This blog is one of a series created to assist parents during the COVID-19 health crisis.
It’s easy to see that our society did not predict how far-reaching and long-lasting the COVID-19 pandemic would become. And yet, parents are making do as best they can. Mothers and fathers are working hard and making difficult sacrifices to support their children during this time. As we collectively navigate this long and uncertain road, it’s important to remember that your needs, as a parent, as a person, also matter. You may have heard the saying, “Put your oxygen mask on first,” but what can be done when there is little or no time to step away and have a moment to yourself? For many families, the health crisis has meant that parents have assumed the role of teacher while also maintaining their job. This gives them little time to take a break of any length. Knowing and using a few ABA principles in the brief moments that arise throughout your day can improve quality of life in arduous times.
BCBAs and ABA therapists are trained to teach prosocial behaviors in order to replace existing challenging behaviors (see What is ABA?). But many don’t know that the science of ABA also includes examining private events (thoughts and feelings). Clinicians, including BCBAs, who are trained in Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT) can help their clients identify unwanted thoughts or feelings and choose to respond with adaptive behaviors, even when the current situation seems overwhelming. The ultimate goal of this approach is to identify when an unwanted thought or feeling occurs, accept it without trying to change it, and choose to engage in the prosocial behavior that will yield better quality-of-life outcomes. Another way to briefly phrase this is disobeying yourself to improve your life; you may have “rules” in your head, but you don’t always have to follow them!
“…notice thoughts for what they are – impermanent mental phenomena that are sometimes useful, and sometimes not.” (Coyne, et al, 2020)
Although this method may sound like a lengthy process to some, there are daily opportunities to practice this “disobey my own rule” perspective. Below are a handful of self-care suggestions that take little or no time (don’t feel the need to do them all!).
Small Moments to Reflect
Checking in with yourself to monitor your stress level is not selfish. In fact, by asking yourself, “Am I feeling stressed,” you are proactively keeping your demeanor and tone towards your loved ones in check. You are helping your family!
Parents may be occupied from the moment they wake to when they go to sleep, but it’s likely that there are 5 to 60 seconds to pause.
Here is something that takes 60 seconds:
- Find a still point to fixate your gaze upon, take one slow breath in.
- Attend to your shoulders, notice if they’re raised and if you can relax and lower them.
- Stretch your neck muscles by rotating your head from shoulder to shoulder.
- Ask, “How’s my stress right now?” If you notice your stress level is high, take a few extra moments to breathe deeply and slowly. This tells your nervous system that you are safe, and reduces the likelihood of demonstrating stress-induced behaviors. Above all, don’t judge yourself for feeling stressed, simply notice the feeling.
- Take just one more moment to play a short movie in your head. Envision yourself responding calmly to those around you as family members are pushing your buttons and you are experiencing feelings of stress/fatigue/anger.
- Write down a few words of something you enjoyed about your day, whether it be observing your child feeling happy, a connection you felt with your child, a healthy choice you made for yourself, etc.
- Re-read the words you’ve written while taking a few slow deep breaths.
- Give you kiddo a kiss on the forehead and make eye contact if that’s comfortable to you both.
- Choose to eat the apple instead of the potato chips.
- Pause to examine your posture.
- Thank yourself for the efforts you’re making to help you and your family.
These suggestions are small, but they add up. Small moments are the contents of our day, and positive moments overtime impact our world-view. Each time you make a positive choice, allow yourself to hear that little “Good job” voice in your head!
If You Have 15 Minutes or More
Use your precious downtime wisely! Notice the difference between behaviors you do that are calming, and behaviors you do that only help you escape the present moment. Outlets like social media can be relaxing to some and not to others. A question you can ask is, “Does this activity leave me feeling calmer, or is it something I do just to keep my mind occupied?”
- A 10-minute walk lowers blood pressure and can reduce stress.
- Stretching can prevent chronic tightness, and it increases blood flow to your muscles and brain.
- Breathe deeply for several minutes. Try sitting or lying still and counting your breaths. We rarely use all of our lung capacity; see how deeply you can breathe.
If you notice your mind is drifting to unwanted thoughts and feelings during these exercises, examine the thoughts without judgement. Remember, you don’t have to believe all of your thoughts; your brain is just trying to problem solve – that’s it’s job.
Do you notice a shift in your thinking after reading this? Being introduced to a new perspective can serve as a reminder that our thoughts, culture, perspectives, rules, unwanted thoughts, even our fundamental language are just one way of experiencing the world.
If you’d like to learn more about coping during the pandemic with ACT, see Dr. Lisa Coyne’s blog entry on Fighting Family Burnout.