How to Get Out of Survival Mode as a Parent

how to get out of survival mode as a parent"
how to get out of survival mode as a parent
Source: @katiemsperryphotography via #sharetheeverymom
Source: @katiemsperryphotography via #sharetheeverymom

A while back I found myself at the grocery store with my toddler hanging out of the shopping cart, grabbing at anything within his reach on the shelves, and my kindergartner trailing behind us in full meltdown mode over my refusal to buy him a second jelly donut. An older woman drifted toward us, a nostalgic smile on her face, and I knew what she was going to say before the words left her mouth.

“Enjoy every minute, dear. It goes so fast.”

“Really?” I wanted to say. “Because this particular trip to the store has lasted approximately seven years.”

While parenting can be one of the most rewarding things in the world, it can also be challenging and exhausting—sometimes all at the same time. My children do bring me joy, but that feeling is often buried under the ever-growing mountain of responsibilities I have as their caretaker. 

Every phase of their development brings with it a new to-do list. So you finally mastered sleep training? Congratulations, now it’s time for potty training. Gotten a handle on homework? Save the champagne and move on to tackling the Rubik’s cube of summer child care.

Whether you’re working full time, part time, or as a stay-at-home mom, triaging the deluge of daily duties is enough to land anyone in survival mode. With your brain jumping from task to task trying to separate the urgent from the super urgent, it’s no wonder our bodies revert to the primal fight or flight response. 

Fight or flight mode happens when stress hormones put our bodies on high alert, causing physical reactions like rapid heartbeat and increased blood pressure. Existing in this prolonged state of high alert—as parents often do—can take a severe toll on our health and wellness. 


How to Get Out of Survival Mode as a Parent

The good news is that there are some simple strategies that can help you stop living in survival mode and find some joy in the present moment. Read on for a roundup of helpful advice.


Eat well

While we prioritize preparing healthy meals for our kids, too often we subsist on iced coffee and leftover mac and cheese. Erratic eating patterns and sugary foods can cause blood sugar to fluctuate, which triggers stress. Caffeine and alcohol can also ramp up the nervous system. Instead, eating regularly throughout the day and reaching for complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes and brown rice, along with high-quality proteins like plain yogurt and lean meat, can help regulate blood sugar and maintain energy.


Ground yourself in the present moment

When you feel your adrenaline start to kick in, focus on your five senses. Look around and name the things you can see: a blue chair, a green tree, etc. Press your hands onto the counter, your car dashboard, or whatever is around you and notice how it feels. Take several slow, deep breaths and notice any scents around you. Close your eyes and focus on what you can hear, whether it’s traffic noises or birds chirping. Pop a mint or a stick of gum in your mouth and savor the taste it creates. Focusing on what your senses tell you about the world around you can ground you in the present moment and prevent fight or flight mode from taking over.


Exercise regularly

This is something we all know we should do, but it’s often our last priority. Fitting in regular exercise can be particularly challenging for those who are solo parenting, but the benefits are vast. Even as little as twenty minutes of walking has huge benefits, and if you can get your heart rate up you’ll experience the release of endorphins, the so-called “happiness hormones” that can counteract survival mode.



Let go of judgment and guilt

Though we may not want to admit it, much of our stress is often self-induced. We feel compelled to make sure our kids’ schedules are full so they don’t “miss out,” even though this means we’re stuck in traffic shuttling back and forth between activities at the expense of down time. Or, we follow social media influencers who make us feel bad about our own lives or parenting skills. But having an HGTV-ready living room won’t necessarily make you happy, and not all parenting advice is created equal. Every family—and every kid—is different, so this is your permission slip to let go of artificial standards and the judgment that goes with them.


Practice good sleep hygiene

Lack of sleep can make the body react as if it’s in distress, releasing more stress hormones and cycling you deeper into survival mode. Practicing good sleep hygiene helps our bodies and our brains get the rest they need to break this cycle. Try avoiding caffeine later in the day and forego your evening glass of wine, as alcohol can disrupt sleep cycles. Keep your room cool and dark and save your bed for sleep as opposed to working or watching TV. Most importantly, if you wake in the night, try to avoid reaching for your phone—those emails aren’t going anywhere and will seem much less overwhelming in the morning when you’re well-rested.


Seek support

Given the lack of support for families in the U.S., it’s no surprise that raising children often pushes us into crisis mode. This doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. Seeking help with childcare or rides to and from activities from friends, family, and neighbors can lighten the load, and you can do the same for them. The rise of online therapy has also made it easier and more accessible to talk to a professional if your own mental health is suffering.


Remember that this is a season of life

Perhaps the most important thing you can do to get yourself out of survival mode is to remember that this too shall pass. Though it’s hard to believe, a day will come when your top Google search isn’t “how to feel less exhausted.” One morning you’ll wake up, look at the stack of parenting books on your nightstand and realize you’re no longer in crisis mode—and that you might even be experiencing some joy in day-to-day life. You’ll get there, one day at a time.

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