The New York Times recently ran a story called “When the Caregivers Need Healing,” in which the writer describes the stress, depression and often seeming futility of raising children with special needs or emotional disorders. I have personally met parents whose lives are a living hell due to the anxiety and sheer exhaustion of trying to do it all. Add to the daily ins and outs of parenting the struggles to provide therapies, get support, navigate the school system or obtain special care for older children, and you have a recipe for burnout and disease.
When parenting children with special needs, it is as important that we care for ourselves as it is that we care for our kids. I can’t stress the truth of this strongly enough. A new study has shown that parents of children with special needs often have chronic stresses that impact their immune and cardiovascular systems. The long-term effects of chronic stress can be enormously debilitating, even fatal. I recently went through a period of depression — the most draining experience I’ve had since my son was born seven years ago. I’ve been on the mend for the last month or so, and here are some tools I used to keep me afloat that might help other parents of children with special needs.
Many people say they can’t meditate because they believe they need to clear their minds and find some type of nirvana experience. That couldn’t be further from the truth, especially as a parent of a child with demanding needs. I purchased a series of 21 guided meditations that help me get centered each day, if even for just a moment. Meditation is not a quick fix for stress and depression, but studies show that it has a calming, organizing and centering effect on the brain. Meditation also has the ability to positively impact one’s overall health. I recommend that people give it a chance. No one meditates “perfectly”; the point is to literally practice.
Join a Women’s Group
Being with other women has been scientifically proven to increase the oxytocin levels (the “feel-good” hormone) in a woman’s brain and body. It’s easy to isolate oneself when your personal life is very demanding, but being with supportive women builds community and a sense of belonging that is needed when times get tough. The women’s group I belong to has existed for many years, and they always remind me that I am safe and never alone in this world.
Breathing deeply ... has a way of bringing us to the present moment, into our bodies and away from our busy minds.
Ask for Help
This advice seems really simple, right, but I’ve found that it’s really hard for moms of children with special needs to ask people to help them. I struggle with this myself, but I have learned to reach out and ask for support. We must remember that while other people have their own lives that demand their attention, that doesn’t mean they aren’t available to assist you. This past year I have asked for financial help, emotional help and extra time alone. Not once has one of my friends or family members declined to assist me. Each time they have done or given what they could, and it has been very helpful.
Take a Deep Breath
You’d be surprised how often you hold your breath. Most of us engage in shallow breathing, meaning we only take air into our lungs and release it. Deep breathing means we bring the air all the way down to our abdomen, and hold it for second or so before exhaling. Breathing deeply results in simply getting more oxygen into our bodies and bloodstream — plus it has a way of bringing us to the present moment, into our bodies and away from our busy minds. Mindful breathing is an easy but effective way to nurture yourself.
You’ve probably read or been told to start a gratitude journal or to spend some time thinking about the things that you appreciate. The logic behind this is that if we take a moment each day to list the things we’re grateful for, our focused attention toward gratitude will create more to be grateful for. I’ve been doing this for the past four months with two girlfriends at the beginning of each day before I climb out of bed. This practice hasn’t magically changed my life, but what it has done is get my mind on all the blessings that I enjoy. Rather than starting my day with the worry train running through my mind, I feel fortunate and peaceful and happy to be me. As a caregiver, it gives me a much-needed reminder that while every day has its hurdles to jump, it also brings a chance to be kind to not just my child, but to myself as well.