Emotional Fitness

“Let go of your stress and smile!” shouted the aerobics instructor over the loud music as she cheerfully encouraged the class to follow her lead. My first couple of negative thoughts were, “Are you kidding me? I’m lucky I made it here, and I’m not in a good mood because I’m really behind on several things that I had to set aside just to make it to class!” I won’t go into detail about my other negative thoughts but suffice it to say that I was tired, irritated, and stretched beyond capacity. As I mustered through the workout I wondered, “How did I let this happen?” I’m usually very good at time management but somehow I slipped this time around, and I was not in a good place.

Have you ever been there too?  You know, where your thoughts are racing a million miles a minute, time is running out, and it seems there’s absolutely nothing you can do to catch up???

As I looked around the room, I wondered if others were experiencing the same thing. There were a few individuals who looked intense—those who were at the front of the class—but others seemed to actually be enjoying themselves in the moment. I’m usually part of that latter group but not today. What happened?

Thinking back over the week, I began to realize where I detoured: I watched a little extra TV a few days, I volunteered to help a friend at the last minute, and one night I stayed up late surfing the Web. While none of these things are detrimental in and of themselves, when added together they inevitably worked against me. Although I had fun doing each of them at the time, in the end I paid for it—dearly. As I said before, I wasn’t in a good place.

Yet right on time my compassion reflex kicked it and as I sent myself positive messages (“You made a good choice to focus on your health,” and “You are getting back on track”), I felt my mind and body slowly begin to let go of the anxiety and tension, and I was able to focus on the workout with thoughts of getting healthy and feeling better. Once I realized I didn’t feel so stressed, I began enjoying myself and wouldn’t you know it—I actually smiled. I guess the aerobics instructor wasn’t too far off after all.

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Reflecting back later that day, I recalled two important life skills: boundaries and mindfulness.

While exercising relieves stress and keeps us physically fit, practicing boundaries and mindfulness results in improved emotional fitness. When we establish healthy boundaries, we inevitably protect ourselves, which enables us to be responsible stewards over such things as our time. In turn, having healthy boundaries frees us up to practice mindfulness—having the capacity to be present in the moment and to connect with our senses and the environment around us. Good self-care not only includes taking care of our physical bodies but also requires active management of our emotional health. When we make both priorities, we ultimately safeguard our well-being which results in a manageable and balanced life. Are we always going to be perfect in practicing good self-care? No, my account above shows anyone can make a mistake from time to time, but the key is to recognize when you begin to take a detour and then take intentional steps to re-route yourself back to the skills that will help you to restore your emotional fitness.

The Hurried Child: Are YOU Willing to Swim Upstream?

As September moves forward, school settles into a familiar rhythm and the pace of family life quickens. School. Practices. Foreign languages. Clubs. Tutors. Private lessons. Games. Church activities. Homework. And the list goes on…and on…and, well, you get the picture. Our homes ring with the words, “Hurry up, we’ll be late” and we rush our kids from one activity to the next. We zip through the drive-thru and throw processed food at our kids as they attempt to finish homework in the backseat. We sacrifice their nutrition and our own sanity to the rush of one more practice or game or commitment. As parents, we have a choice to make: do we follow along with our hurried culture and sign our children up for yet one more activity (who said peer pressure vanished with high school?!) or, do we swim upstream?

Many modern day American parents have fallen victim to this underlying system of beliefs: My children deserve to be happy and successful. It is my job to make them happy and successful. If I give my child more “opportunities” (also known as classes, lessons, tutors, etc.) to obtain experience and knowledge they will be more likely to grow up to be happy and successful and I will have done my job. If we (and I definitely include myself here!) as adults recall the most happy, carefree days of our own childhood it is likely that those memories do not involve structured, organized “opportunities”, but rather (gasp!) unstructured free play with friends and/or siblings. Our children today are stressed-out, over-scheduled, and under-played.

Research is overwhelmingly in support of slowing down the pace of our children’s daily lives and of giving them back the chance to get bored, to find something to do on their own and to relish in pretend play. I could name book after book written by prestigious authors who support this notion, but, at the end of the day it comes down to this: Are we, as parents, willing to swim upstream? It is hard work. It can be exhausting. It is not fun or easy to hold to a different set of beliefs from our culture (pesky peer pressure again!). Are we willing to stand our ground and say “no” to countless “opportunities” that present themselves to us time and time again? Are we willing to listen to our kids bickering and fighting as they attempt to plow through their own boredom to find something to do? It is far easier to sit in the bleachers checking your own email as your child runs up and down the basketball court than to stick it out at home on a Saturday morning as your child struggles to find a new mode of entertainment. Remember, we have created this culture of hurriedness for our children and they will have to “detox” and adjust as we slow the pace.

Okay, you are still with me so I will assume you might be willing to swim upstream. How do we do this in a practical way?

  • Just say NO! Limit your children to one or maybe two activities at a time, depending on their age. If it is soccer season and your child really wants to be on the team, go for it! But let that be the activity for that season. I will warn you, and I speak from experience here, this is hard. There will be times when you think you are depriving your child of the chance to be the next Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan or Julie Andrews before he or she turns 10. You worry that you are not helping your child find his or her “thing.” Hang in there. It gets easier.
  • Unplug on a regular basis. Have technology-free time as a  family: play a board game together, go for a walk, collect items and make a collage or sculpture, take turns asking each other “what if” questions (What if you could jump into a book…which book would you jump into and why?), bake something yummy and share it with a neighbor.
  • Make family dinners a priority. The research here is so strong! Families who eat a meal together on a regular basis have kids who perform better in school and hold up under peer pressure when it comes to big stuff like drugs, alcohol, and sex.
  • Fight the urge to plan every moment. Allow for chunks of time in your child’s day that are not filled with activities and events.
  • Resist the urge to buy every latest and greatest toy or electronic gadget. Provide your child with toys that encourage open-ended play: blocks, blank paper and crayons/paints/markers, play-doh or clay, dress up clothes, boxes of varying sizes that can become anything, etc.
  • Pay attention to your child. Ask your child which activity he or she would most like to engage in right now. Watch for signs of your child being overwhelmed or stressed-out (fatigue, anxiety, irritability, poor sleep habits) and be prepared to scale back. You are doing your child and your family a favor.

Happy Swimming, Moms and Dads!