For all parents, raising kids can be exhausting. Surprisingly though, one of the things I’ve learned over the past few years raising a son with a diagnosis of cerebral palsy is that merely getting sufficient sleep will not be enough to feel rested.
Yes, the physical work of taking care of a kid who has special needs is tiring, and getting good rest can really help with that. But the fact is that the stress and anxiety of being a parent also take their toll. And the tiredness you get from feeling anxious and stressed out can’t be undone by sleep alone.
Constant vigilance creates a unique kind of tiredness which creates a chronic drain and weariness that may or may not respond to sleep.
Anyone who has taken care of a baby is familiar with the feeling of constant vigilance that accompanies taking care of someone who can not take care of themselves. But real cognitive and emotional problems can start to surface when that constant vigilance is sustained for years on end, as it is when you’re parenting a kid with special needs.
That constant vigilance creates a unique kind of tiredness which creates a chronic drain and weariness that may or may not respond to usual sleep.
And here’s the thing: parents of kids with developmental disabilities aren’t the only ones who experience the negative effects of constant vigilance. I think we are all living in a state of constant threat vigilance and experiencing the chronic drain and weariness that accompanies that anxiety.
Most of us live in a world that seems hell bent on activating and engaging the regions of our brain responsible for responding to threats and our basic instincts. Whether it is news headlines, advertisements, crappy fluorescent lighting after sunset or being always on the alert for some outside communication, our amygdalas — which used to be on high alert for lions and tigers and bears — are now on alert for scrolling headlines on the bottom of screens or new “likes” on Facebook.
So we are all experiencing a constant elevated threat level and the persistent vigilance that parents of kids with special needs live with all the time.
If you’re getting sufficient sleep and still feel like you’re dragging all of the time, this constant vigilance could have a lot to do with it.
So if sleep doesn’t undo the negative, tiring effects of threat anxiety, what does?
For some people, mindfulness meditation is the key, for others it could be exercise (with the caveat that overdoing it with exercise can sabotage the benefits through an interesting mechanism called opponent processes).
Importantly, we need to find some way to dial back the constant vigilance — some way to dial back the flood of chemicals in our brains that is telling us to be on high alert.
While meditation and exercise are no doubt helpful, I’m starting to see more and more research pointing to the benefits of spending time outdoors. Being outdoors has a way of changing how our attention is working and can unwind some of the tension that comes from constant vigilance.
Florence Williams’ The Nature Fix and Richard Louv’s The Nature Principal are packed with research showing how the shift in attention that comes from being outdoors changes our biomarkers for stress and anxiety and can increase our creativity. Both books are really worth checking out.
This combination of spending time in nature and sufficient sleep appears to be one way to chip away at the weariness that comes from constant vigilance.
For families with kids with special needs this presents a really unique opportunity: the more that these families can spend time together outdoors, the more they can undo some of the effects of the anxiety and constant vigilance that is all part of being a parent to a kid with special needs. We just need to make the time and find the places where we can do so!