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Strategies To Help Manage Stress and Anxiety as a Parent

Parenting is a journey filled with immense joy, love, and incredible experiences. However, it also comes with its share of stress and anxiety. Balancing work, household responsibilities, relationships and raising children can feel very overwhelming. Learning how to support your body as it responds to these stressors can provide valuable insights and tools to navigate life as a parent in a more effective and helpful way.

It all comes down to the nervous system.

Our nervous system is the control centre for how we respond to stress and our main communication network between mind and body. Our nervous system’s job is to keep us alive, and in doing so it deploys physiological processes that allow us to breathe, think, feel, decide what we want for breakfast, feel angry or calm etc. Through one of the most important nerves of the body, the vagus, it helps us find the delicate balance between stress and recovery.

When we are pushed too far outside of our balance, our body lets us know and we experience stress and anxiety leaving us often feeling physically and emotionally exhausted.

As a parent, recognising the signs of stress and anxiety in your mind and body, such as increased heart rate, muscle tension, shallow breathing, or ruminating, overthinking and catastrophising can help you understand when your nervous system is in overdrive. Listening to these signals allows you to take proactive steps to calm your nervous system, reducing the impact of stress on your health, well-being, and family.

Listening to the Language of Your Body

Your body communicates with you constantly, and learning to interpret its language can be a powerful tool in helping you manage stress and anxiety.

For instance, frequent headaches or stomach issues might be your body's way of signalling that you need rest. By tuning into these signals, you can take action to address the root causes of your stress. When you listen to your body, you can identify patterns and triggers that exacerbate your anxiety. Perhaps you notice that your stress levels spike after a long day of juggling work and childcare. Or maybe you find that lack of sleep significantly impacts your mood and ability to cope, or that your child’s tantrum triggers your anxiety.

Understanding these patterns can help you make more informed decisions about how to structure your day and prioritise self-care.

Practical Exercises and Tools to Reduce Stress and Anxiety

  1. Deep Breathing Exercises: Deep breathing is one of the simplest yet most effective ways to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and reduce stress. Try the 4-7-8 technique: inhale deeply through your nose for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 7 seconds, and exhale slowly through your mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat this cycle a few times whenever you feel overwhelmed. You can even do this while playing with your kids, cooking dinner or working.
  2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation: PMR involves tensing and then slowly releasing different muscle groups in your body. This exercise can help reduce physical tension and promote relaxation. Start with your toes and work your way up to your head, holding each muscle group for a few seconds before releasing. This is a great way to wind down before sleep, helping you get the most out of your night's sleep.
  3. Vagus Nerve Massage: Massaging certain areas of your body can stimulate the vagus nerve which activates the restorative physiology in your body. Try massaging each ear, gently for a few minutes. This will usually provide you with instant relief and relaxation.
  4. Physical Activity: Regular physical activity is such an important stress and anxiety reliever. Exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood lifters. You don’t need to spend hours at the gym - simple activities like a brisk walk with your child, a 20 minute yoga session while playing with your toddler, or dancing to your favourite music - making it a whole family affair - can make a big difference.
  5. Journaling: Writing down your thoughts and feelings can be a cathartic way to process stress and anxiety. Set aside a few minutes each day to jot down what’s on your mind. This practice can help you gain perspective, identify stressors, and lessen the load on your mind and body.

Implementing nervous system regulation as a way of life

Integrating these stress-reducing practices into your daily routine doesn’t have to be time-consuming. Start small and be consistent. For example, you might begin your day with a few minutes of deep breathing or end it with a short yoga practice. Incorporate physical activity by playing an active game with your child or taking a family walk after dinner.

Remember, it’s important to be patient with yourself as you implement these practices. It may take some time to find what works best for you. The goal is not to eliminate stress completely after all - some level of stress is a natural part of life - but to manage it in a way that allows you to maintain your health and enjoy your role as a parent. And if you find that stress and anxiety are overwhelming despite your best efforts, it may be time to reach out to a professional.

Additionally, don’t underestimate the power of community. Connecting with other parents who understand your experiences can provide emotional support and practical advice. Whether through local parenting groups, online forums, or casual meetups, sharing your journey with others can make the challenges of parenting feel less isolating.

Managing stress and anxiety as a parent is a continuous process that involves understanding your body's responses, listening to its signals, and implementing practical strategies to strengthen your nervous system, prioritise self-care and build healthy resilience. By incorporating some of the practices listed above into your routine, you can create a more balanced and fulfilling parenting experience whilst being a leading example for your children and teaching them one of the most helpful life-skill: nervous system regulation.

Parenting is a demanding job, and it’s normal to feel stressed and anxious at times. If I may share one tip from my own parenting experience: self-care is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. Your well-being is the foundation upon which your family’s well-being is built. Be kind to yourself. You’ve got this! 

Jennifer Mann (@iamjenmann) is the co-author of The Secret Language of the Body out 23 May, and she is also co-founder of Somia International.