This content is brought to you in partnership with Each Mind Matters: California’s Mental Health Movement. For more information, visit EachMindMatters.org
With school closures, juggling childcare and the impacts to your work routine, coupled with the effects of economic and/or personal losses, parenting during COVID-19 can be a difficult task to navigate. This type of intense or long-lasting stress on people caring for children has implications for both families and communities. While our institutions and communities must come together to address the underlying problems, understanding our own personal stress responses and learning tools for coping can help us get through this time and model skills for our children to use when they are stressed.
Everyone has what is called a “zone of tolerance” – this is the state where you are able to effectively process and respond to the stressors and demands of everyday life. When you’re in this zone, you can think and make decisions without feeling overwhelmed. But when we are exposed to extreme stress (or trauma) our brains and bodies respond by sending signals to either fight/flee or freeze.
The fight/flee response is when you are hyper-aroused: Your heart is racing, you might be hypervigilant. You might feel a burst of energy or anxiety. The freeze response is when you are hypo-aroused: You might feel numb emotionally even though you are facing a very sad or painful situation, or you might feel a sense that you cannot do much of anything.
When you’re either hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused your prefrontal cortex isn’t able to function in a way that lets you think clearly and deal with life in an effective way. Everyone’s window of tolerance is different. For example, people who have experienced other trauma in the past may find that they are out of their tolerance zone more easily than others, especially if it is similar to their previous traumatic experience. People who are chronically out of their window of tolerance may experience mental health problems like depression and anxiety.
By being aware of the impact on your body and brain you have some choices about what actions you can take to bring yourself into the best possible state. Simply learning to recognize where you are can help you choose the right self-care strategy to get you back in your window of tolerance.
When we get out of our window of tolerance, making changes to what we are doing physically and our environment can also help us return to balance. The first step is to recognize whether you are hyper- or hypo-aroused. Different strategies work for each state. Think about it: The last time you were hyper-aroused and someone told you to “just calm down” probably had the opposite effect. It’s the same when someone is hypo-aroused. Just telling them to “get out of bed” or “go get some exercise” is likely to fall flat as well.
Instead, pick the right self-care strategy for the circumstances. For hyper-arousal: Try reducing noise and distractions. Then, find a way to release energy like taking a brisk walk. Once you have released some of the excess energy you can do things like talk about what they’re feeling or using other strategies.
For hypo-arousal: Start by getting yourself grounded in your body and nature. Try a breathing exercise, sitting in sunlight, putting your bare feet on grass, or do some gardening. Once you are feeling more grounded and present rather than numb, you can begin to engage with talking about feelings and self-care activities
In addition to being able to recognize when you’re out of your window of tolerance and learning how to return to a state of balance, managing chronic stress requires a regular self-care practice. It doesn’t need to be expensive or time-consuming. Even small changes can add up to significant benefits. Try adding some of these self-care activities to your routine:
Self-Care Tips broken down by increments of time:
- 5 minutes
- Try a breathing exercise: Inhale for 5 counts, hold for 5, exhale for 5, hold for 5, repeat.
- Dance or sing to a favorite song.
- Change position: stretch your arms, legs, and back.
- Take a quick walk outside.
- Water your plants or garden.
- 15 minutes
- Organize a small space in your home.
- Play with your kids. Do something simple like color or draw with them.
- Take a power nap.
- Call a friend or family member to catch up and check-in.
- Take a bath or shower.
- 30 minutes
- Download a free mindfulness app like UCLA Mindful and Choose from meditation or podcast.
- Play a game, work on a puzzle, or try a new online game.
- Join a parent support group on parentsanonymous.org
- Go for a job, do tai chi or any physical activity that makes you happy.
To support parents at this challenging time, Each Mind Matters created Self-Care Tips for Parents, a new resource that provides helpful self-care tips that can realistically fit into busy schedules. Whether parents have only five minutes or an hour, self-care is critical to helping them give their best selves as they take care of the ones they love. Click here for the downloadable PDF.
Visit the EMM Resource Center for additional information and resources.
For more practical tips that support emotional regulation and mitigate stress, check out Therapy in a Nutshell.
World Health Organization Parenting in the Time of Covid-19.