TAKE A VACATION! Use the Power of Your Mind to Reduce Stress and Build Family Togetherness

So the holidays are over, the kids are back to school, and our lives as parents can return to a state of stress-free bliss, right? Wrong. We find ourselves right back in the whirlwind of work, carpools, homework, music lessons, team practice, orthodontist appointments, deadlines, laundry, groceries, lunches, school obligations, bedtime routines, meal preparations, the occasional sick child – who will stay home with her this time? – and, oh yes, sleep deprivation. We’ve made and broken our New Year resolutions to be more organized, more patient, more this and more that more times than we can remember. We are right back to feeling overworked, underappreciated, and above all GUILTY.

I remember those years of feeling guilty at work because of what I was not doing at home, and feeling guilty at home because of what I was not accomplishing at work, and feeling guilty all the time because I was never able to follow those “ten tips for the busy parent” that always seem to be cropping up in some parenting magazine or other. AAARRGGHHH! Just thinking about those days puts me in need of a vacation…

Do you remember that commercial where a woman takes a bath full of aromatic bath salts, cries “Calgon, take me away!” and is transported into a magical guilt-free world of peace and rejuvenation? When there are too few hours in the day, and too many half-met responsibilities, we need that world of magic. And the good news is, we can create that magic for ourselves with a little imagination and creativity, and a willingness to experiment with the power of our own thoughts.

Somewhere along the line, you have probably heard about “meditation,” “mindfulness,” or “guided imagery and visualization.” All of these contemplative practices offer ways of defeating the whirlwind of guilty, anxious thoughts in our minds, and opening the door for more calm and peaceful experiences in our lives. As we learn to calm our thoughts, we grow a sense of well-being and acceptance inside us that lends us perspective on our busy lives, and paves the way for deeper and more fulfilling relationships with those we love.

To begin, we recognize that there is no one “right” way to pursue these practices, and that we are not striving towards mastery of techniques, but only towards a practice that will bring increasing moments of peace and satisfaction in our busy lives.

So what about that imaginary magical vacation we all need so much? And when can we possibly find time to try out meditation, or mindfulness, or guided imagery in our already chaotic lives? These practices do not require great amounts of time, nor do they require special equipment or preparation. I invite you, over the next few days, to spend some time experimenting with the power of your mind while you are waiting for the kids at their lessons or practices, or waiting for the pasta water to boil, or waiting in line at the copy machine. The practice called guided imagery or visualization is a good place to start.

While there are all types of “scripts” for guided imagery in books, on CD’s and on the web, you can take yourself on a guided imagery vacation simply by getting yourself in a comfortable position, perhaps putting on some soft, soothing music, and closing your eyes.

Take three long, slow deep breaths, feel your muscles relax, and your heart and breathing slow. Continue to breathe slowly and deeply as you focus your mind first on your body, locating areas of tightness and deliberately tensing, and releasing the muscles in that area. Next, create a picture in your mind of a place you have been, or one you would like to visit, where you feel completely safe and relaxed—stress and anxiety free. Visit this place using all of your senses, and naming the sensations to yourself. First, see the colors, shapes and textures in your mind, focusing on the visual details. Next, listen carefully for the sounds in your imagination—if at the beach, the rhythmic crash and swish of the waves, the call of the seagulls, the joyful sounds of children playing. Feel the warmth of the sun on your skin, or the cooling soothing flow of stream water over your toes, or the softness of the wind on your cheek as the grass tickles the backs of your bare legs. Smell the smells of salt air, of spring freshness, of popcorn, or of whatever else evokes a clear and vivid image of this place in your mind. Spend as much time in this place as you can, as often as you can.

If you have trouble remembering, or imagining, such a stress-free place, take some time “planning” your vacation. Go online, or to a travel agency, or in the pages of an adventure or travel magazine, and find pictures and brochures and details of a “perfect” vacation. Gather notes and images into a folder or notebook, and refer to it whenever you want to take yourself to your special, magical place. With practice and repetition, you are likely to come back refreshed and ready to tackle that next challenge. And maybe you will even be able to actually take a real live vacation with your family in that special place...some day.

In the meantime, why not try sharing guided imagery and visualization practice with your kids, your partner, your entire family? This is a great way to find the time for your mini-vacation even as you play with the kids, and a way to feel closer as a family. You can even use this idea to wind the kids down before bedtime, or to stave off boredom on a long car ride. Again, there are guided imagery scripts you can read to your kids, and CD’s you can play for them, but you can also make up your own adventures that you take together. Invite your kids to take those three long deep breaths, close their eyes and make themselves comfortable. Suggest that you all go on an imaginary vacation together. Invite someone to suggest a place, then take turns describing the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and sensations of this special place. Invite the kids to spend some quiet time in this place, and then to share their adventures with the whole family.

Experiment with these ideas, be playful and inventive in your choices of place, and find interludes of relaxation and enjoyment, alone and with your kids, as you use your imagination and your creativity to invite moments of peace into your chaotic lives.

References for Additional Exploration:

  • Casarjian, B.E., & Dillon, D.H. (2006). Mommy Mantras: Affirmations and Insights to Keep You from Losing Your Mind. New York: Random House, Inc.
  • Doe, M. Spiritual Parenting. www.SpiritualParenting.com
  • Doe, M. (2001).  Busy But Balanced: Practical and Inspirational Ways to Create a Calmer, Closer Family. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  • Kabat-Zinn, M. & Kabat-Zinn, J. Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. New York: Hyperion
  • Roy, D. (2007).  Momfulness: Mothering with Mindfulness, Compassion, and Grace. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  • Tiemann, A.  Mojo Mom. www.MojoMom.com

And for the Kids:

  • Allen, J.S. & Klein, R.J. (1996).  Ready, Set, Relax: A Research-Based Program of Relaxation, Learning and Self-Esteem for Children. Watertown, WI: Inner Coaching.
  • Sister Susan & Thich Nhat Hanh. (2001).  Each Breath a Smile. Berkeley: Plum Blossom Books.
  • Thich Nhat Hanh. (2001).  A Pebble for your Pocket. Berkeley: Plum Blossom Books.
  • Thich Nhat Hanh. (2002).  Under the Rose Apple Tree. Berkeley: Parallax Press.

Lisa Bechtel is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Play Therapist Supervisor practicing with Franco Psychological Associates, PC.