From a young age I thought feeling lots of stress and anxiety was normal. I grew up in a crowded and chaotic household, with five argumentative and noisy siblings. My younger brother is on the autistic spectrum, so as you can imagine my parents had their hands full, and every day was stressful. Nowadays stress levels are lower, but anxiety around my brother’s future and what other people think of him when we’re out and about has never faded.
Since working with other families affected by Autism, I now know our experience isn’t unique. High levels of stress and anxiety for parents, siblings and the person on the spectrum is worryingly common. At BAS meetings members often share details of stressful situations, but less often share experiences about how stress and anxiety affects them or their autistic loved one. Therefore I suggested this specific discussion group topic to encourage sharing such experiences and helpful strategies.
The majority of the group were parents with children on the spectrum, and we started off talking about how stress and anxiety affects their children. We moved onto strategies of how to manage and prevent stress- and anxiety-based behaviours for children on the spectrum. There was some discussion about how stress has affected our physical health, and some members shared ways in which they try to relieve their stress and anxiety. Generally time and attention was full throttle towards reducing the child’s stress and anxiety, and I felt the group was less comfortable talking about their own wellbeing.
Some points from the discussion:
- Play dates can be a trigger for stress and anxiety, for both children and parents. To minimise stress, provide structure and keep it short and sweet, e.g. setting up play stations, defined activities, etc.
- When out and about, don’t try to do too much at once. Break activities into small chunks, finish on a success and, if you can, finish before you need to.
- It’s important to consider how people can store up stress and anxiety and react to it at another time. This can be confusing for you and others in your child’s life – for example some children store it up during the school day and respond when they get home.
- It can be tricky to create a ‘Sensory Profile’ of your child and work out what they need because they may react to things in different ways at different times.
- It’s important for parents and carers to think about what effect stress is having on sensory processing.
- Try using sensory-based games to calm your child, such as ‘Hot Dog’ – where you roll up the child in a blanket (head out one end, feet out the other) and apply deep pressure, pretend to add sauces, onions, etc.
- Some parents find that carrying specific objects with them when they are out and about can diffuse stress reactions. For example, carrying aromatherapy oils for a child to sniff, or fidget toys for them to play with.
- Some parents have had successes with using reflexology, massage and meditation or relaxation CDs for children to help them relax as a part of their evening or bedtime routine. These options can help de-stress children and also help them get to sleep.
Parents and carers may feel negative emotions such as guilt about taking time out for themselves to relax. We discussed a variety of ways that parents and carers can ease their stress and anxiety:
- Try using mindfulness techniques, like being present to what is happening around you and within you right now.
- Meditation can be very relaxing. There are many local meditation groups to attend (search for ‘Bristol meditation’). Meditation podcasts and smartphone apps appeal to some parents – e.g. Headspace.com. It’s also important to remember that simply getting ‘lost’ in an activity is also meditation, it’s not just about sitting or lying down.
- Complimentary therapies for relaxation for adults such as massage, reflexology and Reiki can be very beneficial.
We finished off the session by trying out two 1-minute relaxation techniques (see below), which I suggested could be used to tackle stress and anxiety throughout the day.
Pause for a moment. Feel your feet on the ground and your sitting bones connecting with the seat. Connect with the breath and take three more breaths. Then pause. Now follow the unique rhythm of your breath. Try not to affect it, just continue to be aware of it for five more minutes. Then become aware of the present moment, experiencing what is happening right now in your heart and mind. Try this practice during your day, when you first wake up, at midday, and before sleep. Even if you are on your feet all day, just stop and take three depth breaths, and notice the effect.
Pause, then take a deep breath right down into your stomach. While inhaling, try to connect with your heart, as if you were breathing through your heart. Then breath back out through your heart. Do this a couple more times. Then, take three breaths in the same way, but this time, as you in hale through your heart, breathe in loving-kindness towards yourself, and on the exhalation imagine you are breathing out anything you no longer want to carry. After you have done this, just continue to sit or lie for a couple more moments and enjoy the natural rhythm of your breath.