Put on Your Air Mask First

As the semester is coming to an end and finals are around the corner, it’s important to focus on self-care as a parent and a student.  The end of the semester is when stress is at an all-time high, and self-care tends to take a backseat.  During stressful times, we ignore our needs and limits, but it is during these times that we need to practice self-care the most.  Self-care is the intentional action you take caring for your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being.  Self-care can be challenging: it’s a last priority and usually comes after meeting everyone else’s needs.  The following exercise will help you find strategies for taking care of yourself and identifying stressors that drain your energy for parenting and school.

On a piece of paper, brainstorm and write down the characteristics of each of the following:

  • Good parent
  • Good student
  • Healthy person (an individual who is in a state of good physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being)

In your lists of characteristics, do you see any traits listed under multiple identities?  Do your lists overlap?  Looking at your lists, can anyone be all of these things, all of the time?

The short answer is no.  Trying to achieve all the characteristics of these multiple identities (which may or may not conflict with each other) adds to the stress that you are experiencing.  You may end up not getting enough sleep, skipping meals, and ignoring your needs as you try to be a good student and a good parent while being a healthy person.  One of the ways to practice self-care is to figure out how you cope with stress.

The majority of people can recognize major stressors (changing jobs, moving, and losing a loved one), but sometimes you may ignore daily stressors when you are focused on other things such as paper deadlines, tests, and children’s extracurricular activities.  To examine your sources of stress (i.e., habits, attitudes, events, kids), here are a couple of questions you can ask yourself:

  • How do you feel physically and emotionally when you are stressed?
  • How do you respond to it?
  • Do you explain stress as temporary? (“I have a lot of things going on right now,” even though you may not remember the number of hours you slept or the last time you ate)
  • Do you define stress as an integral part of your life? (“My life is always chaotic”) or an attribute of your personality? (“I’m always nervous”)

Now, make another list of characteristics.

  • Good enough parent
  • Good enough student

How do these differ from your original lists? Are they completely different, or do they have commonalities?

The purpose of this exercise is to understand that being good enough is alright: you are doing your best given the circumstances.  For instance, good enough can be equivalent to 85%.  It may not be the 100% you wanted, but you did well enough to pass.  Both student and parent roles are full-time and demanding.  These roles won’t always be compatible, and they can cause you to engage in unhealthy coping skills.  Unhealthy coping skills may temporarily reduce stress, but they can cause more damage in the long run. Examples include

  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Eating a lot of junk food
  • Zoning out in front of the television or laptop
  • Withdrawing from family and friends.

To combat unhealthy coping skills, write down one or more commitments you would like to make to practice self-care.  These commitments can start off as activities, behavioral changes, and/or cognitive changes that you would like to practice during finals.  Some examples of practicing self-care include:

  • Exercise for 30 minutes: You can burn away anger, tension, and frustration. It can reduce and prevent the effects of stress.
  • Put on some music and dance around.
  • Take an exercise class (Ram’s Head/SRC have great hour long group exercise classes such as aerobics and Zumba).
  • Have a study break with a friend or classmate.
  • Ask someone to check in with you regularly to boost your confidence as you are studying for finals.
  • Say “no”: know your limits and stick to them. It is important to distinguish the “shoulds” and “musts” in your life. (For instance, you may feel like your infant should be in the upper percentile, but your infant must be healthy.) Designate a “no” person if necessary.
  • Tell yourself that you are good enough when balancing parental and student responsibilities.

Self-care is individualized and personal, but we all need it.  It is important for us to keep self-care in mind, especially as the end of the semester is a time for possible burnout and hospitalization.  Self-care allows you to be the best version of yourself to be effective as a parent and a student.  Aaron Karmin, a licensed clinician, describes self-care with a great metaphor:

“A selfless person put others’ masks on, while they choke.  A selfish person puts their mask on and leaves everyone else to choke.  A person practicing self-preservation puts their mask on first and help those around them.”