Friday, October 31, 2014

Stress management toolbox: Nine tips for parents of gifted children

Just like every other parent, gifted children's parents also need tools for managing stress. Despite beliefs that raising a gifted child is a breeze, most parents of gifted kids would readily claim that it's no picnic. Weathering challenges like overexcitabilities, isolation from peers, asynchronous development, and boredom with school are heartbreaking for parents to witness. Advocacy efforts with schools can seem daunting, and decisions about extra-curriculars, possibly transferring schools, or even homeschooling can be overwhelming. And it's often lonely, since many other parents either don't understand or frankly dismiss these concerns.

Parents need a toolbox of strategies for managing stress. Here are some tools to try:

1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation:* An old standard, these exercises take effort, but offer tremendous results. Set aside quiet time (at least 15 minutes) each day, find a comfortable chair or lie down, and tense and relax separate muscle groups starting with either your facial muscles or your feet, and progress throughout your body. Tense and relax each group of muscles twice for five seconds, with a five second pause. As you continue this practice, you will become more aware of where you hold tension, and what your body truly feels like when it is relaxed. With practice, you can train your body to "just relax" without having to go through the exercises. There are many examples online, but here is a simple one you could try.

2. Deep Breathing exercises: A quick, effective and easy technique, deep breathing involves taking slow, deep belly breaths from your diaphragm (not your throat), and attempting to slow the pace of your breathing. When you are tense, you are more likely to take fast, shallow breaths, which increases anxiety even more. The easiest way to slow it down is to count while your breathe.

You could start by slowly inhaling to the count of four, holding that breath to the count of four, exhaling to the count of four, and then holding that breath out to the count of four. Experiment with the number counts (use a count of six, eight, etc.), but it is important to breathe from your diaphragm with your mouth closed, and make sure you hold your breath between inhalations and exhalations. This is an easy technique to practice. Set aside some quiet time, but you can even practice while waiting at stoplights or sitting through a boring meeting at work!

3. Visual imagery:* What you picture in your mind's eye can affect your mood. Close your eyes and imagine a calm, relaxing, safe, beautiful place you have visited. Use all of your senses to heighten your awareness. Remind yourself of how calm and peaceful you feel in this safe, relaxing place.

4. Mindfulness meditation:*  Mindfulness is a form of meditation that allows you to focus on the present and avoid competing distractions. It can reduce stress and boost immune function. For a simple description of how it works, see this instruction. There are also some free mindfulness exercises online that you can try.

5. Exercise: Research has repeatedly shown that even small amounts of exercise reduce stress, improve memory and concentration, reduce fatigue, improve sleep, and boost mood. Find time to make exercise a part of your daily life.

6. Cognitive Strategies: "I think, therefore I am." Whether we realize it or not, our thoughts dramatically influence our feelings and behaviors. We may harbor unconscious expectations, assumptions and long-held beliefs that influence how we respond to situations. Cognitive behavioral strategies help you challenge entrenched beliefs that may hold you back.

For example, if you get nervous meeting with your child's teacher, it's not the teacher who makes you feel anxious; your underlying negative thoughts fuel your anxiety. Thoughts such as: "She will think I'm stupid" or "I can never express myself clearly" or "I know it's pointless because nothing will ever change" can create anxiety or feelings of hopelessness.

Some common negative thinking patterns include catastrophizing (assuming the worst will happen), mind-reading (assuming you know what the other person is thinking), or fortune-telling (thinking you can predict the future). A complete list of "cognitive distortions" can be found here and is worth viewing.

Once you recognize which thought patterns or distortions are most familiar for you, then you can work on challenging them. Ask yourself questions, such as:
"what's the worst that could happen?" and "what's the likelihood of that happening?" Seek out the data. Imagine that you are a scientist, journalist or attorney and need to know the facts. Just because you feel a certain way does not make it a reality. The more you can challenge irrational beliefs, the easier it will be to tame your stress. Sometimes it may be helpful to enlist the aid of a therapist with this task.

7. Have fun: Raising kids is hard work. You need to find time for the things you enjoy, even if life seems too busy. In fact, research has shown that pleasurable activities can reduce anxiety responses in the brain. Obviously, overindulging in food, sex, drugs or alcohol is not the answer, but finding healthy, enjoyable activities is critical to enhancing your well-being.

8. Social supports: Close friends and family can be essential supports when you feel stressed. Learning to reach out when you need emotional comfort is a necessity, as isolation can fuel depression. Research has shown that women, in particular, "tend and befriend" during times of stress. They instinctively take care of others, but also benefit from the support and companionship of friends. Even if you are busy, make time to nurture the friendships in your life.

9. Lifestyle management: This involves the basics. Getting enough rest. Eating healthy meals. Avoiding indulging in junk food, but not engaging in restrictive dieting either. Getting plenty of exercise. Managing your time effectively. Pacing yourself and delegating work tasks and household chores when possible. Finding time for pleasure and fun. Spending time with friends and your significant other. Oh, and of course, having fun with your kids!

*The above strategies are offered as suggestions, and are not intended as therapeutic advice. If your stress seems overwhelming, is it critical that you seek help from a licensed mental health professional, who can guide you with more specific tools for understanding and resolving the stress. Note: if you have a trauma history, please seek advice from a mental health professional before attempting any of the relaxation or imagery exercises, since they can occasionally cause distress.

Suggested Readings:

Bourne, E. (2011) The anxiety and phobia workbook. Oakland, CA: New     Harbinger Publications.
Burns, D. (2008). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: Harper.
Carlson, R. (1996). Don't sweat the small stuff, and it's all small stuff: Simple ways to keep little things from taking over your life. New York: Hyperion.
Davis, M., Eshelman, R., & McKay, M. (2008). The relaxation and stress reduction workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Emmett, R. (2008). Manage your time to reduce our stress: A handbook for the overworked, overscheduled and overwhelmed. New York: Walker & Co.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011). Mindfulness for beginners: Reclaiming the present moment and your life. Louisville, CO: Sounds True.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living (Revised edition). New York: Bantam.
Leahy, R. (2006). The worry cure: Seven steps to stop worrying from stopping you. New York: Harmony.
Stahl, B. & Goldstein, E. (2010). A mindfulness-based stress reduction workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Wehrenberg, M. (2008). The 10 best-ever anxiety management techniques. New York: Norton & Co.

This blog is part of the Hoagies Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Self-Care. To read more blogs in the hop, click on the following link:




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