and you are more prone to be drawn into stressful situations. Stress affects how you think and how well your body works. It leads to chronic illnesses such as hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and obesity and decreases you and your child’s cognitive performance. Although occasional mild stress can improve attention and performance, chronic and toxic stress is never beneficial.

You are the most important model for your child. How you respond and behave during the holidays instills model behaviors in your children.  By slowing things down and learning how to say no to yourself and to others you are teaching your child the importance of respecting oneself as well as others. Saying no allows you to honor and successfully fulfill your existing commitments without over-extending yourself.

The holidays are a time when you will have many opportunities to connect and communicate with your child. Community and family stories of sharing and giving are the perfect way to incorporate gratitude into the life of your family and your child. In these ways your child learns how to express gratitude. Being able to experience gratefulness improves your mood, energy and physical well-being.

The holidays are not a time of total freedom for your child. Responsibilities do not stop on a holiday. Household rules concerning, chores, screen time, video games, homework, exercise, bedtime and self-care all continue. Time must be saved for family meals and family activities and parents must not view a holiday as a time to catch up on home or work responsibilities. Never neglect or overlook a chance over the holidays to sit down and play a game, watch a movie or discuss a topic with your child. These opportunities present the opportunity to make a lasting memory for both you and your child.

The Past Does Not Need to be Your Future

Your emotional state has a direct effect on your health and well being. Your body responds to stress with activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Structures within the brain serve as control panels for these functions. One of these control panels is in your hypothalamus. It overrides the parasympathetic nervous system which calms emotions. Activation of the posterior hypothalamus intiates a “flight or fight” response. This is the same “freeze” response you have when you are suddenly startled by something you did not expect. You may fall to your knees or drop a glass you are holding when someone jumps out and startles you.

When you are startled arteries thoughout your body constrict and other vessels dilate to increase the flow of blood back to your heart. Your adrenal glands release chemicals that tell your body there is a threat. If the stress continues cortisol is released. Cortisol has both short term benefits and long term negative effects. This complex response is part of a new field called psychoneuroimmunology and is part of the mind-body connection.

When you perceive and experience stress your body logs the experiences. It is important you recognize stress and pursue strategies to alter these responses. The first step is to seek the balance of satisfaction rather than the state of happiness which is all to often clouded by judgement and perception. Satisfaction, on the other hand, is tethered to pleasure, engagement and gratification. When you are satisfied you have found a state where there is the sense of fullness, fit and flow. Every parent can recall events that embody satisfaction. Your memories could include your child’s first steps, the swing of a home run, a soccer goal, a dance recital or their word. When these experiences happen time stops and your feelings in the present allow past feelings and emotional responses to be rewritten.  In this act the past has changed. satisfaction mediates this change.
Parenting is filled with experiences that evoke fear, worry and concern. By seeking satisfaction in your life you will learn to mediate these negative responses and thereby control your hormonally mediated responses that damage your body and shorten your life. Protect yourself by throwing away this concept of immutability of the past. Every day seek satisfaction in your words and actions. Your life will be filled with unlimited opportunities and your child will see how you live life and will learn by watching you. You are your child’s best teacher.

Parent Self-Care

When a child is born all eyes focus on him. His beautiful eyes, the softness of his skin, the curls in his hair and the warmth of his embrace. When your infant snuggles into the crook of your neck the world disappears and all you see and hear is your child. Whether a product of our genes or emotional drives this focus drives a parent to protect a child who is unable to protect or nourish themselves. Without your love, affection and attention he could not survive. This is one of the reasons why he responds to your care and love. He not only wants you he needs you.

From the moment of birth your infant’s behavior shapes your life.  Your drives and their behavior force you to attend and respond to them.  This is good.  As parent you want to feel attached and needed by your newborn. A problem arises, however, when you allow this desire to override the respect you have for yourself and the pursuit of your own needs.

As a new parent you must learn to recognize, understand and respond to the needs of your infant. By doing so, you will allow him to begin his lifelong journey of self-discovery.  During his life your encouragement will allow him to develop a sense of self, a sense of others and eventually pursue the question of who he is and what he can do.  This passionate pursuit of what inspires him can only happen, however, if he is taught to be recognized and pursue his own needs.

Parents usually neglect their own and their spouse’s needs while caring for their new child. This places them at risk to undermine the goal they seek. Every parent wants their child to grow up with the self-awareness and strength to find their own place in the world. To have the ability to maintain relationships built out of mutual cooperation and respect. As an infant your child learns how to interact with all the people and things around him. Just as he is preparing himself for the future so to must you. As he moves into the toddler years he will begin to assert his own decision making and you must be there ready to help him with guidance and teaching. To set an example for him you must not allow your own self-care to evaporate under the heat of his needs. You must not neglect your needs or you will be unable to provide the independence and self-care modeling necessary for your toddler and his later years.  Your child learns most from watching you. He must from the earliest age believe that you provide him safety and security without losing yourself within the life of another.

You and your spouse must continue to chase your passions. You both deserve this.  Seek what inspires you beyond the touch, sight and sound of your infant. To do less results in a sense of loss and anger.  This anger cannot be directed at your new infant and so it is redirected to oneself or someone else, including your spouse.  When a parent stops performing self-care she justifies it as a necessary requirement of parenthood .  Yet, deep within, they mourn at the loss of self. Mothers and fathers often feel selfish when they think about the independence they have given up. This remorse is normal and expected. What you cannot do is stop your pursuit of self-care. Every parent must continue to seek the time and the opportunities to continue their own life journey. Look to the arts and to nature to help you see the magnificence of the world around you. Rent a video and make yourself your favorite dinner. Read a new book or start a new hobby. Call an old friend, go for a walk in the park, start a scrapbook or take up a new sport. Eat healthy, stay physically active, get your sleep and find someone to talk to who will listen to you non-judgmentally.

Parent self-care is best for both you and your child.

How Do I Find More Time?

Mothers and fathers are confronted by the limits of time every day. Time spent on work, events, childcare and parental duties can be consuming and endless. For women, care of their spouse is also a time drain. Parents live in a state of constant sleep debt and neglect self-care. Studies find 50% of women have less than 90 minutes a day of free time yet these same studies report most women feel their job does not interfere with their personal life. So, the question is, what is the problem?

The primary issue is chores and responsibilities. Mothers have more tasks than fathers. Less than 25% of male spouses share household responsibilities with their wife. Most husbands focus on home-related issues including household repairs and improvements, gardening and yard work. That leaves everything else for the mother. Her list includes child care, assisting in homework, cooking, transporting children to activities, household errands, cleaning, grocery shopping, house organizing, laundry, childcare activities, managing day to day household finances, clothes buying and the list goes on and on.

Although most mothers feel their husband is capable of doing more chores and taking on more responsibilities most mothers do not delegate activities to their spouse. In fact, most women are more willing to share to do list chores with their children than their spouse.  Mothers want their husband to ask to help and are especially protective of decorating, managing household finances and organizing the house.

This endless list of duties is daunting and causes physiologic stress. Stress hormones are released and elevated stress hormones at the end of the day are linked to mood changes, depression and shorter life spans.  So, what can you do? Ask your spouse and others for help. Share responsibilities and duties with your spouse. Do not wait for your spouse to ask what he can do. Tell him what he needs to do. Find time to relax and stop yourself when you find a moment of free time to add more household duties.

Relaxation can be found in any contemplative activity.  Get out in nature, experience the arts, exercise, take a nap, scrapbook, knit, sew, dance, join a choir, pursue your spiritual center take a yoga class or read a book. Take time to recharge and breathe.  Most importantly, stop worrying about taking care of the house and your children. By being your own gatekeeper and taking time to have fun you will reclaim your life. Set a fun budget and schedule time for yourself. This is the most important retirement plan you will ever join. The most important relationship you will ever have is the one you have with yourself.

If you do these things your life will change. You will live longer, be happier and have more energy to share the important things in life with your children and your spouse.

A Last Hug

A week ago I was in my office when a parent came in to obtain some medical records concerning her child. He was graduating from college and it was time for him to leave my pediatric practice. I had cared for him since he was an infant. Through twenty years of forms, physicals and memories I watched him go to kindergarten, high school and then college.

As his pediatrician I had one of the best views and little of the work.  I saw him in the nursery, arranged for his immunizations, listened to the tale of his first steps and helped care for him when he was ill. My glimpses were brief but full of change. I remembered completing his sixth grade and driver’s physicals. I heard about his love of sports and reading. I listened to his wish list of colleges and could see his face when he told me he was accepted at his dream college. We talked about adolescent issues concerning sex, drugs, alcohol and the importance of respectful relationships and learning how to listen to others. He grew older as did I and each year he returned for his annual physical and we talked.

He grew up and it was time for him to graduate and move on. We talked about this transition at his last visit and I gave him a list of several local physicians I trusted.  He said he was moving to a new city. We talked about calling the medical society in his new location and getting a list of board certified physicians and arranging a visit. We talked about how to seek out recommendations from friends and family members in the new location.  We discussed joining a congregation, a service organization and a running club to help find new friends and make new relationships.  What we did not talk about was the ending of our relationship.

Now his mom was standing at the check-in window. She saw me and told me through the window she would miss our visits and wanted to thank me for twenty years of help and advice. I listened and walked out to the waiting room and gave her a hug. I told her watching a child grow up is my greatest joy and the reason I am inspired to come to work every day.  I asked her to tell have her son to send me a card when he is settled in his new job.

As she turned to leave I realized I had not given her son a hug at his last visit. I called after her and asked her to give him one for me. As she left the office I promised myself never to miss a last hug again.

Where Do Our Expectations Come From?

Deep within every parent’s heart is a spirit called expectation. Dreams of what could be and what can be. Expectations are affected by the demands of others and the reality of the present. Self imposed expectations heightened by the media surround each of us whether we are the mall or the grocery store. We see parent-child interactions and wonder what we would have done or should have done.

Your life is busy. Working, parenting, maintaining the household, doing laundry, yard chores, working out and eating rarely allow our minds to become quiet. Even sleep can become a fitful activity filled with strange dreams and unexplained fears. Allow of these tasks distract us from purposeful contemplation about our own needs, wants, feelings and aspirations. In this absence our brains are constantly recycling thoughts about what we could have done, should have done or would have done.

Our survival depends on the brain’s automated ability to perform functions without our active thought and participation. We breathe, digest food and maintain our balance blood pressure and heart rate without the slightest awareness. These autopilot capabilities of our central nervous system are unparalleled. Checks and balances, feedback systems and internal debriefing systems abound within each of us and function daily without us being aware.

This autopilot capability also manages our mental attitude. This is why the patterns of thinking we pursue and prefer are so important. Our thoughts train our brain in the same way as our movements and actions. By affirming happiness, fulfillment and opportunity our brain becomes trained to perform this same way when we are busy with decisions at work, at home or at play. If we affirm sadness, loss and inadequacy then our brain will mirror and recycle these patterns. By building brain circuitry upon a foundation of positive affirmations your automated thoughts and expectations will always be playing in this ” hidden brain” within each of us.

The choice is yours. What will be your playlist?