“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” – Mohandas Gandhi
“We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history.” – Brene’ Brown
The DNA of western culture is laced with anxiety and keeps us in constant motion. Everywhere we look there are subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) messages that “we must never be satisfied with simply keeping up with the Jones’; we must surpass them!” The result is that our nervous systems rarely come to a state of rest and our bodies and minds suffer through a life of chronic stress.
We must ask ourselves, “Is this the life we want for our children?”
Here are a few of the physical ailments that are linked to chronic stress:
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Digestive problems
- Muscle tension, pain, and headaches
- Memory impairment
- Worsening of skin conditions, such as eczema
And chronic stress affects our mood and behavior in the following ways:
- Inattention, lack of focus
- Irritability and aggression
- Sadness, depression, and lack of motivation
- Over-eating or under-eating
- Smoking, drug, and alcohol abuse
Now it is unlikely that we can stop the momentum of an entire culture any time soon, so what can we do to help our kids avoid this all-too-common list of symptoms?
The most important thing we can do is to help bring our child’s nervous system to states of rest at home. What we are going for here is to find ways to help turn on your child’s parasympathetic nervous system — the system associated with growth, health and healing, and human intimacy — and turn off your child’s sympathetic nervous system — the system that associated with our more revved-up states, fight-or-flight behaviors, and the list of symptoms and ailments listed above when chronic. Here are a few ideas to help everyone in your family experience more rest:
- Try to start the day slowly. Cuddle for a little while before getting up. Talk about “the pictures in your sleep.” Share those sweet moments of deep intimacy before everyone gets busy and distracted going about their day. Connecting like this in the morning is very nourishing to our bodies, brains, and hearts.
- Create structures that help everyone relax. When the family has regular routines everyone can relax into those supportive structures. Children can especially get anxious when they do not know what to expect, so structures such as the wake-up routine, breakfast, mid-afternoon down-time, sit down meals, and the bedtime bath and story can actually make it easier for everyone to relax into the flow.
- Keep your child’s “connection fire” stoked. We all have needs to feel connected to our loved ones, but this is especially true for children. If they feel that they always have to work for our attention — to always be doing some trick and yelling “Dad, watch me….Watch this….Hey dad!!!” — then their sympathetic nervous systems will be turned on more often than not, trying to get their needs for connection met. When instead we let them know on a regular basis — through deed, action, and body language — that we are “with” them, that they are in our hearts and on our minds, and that they delight us, this will switch their brains from the “work mode” of seeking attention and connection, into the “rest mode” of relaxation, openness, and satiation.
- Try to minimize the noise and screen-glow in the house. Many times we just leave the radio or TV on in the background when we are not really intentionally listening to, or watching a program. We often don’t recognize that our nervous systems have to work to tune out this extra noise, and this keeps us in a more revved up state. More quiet time in the house can be very relaxing, as can going outside in nature everyday. The soothing rhythms of the natural world can really bring us back down to earth and help us hit that “reset button.”
- Give your children a safe place to cry. Crying is a common and natural way that the human brain and body releases tension. This is most evident in infants (who cry an average of 1-3 hours per day in the first 3 months of life), but it can continue to be an effective way to discharge tension and process traumatic events later on in life as well. There are so many forces that implicitly or explicitly teach children not to cry that most kids become fairly defended against this natural and healthy expression by the time they reach grade school. “Locking-up our tears” contributes to states of chronic stress and stores the hurts and traumas in our bodies. Having a good cry in the arms of a loved one can be so cleansing, and is one way our parasympathetic nervous system re-integrates and re-invigorates us after a difficult emotional event.
- Make some time to meditate or do yoga every day. Our state of consciousness affects the states of our beloved children and partners. By us making a little space every day — especially in the morning to set the tone for the day — we are intentionally cultivating a restful and relaxed mind, brain, and body. Meditation has been shown to strengthen our Pre-frontal cortex activity while also increasing parasympathetic tone. Yoga, especially when it involves deep breathing, also increases parasympathetic activity and tempers our response to stress.
So there you have a few suggestions for how to create a more relaxed, harmonious, and healthy household for you and your loved ones. The effect of living a more restful life cannot be over-stated. And this is especially true for our children as their brains, nervous systems, and bodies are still heavily under construction.
Take Home: Chronic stress is unhealthy for the human body and uses up energy that could otherwise be used in more enjoyable and constructive ways. Kids feel better, function better, and will mature more ease-fully when they experience states of rest. Do your best to protect them from overstimulation and turn your home into a safe and nourishing refuge where they can remove their battle-worn armor.