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Cortisol, Parenting and the Endless Pandemic

As the talk of school continues, parents are feeling dread no matter the option – especially navigating childcare, presenting these inevitable changes to our child, and balancing the virtual/homeschooling component. The truth is, we’re all in new territory here.

And while everyone has had a different experience these last five months, pretty much every parent I work with has said they feel burnout.  Which biologically makes sense.  We have felt a huge loss of our “normal” lives, which is ok to mourn. We have lost our daily routines, our connections to friends and family. Even in reopening, some people are still feeling scared to hug and interact with their loved ones, while others are feeling angry and annoyed at the whole situation.

Without going into a complicated explanation, I think it is important to acknowledge cortisol, and how it affects the body.  Cortisol is our stress hormone, which is released when we feel, well, “stressed!” These days, I would be shocked if your cortisol levels are not higher than normal. You may be experiencing mood swings, muscle weakness, anxiety, depression, irritability or even increase belly fat.  An imbalance of cortisol levels can also throw off your appetite and sleep cycles.

Why is this important? When attempting to make yourself emotionally “available”, we need to discuss self-care. When we look at the #1 piece of self-care that affects our health, it is sleep. Jillian Michaels (https://www.jillianmichaels.com/shop/books) has a 12-hour rule she talks about in her latest book that suggests prioritizing sleep, and distributing some time to yourself – to make yourself more human.

Simply put, if you are not sleeping or feeding yourself appropriately, your body automatically goes into a state of stress, without any external contributors. So, as parents, this leaves us feeling depleted, overwhelmed, edgy and can affect us in many ways – either “giving in” and avoiding setting limits and fights because “we just can’t,” or yelling, arguing and becoming emotionally unavailable to our children. We can’t listen to what they have to say when we are in a state of biological crisis ourselves.

So, what do we do? For any of you following me for a while, you know I love a good plan. I think making sure you are giving yourselves the space to sleep 8 hours, get good, whole foods into your bodies and exercising a few times a week is vital in keeping yourself healthy and grounded. You need to prioritize yourself as a parent, and a human.

Try organizing your week or day in a planner or online calendar. I love the COZI app (https://www.cozi.com), Erin Condren Life Planner (https://www.erincondren.com/lifeplanner) and Emily Ley Simplified Planner (https://www.emilyley.com/collections/simplified-planner). These resources use a lot of great visual space and reminders to organize meals, goals and schedules of your family. While this may seem OCD at times, our brains feel calmer when there is a plan. When you can see what is going on, you feel less stressed, thus less cortisol, and more emotional availability!

Also, Marie Kondo (https://konmari.com) has built a huge following of people who are getting rid of things that do not “spark joy.” Minimalism (https://www.becomingminimalist.com) is on the move throughout our country-and for a good reason. When we feel bogged down, we feel stressed. Try making a goal list of things that you can throw out, or create an area of your space that you could clear out for you. A space in your bedroom to sit when you need a minute, a reading nook, or even part of your kitchen where you can organize your favorite coffee supplies.

Try to engage and continue socializing with friends in a mode that allows everyone to feel safe.  We need our friends and support system to get though hard times together. Make sure that you are making it a priority to engage with a real person, maybe another parent to vent, laugh and engage with.

We posted about “giving yourself grace” a while ago (http://www.behavedbrain.com/giving-yourself-grace-understanding-emotional-health-mood-fluctuations/), but this is a very important part of self-care. You need to give yourself a break, and know that failure is normal, and you are not going to be a perfect parent. You need to feel human, and humans fail.

Make a list of your goals for the week: maybe you feel your sleep is off or you want to get back into movement. Set a goal and work with it, one day at a time. The more you can make time to care for yourself daily, the better you will be able to respond to your children. Also, you are modeling self-care, which our kids, after going through this stressful period, will maybe take away some better self-care for their future as well.