I’m currently reading The Mayo Clinic’s Guide to Stress Free Living, based on the popular stress management program offered at the clinic. I’ve read books on controlling stress, managing it, meditating it away, limiting news exposure and thinking positive thoughts, but nothing ever seems to stick. I even took a stress reduction class while attending Ohio State University (yes, it exists) and I came away with much of the same; eat right, exercise, sleep, surround yourself with good friends, and immerse yourself in an enjoyable hobby. As a college student, I had all the time in the world to “practice” these stress reduction techniques, but now as a mother of three that same list is laughable.
Eat right? Maybe, but usually my diet consists of coffee drowned in half and half and a protein bar for breakfast, whatever the kids are eating for lunch and a salad for dinner if I’m feeling ambitious. Exercise sounds like such a great idea. Working out would surely help my stress levels; I could simply sweat it all out. Have you ever tried to exercise with a toddler around? He thinks I’m laying on the floor to play with him. He thinks leg lifts and squats are his invitation to wiggle around my legs like a snake. Forget cardio. I made it through 4 minutes of Zumba before I had to change a diaper, clean up a glass of spilled milk and pay the paper girl. I lost my motivation. Oh well. That 4 minutes sure felt good.
So what do I do in my spare time, while I’m not eating right or squeezing in 4 minute workouts? I ruminate. I agonize over things I’ve done and should have done differently. I worry about things that haven’t happened and probably never will. I used to do this before kids, but after becoming a mother it has gotten much worse. If the kids are playing outside I keep a keen eye out for a large, white, windowless kidnapper van. If they are running through the house eating an apple, I worry they will choke. If they leave the house in anyone’s car but mine I fear they will be in a fiery crash and I will never see them again. Then I brood over what harsh words I last said to them and whether or not I kissed them goodbye. At school, I pray no-one comes in to gun down the place. It horrifies and disgusts me, yet I cannot stop.
So, I turned to the all-powerful Mayo Clinic book for advice on ruminating. Here’s what I learned:
- “With time, the brain gets sculpted so that mind wandering becomes a habit. Inattention to the present moment becomes hard-wired.” Yikes!
- “The wandering mind is an unhappy mind. A brain that’s not engaged in meaningful activity is usually planning, problem-solving, ruminating over the past or worrying about the future.”
- “It’s not your brain’s fault. Your brain gets overloaded with countless decisions each day and responds by clocking overtime. A 50-hour workweek becomes padded with 20 hours of ruminations…regrets and what-ifs replay in the mind.”
- “Modern fears commonly sprout from FEAR – false expectations appearing real. As Mark Twain said, “I have suffered several terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”
Understanding why it happens makes it easier to regulate. I’m really condensing this, but make the present moment meaningful by being intentional with your attention. And utilize these principles:
- Practice Gratitude (focus on what went right)
- Practice Compassion (see a situation from another’s perspective)
- Practice Acceptance (yourself, others and situations)
- Look for higher meaning (Who am I? Why do I exist?)
- Practice forgiveness (yourself and others)
- Find your tribe (friends, family, community)
- Celebrate, reflect and pray
The book goes on to say a few things that really spoke to me. Perfection isn’t necessary. Be more flexible. Lower your expectations. As a mother, I can use these little nuggets throughout the day to remind me to stay focused, get out of my head and back into the present moment. I must constantly remind myself that perfection does not exist. After a rough day of no naps and running errands I remind myself to be flexible. Scrambled eggs for dinner again is ok. No-one is starving to death and I’m not spending a stress filled hour trying to plan out and cook a meal. Everyone is happy.
Do I still worry as much? Sometimes, if I allow my mind to wander. Do I feel less stressed now? Not really, but it’s nice to be reminded of what I should be doing. I still cringe when the baby throws food across the kitchen or screaming matches between the girls threaten to drown me. But I try to remind myself life doesn’t have to be perfect. You just have to show up and be ready to play. Most days, those simple thoughts gets me through.