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Managing Anxiety As A Special Needs Parent, by Jane Stanley

Stress.  Anxiety.  Worry.  Everyone experiences these natural human emotions at some point, but to special needs parents, they can become constant companions.  The health crises, the financial strain, the difficult decisions, the IEP meetings, the endless paperwork, and the feeling of helplessness can all take quite a toll.  In fact, a study was conducted several years ago that found that mothers of adolescents and adult children with autism experience chronic stress levels comparable to those of combat soldiers.  When I read that, I felt that I had been hit with a brick.  I suddenly realized that just as I needed to make a plan to take care of my child’s needs, I also needed to give some serious thought to how I would manage my own.  

I began to research anxiety and soon became discouraged.  All of the articles and advice that I read seemed targeted to someone who lived a completely different life than I did.  They blithely touted the importance of taking time for yourself, getting a full night’s sleep, or (gasp) giving up caffeine.  All of these are, of course, excellent pieces of advice and I want to work towards them.  However, some of these things just aren’t options at certain times.  Sometimes my child’s needs are big, and our family’s resources are stretched.  I knew that I had to find ways to calm my own anxiety even when I couldn’t carve out a daily exercise time or attend girl’s night out.

To explore what I (and other special needs parents) could do to manage anxiety, I contacted Valerie Galbraith, a licensed mental health counselor in South Bend, Indiana.  As the sister of an individual with autism, Ms. Gailbraith is no stranger to the unique challenges that special needs can bring to family life.  Here’s our conversation:

What are some common symptoms of anxiety?   

Some of the most common symptoms of anxiety, per the DSM-5, include: restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge, being easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating or mind going blank, irritability, muscle tension, and sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless, unsatisfying sleep).

What is the difference between "normal" worry and clinical anxiety?  When should someone consider seeking help?

Anxiety is a normal feeling, and it is neither good nor bad. I think something to keep in mind is that worry and anxiety alert us to the fact that we care, and they can give us some insight as to what we care about and what we are afraid of losing. Normal worry crosses over to clinical anxiety when the person experiencing it decides they are experiencing what is called “clinically significant distress,” which is to say that they are experiencing some level of impairment in their daily life (whether socially, occupationally, or another area). If you are considering seeking help, that is often a good indicator that it might be time to contact a professional to help you navigate your anxiety because that means you probably believe you are not functioning as well as you would like to be in your life. Even if you are not considering seeking help at this time, if you notice that your worry or anxiety is affecting your ability to function (or someone close to you tells you they are concerned about your stress levels), it might be a good idea to look into resources for help and support that are available in your area.

What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with anxiety?

Let it be okay that you are anxious. Your anxiety is trying to give you information about how you perceive the world around you and the circumstances of your life. If you can identify that what you are feeling in a particular moment is anxiety, the mere fact of naming it gives you some measure of control over it. Often, our first response is to want to avoid it because it is uncomfortable, but then we miss out on so much potential for awareness and the opportunity to change our perspective or even to choose to give it over to God. We cannot choose to let go of our anxiety unless we have held it first.

Parents of children with special needs often have a difficult time meeting even their basic needs, which complicates how they manage their own mental health.  What can they do when faced with such obstacles?

Your needs do not disappear simply because you face unique challenges in meeting them. Obstacles generally demand a little creativity in terms of being able to overcome or navigate around them. Taking time for yourself, as a parent of a child with special needs, will likely look, sound, feel different than it does for other parents. However, you are still a biopsychosocialspiritual being with needs in each of these areas. Eating a good diet, finding some way to be active (even maintaining a house and doing chores counts!), and doing what you can to ensure the best sleep possible given difficult circumstances can all contribute to biological (physical) well-being. Psychologically speaking, see if there is any way to incorporate a beloved, fun, or rewarding activity into your day (if you can do it with your child, even better), whether that be reading, coloring, music (listening to or creating it), gardening, etc. 

One of the biggest challenges for parents of children with special needs is feeling socially isolated or alone, but finding or forming some kind of a community can be one of the most significant helps and supports for parents in this situation. Find out what resources your church or diocese has, and if there are none, perhaps you might feel called to look into developing something or to reach out to an existing ministry to see if it is possible to bring it to your area. You could also see if you know someone who would be willing to help in this endeavor if it feels too big to take on by yourself at this stage in life.

Finally, try to maintain a regular prayer life. It can be as formal or informal as you need, though of course I always recommend frequent recourse to the grace of the sacraments (spiritual Communions are wonderful and just as efficacious as physical reception of the Holy Eucharist if public Mass is still not available or you do not feel comfortable participating in person, and can be made at any time). There is always time for prayer because a prayer can be as simple as taking a short pause to become aware of God in the moment or even to yell at Him for allowing whatever challenge or frustration is happening at that time. You can still allow Him to enter even into your anger. I would encourage you to take some time to identify which of these areas of need you most struggle to nurture, and then to begin intentionally identifying and experimenting with different things that could help improve your care for yourself. Not all of them will work for you, but I hope you can identify at least one actionable item in each area.

How can our Catholic faith inform our healing from anxiety?

Our Catholic faith is such a beautiful gift, and can be a powerful resource because it is a constant reminder that we are not ultimately in control and we have a God who loves us and wants us to trust in Him for all of our needs. A simple and beautiful meditation can simply be repeating the mantra of “Jesus, I trust in you” with your breaths, keeping them slow and deep. Doing so can help us focus our minds on what is most important and help keep our anxiety in perspective.

Is there anything else that you would add on the subject?

As someone who grew up with a special needs sibling (my younger brother is on the autism spectrum), I think it is vitally important that parents ensure their other children (if they have other children) know whatever feelings they have are allowed. Depression and anxiety are very common because of the stress that is placed on the family unit, and often more is needed from siblings of children with special needs or they may not feel allowed to need things because so much is demanded by the child with special needs. Please be aware that, while your other child(ren) may be perfectly well adjusted and/or already know they can come to you, it is also very likely that they are struggling with or have questions about some element of family life that they may not bring to your attention unless you approach them about it first.

Jane Stanley is a mother to five children.  She reads, writes, and homeschools in Central Virginia.

Valerie Galbraith, MA, LMHC, NCC is a Board Certified Counselor who holds an MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling with a certificate in Christian Counseling from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She then began her professional experience working with children and adolescents in community mental health. Valerie also completed requirements to earn her NCC from the National Board for Certified Counselors. She transitioned to private practice in the fall of 2018 in order to better incorporate the Catholic Christian faith into her clinical practice with clients seeking Christian faith-based therapy.

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