Being a parent is one of the most amazing things many of us will ever do. And it is also one of the most difficult. Just as you get on your feet and start getting the hang of things, your child inevitably goes through a new phase that sets you back to square one. And if that isn’t hard enough, there are a million other little stressors that make parenting tricky. Work obligations, disagreements with spouses, and sleep deprivation are just a few. As parents, we are all trying to figure out how to stay calm in the storm surrounding us.
A few weeks ago, I blogged about regulation. If you missed that post, you can check it out here. In a nutshell regulation is like a “sweet spot,” between feeling apathetic and feeling stressed or out of control. When you are regulated, you are able to respond to situations calmly and with intention, and the quality of your time spent with your family is greatly improved. You are living in the moment. As a mental health professional and a parent educator, I have always had a long list of go-to suggestions for trying to get to that mental state. Go for a run. Get enough sleep. Talk about your stressors with trusted friends or loved ones. Take a walk in nature. Count to ten. And of course, take deep breaths.
I have been telling kids and parents to use these calming strategies for many, many years. But as I know first-hand, the truth is that when you are stressed, this is incredibly difficult to do. The science is pretty simple. When you are overwhelmed or stressed, most of the blood in your brain is redirected to your brain stem– which is the part of the brain responsible for survival. When your body shifts into survival mode, you lose access to the parts of your brain responsible for making intelligent choices. You also lose easy access to the hippocampus—the part of the brain that remembers calming strategies, like counting to ten or taking deep breaths.
But emotional regulation is possible, even during times of stress. Learning to stay emotionally balanced is like learning to do anything new for the first time. For instance, when you try a new sport for the first time it is usually challenging. If you don’t practice, it’s unlikely you will ever be very good. But if you decide that learning the sport is important to you, the next steps seem obvious. You carve out time in your schedule to practice and the more you practice, the easier it becomes. It is likely that you will even find a coach or instructor to show you how to improve.
Emotional regulation takes training too. This is where practicing mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness is learning to pay attention to the present moment with a friendly curiosity. It may seem crazy that something this simple could be the secret to increasing emotional regulation, but in the almost 40 years since this technique was developed, research has shown the connection. We now know that people who practice mindfulness are better at regulating their emotions, and in addition, they have increased attention spans and increased empathy for others. In short, mindfulness strengthens your ability to have a longer fuse when you get upset.
So how do you start a personal mindfulness practice? It could be as simple as downloading an app like Calm and going through the 7 day mindful meditation introduction (each day’s practice only takes 10 minutes). When your done you could try longer guided meditation sessions using this same app. If you become really intrigued, you could even sign up for a mindfulness class in your city or take a course online. This will give you a deeper understanding of what mindfulness is and your benefits will be greater.
Many people wonder why meditation is important and how it is related to living a mindful life. The simplest way to understand meditation is that it is practicing the ability to choose where you focus your attention. This is a difficult skill that has gotten infinitely more challenging as the pace of our society has increased and with the invention of smart devices that allow us to constantly multitask. In fact, in the past decade, our attention spans have dropped from 12 seconds to 8 (in comparison, a goldfish has an attention span of 9 seconds!) It is difficult to stay focused during meditation. But with practice, meditation becomes easier and more effective as new neural pathways form.
Studies show that regular mediation allows the brain to stop automatically shifting into survival mode every time you face a stressor. With those new neural pathways strengthened, you gain the freedom to choose to slow down and then respond with intention. And each time something happens that is upsetting, there is a new opportunity to practice this skill in the moment.
Mindfulness is a gift for parents because it allows us to widen our “sweet spot” of emotional regulation. And we all know that when our kids are pushing us to our limits, we could all use a little more calmness.
If you are interested in learning how to incorporate mindfulness and mindful parenting into your life, I would love to work with you! Please consider clicking here to get more information about how we can get started.