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Modeling Healthy Responses to Stress

Hi parents,

We all have been stuck on an emotional roller coaster over the past couple of years. The world keeps throwing up more and more challenges every day, logic has left the building. Many have not seen their families for long months and years, some are fleeing on short notice, and the uncertainty of tomorrow is pushing us more and more towards panic buying, crystal ball reading, gossip, fear and anxiety. The good days of positive thinking when life feels safe have been replaced by days filled with negativity when helplessness and overwhelm prevail.

And for parents, all of that is multiplied by the need to homeschool while maintaining some semblance of our ‘normal’ life. We, as parents, are the role models for our children, whether we want it or not, and the way that they will deal with stress and anxiety in the future, will, to a large extent, depend on the core example that they regularly have in front of their eyes: their parents.

So, as flight attendants instruct, “put your oxygen mask on first before helping others”, to help children to remain cool, calm and collected, we must first work on taming the anxiety and stress of our own.

And so here are a few tips to help you calm your body and mind:

1. Breathing

Appropriate breathing is an amazing tool that we can always use. It helps us to reduce worry and stress and manage overwhelm. When we are in a state of panic and anxiety, our bloodstream is overloaded with oxygen, so the aim is to reduce the oxygen level in the blood by practising the long exhale. Use the 1-1-3 (or 4-6-8) technique. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and begin by inhaling for a count of four, pause for six and exhale for a count of eight. Start with 3-5 breaths like that and I promise you will notice the difference.

2. Grounding

Sit with your back straight and put both your feet firmly on the ground. Visualise the connection with the floor underneath. How strong and stable it is. Breathe calmly and deeply and physically feel the stability under your feet. A few minutes should be enough to feel calmer.

3. Exercise

We can still go out, so use this time to get your body moving while practising social distancing. Rhythmic activities are the best way to bring your body down from hectic, anxious levels to a calmer, rational state. Walking, running, repetitive sets of exercises will help your limbic system calm down and help you get access to more rational and critical cortical thinking.

4. Limit media exposure.

We are bombarded with an overload of information: news feeds, gossip, panic-inducing videos and controversial ‘facts’ and fake news. It leads to mental overload and anxiety, which children can sense and feed on. Allow yourself a specific information window a day and restrict the sources to those you can trust (social media groups and chats are rarely those sources). Technology can be an excellent tool to connect with others while being physically distant, but relying too heavily on media can be detrimental.

5. Journaling

There are many different ways of doing it, but one of the best ways to offload the chatter and clutter of your mental and emotional state is to dump it on paper. Many books recommend doing it first thing in the morning, but honestly, it doesn’t matter when you do it during your day. Use the opportunity to pour all your worries and anxieties out on the page and either rip it up afterwards or save it for the future to reflect on what you went through during these testing days (which will change for the better).

6. Make lists

Despite the mental overload, we still have things to do. And there is always a sense of satisfaction when you are crossing out things as “done”. It also adds structure to the day. You can colour code the tasks: perhaps Red is complex and energy-consuming; yellow middling and green lighter and easier. Depending on your mental and physical state on the day, deal with the corresponding tasks.

7. Be kind to yourself

It is important to stretch yourself and step out of your comfort zone. Simply acknowledging that you are in a constant stretching mode at present, are out of your comfort zone and are doing your best can feel liberating. No one will suffer if your child misses one zoom or a school worksheet remains incomplete.

8. Be kind to others

Things will get better. Take it one day at a time and remember that everyone has been under prolonged constant stress. We all are struggling to some extent at the moment, and sometimes a simple smile can make someone’s day much better.

Emotions are contagious. As the famous neuropsychologist Dr Perry states, “The same way anxiety and panic is contagious, so is calm…Don’t underestimate your power to bring calm to others, and don’t underestimate the impact of dysregulated people on you.”

Breathe, exercise, choose your tasks for the day, help those around you, and you will notice that by modelling socially, emotionally and physically healthier responses to stress and anxiety, you can create a positive chain reaction at home.

And if nothing works, remind yourself that it is ok not to be ok and ask for professional help. There are many professionals in Hong Kong and worldwide that you can reach out to. And it might be a quicker and more efficient way of getting back on track


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