Saturday, August 18, 2012

Secrets to Handling Stress

As I was triaging one of many resource lists I subscribe to, I came across a question for parents who work and simultaneously homeschool.  The question led me to reflection and my own personal response, which follows:


You had asked about stress for those who work and homeschool too. I have failed at this as much as I have succeeded; it is a work in progress to be sure!
 
First, I try to remember that being a parent of young kids is such a temporary state of being. They grow so fast. So if at this stage of my life I am not exercising, sleeping, reading, exploring, etc. as much as I used to, want to, or need, that's okay. I am strong, I have lived amazing adventures pre-kids, and now is the time to (hopefully) relish what I have.
 
Theoretically, I get up before they do and do a long run. Hahahahaha. Every day, that's the theory. The reality is that I only manage this every once in a while and most of the time am taking "this one day" to catch up on some must-do deadline for work or a homeschool program and will have my long run "tomorrow." My mindset is hopeful and optimistic: as soon as I finish this one new task, I will get on schedule. I have always run marathons, so long slow runs are part of my body's need for relaxation; not having that time does take its toll. The reality for now, however, is that hope of exercise, not actual exercise, is my best current anecdote to stress. Did I say that this is imperfect?
 
The stress that causes the most recurrent feeling of panic is the reality of never being quite good enough to meet my own expectations. I'm not good enough at work, where other professors can write more, or present more papers, or contribute to more committees because they aren't simultaneously teaching Latin to six year olds (while learning it), facilitating book clubs, deciding where to lead our group of nature kids, or deciding between curriculum types. I'm not good enough with my kids because I'm no expert in (fill in the blank, it is a long list), I sometimes feed them peanut butter sandwiches for dinner (on the good days when I have time to shop), and I often fall asleep when reading to them at night. I'm not good enough because I'm not making the money I used to and don't have enough for tutors or camps or many classes. This is all a very real and on bad days is a real source of stress and panic.
 
One way I combat this stress is my own version of a "gratitude journal" that a wise friend started to keep when she developed cancer. Instead of stressing over the many things I am NOT good enough at, I make lists (mental, through a family blog, and sometimes on paper, esp. for work reviews, a tenure folder, etc.) of the things that I HAVE accomplished. They are much shorter than the "haven't dones" that plague me in moments of panic, but once I start making the lists, they are satisfying nonetheless. Number of students in my program. New infrastructure for faculty and students (newsletter, manuals, FB page, new concentration, internships). Self-analyses from my students about why their experience made a real difference to them. Things my kids have done, learned, experienced. The richness of camping adventures. Amazing thoughts that my kids have. The time to listen to those thoughts, discuss deep and not-so-deep questions, impart values, and enjoy books, music, opera, nature, and each other. It really is a huge stress reliever to make those lists and I find the process enormously reassuring, especially when I am in a panic.
 
My spiritual beliefs and religious faith are also a cornerstone. Ultimately, this is the biggest single factor in sustaining me through times of stress and chaos.
 
Carefully using electronics, not being used by them, makes me counter-cultural, but I find it extremely important to controlling my stress and managing my time. The phone can go to voicemail. Email can wait. I need to focus on the child/student/person who needs me and not necessarily on the one interrupting at the other end of the phone/computer. My approach to this is also imperfect, often causing stress by irritating those (my mother and at least one of my sisters) who don't think that I respond with the immediacy that they expect. But relishing the precious present and the task at hand is enormously important to me - even and especially if that task is simply being present - talking, reading, listening, playing.
 
Also, a lesson I learned through years of backpacking - when I am really stressed, the most important thing to do is to help someone else. No matter how impossible it seems to do everything AND add something for someone else, I find it is really important to get out of myself. Reaching out can provide strength, helps put the stress in perspective, and is thus enormously empowering. Mentally, it moves you away from thinking of yourself as a victim/focusing on your weaknesses. In the mountains, I have pushed myself on extended trips until I have literally wept alongside the trail. However, the worst days were always relative and if someone else was further back, in more agony, that knowledge somehow gave me the strength to get beyond my own exhausted pain to help. I remember the day that I climbed Mt Whitney with 11 days worth of food on my back - the pack must have weighed 70 pounds and we did a 15 mile day with many thousands of feet of climbing. I made the summit and then descended to a lake on the north side of the pass with a friend who was just beginning a 17-day trip with me. She lay down in complete and utter exhaustion and watching her, I knew that it would be up to me to cook dinner, set up the tent, and get the food from our packs so that they weren't a temptation to bears. Her need gave me that strength. I try to remember that lesson in the more mundane - but also more important - daily tasks of taking care of a household, homeschooling two kids, and working full time, that the impossible task of making more time to reach out to someone else is both important and empowering.
 
Hope that helps, even without the drama of dirt, sweat, tears - and bears! As I said, I am definitely still learning....

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