Friday, March 8, 2013

How to deal: a jargon-free approach to mindfulness

via amazon 
Parenting advice is almost entirely concerned with managing your kids (feeding, potty training, sleeping, etc). But that seems a little misguided because most of what our kids will learn about managing themselves, they will learn from watching us and how we manage ourselves. When it comes to things like eating, going potty, and sleeping, I think I'm in pretty good shape. But when it comes to the more complicated things, like dealing with stress (particularly the stress the kids cause), I'm the first to admit that there is room for improvement. The good news is, this book breaks down exactly how to deal with those moments of stress. It even explains the phases of calming down. Like the phases of grief. Except with more cursing.

The Fight or Flight Phase
When something stressful happens, you will immediately enter what the author calls, the "oh f#$%" phase. At this point, you are in fight or flight mode. And as a parent, you are allowed to neither fight with nor flight from your kids. So this is not an ideal place from which to parent. Or really to do anything, unless your family is approached by a wild lion or something and you really should fight/flight (protip: choose flight). (another protip: if you need to make a run for it, do it like this lady: with no pants/on a four wheeler. Baller.)
What not to do: 
  • Don't tell yourself "it's okay." Obviously it's not or you wouldn't be in fight or flight mode. 
  • Don't talk to anyone. At first I was like, huh? But now I'm like, yeah. Catharsis isn't helpful, it just makes things worse. Venting during fight/flight mode is a catharsis. You aren't calm enough to use this discussion as a spring board for problem solving; you will likely just use it as a way to make yourself (and probably everyone else) even more upset. Basically, any action you take during fight/flight mode will likely prolonging the "oh f^&*" phase and make it harder for you to calm down.
What to do:
  • Breath. Take some deep breaths. One things I liked about Everyday Blessings was the way it compared your breath to a gentle rocking motion. I like rocking: hammocks, waves, rocking chairs,  swings. All good things. I can get behind that. And when you think about it, your breath was probably one of the first things that rocked your little ones when they were in your belly (and you when you were in your mama's belly). It really helps me calm down when I stop and think about how its like there is a little mini/internal porch swing or ocean waves or whatever that I have immediate access to, just by focusing on my breath.
  • Shut your eyes. Obviously this isn't a parent-specific list of things to do. With small kids, shutting your eyes can be a particularly bad idea. Especially if you are trying to calm down because your kids are doing something dangerous. So, you know, use your discretion here.
  • Describe your feelings: I'm scared, I'm frustrated, I'm overwhelmed, etc. Try not to judge; "I feel like an incompetent mom with crazy-loud children" isn't what we are going for here. But the act of (objectively) labeling your emotion helps you (according to the author) transition from your limbic/emotional brain to your prefrontal/rational brain. Which dials down the fight/flight symptoms.

The Transition Phase
The author breaks this one into two phases: the "oh geez" and "oh god" phase. I thought those phases were sort of redundant/meaningless/blasphemous. I just decided to just combine/rename them. This is where your pulse and blood pressure are returning to baseline; you are not quite back to normal, but you are out of the danger zone. Keep focusing on your breath. This will take practice because your first instinct will be to give in to the sense of urgency and  react as soon as possible. The purpose of this phase (I think) is to make you double check that you are calmly acting and not hastily reacting. Just remind yourself, no toddler has ever experienced serious lasting consequences from the "wrong" colored sippy cup. It is not an actual emergency.

The Planning Phase
Basically, you tell yourself: oh well. this just happened/is happening. I can't undo it, but I can try to make things better starting right now. Since you are calm, you can access your logical/prefrontal brain and start deciding on next steps that will make things better. I love the idea of setting an intention to always try to make things better. For example, when I want to complain about something, I stop and ask myself: am I making things better? I'm not saying complaining is against the rules, but if you are going to bring attention to a problem, you should also be prepared to present a solution. That is good advice in the home, at the office, and generally anywhere.

The Let's Do This Phase
Once you figured out some next steps to improve the situation, go do them. Now you are in a position to calmly act: respond, or hug it out, or clean it up, or whatever it is you gotta do.

Read my first and second posts on mindful parenting.

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