Written by Nikki Cox
When you become a parent, something fundamental shifts inside of you. Every fibre of your being is devoted to learning how to parent, and how to do it to the best of your ability with each challenge that comes along. You give up large parts of yourself to nurture and care for your children; mentally, emotionally, physically and socially. And whilst these are willing sacrifices, they don’t necessarily slow down as your kids grow.
So many parents today are experiencing loneliness, depression, anxiety, burnout and isolation due to lack of support and resources. This is largely because the reality of parenting today has changed dramatically from when we were brought up.
That said, it is essential to your role as a parent, as well as your existence as a human being, to stay as mentally healthy as possible.
If you’ve given birth you already know how the therapeutic use of breathing and breath awareness can have a positive effect on your stress levels. You’ve probably seen or heard about someone breathing into a paper bag to help calm the mind in the event of a panic attack. It is a widely used technique to reduce pain and anxiety, as well as to assist with normal bodily processes involved in childbirth.
Incorporating breathing exercises into your busy day is one of the easiest strategies to improve your resilience to stress and overall mental health. In the car, in the shower, just after a phone call, right before bed at night — whenever and wherever it is needed.
Spend just 15 minutes a day sitting quietly and focusing on your breathing, taking at least 3 deep breaths and exhaling slowly after each breath. Practicing these exercises regularly encourages the release of long-held tensions and unnecessary stress build up in your body and mind.
Mindfulness requires and fosters patience. You’re bringing your attention back to the present, and to all the thoughts and emotions caught up in your mind. Regularly practicing mindfulness is developing your skill in patience, and with patience also comes a deeper sense of peace and calm.
There is much research out there now that shows the effects of calm and patience from mindfulness can also extend to controlling stress and anxiety symptoms. Mindfulness techniques help you to temporarily remove your mind from thoughts and emotions, including unhelpful ones. This then creates the space to replace them with more helpful ones.
As an extension of daily mindfulness practice (although not for everyone), meditation is cited as one of the most powerful approaches for restoring balance to your mind and body. In meditation, you experience a state of restful awareness in which your body is resting deeply while your mind is awake, though quiet. In this state, your mind can let go of old, unhelpful patterns of thinking and feeling and learns to heal itself.
Simple meditation practice can take all of 10 minutes and is known to have numerous benefits, including decreases in anxiety and depression. As little as eight weeks of meditation not only helps you to feel calmer but can also change various areas of your brain, including areas that regulate stress.
It’s nothing new to hear that being kind and expressing gratitude to others can have positive effects on your mental wellbeing. During an act of kindness or gratitude practice, your brain increases the production of serotonin; a naturally occurring neurochemical that has a calming, mood-regulating and anti-anxiety effect. There is also an abundance of proof that acts of kindness can increase your sense of self-worth, happiness and optimism, and decrease symptoms of depression.
So, here are a few simple suggestions on how to extend the act of kindness to others:
- Smile at strangers; especially those who look like they are having a bad day
- Give compliments often
- Give up your place in line to another person
- Pay for a stranger’s coffee
- Donate blood
- Pick up 5 pieces of rubbish next time you're out on a walk
- Invite a lonely friend, neighbour or family member over for dinner
Do Something for You
We know that neglecting your own self-care can lead to short-fuses, poor decisions, depression, anxiety and feelings of meaninglessness. But looking after yourself often gets pushed more and more to the side, until you become chronically stressed, gained weight, completely burnt out or developed even more serious mental and physical health issues, such as depression, diabetes or obesity.
When self-care is absent in your life, you can feel overwhelmed, exhausted and your sense of self-worth disintegrates. Before long you start to realise the need and value in reinvesting in your own wellbeing.
Regular, small pockets of time for self-care is far better for a parent than occasional big actions such as a massage or even a weekend away. This is the notion of ‘Sustainable Self-Care’.
- Sustainable self-care is scheduled. Have a weekly planner that marks out self-care time for either you or you and your partner.
- It is short but sweet. With 15 minutes totally for yourself each day you can meditate, take a short walk, drink a cup of tea that is still hot, sing or dance to a couple of your favourite songs or read a chapter of a book in the garden.
- Sustainable self-care is a commitment to constant work in progress.
Clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli, which causes our senses to work overtime and triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which increases tension and anxiety. From a mental health perspective, when you’re surrounded by more things than you can manage, it sends a message that your life is out of control. This can then cause a cascade of negative emotions, for example when looking at a messy closet, you can feel stressed at the lack of organisation, guilty that you don't wear half of what you own, and confused as to what kind of style you're even going for.
Decluttering your house by throwing away old things can give you mental clarity, focus, peace, and balance. It can also help you let go of the past, including unhelpful sources of stress and worry, and give you a renewed sense of freedom and control over your life.
Learning and practicing key strategies, such as these, every day will help you to build resilience towards common mental health challenges, as well as develop coping mechanisms to handle the ongoing stress that inherently comes with all stages of parenthood.