Stressing the Positive
Another toddler meltdown? Don't despair, says psychologist Dr Kelly McGonigal, stress can actually make you smarter and stronger. Here's how to deal with it
Take what I call the 'Mount Everest' view of your exhaustion. If you were climbing Mt Everest, you would expect to be tired, exhausted, and overwhelmed. You wouldn't wonder why it was so hard. Parenting is a lot like climbing Mt Everest. It isn't easy, and it's often exhausting and uncomfortable. But if you have kids, you chose this journey, just like the climber chose his or her journey.
Don't forget the big perspective
Can you imagine a climber scaling the wall of ice at Lhotse Face and saying, "This is such a hassle"? Or spending the first night in Mt. Everest's Death Zone, and thinking "I don't need this stress"? The climber knows the context of his stress. It has personal meaning to him; he has chosen it. You are most likely to feel like a victim of your own fatigue when you forget the context the stress is unfolding in. Remember that this is part of the journey, and take a bigger perspective. The exhaustion doesn't last forever, and you aren't the first to take this journey.
Think about it differently
One of my favorite stress researchers says he and his wife – who have a new baby – have taken to interpreting their exhaustion as a sign that they have given it their all. They might prefer to be better rested, but in this actual time of their lives, being exhausted is actually a sign that they are doing their best.
Remember the joy that comes with the stress
Remember that parenting is supposed to be stressful, and there isn't some stress-free alternative reality in which you get to experience the joy, love, growth, and meaning that comes from parenting without experiencing the stress. Often, parents think about how ideal it would be if we could get rid of the stress that we experience but still keep the benefits of raising children. But we don't get to choose between a stress-full or a stress-free experience of family. The stress and the joy are a package deal, even if the moments of stress are not the same as the moments of great joy.
According to the World Gallup Poll, raising a child under eighteen significantly increases the chance that you will experience a great deal of stress every day and that you will smile and laugh a lot each day. In another recent survey, 34 per cent of adults in the UK named having a baby as the most stressful experience of their lives – but this is also the biggest source of meaning in most parent's lives. I call the link between stress and meaning the 'stress paradox'. Rather than being a sign that something is wrong with your life, feeling stressed is often a sign that you are engaged in activities and relationships that are personally meaningful.
Reflect on what matters
When you feel stressed out, use that stress as a signal to reflect on what you care about. Choosing to see the connection between stress and meaning can free you from the nagging sense that there is something wrong with your life, or that you are inadequate to the challenges you face. Even if not every frustrating moment feels full of purpose, stress and meaning are inextricably connected in the larger context of your life. When you take this view, parenting doesn't become less stressful, but it can feel less isolating and overwhelming.
Take control of the situation
In moments of stress, like when your child is throwing a tantrum, it can also be helpful to remember that your anger, anxiety, or feelings of being overwhelmed are not a sign that you are a bad parent. These emotions are natural responses. Remembering this can help you focus on what you want in this moment, and the best way to achieve it, instead of wasting energy judging yourself or trying to suppress your emotions. View the emotions as temporary, passing events trying to get your attention. Once your attention is on the situation, you get to decide what to do with it.
Dr Kelly McGonigal is an award-winning psychologist and author of The Upside of Stress.