3 strategies for managing stress & anxiety as we return to “normal”

Nearly a year ago, I penned a blog about a return to normal, thinking at the time that the pandemic was near over. Well, how wrong was I? Hopefully this time around we truly are on a path to normalcy. That’s been on my mind.

I started reading a friend’s blog the other day, she has a wonderful site, We Are Brave Together, to support mothers with special needs kids. This post was about her son. She shared that when they would go to the grocery store he would start talking to himself. She explained it was not soft and subtle but pretty loud and quite obvious to others. Even though she knew he did this to sooth himself, she admitted she was embarrassed with the looks and stares she got from other shoppers in the store.

Dang, haven’t we all been there! Every time I go to the grocery store, I hold my breath thinking “oh please oh please oh please” can we just get what I need and get out of the store in one piece?! I 100% relate and sympathize with my friend and her feelings. I get it. It’s hard when our kids have their “special moments.”

As we start to see our lives opening back up and we reconnect with more people and places again, self-soothing is so important. Recognizing our “normal” for the past year+ has been at home, on remote learning or zoom calls, we’ve been isolated and lulled into a safe sense of security. It dawned on me as I continued reading her post, “Wow,” reconnecting to our lives and getting back to some sense of normal after all this time is going to be potentially harder than I anticipated.

This week, our school approved Maci to attend in person learning 5 days a week (cue sounds of blow horns and whooping!!). Although it is not all day and some of the days, while she is in the school she attends via computer, it will be an adjustment. She’ll face challenges with new demands and an overwhelming environment that she hasn’t had to deal with for a long time. Time for me to dust off some of my old strategies and “go to” methods I used when Maci was younger to help her to sooth herself when she becomes overwhelmed.

My old strategies (oldies but goodies) include:

  1. Managing anxiety & stress through setting expectations. Anxiety and stress cause many behaviors such as overreaction, shutting down, inability to focus or self-regulate. Many times, this anxiety and stress is caused by unknown or unfamiliar situations. I’ve found it helpful to talk with Maci ahead of time to help her visualize what her experience will be and look like – before it happens. This gives her an understanding of where we are going, who will be there, if she has been there before and what was it like the last time we were there. That way, when we get there, she already has a good understanding and knows what to expect.
  2. Slowing & calming down by breathing deeply. When our environment pace elevates, becomes faster and more uncertain, it helps to slow down and take deep breaths. At our house, we do this a lot. Deep breathing has been shown to help the executive function area of our brain to respond again when we are stressed and in an anxious state of mind. At a conference several years ago, Dr. George McClosky spoke on his work on executive function and how to purposefully activate that area of our brain. A simple and easy way to do this is to yawn and breathe deeply. Activating our executive function allows us to communicate calmness to the other areas of    our brain, especially when under stress or anxiety is causing us to be confused or disoriented. I’d encourage you to read Dr. McCloskey’s book on Executive Function, Essentials of Executive Functions Assessment.
  3. Making lists, lists and more lists! We love our lists. Any time we are confused, overwhelmed or agitated,  creating a list for the day or schedule provides comfort and direction about what is going to happen. I think for Maci (and perhaps most kids) this give a sense of control. We recently bought a daily organizer    and calendar for the year to facilitate making our lists. It is a wonderful tool for Maci – even though she really can’t write or technically read – it’s a comfort for her. She loves this book and carries is with her all the time. I write down her schedule for her and help her keep track of her activities, etc.

I also find that knowing what your child’s preferred sensory coping skill is helps as well. For example, Maci needs texture input such as sand or Play Doh to play with for a period of time. She also loves to cut and draw. I always give her time after school to spend with these activities to help her unwind and manage her sensory needs.

It is wonderful to see our lives and opportunities to reconnect slowly coming back. But, we should realize that this return to normalcy may bring stress and anxiety for our children with ASD. I hope bringing attention and some simple strategies on how to think ahead of time or have a mindful approach to reconnecting will help ease the transition and sooth ourselves. Oh, and that blog post of mine from May of last year, it has some great additional coping strategies called The 5 Cs. Here’s hoping we are actually returning to normal this time around!

Marikay Cuthill is mother of Maci, a vibrant, curious 15-year-old on the Autism Spectrum, and the founder of Maci And Pebble, a community dedicated to helping people navigate autism by finding answers, direction and peace of mind. Learn more at www.maciandpebble.com

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