When you live with PTSD, or any anxiety disorder, you know to be ready for an episode any day, any time. Symptoms can range from mild to severe; an episode could mean heightened awareness of other people’s micro-expressions, or it could mean a full-on, totally debilitating panic attack. Anxiety won’t wait. It doesn’t care where you are, who you’re with, or what you need to do. The other day, I watched a member of my peer support group gasp for air in front of everyone after sharing her experience of loneliness. She ultimately had to be wheeled to a medical floor until she was calm again. Anxiety allows its victim no dignity.
As a mother living with an anxiety disorder, I have an intimate knowledge of the disruption which anxiety can wreak upon daily living. But all of us mothers, hyperanxious or not, know that we don’t get ‘sick days.’ We can’t triage extended self care into our schedules, no matter how much we need it.
The abuse which caused my PTSD was prolonged and severe. The symptoms, therefore, likewise. I also live in the Pacific Northwest, where we receive abundant servings of yucky, rain drenched days. Between the weather and my moods, I spend a lot of time indoors with my kids. Don’t worry, they get lots of physical activity at daycare, and I do make a special effort to go out when the weather is nice. The truth is, however, that a lot of our time together is spent indoors, and that I spend a lot of it trying to covertly treat my anxiety. As a result, I have created an arsenal of simple, kid-friendly indoor activities that also provide secret opportunities for mindfulness and other forms of de-stressing.
If you’re a mama, papa, grandparent, or some other person who spends lots of time with young children, and you’re also prone to bouts of anxiety, give these six activities a try!
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1. Connecting Blocks
Yes, that’s right, I’m talking Legos. Of all the childhood activities in the world, who doesn’t have great memories with Legos? We have LEGO DUPLO and Mega Bloks, which are basically just even bigger Legos with a slightly different feel because they are made by a different company. The cool thing about these two is that even though they’re basically the same thing, my kids count them as different activities. They get bored with the Duplos? Okay! Bust out the Mega Bloks! Another half hour to an hour of just sticking blocks together.
This is suuuper relaxing. I especially love the Mega Bloks because they produce a really satisfying, smooth clicking sensation when you put them together. It’s in the same pleasure category as popping bubble wrap. If that sounds weird to you, try constructing something with them while you are in the middle of an anxiety episode. They are hypnotic.
The Duplos are fun because they are still big enough to be held by chubby hands, but small enough to allow for more versatile creations than the Mega Bloks. I have definitely gotten lost in the building of a Lego-bot on more than one occasion. And the girls, of course, love it. One of my daughters gets this really intense look in her eyes when she builds; I think she experiences the hypnotic effects too. The other, loves to put shapes together really quickly and then smash them with a maniacal grin plastered on her face. Whatever. They are entertained, their minds are engaged, and I am able to focus on a task which takes some skill but has no real consequence. What better way to de-stress?
2. Drawing to music
I have always loved to paint or doodle, but I have always been ‘just okay’ at visual art. Maybe above average briefly when I was a teenager, but I’m definitely just kinda okay now. Which is fine, since I don’t aspire to be a muralist or anything, but drawing can sometimes be frustrating for me. I am a very creative person, and when I can’t transmute to the page the beautiful images I see in my mind, it bugs me. Recently, however, a post I read in my new favorite children’s book review blog, Babies to Bookworms, reminded me about an activity I used to do when I was younger.
If I was feeling very stuck in my writing, I would turn on some music, usually some kind of psy-trance like Converting Vegetarians by Infected Mushroom, and write just whatever I felt. No thoughts, no judgments, no editing. Just writing. It never amounted to anything publishable, or usually even comprehensible, but it would got me writing, and open up my mind so that when it was time to sit down and do some serious work, I had an abundance of interesting ideas.
Somewhere along the road of abuse and recovery, I forgot about this tool. When I read the Babies to Bookworms post about drawing to music, however, I remembered it. I originally intended to use it as a way to get in some writing time while my daughters drew to music. The first time I sat them at the table and turned on Infected Mushroom, however, I was feeling too anxious even to freewrite. I decided to do the activity with them. Lo and behold, scribbling with markers to the varied, psychedelic beat of electronica proved extremely relaxing. My daughters got really into it, I got really into it, and by the end we all had some pretty interesting drawings that I doubt any of us would have created had there not been music playing. And, of course, you don’t have to choose psy-trance to do this. If that’s not your thing, try classical music, opera, folk…whatever. I have personally found that music with few or no words works better, but that is simply a personal preference. Kelly Clarkson it up if that’s what you like!
A variation of this that I invented when my girls got bored of paper was to use our International Arrivals Rainy Dayz Gel Crayons. These are “crayons” (to me, they seem more like markers) which can draw on glass surfaces, such as windows or mirrors. They truly do wash off of glass easily, and if they happen to get on a wall or something (which they may, because they are a bit smudgy) it doesn’t take much extra effort to get them off of it. My girls really love these; I think they feel like they are doing some “wrong,” which they think is great. I guess they really are my kids. Since we’re standing up at the window or mirror when we do this, we also dance around to the music, which adds an extra level of anxiety relief. Dancing=exercise=endorphins! Which brings me to the next activity…
3. DJ Robot Dance Party!
Our DJ’s real name is Fisher-Price Bright Beats Dance & Move BeatBo, but I call him DJ Robot. He…it…whatever…plays different songs, including a hyped-up version of the alphabet song, a body part movement song, a “Freeze Dance” song, and a song that records whatever you say and then loops it back with a silly vocal distortion…Just yesterday I learned that it actually has more songs than I had known about. My toddlers like to push the buttons that control (and repeat) the songs a lot so we kept hearing the same songs over and over. Yesterday they somehow managed to refrain from spazzing out on the buttons and DJ Robot began playing stuff we’d never heard before! So I can’t even tell you how many songs it features. But whether it’s the four we grooved to for weeks, or fifty others that we have yet to hear, they all seem to be constructed following some kind of Kids-Love-It algorithm.
Seriously, my girls go nuts whenever DJ Robot comes out. And it gives me an excuse to move my body, which releases anxiety-relieving hormones. My girls get to expend a LOT of energy without forcing me to be around other humans, I get a burst of endorphins, and we all have a good time jumping around together. Another plus is that many of the songs are educational. It is Fischer Price, after all. They teach body parts, body control, creativity, the alphabet, and probably more if there truly are a ton more songs I have yet to hear.
Of course, if you don’t have or want DJ Robot in your home, you can still do Dance Party. Just pop on a Kids Tunes channel on Pandora, or a playlist that interchanges you and then your kids’ favorite songs (to be fair 😉 ), and then get moving!
Another awesome variation of the dance party is “clean up dance party.” It’s simple: You turn on some energetic music and dance while picking up toys. It’s the perfect way to get yourself moving, get your kiddos involved in clean up, and to get rid of the some of the anxiety caused by clutter.
4. Play Yoga
You are probably already aware of the stress relieving properties of yoga. The key to making this a kid-friendly indoor activity is not to think of it as a “real” yoga session. If you’re like me and you need to do at least 20 minutes of dedicated exercise everyday to stave off depression, don’t count this as your exercise. If your kids are old enough to follow directions well, you may end up able to do few real poses; maybe even a few reps or close to a full routine. If your kids are toddlers like mine, however, don’t expect to do anything that looks like a real yoga routine. This time, it’s more about bonding with the kiddos while also breathing deeply to calm your hyper-aroused nervous system.
So, roll out the yoga mat and lead the kids through some easy yoga poses. Make sure to tailor the time each pose is held, and the pose itself if necessary, to your children’s abilities. I have found that my twenty-one month old can usually hold a simple pose for two full breaths. Which is great! When I’m doing my real yoga routine, I usually hold my basic poses for six breaths during each rep, but when I’m feeling super anxious, even getting in two deep breaths and a little extra focus is helpful. Plus, I am helping my kids relax too.
5. Baking cookies
Of all the activities on this list, this one is probably the activity we do the least often. It’s also one of the activities everyone enjoys the most. Yes, baking comes with mess, which can be stressful and requires clean up, but it’s also a lot of fun. In my Rocking Motherhood Challenge post, I talked about the meditative qualities of cooking:
The strong and various sensory markers help anchor me to the present, which is helpful when I am having a flashback, very very high anxiety, or, most commonly for me, an especially acute dissociative episode. I especially like making gingerbread cookies because it’s easy to anchor to their strong scent, and they contain a medley of textures such as flour, molasses, and grated ginger. Also, this dough is super easy to roll out and make into shape cookies! I recently scored a Wilton 101 Piece Cookie Cutter Set and I am super stoked to see how my girls react to this enormous variety of fun shapes. They loved just having the choice between the random gingerbread man, flower, and heart cut-outs that I already had. I can’t imagine how they are going to react when I reveal this treasure box of possibilities!
Another anxiety aid that comes along with baking cookies is that when you’re done, you have a bunch of sweets to eat. That’s the reason we don’t do it very often, because for anxious foodies like my husband and myself, we would never stop eating the cookies. When we do indulge and bake a sheet or two, though, it’s a wonderful treat. There’s nothing quite like alleviating a bout of anxiety with a cookie.
I saved the best for last.
If you don’t have anxiety, you have no idea how incredibly relaxing it is to squeeze a big handful of soft, yet firm, Play Doh. And every kid loves it. Plus, it’s just wheat and water so while you should teach your kids not to eat it, if some does end up in their mouths, they won’t keel over.
Seriously, have you ever met a kid who doesn’t flip over Play-Doh? My daughters have a basic set, a Play-Doh Sweet Shoppe Swirl and Scoop Ice Cream Playset, and a Play-Doh My Little Pony Make ‘n Style Ponies set. And they legitimately use all of them.
While they are scooping neon pink and green “ice-cream” clumps, and in between requests for me to build them another pony to promptly smash, I like to squeeze and roll the Play-Doh. The girls have actually become quite fascinated with the balls I am able to roll out of the stuff; they haven’t yet mastered the technique themselves, so they have begun also asking me to make them various sized balls. Which is cool because it gives me an opportunity to teach them about sizes while also creating makeshift tension balls for myself. I honestly think Play-Doh may have been invented by someone with an anxiety disorder; it’s that helpful!
Post Traumatic Stress symptoms, or any other types of anxiety, are never going to be fun. There is nothing in this world which can make having an anxiety disorder something to aspire toward, but once you’ve got it and it’s not going away, there are ways to ease the impact on your life. These six kid-friendly covert anxiety easing activities have helped me lessen the impact of anxiety on the lives of my family. If you suffer from anxiety, share some things that you do to help keep yourself calm and able to mom (or dad, or just human)! I know I would certainly appreciate more techniques to add to my arsenal.