Covid-19 has increased stress for parents all over the world. When concerns such as the health of family members, uncertainty about schools, childcare and employment are present, you may place your own self-care at the bottom of your list of priorities.
We can only care for others if we are also caring for ourselves. We often feel that in order to make improvements, everything must change radically and we forget that small things matter. For example, self-care goals of “getting in shape” or “being a better parent” may seem daunting or unachievable. It may be more helpful to begin with small steps, like taking the stairs instead of the lift or stopping to kiss your child as they pass.
Research suggests that big impact can come from small changes. These small changes all interact with each other and with the rest of our lives. Try to focus on the changes you can control and then you will cope better with stresses you cannot control. For example, suppose we are not sleeping well, and are exhausted and overwhelmed by upcoming work deadlines; we may not be able to avoid the work deadlines and stress, but we can make changes to our sleep routine which then improves our ability to cope with life’s demands.
We struggle to be kind to ourselves, particularly when stressed. We are kind to our loved ones by acknowledging and empathising with their struggles, yet we find it difficult to offer ourselves the same compassion. Self-compassion builds resilience, improves coping and has been found to predict a better quality of life and overall psychological wellbeing.
When we feel distressed or in chaos, our bodies try to protect us with a “fight or flight” response. This leads us to overreact with alarm or to run away or avoid. If we are kind and compassionate to ourselves, we pause and say to ourselves “this is difficult”, “this situation is hard”. This can be very difficult to do. It is helpful to consider the situation as if you were your partner or your friend. What would someone who loves you say to comfort you in the current circumstance? Thinking like this allows our compassionate self to speak gently and wisely to our frightened self, like a loving parent speaks to a child.
Try taking time each day to think about how a compassionate person might speak to you and imagine what it might feel like to treat yourself compassionately. Then try to speak to yourself in the same way as you would like others to speak to you; with kindness. For example, take a moment, a deep breath and say to yourself “I know you are criticising me because you are suffering. I see your suffering and I am here for you, offering kindness and love”.
Self-compassion creates a safe space that allows us to be imperfect. It reduces self-criticism, shame and guilt. An added bonus is that our children will see us modelling self-compassion and learn self-compassion for themselves. When your child is struggling, you could ask him/her “what do you think your best friend/grandparent would say to you about this?” You are teaching your child to treat themselves compassionately, which is one of the best gifts you could give them for their own positive mental health and wellbeing.
Top Tips: “Little Things” that Can Make a Big Difference
Keeping active – Being active every day, even going for a walk is proven to have a positive impact on your mood.
Talk about your problems – Problems feel smaller when shared with others. They don’t always have to be solved – just talking about it will do you good.
Look out for others – Lending an ear to or catching up with someone distant or in trouble can change their day, or their lives. Again, you don’t have to fix anything for them – just listening is a huge help.
Do things with others – group activities that you enjoy are proven to have a positive impact on how you feel, be it a game of football, group zoom quizzes, volunteering. Be sure to remain in line with current NPHET and Government Covid-19 guidelines.
Eat healthily – A regular healthy, balanced and nutritious diet will help both your physical and mental health, positively impacting how you feel.
Stay in touch – Catching up with friends and family is good for our mental health, reminding us that we’re part of a community, positively impacting how we feel while remaining in line with current NPHET and Government Covid-19 guidelines.
Drink less alcohol – For the average Irish drinker, reducing alcohol will have a positive impact on their health and mental wellbeing, making it easier to cope with day to day difficulties and stresses.
Sleep well – A good night’s sleep (7 or 8 hours), as often as possible, will positively impact on how you feel. This might not always be possible if you have small children. Protect your sleep if you can, it will do you good.
This article was contributed by Katie McClean, Assistant Psychologist with Primary Care Child and Family Psychology Services and a member of Parenting Limerick. Parenting Limerick is a network of parenting and family support organisations.