Crisis with Strawberry Jelly
Have you ever noticed how long it takes to feel settled and calm after dealing with a crisis incident? For example, your special little darling gets into the jelly that a friend left in your home (you hadn’t realized before 5 seconds ago that jelly was even in your home) … strawberry jelly, and he’s allergic to strawberries. No, he doesn’t have an anaphylactic reaction, and many would say, ‘you’re lucky!’ and maybe you are. But the reaction that occurs if the strawberry jelly that's currently coating his entire body and is pasting is hair to his glorious, not so little head, starts out as digestive (imagine the worse). It then becomes behavioral, creating oppositional actions, mood swings, tantrums and difficulty sleeping.
Your darling is 12 years old and the thought of these difficulties, plus puberty, sets your system into overdrive. You experience a full-fledged stress response, and choose the ‘fight’ option (determining flight and freeze to be unproductive). Fight, in your case, means, by every means necessary, prevent strawberry jelly from getting into his mouth. Fortunately, it seems the angels are on your side, and he’s primarily preoccupied with the feel of swishing it across the floor, so has not yet tuned into the snack potential in the adventure.
The Aftermath of Cortisol Cocktails
15 minutes later, and he’s clean, even though the floor is a bit sticky, and your collapse into the couch. You look normal, like any other parent sitting on the couch, but you aren’t. This is the 17th such crisis you have averted today, the 79th so far this month. And it’s only July 10. This is a part of your daily routine. You are the hyper vigilant, hyper alert parent of a child with special needs.
People ask you how you do it, and you try to have the christian, or at least, polite response. Something about God’s strength, or about doing what you have to, or even a bit about the many times you felt unsuccessful in your attempts to avert the crisis. And though all that you said is likely true, what's also true is that the cocktail of stress hormones that flooded your system at the sight of strawberry jelly on Johnny helped you to hyper focus, exercise superhuman strength and energy, to handle the threat: strawberry jelly.
Rumor (or research) has it that constantly facing and averting crises can have a dramatic, mood altering effect on parents of kids with developmental disabilities. Some references say parents may even exhibit the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. Research also suggests that repeated exposure to traumatic incidences elevates your watchfulness for future trauma. This increased watchfulness (persistent stress response) in the short-term, is just plain exhausting. Your muscles are always ready for action, your heart rate is elevated, maybe even your blood pressure, your digestion is off (since digesting food when looking for threats like lions and tigers is not a priority!). The effects in the long-term are much more disturbing: mood disorders, pain, cardiovascular struggles, a weakened immune system and the like.
Sharing the Cortisol
Though I've been talking about you, I've really been talking about me, and I was recently forced to realize that living in a persistent stress response is just not good. It's definitely not good for my body, short and long-term. It also doesn't help me to think through the challenges that are not real threats, even though they look that way. The stress response limits my attention to my rational thought processes, leaving me operating primarily in the realm of my past experiences and the resulting attitudes and motivations. Something had to change.
Not only is the stress response bad for me, it's not so good for those around me either. Autism is already a state of almost 24/7 anxiety. He doesn't really need the anxiety I've been generously sharing with him. No, I don't mean to share it, and I often hide it well, but humans are socially contagious. Before we even recognize it, we have tuned in to each other's emotional state and carried it forward like the wave at ball games. Besides the reality of autism, I have three teenagers at home now. A blow up, flare up, melt down, lock down, lock in, tune out... are all a normal part of the day. Sharing or taking the communal, frequently triggered stress response is a quick walk to a bad place. Something had to change.
Making Peace a Priority
Something did. I started seeing a therapist and started listening to the family child psychologist. I started deliberately following my own advice, the one I give to people, but had to hear from the therapist. I started to pay attention.
I'm learning that my mind goes where my body goes. If I want to stop the stress response (panicked thoughts, endless 'what if' scenarios, tension in the shoulders, heart racing), I can stop it faster by bringing my body into a peaceful state than by thinking about the source of my stress. In fact, I can't do a very good job of thinking when I'm stressed anyway. So I've stopped trying. Thinking is for calm, regulated bodies.
So I've started a cocktail of grounding exercises, as often as I can remember, to manage the hormonal cocktail that constantly floods my system because of the persistent state of fight/flight. In another blog post I'll talk about applying these personally, and with my kids, but for now, just know that when I started writing this evening, my pulse was 95+ but just thinking through the exercises and applying them, has my pulse down to 74. I know that when I get up from writing, and deal with the real life again, I'm likely to quickly head towards a stress response. Like potty training a puppy (or a toddler), I have to be persistent, with myself, and do the exercises again, and again, and again.
If you find yourself in a stress response to life often, see if adding these exercises help a little. More importantly, ask our Loving Father, who desires peace for you and yours, to give you practical strategies for making peace a priority. Ask Him to lead you to wise teachers. Your body needs respite from adrenaline and cortisol, and the crazy won't feel so crazy when you are regulated.