The Top 5 Uncommon Tranquility Hacks For Stressed Parents
I’ve got two growing boys, 8 & nearly 13, I run a digital marketing consultancy and I have a gazillion ‘hobbies’. My mind is often fried, my time is precious and I have to multi-task like you wouldn’t (or perhaps would) believe. And yet, I’m generally fit and healthy (apart from the sports injuries – but even they are interesting and weirdly fun), and spend most (definitely not all) of my time with a tranquil state of mind. It’s absolutely possible. I’ve had a stroke, I’m always injuring myself, I’ve done the divorce, face money issues, had family members fall critically ill and have a little cry every time my kids go back to their mum’s house. And yet, I’m positive and rarely not feeling peaceful. Here’s a few of the easier (and virtually cost free) elements of the secret sauce…
1: Meditation (the warm spa bath for your brain)
How I use meditation
There’s no doubt about it, think about meditating and you can’t help but conjure images of hemp, beads, candles and crossed legs. I certainly did. But I’d also read enough to convince me that the science evidence supporting the benefits of mindfulness was growing. I decided to give it a shot and looked for a way to separate the spiritual mumbo jumbo from the practice that might help me to improve my overall intention; to improve my tranquility and my parental patience levels.
What does meditation and mindfulness do your you?
Dan Harris wrote a book that has been very influential for me in terms of figuring out how to approach meditation and get the best out of it. It’s entertaining and informative reading and I highly recommend it. He said about the benefits of meditating:
“The neuroscience is where it really gets sci-fi. There was a study out of Harvard that shows that short daily doses of meditation can literally grow the gray matter in key areas of your brain having to do with self-awareness and compassion and shrink the gray matter in the area associated with stress.”
It’s not about controlling your mind, banishing thoughts or floating (although I do enjoy a good float). It’s about learning to observe your mind’s activities rather than engaging with your thoughts and having conversations with them. When you prime this brain muscle you learn to carry your practice into your day and I find that I automatically respond to my own anxieties and other external stressors throughout the day with a calmer perspective. I really, really notice when I haven’t been meditating for a while because I lose this skill, and with it, my sanity! Give it a go, I’m pretty sure that if you commit a bit of time and effort to this new skill you won’t look back.
We spend a lot of time having internal discussions with ourselves mostly about how this, that or the other external factor (other people and things beyond our control) are responsible for our stress levels and anxieties but the truth is, it’s our perception of these things that determine how tranquil we do, or more often, don’t, feel.
This is true: 90% of the things I worry about, never happen. Yes, bad stuff happens. But it’s rarely the stuff I worried about.
- Find a minimum of 10 minutes, preferably at the start of your day, essentially uninterrupted
- Get a meditation partner (spouse, parent, older child, friend etc) to support this 10 minutes for you
- Download an app like Headspace or Calm for cheap, guided direction
- Never judge your practice – 9 minutes of thinking about your busy day and 1 minute of focusing on your breath is still practice and is still meditating
- It’s an exercise for your brain. Don’t expect to become an expert, it takes years of practice to get good at this. But it’s the practice that brings the benefits, not the success.
- Make a big effort to challenge yourself to get meditation streaks (I don’t meant naked, but you go for it if it works for you) – If you can do 7 days on the trot you’ll really feel the difference.
- Little and often is the key, not worrying about being good or bad at it.
- After 30 days of this you’ll really notice the difference when you DON’T do it – that’s the key to this game.
If you really, really, really can’t (or don’t want to) make the time (always notice the distinction between finding and making time – we don’t find time) then just do this when you need a break: Take in 3 deep breaths in and out through your nose. Slow and steady; trying to stay aware of the sensation of the air in your nostrils, the rise and fall of your chest. Just that when you’re feeling a little ‘challenged’ – call it a 3 breath shower for your brain (20 minutes of meditation being the full hot bath for your brain), will make a world of difference.
Meditation Resources that I use or find useful:
2: Playing (using a gameful mindset to reduce stress)
My current obsession is a book by Jane McDonagall (@) called Superbetter. Jane is all about bringing a ‘gameful’ mindset to everyday challenges and has given me a bunch of genuine reasons to play Tetris, Candy Crush and Call of Duty (not actually my thing but the permission to play if I choose to is ace) without feeling guilty or with the sense that I’m ‘wasting time’. On the contrary, Jane’s research throws up plenty of research to support the idea that playing video games is very, very good for you, your body, your brain and your relationships. How cool is that?
Here are some highlights for you to think about:
You remember Tetris; the game popularised by the smartest move in video game history (Nintendo packaged it with their uber popular GameBoy). Basically block rotating and stacking in the most addictive manner known to man. But get this: Remember how when you played Tetris for hours on end and found yourself seeing the block still falling every time you closed your eyes? Well that kind of flashback is not only harmless but is also being processed by the same part of the brain that’s responsible for the unsettling flashbacks that comprise post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). Researchers found that playing Tetris could effectively block the flashbacks by giving the brain something else to re-play. Amazing stuff.
Similarly, the part of your brain that obsesses about naughty foods (like that packet of biscuits you’re trying not to think about) is extremely visual; games like Tetris and Candy Crush can push those visual images to one side in the same way that Tetris has been shown to with PTSD. Research has shown a reduction of 25% in cravings after just 10 minutes of play. Yes, what I’m saying is that you can play Candy Crush to help you lose weight! Can you see why I dig Jane so much??
Far from being a time sapping, aggression spouting and addictive pastime for your kids, playing video games with the intention of improving learning better problem solving skills, cooperative strategies and increased learning and creativity function in the brain will lead to just that! And playing video games with your kids will add significant bonding time to the equation. So feel free to play more and you’ll actually benefit in all sorts of positive ways!
Demolish cravings with Candy Crush…
Feeling peckish? Try 10 minutes of Tetris, Candy Crush or Bejeweled (or similar) to block out 25% of the cravings for a couple of hours. It should be enough to stop you reaching for the biscuit barrel.
Throw Angry Birds at anxiety…
Feeling stressed? Try the same. But you can also go for Angry Birds or other favourite simple puzzle games. It’s not problem avoidance, it’s about calming nerves so you can tackle problems logically.
Don’t worry about the kids gaming too much – it’s probably OK…
Kids playing video games ‘too much’? It may not actually be too much, 21 hours a week seems to be a good number so help them become mindful of that and stick to it. Playing a lot of the right types of games for the right reasons is a far cry from video game addiction. Try talking to them about gameful skills, for example: Why do you keep persevering even though you keep dying? What tactics did you use to beat that level? How could you use that tactic in your everyday life? And maybe remind them that if you keep diamond armour (it’s a minecraft thing) in your mind when kids are being mean at school, maybe the insults will get deflected…
3: Breathing (the stress busting gadget you were born with)
This is a mega tip that you can start doing NOW and actually feel the benefits of 2 MINUTES FROM NOW. Sorry for shouting; excited.
We all do it, all the time, for ever. We don’t even think about it. If ever something was taken for granted, it’s the simple act of taking oxygen in, and expelling the resulting carbon dioxide. You can’t even watch TV more than you breath. It’s your most done thing.
But did you know that there are a few really simple breathing techniques you can use to switch off anxiety, reduce pain, improve your concentration, get rid of headaches, give you some mental space and literally slow down your heart beat?
- Step 1: Breathe slowly and deeply in through your nose for a count of 4.
- Step 2: Breathe out through your nose for a count of 8.
- Step 3: Repeat that process for about a minute (or around 8 – 10 times)
That’s pretty much it. Mindfully make sure you’re breathing out for twice as long as you’re breathing in. If you can also be aware of the breath expanding your stomach (of course the breath doesn’t go there, it’s just a sensation), maybe just putting a hand on your stomach to feel the rise and fall with each in and out breath cycle, then you’ll be amplifying the whole effect.
So what’s going on?
This breathing pattern has a stunning effect on your nervous system. You’ll move quite quickly from a ‘fight or flight’ state into a calm and relaxed mode. Your heart rate will slow, your muscles relax and your whole sense of wellbeing will improve. Not because of mumbo jumbo, but because of science. Try it now before we get onto something that takes a bit more effort.
4. Journaling (pruning your thoughts using only paper and ink)
What is journaling and how do I do it?
Even easier than meditating but with similar results; journaling is very much a part of my morning routine. It takes 5 – 15 minutes depending on what you’re trying to achieve and can be done whilst you sip your morning tea or coffee, once the kids have gone to school, in the car on the drive (before you start actually driving obviously!) or once you get to your desk at work (in other words, there is always time).
Small digression while we’re close to the subject again – I’m a parent so I KNOW the excuses, but remember this: We never find time, we make time.
Back to journaling; what is it exactly? I’ll tell you what it isn’t: It isn’t keeping a diary, it isn’t opening your furry covered pink pad and beginning with “Dear diary, today Josh dumped me. He’s a turd”. It’s not that at all so don’t panic.
Yes, it is writing things down, but it writing things down with INTENT. More specifically with the intention to bring more mindfulness and tranquility to your day.
There are two types of journaling that work for me and I think you should play with both of them to see what works for you.
1: Gratitude journaling
This short exercise is simply making a daily (morning and/or evening) habit out of jotting down a few brief, yet positive statements about your life, your day and your state of mind. For this I use a lovely little hard back book called ‘The 5 Minute Journal’. And filling it out really only takes just 5 minutes per day so not a hard thing to do or commit to. And yet, being the busy bees we are, even 5 minutes can be a BIG deal when there’s so much chaos flying around the place. So I’ve filtered the 5 minute journaling process down to just a few seconds.
Your gratitude journaling prescription:
You don’t even need all the fancy gear – all journaling needs is paper, something to write with and a tiny bit of brain time:
- Step 1: Get yourself a little notebook and a pen – simple
- Step 2: Note down these gratefulness reminders on the first page:
- An opportunity I have today
- Something awesome (or just mildly good) that happened yesterday
- Something simple nearby
- Step 3: Answer these gratefulness prompts every morning (before you get out of bed, while you’re on the toilet, after the school run, stop halfway to work, at your desk while the kettle is boiling – you get the idea – MAKE the time)
Let’s just run through those prompts:
An awesome opportunity I have today: Just a simple awareness of something you can achieve today, no matter how small. Maybe an opportunity to show compassion, or to learn something or finish something. Anything that will add a point to your happiness scale.
Something awesome (or just mildly good) that happened yesterday: Any event or even just a tiny moment from the previous day that made you feel good.
Something simple nearby: That favourite book of yours on the shelf, the picture your little one gave you this morning, the photo of you and your mum, your hairbrush. Just anything simple that you are glad you have.
Commit to doing this for 10 straight days in a row and you WILL feel the difference. How can such a simple thing send tranquil vibes your way? Man, it’s ONLY simple things that can do that! This works.
2: Brain Dumping (AKA Morning pages)
There must be a better word that ‘dumping’ but it’s all I’ve got right now and it’s fairly accurate in this case. We’ve talked about meditation and so we know that we don’t ‘control’ our thoughts. We can’t eliminate our internal ramblings, we can only acknowledge and calm them. But some days my brain is so full of crap that I simply can’t get started. Everything I know I shouldn’t do (engage with the internal dialogue, get angry about an argument I had yesterday, an unfairness, an insult, a situation that has been DONE to me, think and worry about things that MIGHT – but probably won’t – BUT THEY MIGHT – they never do – BUT, BUT BUT!!! etc) Painful. I can’t sleep or work effectively like that, And I can’t even be present with my kids when I’ve got all these things tearing around in my head driving me crazy. If you don’t get this then I am in AWE of you, you lucky, one of a kind you! In other words – we all know what it feels like when your brain TELLS YOU what’s going to be on your mind, and it’s all negative, right?
So what if there was a cure? A scientifically proven, drug free method that could give you some space when you’re mind isn’t playing ball?
Enter brain dumping…
The sheer, visceral act of writing stuff down genuinely transfers the thought from your neurons to your paper (for all intents and purposes). When you get it on paper, you get the majority of it out of your head because you are acknowledging it. Thoughts are like toddlers, tugging on your sleeve until you give them some attention. If you ignore them they drive you crazy. If you acknowledge them, they’re grateful and they go about their business.
First thing in the morning, pre-coffee, pre-everything, your brain is an open book. All the little processes that moderate your thoughts, filter the good from the bad, the dream from the real, none of that is working properly yet; you are unfiltered. This is the state you need to pounce on.
Your brain dumping prescription:
Now, this is not something you need to do every morning. For me this is like an emergency pressure valve that I release when the buildup is too much. I simply know when I need to do it and I also know that it will work if I do it properly;
- Step 1: Grab your pen and paper first thing in the morning as soon as possible after waking
- Step 2: Open your heart and your mind and spill everything on the page – everything that is bothering you, every question, every frustration, everything, just let it all out. Don’t moderate it, don’t moderate yourself, just dump. For how long? Like vomiting, you’ll know. When there’s no more to come out – when you’re doing the literary equivalent of dry heaving, then you can stop. Don’t worry about punctuation or legibility – just get it ALL down – don’t leave any worries inside. Cry if you want, just get it on the paper and out of your head.
- Step 4: Tear it all up, burn it and get on with your day being all present and a hell of a lot more tranquil. Seriously – don’t keep it. It’s done it’s job – let it go.
5. Walking (the easiest and probably most effective motion you can make)
I know we’re not talking about ageing today but I spend a lot of time researching the latest advances in age defying strategies. It’s a minor obsession. I don’t want to live forever, far from it. I just want to be able to remain as fit and healthy as possible for as long as I am alive. I’m interested in preventative maintenance strategies that will help me to remain active far into whatever ‘old age’ looks like in 30 years time. I won’t go into the details now (I’ll be covering a lot of it in my new book) but the bottom line is that in terms of the mind, around 50% of dementia cases can be prevented simply by making the right lifestyle choices and in terms of the body, not only can you injury proof yourself to a large extent, you can also prevent the majority of the diseases associated with metabolic syndrome (stroke, heart disease, diabetes and many cancers).
You’ve heard it before but I’ll say it again anyway: Eat well, get some exercise.
Nothing is more complex and nuanced than the science of human physiology and what we should or shouldn’t eat, do, think or supplement with could fill a book. OK, it could fill 1000s of books. And it does. So I’m going to pare this down into two very simple rules you can be 100% confident in and take straight to the body bank:
- Michael Pollen’s (@) diet advice is still the best: Eat Food, not too much mostly plants.
- Don’t sit down much if you can help it; get outside and walk as often as possible.
If you can carry those two bits of advice around with you and allow them to inform your daily routines, you’ll live longer, be healthier, be thinner, fitter, happier and wealthy. I lied about wealthy, but that doesn’t matter because money doesn’t correlate to happiness. Thus all of the best that life can offer is freely available to you right now.
I know I digress too much, but too many things are interesting and adjacently relevant and I’d be remiss not to point these things out…
Where were we? Yes, Walking. So why walking and not jogging or running or skipping or hopping or going to the gym or swimming or cycling? Good, if long, question. Answer: Because it’s easy, and easy things are easier to make into habits and positive habits de-stress you and make you healthier. I’m a big fan of Tim Ferriss’s notion that you should ‘rig the game to win’. By this he means that you should not set the bar so high that you consistently fail to reach the goals you’ve set yourself, rather you should make things so ridiculously easy for yourself that it’s almost harder to fail than to win.
What are the benefits of walking?
Not that walking is in any way to be thought of as ‘so easy it doesn’t actually do anything’. On the contrary, walking regularly will improve your mood, boost creativity, reduce your chance of dying from pretty much everything and obviously send you down a few trouser sizes. The benefits are HUGE. Walking is not the lazy man’s running; it’s a whole different thing using all sorts of different muscles and you are designed to do it, a lot, all the time.
Abject digression about running: At 41 years of age I just started running, literally this year. Before I thought it was dull, my lungs hurt, my knees hurt, everything just HURT even thinking about running. But with the right prep and the right start (hint – it’s easier than you think) after just a few months, I LOVE running, honestly, first time ever. Nailing it and NO pain of any kind. I’m writing it down and I’ll reveal all in a blog post I’m working on for the new year.
With that in mind; your prescription:
Go for a walk every day. Walk the dog, walk to the shops, walk to work or school. Just walk. Don’t just walk because it gets you somewhere, walk for walking’s sake. Try closing the front door and just walking, direction be damned, just go. See a side street you’ve never been down before? Explore it.
I’m not going to harp on about injury proofing your self, foot, ankle and leg strength and all that jazz (not that it isn’t important, it very much is) but you should try walking on all sorts of different terrains. Hit the trails and get lost in the hills or the woods. Carry a few seeds and nuts (OK, a bit of dark chocolate too) and a small water bottle with a pinch of added Himalayan sea salt (you don’t actually need much water for this, or anything really, drink to thirst, but a pinch of salt helps the water to stick and rehydrate rather than just pass straight through you). Don’t think or plan too much, just go.
There’s a danger I’ll digress again but you get the point: Get outside and walk often. If you were stressed to start with, that stress will be less when you get back. If you have a question, a walk will usually answer it. Walking is a kind of meditation, or at least can be if you let it. How do you let it? With a bit of mindful awareness. Nothing snazzy, just try to leave all your futures and pasts at the door and focus on what’s around you while you’re strolling around. Look at trees, stare at bushes, listen to the close sounds, listen to the sounds a bit further away – suck in all that’s going on and use all your senses. No conversations with yourself about things that may or may not happen – we’re drifting away from walking and slightly back to meditating here – that’s because they’re actually closely connected – being in the moment WILL ALWAYS BRING YOU CLOSER TO TRANQUILITY – can’t stress that enough.
A close friend of mine was at on my (hard backed, posture friendly) sofa, complaining about my non-loungy furniture yesterday and telling me about his current woes and do you know what we discovered? That 90% of what he was telling me hadn’t happened! These were worries, not actual things that that exist and needed dealing with. It reminds me of one of my favourite quotes by Mark Twain:
“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life – Most of which never happened”
So leave your internal dialogue at the door. If it hasn’t happened, don’t engage with it. If it’s happened, forget about about it. Look at the sky and the trees and your kids in front of you – REAL THINGS.
Talking about staring at trees: Recent studies have shown that just looking at natural surroundings (general outdoorsy woodsy vibes, but even just the colour green) can have not only a calming effect on the brain and increase your sense of wellbeing but can increase your concentration and productivity levels across a variety of tasks. Going for a walk and being mindful increases your cognitive abilities. Being inside as often as we are is actually quite a modern phenomenon. For most of our human existence we’ve been adapted to the outdoors so it makes sense that our cognitive function comes alive in and around an environment that we’ve evolved to be most productive in.
Feeling more tranquil yet?
OK, I’m going to leave it there; that’s more than enough for you to be getting on with. Now don’t you just be a reader. I want you to take some action. There must be at least ONE thing in this list you can connect with, maybe feel inspired to try. Go for it. And then share it.
Being an uber parent takes more than just rushing around doing all the things that never stop needing to be done; it also takes a balanced, healthy YOU. If you’re not as good as you can be then you’re not leading with the best example. If you’re healthy and tranquil more often than not (and that doesn’t mean nailing it all the time – even just being AWARE of the importance of these things will make a HUGE difference) then your kids (and your friends and the rest of your family and your colleagues!) will be healthier and more tranquil right along with you. Yep, by taking some time for you, you’re making everything better for them.
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