By Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D.
February 18, 2014
Kids with learning disabilities live with a great deal of stress in their lives, a result of their daily efforts to meet the demands of school, navigate the social environment, and handle all the activities on their plate. Parents of kids with LD and ADHD have too much stress as well, juggling family, work, and the logistics of getting everyone everywhere.
Parents who learn to handle stress themselves are healthier and more effective, and can teach the same skills to their children.
Studies show that stress causes physical change in your body; it’s not “all in your mind.” You have a physical reaction to stress whether you’re actually faced with the stressful situation or just thinking about it. As a result of spending too much time dwelling on what’s happened or worrying about what’s going to happen, many of us live with chronic stress.
Physical symptoms of chronic stress include everything from poor concentration, headaches, stomachaches and sleep problems to a more vulnerable immune system and infertility.
Tools to Manage Stress
There are scientifically proven tools to deal with stress that actually heal these changes in your body. They are free, readily available, and easy to use. They fit into a too-busy-no-time lifestyle. You can use them yourself and teach them to your kids as well; they work for everyone.
- Relaxation and meditation. These powerful techniques teach your body to undo the chronic stress reaction: you learn to be in the present moment and to let go of your thoughts. After consistent practice, you need only to do a minute of these techniques and your body will relax. In time, you’ll become more stress-resistant. Start with a few minutes of practice and build up to longer stretches. As little as 10-12 minutes a day can make a huge difference. When you’re used to it, you can meditate anywhere (except when you must pay attention to something outside yourself, like driving). There are many ways to meditate. All you need to do is breathe, focus on something, and return to that focus when you start thinking. We all start thinking. What’s important is to let the thoughts go when you’re aware of them. Your focus can be muscle relaxation, repeating a phrase or word, counting, visualization, being aware of your breath, being aware of sounds or feelings in your body, listening to music, walking, yoga, tai chi, etc. CDs and apps for practicing relaxation or meditation are easy to come by online. Try several to find one you like.
- Journaling. Another simple technique scientists have found to make people feel happier is to keep a gratitude journal. (There are apps for this.) We all tend to focus on what goes wrong rather than what goes right. To counter the negativity, write down two or three items each day that go right. They don’t have to be momentous: Getting an email or text from a friend, taking a moment for a cup of tea, or noticing a pretty sunset can all be on the list.
- Make it green. A third technique that may surprise you is to have plants around. Science shows that having plants nearby helps us concentrate. Matched groups of children in classrooms with shrubs or trees (not just grass) outside the window got better grades on the same tests. Have some plants indoors, or take walks outside. You don’t need a green thumb; some plants tolerate neglect well.
- Reframing. This technique involves learning to think about a situation in a more positive way. I call it “positive self talk” when speaking with kids. It’s a basic part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which aims to change the brain to relieve anxiety and depression. With reframing, you recognize the negative thought that’s automatic in a stressful situation—“This will never work out”— and find a more positive way of thinking—“Change is slow, but we’re going step by step.” (This is great for driving when you’re late and stuck in traffic. Instead of thinking “We’ll never get there, the afternoon is ruined,” be aware and substitute, “We’ll get there when we get there, and the world isn’t going to end.” It’s true.) What’s important is for you to figure out how to reframe, and then do it aloud in front of your child. You can explain that thinking about things positively helps you. Modeling works to help your child see reframing as a life tool rather than something you do to “fix” him.
Dr. Eckerd is an evaluator, consultant, and therapist, who uses these techniques in her therapy practice and has trained at the Benson-Henry Institute at Mass General/Harvard to teach these skills to parents.