I remember lying in bed, staring at the wall, wondering, Am I going insane?
It wasn’t just a frustrated moment of throwing up my hands and yelling at the kids, “I am going to lose my mind!” It was a quietly creeping fear that from here I was just going to circle the drain into further confusion and chaos.
My second child was a baby, and for several months I had debilitating insomnia. I was stuck in an awful cycle where my anxiety and OCD were keeping me awake, and my mind-numbing exhaustion was aggravating my anxiety. I was hardly functioning. Life seemed hopelessly shallow, and I was going through the motions just trying to survive.
Up until that season, I didn’t have a category in my life for self-care. I wanted to please people. I knew how to work hard. I tended to pack my schedule full, and when life got hard, I just pushed harder.
But that season was, literally and figuratively, my wake-up call. Pushing harder and doing more, more, more was no longer an option for me. If I was going to stay sane as a mom, and be there for my family the way I wanted to be, I needed to make changes in my life to minimize and better deal with stress.
That was a little over three years ago. Since then I’ve developed practices that have helped me be in a healthier place. These practices aren’t for everyone. I know I’m vulnerable in areas where some people are not, so I need to put up safeguards for myself. You may be perfectly okay burning the candle at both ends, whereas I would be a hot mess, wax melting all over the place, house on fire, kind of mess.
But I think all of us, to more or less extent, need practices in our lives to help us deal with stress. These are mine.
White space on the calendar
I used to pack my schedule full. I remember one day when my oldest was a toddler, and I had a social event in the morning, another in the afternoon, and another in the evening. This might have been okay except that I’m an introvert (an introvert caring for a toddler, no less) and I had given myself no downtime to recharge. I remember prepping for the evening event when I just wanted to go to bed. Looking back, I think, why was I doing that to myself? And to the people I was hanging out with? What was the point of going through life exhausted and dreading the next event?
I once invited over a mother of several young children, who responded, “We can’t come that morning because we have something scheduled for the evening.”
What? I thought. I’m not inviting you for the evening. I’m asking about the morning. Then I realized that she knew her limits, and in the stressful season she was already in with multiple young children, she was only scheduling one thing per day. She was perfectly comfortable saying no to whatever wasn’t best for her and her kids.
I’ve learned that some of my favorite moments in life are when we have nothing going on and are just resting at home as a family. Moments when we pull out a board game on the dining room table, when I sit on the deck reading a novel, when I get down on the floor to play with my kids, when we spontaneously take a walk together.
If these are my favorite moments, why am I frenetically filling the schedule so that we hardly ever have them? What is this game—whoever has the busiest schedule wins? I quit!
I’ve been learning to make white space on the calendar, and to plan each thing in the context of everything else—meaning that if we already have plans for Friday morning, maybe I shouldn’t make plans for Friday afternoon. If all our weekday evenings are busy, we absolutely must be home on Saturday.
You might be in a season of life where you can fill your calendar to the max and it’s pure joy. If so, that’s great! But if you’re in a season similar to mine—an introvert, I’m dealing with some health issues, and I have little children in difficult seasons—practice saying no. Protect your calendar. Create some space to for you and your family to breathe.
What are your triggers?
What causes stress in your life? You may already know. Or you may need to make a list and ask for input from those who know you well. Then look through your list of triggers, and find a way to either manage or eliminate each one.
The idea is this—if you are already in a stressful season doing what God has called you to (whether that’s building your marriage, raising young children, working your job)—your plate is already full. Don’t pile on stresses that you don’t need to handle and that keep you from the essential things only you can do.
Which stresses can you eliminate? For instance, if watching the news causes you stress, stop. No one is paying you to do it, right? The world doesn’t need you to do it. If it’s not helping you help people, stop.
I’ll make it personal—I keep returning to the point where I need to stop, at least for now and maybe forever, reading articles about Trump. I’m just done. I’ve already made up my mind I’m not going to vote for him, and reading the recent news about him never makes me think, Wow, I’m so refreshed right now! I really feel ready to deal with my kids after reading that.
The same applies for reading about crime and other violent news stories. There is a delicate balance here—I don’t want to have my head in the sand. I paid some attention to what happened in Orlando. I want to be aware of what’s going on in the world so that I can respond with wisdom and compassion. At the same time, we live in a time of greater global awareness than ever before, where we can read up on the atrocities of ISIS, for instance, yet at the same time it’s easy to ignore the difference we can make in the sphere of influence we do have.
Secondary traumatic stress occurs when you experience stress by hearing about the firsthand trauma experienced by another. I was recently at a foster care event, sitting in a room filled with foster parents who are pouring out their lives to help neglected and abused children. The speaker asked how many of us daily watch the news, and the response was startling. Hardly any hands went up. The people in that room were so busy with the ministry right in front of their faces, that they were already in as much stress as they could handle. Any triggers they could eliminate had to go.
Some triggers you can’t eliminate and you just have to manage—for instance, the screaming tantrums of your toddler. There’s no way you can run from it, and you just have to have a game plan for how you’re going to deal with it in the moment. How are you going to keep your cool? How are you going to help your child get through this? How are you going to plan times when you can get a break so you can jump back into parenting with a new perspective?
What feeds your soul?
This is the flip side of the coin—after you have a plan to eliminate or manage the stress in your life, think through the things that feed you, that make you feel alive, that refresh you and fill you up.
Here’s my partial list:
- Reading the Bible and praying
- Reading other good books
- Having meaningful conversation with friends (1-on-1 or in small groups—I’m an introvert!)
- Sitting quietly on the deck
- Listening to worship music
- Writing blog posts
Staying sane in my life right now means prioritizing these things. Sometimes it’s a simple choice that after the kids go to bed, I’m going to turn off Facebook (potentially a trigger) and go sit on the deck, and for ten minutes breathe deeply and watch the sunset. Sometimes the only way to prioritize these things is to have a strategy—to plan ahead and to ask for help from my husband or others so I can make time to be emotionally healthy.
There’s a balance—the hard truth is, what feeds my soul often (though not always) happens away from my kids. Of course I don’t want to be the absent mom too busy pursuing my own dreams to be available for my children. But it’s also true that I’m a better mom to them when I take the time and space to nourish myself.
That’s part 1 of my healthy practices and I’m going to cut it off there—part 2 will follow Lord willing in a few days. What are your strategies for staying sane in the middle of whatever craziness is your life? Please share!