My swim coach, who had been pacing the side of the pool, intently watching his athletes progress through the workout, stopped and focused his gaze down my lane for a long while. Sure enough, when I reached the wall, he leaned down to speak to me. Now what?
It was my arms again. I wasn’t reaching forward enough during my strokes. My shoulders hurt. Among other things, I figured my distance-runner-turned-triathlete self could have probably benefited from some upper body strength training. But there wasn’t enough time in the week for that. This is your strength training. Reach! Come on. I started another lap, trailing behind everyone in my lane.
I had recently returned from seven weeks off due to an injury. It was rare that I needed or wanted time off. It’s great to be here, no matter how tired I am or how much my form is falling apart today. During the time of physical inactivity, the primary negative result I had noticed was an increase in ‘brain clutter.’ Without regular aerobic exercise, it seemed like I just couldn’t clear my head. Additionally, as a very energetic person, I was outright fidgety. The inability to focus was a form of stress pressing on the back of my mind.
Anyone raising children knows the stress of sleepless nights, the added financial pressure of supporting another family member, and the constant responsibility of keeping a little person safe. Austin and I are blessed to have led relatively low-stress and nearly trauma-less lives. When we entered the world of foster care, that all changed. Stress came at us from many directions. And we have since had our fair share of secondary trauma.
For a season, it seemed like caseworkers were coming by all the time. We have had great experiences with these professionals, but I grew weary of explaining everything we do at home; our disciplinary system, where we were going on the weekends, which subjects at school were going well, and which were not (which was most of them), restating what medical professionals and optometrists were telling us about the kids. Our lives were an open book to Child Protective Services.
Then there was court. And birth family expectations. And visits. And the general direction of the cases which went back and forth between adoption, to reunification, and later back to adoption.
The most stressful part of it all was managing the kids. The entire process was an emotional roller coaster for us, but much more so for them. They were hanging in the balance of returning to their families, whom they loved dearly, or staying with us, where their roots were beginning to grow. All of this played out in daily negative behaviors that were high-stress and exhausting to manage. We still go through seasons of challenging behavior.
So, what to do with all that stress?
You probably have a few tried-and-true methods for stress management; the important thing is, proactively manage it. Find somewhere to put it, to leave it, to let it go.
Here’s a few of my favorites, in no particular order:
- Exercise. I find all exercise therapeutic in its own way, but am especially fond of running and swimming. Having run for more of my life than not, I have found the rhythm of my feet hitting the ground and the deep breaths of fresh air to be mindless and comforting.
- Meditate. Different people have different approaches to mediation. As a believer in the Creator God of the Bible, I look up to him for truth and enlightenment, not within myself. I believe he understands my human psyche better than I do. My version of meditating is putting a Bible verse or two into my mind and keeping that as a focus throughout my day. Psalm 34:1 is a good place to start, “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips.” (CSB)
- Sunlight. This is a biggie for me – Serotonin and Vitamin D. This past winter was long. Desperate for spring, Austin and I worked out a midday routine where he would take over lunch clean-up, and I would go outside for 15 minutes, bundled up in my winter coats, and lay in our backyard soaking up sun. Additionally, I’d pop in my earbuds and listen to my white noise album, which has garden sounds like birds, insects, and summer background noise to remind me that winter will eventually end.
- People. At the current stage of life, getting together with friends is tough. Most of us have littles to manage, so the first decision is whether to make a play date of it, or find childcare and have uninterrupted adult conversation time. As an extrovert by nature, I generally support getting together over not, so if it means the kids are involved, that’s alright by me; at least I got to laugh with someone who understands.
- Find People Further Along in Life. This is an area we are growing in, but for a long time have wanted to expand our circle of friends to include more people beyond our current stage of life. I’m happy to say, we are slowly getting there. This is helpful in a number of ways, but I am particularly glad to have the wisdom of hindsight from those ahead of us. It helps keep things in perspective.
- Support Groups. If you are involved in foster care or have adopted children in your home, I highly encourage finding a support group at a local agency or church. Find people who can be in the trenches with you. Raising children who have endured trauma comes with unique challenges, but it is easier when you are surrounded by others in the same boat!
- Color. I love to color. Best of all, I can do this with the kids. I have coloring books for me and coloring books for them. Sometimes we color together on the same picture, sometimes I ask them to let me color my own.
- Therapy. I’ve probably benefited from my kids’ therapy sessions as much as they have. Verbalizing internalized emotions is great for me. Though I’ve considered regular therapy for myself on various occasions, connecting with a good support group has given me an outlet to unload about challenges our kids face. However, inviting a professional versed in psychology to give an outside, unbiased assessment during tough times can be highly beneficial. For me, a therapy session during times of loss has been especially helpful.
- Coffee. Austin’s absolute favorite; he takes his coffee seriously. The French press, boiling the water, setting the timer, getting the brewing just right. Making himself a cup of coffee is his way of getting in a little time and comfort for himself amidst the crazy.
- Text Messages. What!?! Someone supporting screen time? Getting real life interactions with people is definitely my preferred method of connecting, but that just doesn’t happen with the regularity I wish it would. A quick text message or WhatsApp conversation with a friend keeps me feeling connected and cared for when no one is available to be present physically.