Last updated on May 11th, 2021
This is a section from Chapter 15 of 'Anorexia and other eating disorders – how to help your child eat well and be well'
This chapter is all about your wellbeing, your resilience, your strengths, so that you can cope right now and even flourish in the longer term. Whether you’re getting ready to serve a meal or trying to cope with emotional exhaustion, you will find resources here, and nourishment for your soul.
This is the chapter that too many parents skip. Our wellbeing seems like a ridiculous luxury when our children are suffering! We bristle when people tell us to take care of ourself. ‘A manicure?!’ we fume, ‘what the #$%# would I do with a #$%#-ing manicure! It’s a #$%#-ing break I need!’ We feel alone and misunderstood. Outsiders don’t appreciate that our situation is too serious to be solved with a bubble bath, and that in any case, we don’t have a minute to ourselves.
And at the same time, we often feel at the very edge of what we can bear. Coping tools that used to serve us well are not up to the job any more. We say, ‘I don’t know how much more I can take.’ Our heads are barely above water, we want everything to get back to normal now, yet we’ve learned that caring for our child is a marathon, not a sprint. Besides, life doesn’t stop just because our child is ill. The boiler stops working. An aged parent breaks a hip. A pandemic happens.
What we need is stamina and endurance in order to keep going, and resilience so we can recover from knocks and move onwards and upwards with confidence. Besides, we are role models for our children: it’s useful to show them how we manage emotions and how life can be good. It’s what we want for them, isn’t it, to live life to the full? It must be a relief for them to see they have not destroyed us and that we continue to provide the wisdom and stability they need.
In this chapter I will share the psychological tools I found most wonderful. Many take neither time nor money. And although what follows is self-help, please appreciate that humans need others, and this is very much a time to reach out to kind friends or professionals. As suffering is really not much fun, I hope that what follows will speed up your emotional journey.
[Jumping to another section of the chapter…]
Tool number two is distraction. Sometimes we are too distraught to self-connect, to go inwards. It can feel risky to be with our emotions, because we’re alone and could get overwhelmed, or because we might cry at a most inconvenient time. Maybe we’ve tried some introspection or mindfulness and it’s only making our ruminating worse. This is where distraction is precious. It interrupts the flow of catastrophising or critical thoughts. Our nervous system stops perceiving threats and allows our state to move away from fight, flight or freeze. A few minutes of distraction and the world can feel like a better place.
Soak in the good
The next tool in my ‘favourites’ list is appreciating good things, big or small. This tip is especially useful when you have no time (or money) for what used to give you a boost. As you go about your demanding day, look for things that will delight your senses, that will feed your soul. Notice the beauty of a flower, the smell of fresh coffee, the warmth of the water as you wash your hands, the fluffiness of your slippers. Appreciate the smoothness of your cat. Laugh out loud at your dog’s antics. Pause at the window as you notice a sunset. Breathe in the wonder. If for a moment, you feel at one with the world, stretch out the moment. If a sense of gratitude or joy bubbles up, magnify it. Play music that energises rather than depresses. Listen to podcasts of inspiring people. On the internet, steer away from negativity, and instead seek out images and stories that make you feel good. There’s a picture of Snoopy hugging his little bird friend, Woodstock, that thrills me every time I see it.
Perhaps this morning your child gave you a rare smile, and suddenly you had hope that your kid was back. Let your heart soar. Do you tend to minimise these joys? (‘Mustn’t get my hopes up! Mustn’t tempt fate! It will all be a big disappointment!’) Actually, anticipatory grief doesn’t offer any protection. If your hopes are dashed, you will suffer… and you will be more ready to bounce back if in the meantime, you have nourished yourself. Athletes build up their bodies. Parents build up their wellbeing.
Every time you notice something good, pause for a second and amplify the feeling in your body. Our brains evolved with a negativity bias to ensure our survival, not our happiness. We naturally dwell on what has or could go wrong. The stress of it keeps us awash with some very tiring chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol. As you allow yourself to enjoy positives, your body switches over to the production of feel-good hormones. Notice the feeling and amplify it.
I used to feel like nothing short of a ten-year holiday on a tropical island could possibly fill up my tank. It was humbling to find that one hour of companionship, one minute of laughter, one kind gesture from a loving person, could top up my wellbeing. My external circumstances were just as hard, but the shot of feel-good chemicals had moved me to a better state, making me more resilient.
[Jumping to another section of the chapter…]
Coping moment by moment
Feelings are in-the-moment things. In Chapter 13 I described them as waves that rise and subside. They pass. They transform into something else. Your emotions may be at rock bottom now but there is no way of predicting how they will be in ten minutes or in ten days. These days, the only certainty I have about my emotions is that they come and go, and the less I get them tangled up with my thoughts, the more likely they are to move on.
When I realised that I was stressing out about the next year, the next week, or even the next hour, I decided to notice how, moment by moment, I was coping. The moment might need to be subdivided into units of milliseconds, so that I could tell myself, ‘Right now, this instant, I’m actually fine.’
You could notice that the only reality is the present moment. This instant. This instant in which you are living and breathing and in which the ground is under your feet. The past is gone; the future doesn’t yet exist.
I decided that if I could be fine in the present, even when things were horribly tough, I could trust I would most likely also be fine in future, present moments.
I wonder if you’ve ever done this with physical pain. You’ve bitten through a chunk of your tongue and it’s hurting like hell, but just now, this second, it’s bearable. And this next second is OK too. And so on. You might even start noticing that the pain subsides because it’s not aggravated by catastrophic thoughts.
Noticing that we are coping in the moment allows us to deal with our fears one step at a time. I love this sentence from the excellent book Parenting Your Anxious Child with Mindfulness and Acceptance by Christopher McCurry:
“Sometimes all we need is just a glimpse of where to go and what to do, and we can take the next step – and then the next and then the next.”
[Jumping to another section of the chapter…]
Post-traumatic stress or post-traumatic growth?
It is not uncommon for parents of kids with an eating-disorder to suffer from some kind of backlash, possibly as serious as post-traumatic stress disorder, after their child’s condition improves. It’s by no means a general rule, but it happens. I was lucky: I did a lot of falling apart while my daughter was ill, and then felt increasingly well. But some parents end up more traumatised than their kids, something that has been observed in families where a child has recovered from cancer.
“After my husband and I finally got our daughter to a safe stage in recovery, our bodies decided to sort of collapse on us. I kept catching bugs/viruses that went on for ages. I think our bodies know when the ED emergency is over, and then they crash! Anyway, now I'm well again.”
It can be scary for us parents to notice how anxious or depressed we feel and to think that this may stay with us for ever.
“It does get better, in fact it was surprising to me that I had to think hard to remember some of the things that happened, although at the time it felt like we would never get through them or forget them.”
It may help you to know that PTSD is by no means inevitable and is not linked to the severity of the trauma. Martin Seligman, in his book Flourish, discusses survivors of traumas, in particular war veterans. In spite of what the media would have us believe, he points out that PTSD is relatively uncommon. Most people return to their previous level of functioning after a brief period of depression and anxiety.
More excitingly, there is such a thing as post-traumatic growth. Seligman notes that after events producing intense depression and anxiety, a substantial number of people become not only resilient, but better than ever. Seligman gave questionnaires to 1,700 people who had suffered torture, grave illness, death of a child, rape, imprisonment and other awful events. These people had more strengths and greater wellbeing than people who had not experienced major stressors.
I can relate to that. I had months of feeling like I was cracking up while my daughter was in hospital. I carried dark glasses everywhere because I never knew when I might burst into tears. I frequently fantasised about smashing the car into a wall and feared that one day I might do so involuntarily. But I also knew that I had good reason to be distressed.
In this chapter:
- My search for new ways to deal with adversity
- Get to know what sustains you
- Soak in the good
- Use your body to trick your mind
- Good-enough Zen, or five percent better
- Coping moment by moment
- Being in the moment
- Choose where you put your attention
- Deep questions
- Imagery to help you get grounded and peaceful
- Acceptance: work with reality, not against it
- Trust that you have resources
- What to do with fear
- Post-traumatic stress or post-traumatic growth?
- Mistakes, blame and self-acceptance
- Sadness, grief and … joy
- Writing a diary: self-help or rumination?
- Helper's high
- An attitude of gratitude
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