I recently read an article that appeared in the New York Times entitled When the Caregivers Need Healing. The article notes that while ” all parents endure stress, studies show that parents of children with developmental disabilities, like autism, experience depression and anxiety far more often. Struggling to obtain crucial support services, the financial strain of paying for various therapies, the relentless worry over everything from wandering to the future- all of it can be overwhelming.” The article goes on to discuss a study published in the journal Pediatrics regarding two approaches that were utilized to help parents deal with their stress. “The first group practiced meditation, breathing exercises, and qigong practices to hone mental focus. The second received instructions on curbing negative thoughts, practicing gratitude and reclaiming an aspect of adult life.” Both groups experienced significant reduction in stress, anxiety, depression as well as improved sleep and life satisfaction.
I do not want to imply that being a parent of a son or daughter with Autism does not have many wonderful moments, it certainly does. However there is no doubt that there are stressful times in supporting a son or daughter with communication and sensory processing difficulties and often medical issues. All of these challenges can lead to frustration and feeling overwhelmed not only for them, but also for us as parents, trying to figure out what is going on and how to support them during these stressful times. As I grew older, I recognized that if I was going to be able to continue to support my son with his challenges without it depleting me, I was going to have to really focus on how best to deal with my stress. By the way, you do not have to wait to be older to find something that can be helpful!
I began a mindfulness meditation practice and have learned to deal with difficult emotions, such as frustration and sadness, in more mindful ways.
“Here are a few key components of practicing mindfulness that Kabat-Zinn and others identify:
- Pay close attention to your breathing, especially when you’re feeling intense emotions.
- Notice—really notice—what you’re sensing in a given moment, the sights, sounds, and smells that ordinarily slip by without reaching your conscious awareness.
- Recognize that your thoughts and emotions are fleeting and do not define you, an insight that can free you from negative thought patterns.
- Tune into your body’s physical sensations, from the water hitting your skin in the shower to the way your body rests in your office chair.”
I have found the teachings of Pema Chodron, an ordained nun in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, to be enormously helpful. She has focused a lot of her teaching on dealing with frustration, sadness, and other difficult feelings. A few of the titles to the many books she has written are, When Things Fall Apart, Heart Advice for Difficult Times and The Places that Scare You, a Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, and Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Habits and Encountering Naked Reality. As you may guess, many of our habitual ways of dealing with things that are stressful are not in the long run helpful to us or anyone else. We often bury anxiety and frustration or act out of it with aggression toward ourselves (who has not given themselves a hard time about something they were thinking or feeling) or others (who has not yelled at someone while driving). Imagine that, we may have habitual ways of reacting that are not helpful, and we don’t have Autism Spectrum Disorder! Thinking about how we may habitually react in ways that are not helpful can make us feel more compassionate toward our sons and daughters when they struggle, and toward all others who are struggling and acting out in their own habitual ways. It takes work to recognize our reactions that are not helpful and then to learn more helpful ways to deal with our stress.
Mindfulness meditation is not the only form of meditation. Indeed, repeating prayers is a form of meditation, although meditation is not tied to religion. Just Google meditation techniques and you will find lots of information about meditation and its’ benefits.