Long-Term Stress Relief

Mindfulness. Through becoming more aware of your thoughts in everyday situations, you'll get better at catching the ones that cause you stress - and then letting them go. We also recommend you try meditation: in addition to being wonderfully relaxing and a proven method of lowering blood pressure, it's a great way to practice observing the stream of thoughts and feelings, like an endless train passing by, without jumping on board (please see the box on meditation opposite).

Pinning down the sources of stressful thoughts. You've probably noticed that stressful thoughts bubble up from particular sources in your mind, such as the inner critic that often gets louder when a woman has children. Many of these sources lurk in the shadows, outside of your conscious awareness. Shining a light on where a thought comes from helps you judge its credibility, much like you'd be skeptical of a news bulletin about the wonderful health benefits of one brand of infant formula when you found out it comes from the manufacturer; thoughts from certain sources in your mind should be considered guilty until proven innocent! As soon as you can identify where a stressful thought comes from, you have a head start on letting it go. Sources of stressful thoughts include:

  • Beliefs about motherhood. You could look back on the hopes and dreams for motherhood and family you had during your first pregnancy. Were any of those unrealistic and worth letting go of today? You might also list, in your mind or on paper, some of the beliefs about how a mother should be that give you stress, such as A good mother never gets angry at her children, or, I should always look as put together as my mother did.
  • Gender. Volumes have been written on how being a woman or a man shapes the way a person thinks. For example, women often add to their stress by telling themselves that they are responsible for the feelings of others. Take a moment to reflect on the messages you got as a girl from your parents, other people, or our culture about how you were supposed to be. How have these messages affected your thinking in ways that increase your stress?
  • Temperament and mood. If you tend to be cautious or anxious, your thoughts will overstate problems and underemphasize how well you can cope. If you are inclined toward depression or sadness, your thoughts are more likely to contain themes of loss, defeat, or helplessness. If you often feel aggressive or irritable, you'll have more thoughts about how other people are challenging or threatening. When you understand these things about yourself, you can routinely put in a correction factor, like: I know I'm in a bad mood today, so of course everything looks like a huge problem. But it's really not.
  • Sub-personalities. The mind is like a big committee - though sometimes it may seem more like a zoo! All of these "sub-personalities" are trying to help you, but some of them just increase your stress, like the one that says your home has to look perfect before anyone can come over. By understanding your sub-personalities, you'll be more able to detach from those that wear you down. You can tune into a sub-personality by imagining that part of yourself and then asking what it thinks, feels, or wants - as if it were a person in its own right. If you talk with it respectfully, its viewpoint will usually become less insistent, but if you argue with it, it will just stiffen or go underground. You can also imagine or write out a dialogue between two sub-personalities - such as the part of you that is ambitious for a career and the part of you that wants to stay home with your child - or even among several parts of yourself, such as the critic, the vulnerable child, and the nurturing parent.
  • Beliefs from childhood. We all formed many ideas and expectations when we were little that we still tend to apply unconsciously to ourselves and the world. For example, one of Jan's clients was the oldest of eleven children, a kind of junior mother to her siblings, and it has been hard for her not to assume that everything in her family today is her responsibility. It can feel wonderfully liberating to realize how a stressful belief from your childhood can be wrong at the present time. The thinking of a child draws conclusions from a handful of individuals and applies them to a whole world full of very different people; it presumes that the self is small and weak compared to others; it overemphasizes negative experiences (one scary time with a dog is more memorable than ninety-nine good ones); and it makes all-or-nothing rules that oversimplify the complexity of adult life. Today, you can truly afford to let go of those beliefs. You have so much more choice about who you are with, and you have so many more ways to take care of yourself. The world is safer, people are kinder and more trustworthy, and you are more capable than you've probably thought.
Taking in the Good

Now that you've seen how to let go of stressful experiences, we can explore how to replace them with positive ones. Every day has dozens of little opportunities - such as moments of pleasure, achievement, or love - to replenish yourself psychologically. Each of these is an oasis where you can rest briefly and refuel yourself for the challenges ahead.

Since mothers are supposed to be self-sacrificing, it might feel wrong to savor the good moments. But letting yourself enjoy them does not take anything away from anyone else. Try to be aware of any reluctance to linger with a nice experience, such as thinking you are supposed to be on the go every second. Or resistance to accepting a compliment, as if that would be vain or, If they really knew the truth about me they wouldn't be so nice. Or discomfort with receiving recognition or love, as if that would make you seem needy. You can use the methods you've already learned to let go of these like you would any other negative thought or feeling.

Throughout your day, really try to pay attention to positive events. For example, notice everything you're accomplishing. Or has your child been especially cute, your partner acted supportively, or someone praised your work? Try to infuse ordinary events with positive meaning. For example, it is possible to see making a meal or folding laundry as gifts of love that can make you feel good about yourself, not merely as repetitive chores.

We're not talking about million-dollar moments, but the small change of everyday life. In a fundamental sense, the person you are is the distillation of all the experiences you've ever had. By consciously putting new, good ones in the emotional memory bank each day, you build up an increasingly positive balance.

So when a tasty dish is set before you, dive in with a big spoon! As your day unfolds, make sure that positive events register as positive experiences. Stay with those experiences a few seconds or minutes longer than you normally would. Let your body relax around the good feelings, be filled with them, and soak them up like a sponge. If you like, you could imagine that they are being placed in a treasure chest in your heart, and you can take them out and feel them again any time you want.

You could also set aside specific times for reflecting on the good things in your life. For example, you might like to do a brief meditation at the end of each day in which you look back for happy moments and successes, and then allow these to sink in. Or you could do this through writing in a journal.

Out with the Old, In with the New
Going a step further, you could actively dislodge old, bad experiences from their places in emotional memory by replacing them with new, good experiences. One mother offered this example: Growing up, people told me I wouldn't amount to much. So when Jorge's nursery school teacher told me I was a good mom, I just brushed it off. "No," she said, "I really mean it, I've watched you with him for a year and I can see that you are really good with him." We were alone in her office, and when she put her hand on my arm, I started to cry. I was embarrassed, but she was so sincere I decided to believe her. Something melted inside me, and I realized that I did at least one thing in my life right, and I have felt better about myself ever since.

All you have to do is be aware of both experiences at the same time - the present, positive one and the old, unpleasant one - and let the new one be a more powerful experience than the old. Then you'll have an internal sense of the good, current experience dissolving and replacing the painful, old one, of finally getting fed where you are hungry inside. You'll be giving yourself today some of what you didn't get, but should have gotten, as a child.

In particular, try experiments in which you do something out of character that challenges a negative belief, and observe the results. For example, if you normally feel nervous about being assertive, because deep down you expect to be punished for it in some way, you could try being one notch more direct, blunt, or forceful with your partner, a friend, or a coworker. If the experiment goes badly (but make sure it's a fair one!), maybe the old belief is true after all. If it goes well - which is what usually happens - then let the good news sink in. This process is probably the single most effective method of personal growth we know, and every day has opportunities to use it.


From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit amazon.


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