As a parent of young children, I have been a mess since the school shootings. I'm jittery, irritable and am having trouble sleeping, What can I do to avoid anxiety when I feel our sense of safety has been so shattered?
You are not alone. Heartbroken parents across the country are reeling in the aftermath of the tragedy at Sandy Hook, making it seem impossible to establish a sense of calm in this storm. Still, children need parents who feel solid and sure; their fearfulness can be fueled by a parents' worries.
Here are some tips for managing your anxiety, so you can be the calm, confident captain of the ship your children need you to be.
• Surround yourself with those you love. We aren't meant to go it alone when we're hurting or afraid. Spend time with other parents and prop one another up. Call a friend. Take part in a positive social media "tribe" of parents. Isolation can fuel anxiety; we are social creatures. Being with those you care about can be deeply comforting.
• Engage mindfully in familiar rituals. In the midst of extraordinary circumstances, we are comforted by the ordinary. Wash dishes by hand in the sink. Rake leaves. Floss. And while you're doing those things, be fully present. Notice the warmth of the water. Pay attention to the smell of the crushed leaves. Staying in your body and out of your head will help keep anxiety at bay.
• Stay nourished. When we're anxious, we often lose our appetite, or stuff ourselves mindlessly with food that isn't good for our bodies. Being well-nourished can help us manage our anxiety. Take time to create a healthy meal and reconnect with your family around the dinner table to fortify your bodies and your spirits.
• Take action. Some schools welcome parents onto their campus to help out. Ask what you can do as administrators look for ways to reassure children and parents that all is well. Organize an after-school parent-child outing to a park. Volunteer with an organization that helps children in need. Channel anxious energy into action that helps you feel empowered to reduce feelings of helplessness.
• Schedule worry time. Allow yourself blocks of time to worry -- say, ten minutes three times a day -- and do nothing but worry during that time. And then, work toward disciplining yourself to stop the train of fear-inducing thoughts at other times of the day. I realize this may be easier said than done, but the mere act of setting an intention to get a handle on the flood of scary thoughts circling your mind can lessen their impact.
• Exercise. Some parents have found themselves glued to the television, unable to turn away from the wreckage, perhaps in the hopes of finding an answer that will explain how this impossible event happened. Cut back on media exposure. Move your body. Breathe deeply. Go for a bike ride, take a dance class or head out for a hike to burn off excess mental energy.
• Make a list of all the ways your child is safe. It's easy to feel powerless right now. Write down the many ways that your child is protected, both at school and at home. If need be, find out what your school is doing to keep students safe.
• Cry. For some parents, feelings of sorrow about this tragedy are too big to be contained, and leak out as anger, worry or obsessive thinking. Humans release stress hormones with tears. Allow yourself to have a good cry (when your kids aren't around) to offload some of your pent up emotion.
• Challenge your thoughts. Our emotions are fueled by our beliefs. Identify the fearful thoughts that trigger your anxiety, and like a lawyer, look for evidence that they aren't true or likely to happen. It may help to do this as an exercise. Write down a worry, and then list at least three counter-arguments that "prove" it to be unlikely or untrue.
• Meditate, pray, spend time in nature or write in your journal. Reach out to your pastor, rabbi or priest. Read books that inspire and uplift you. Watch movies that remind you of the resilience of the human spirit. Find ways that restore peace to your heart and remind you of all that is good in life.
• Sleep. I know many parents are experiencing fitful sleep right now, but rest is vital to managing anxiety. Before you go to bed, write down five things you're grateful for. If you can't fall or stay asleep, mentally review the blessings in your life. If frightening thoughts bombard your mind, "change the channel," choosing to focus on thoughts and memories that help you feel happy, safe and strong.
• Play with your kids. Go for a bike ride together. Pull out a board game. Build a snowman. Tell jokes. Jump rope. Be present to the life you have, allowing you and your children to be lifted out of fear and worry with some good, old-fashioned fun.
• Do things that settle you emotionally. Take a warm bath. Listen to music. Knit. Paint. Sing. Think about the things that soothed you as a child or that have calmed you in the past, and make time to do those things now.
• Stay sober. You may want to drink or rely on unhealthy substances to feel better, but in the long run, you will only make things worse. Look for healthy ways to take the edge off your anxiety, and if those strategies aren't working, get professional help. Your kids need you to be their rock; being altered prevents that.
The events at Sandy Hook have left an indelible mark on us all, but together, we will get through this. My prayers continue to go to the families in Newtown, as I, like all of you, grieve the tragic loss of such precious little lives.
May we each find our way to some sense of peace, and offer comfort to those we love.
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