It’s just as important to focus on your mind as your body when it comes to fitness. The demands of fatherhood in addition to everything else you already did deplete your mental and emotional energy. When your mind is fatigued, emotions and reactions are harder to manage. You might also find self-care suffers, especially as it relates to exercise and healthy eating; junk or convenience food dominate, because they are easy to prepare or heat up. To break this feedback loop, finding the right coping strategies can help make you more resilient to daily stress.
Parenting pushes your limits
Children are trying. Whether it’s right after your newborn comes home or a behavior issue, kids will push you to the limit. In years past, dads were expected to provide tough love or just throw their hands up and hand them off to Mom. Today, fathers are move involved than ever (with room for improvement). This requites a skill set that many of dads were not taught growing up. Learning on the fly is exhausting, and it leaves plenty of room for mistakes that bring you down further. Such things can’t be avoided, nor should you try. But what you can focus on is building your resilience.
All humans, fathers included, can only handle so much input. Once a certain threshold is passed, you’ll find your brain shuts down. Maybe not truly shut down, but it can feel that way. Rather than being able to respond to your child, a coworker, or spouse, Zombie Dad will emerge. You might feel like you’re in a fog, it becomes hard to communicate clearly, and finding a solution to the current situation becomes impossible.
However, overload isn’t just about two screaming kids, a broken down car, and an emergency phone call from the office all at the same time. Think about it as a combination of active and background tasks, some of which may be weeks old. If you have a sick parent, a big purchase decision, and an approaching deadline at work, you might have a reduced capacity for sudden jolts. If you need to head out shopping with your kids, and one starts throwing a tantrum in the produce aisle, your ability to react appropriately may be substantially reduced. Instead, you might scream along with your child, or just give up and go home without the items you need.
We all have these moments. It can be scary, especially if it’s not something you’re accustomed to. And as they always seem to come at the wrong time, it greatly increases stress and frustration. The good news is while it’s unlikely these will ever completely go away, they can be minimized.
Discover your triggers
For some fathers, there are certain situations that cause problems more than others. They may be related to your kids, or might only become apparent after you become a dad. Understanding what shuts you down is a good place to start, though doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to avoid it. If you find that being in a public place with a misbehaving child turns you from patient saint into fire-breathing dragon, your solution isn’t to become a shut-in. Going out is extremely important for you and your child, so identifying the specific issues is important.
- Are you a dad who prefers peak efficiency when running errands? Try breaking up trips into smaller chunks and ensure that your kids are fueled up and rested before venturing out.
- Hate running late? Build more cushion into your itinerary, even if you think you already have. Your kids aren’t the only thing that can derail a trip.
- Don’t like shopping? Let your partner do it or try an Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial to get items shipped to you quickly.
That’s just one example, but the process can be applied to many situations. The idea is to understand what exactly about a situation is causing the problem and addressing it. This also removes a temptation to blame yourself, your kids, or your spouse for the stress or bad feelings. Fathers (any everyone else) can’t control other people or situations. The kids aren’t going away, you don’t control the store’s inventory, and no matter how hard you wish it, all the idiots in the world won’t disappear overnight. What you need to do is understand what you can change.
DIY mind hacks
How we react to a situation is frequently based on how we reacted in the past or what worked to resolve the issue. Many of those patterns started when you were a kid yourself. So first thing to understand is this is not a quick or easy fix. Second thing to understand is that the underlying emotions probably won’t change, just how you react to them. Getting angry is still going to happen; the change that comes with time is that instead of yelling when angry, you take a different approach. This is a tough thing to do, though. Our habits and reactions are mostly automatic, built on years or decades of behavior. Modifying them is not an overnight process.
None of these are replacements for professional evaluation or intervention. There is a difference between the usual stress and upsets in life that require new strategies to handle, and the onset or worsening of conditions such as depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders. If you are experiencing any thoughts of self-harm, suicide, violence, or other frightening symptoms, or if you feel that you, your children, or partner are in danger, get help immediately.
- Call your doctor.
- Call 911 for emergency services or go to the nearest emergency room.
- Call the toll-free 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255); TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY (4889).
Knowing what’s coming
We’ve already touched on this a little bit when talking about events that end poorly. The basic idea is that you can’t avoid all bad situations; all you can do is approach them differently and know that certain reactions are likely to happen. By preparing yourself ahead of time and knowing what could happen, you make it more likely you’ll take a positive action.
Every father has times where you can see it coming. We think to ourselves, “Here we go again.” Pattern-recognition is a powerful tool when it comes to dealing with stress and mental fatigue. By seeing that a bad or unwanted outcome is likely, fathers can zig instead of zag. You might not stop the tantrum, but you might be able to prepare yourself for the aftermath.
Creating your response
Do you have problems with getting upset along with your screaming toddler? When stressed, do you feel like you drag people down with you? Don’t like that a day is ruined by a bad interaction? These are all common issues with fatherhood and life. For any situation in which you find your emotions overwhelming or your reaction to be undesirable, figure out how you’d rather react instead.
For situations where you didn’t react as you wanted to, you need to figure what your preferred reaction would be. There will be trial and error. You second, third, fifth, or fiftieth reaction may still not get the outcome you want. But as long as you are comfortable that you are being consistent with your fatherhood ideals, the frustration will pass.
If you aren’t sure how to react to something, that is a great moment time to speak with your spouse, your parents, or other parents you know to learn how they handled the situation. And if it’s unrelated to parenting, a mentor, trusted colleague, or someone else familiar with the situation. Don’t go it alone or think you situation is unique. Someone can provide perspective.
A special note on emotions and feelings: you will still have them. You will get angry, sad, embarrassed, or something else because of your kids or because you’re a dad. Emotions are impossible to regulate. You should not try. In fact, this is a key issue with the traditional ideas of fatherhood; it’s wrapped up in the outdated idea of men as stoic, unfeeling machines who get things done.
When you have a strong emotional response to something, acknowledge it. Your child will make you angry. Loved ones will embarrass you. More often than not, it’s not intentional. And that’s the key. Accept you are upset. Verbalize it in a constructive way: “I feel angry when I am repeatedly reminded to complete a chore because it makes me seem like a child. Can we find a different way to make sure chores get completed on time?”
If you aren’t ready to talk about something, disengage. The difficulty is coming back after a reasonable period of time has passed. If you walk away and don’t come back for hours, or you end up remaining distant for days at a time, you add stress to yourself and others, risking an escalation. Disengaging requires buy-in from others. If it’s your partner, you must make sure beforehand that you’ve set up a plan to come back. This could be an expectation that you disengage for no more than a few hours; if you do, your partner has permission to pierce your isolation.
Life is full of frustrating outcomes. While you can work to limit them by creating strategies, sometimes those attempts fail.
Once a situation has passed and you’ve have a chance to calm down, it’s a good idea to take stock. This is not an invitation to repeatedly rehash what you did and how it went wrong. Instead, use this time to focus on how you felt, how you reacted, and if it was how you wanted it to go, even if the outcome still wasn’t ideal. You can only manage yourself; the people around you are their own beings with free will. Always assume positive intent from others, and remember it’s unlikely they behaved in a way intended to harm or hurt you.
A technique that’s been generating a ton of buzz lately is mindfulness. While there are only limited high-quality studies that show a benefit, they do exist. Regardless of the quality of evidence, pop culture has elevated mindfulness to a cure-all. In our experience, however, mindfulness is actually just one tool. We’ve found that it gives fathers a 10-15 minute period of time to spend on themselves, which is liberating. With an app on your phone plus a pair of headphones (not necessary, but they muffle ambient sounds), dads can fire off a quick mindfulness session anywhere. Of the options, we like Calm, which in addition to being available on iOS and Android, has a desktop presence as well. The free version allows you to access to their beginner series on mindfulness as well as their Daily Calm feature, which is a new topic everyday.
Another technique, and one that can be done on the spot if necessary, is called diaphragmatic breathing. When stressed, intentionally breathing in such a way can override the fight-or-flight response, something that is often triggered during high-stress scenarios. It’s also a tool used by people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and other mood disorders. To do it, you breathe deeply. Rather than attempt to describe it verbally, we found a YouTube video. Everyone has their own variation on it, but the key is to breathe through your belly. If your belly isn’t expanding during the exercise, you aren’t breathing deeply. Once you’ve done it enough in a focused setting, it becomes really easy to do when you are faced with a stressful scenario.
These next items are going to sound like the advice that every doctor, book, fitness trainer, diet manual, and person on the street gives:
- Healthy eating
But hear us out.
We tend to think of our bodies as being subservient to our minds; the brain is in control. But there are many reasons to reject this. Diaphragmatic breathing is a great example of overriding the brain’s more automatic responses. By breathing deeply and calming, like during sleep, you end up actually creating a feedback loop to the brain that lets you calm down. Also think about situations where something was happening in your body, such as pain, a racing heart, or something else that made you feel jittery or stressed. The state of your body can inform your brain, which then reacts in ways that can raise or lower your body’s stress response. Your brian-body connection is a feedback loop, not a one-way street.
Exercise, sleep, and eating right are all ways to interrupt the feedback loop that chronic or long-lasting stress can cause. Plus, if some of your stress is due to concerns you aren’t taking care of yourself, it moves you past those endless internal conversations we all have. So while everyone you know says to eat better, sleep more, and exercise daily, there’s actual value to it. Just make sure you do it on your terms.
It’s about staying grounded
Everyone experiences stress. Dads everywhere have a blow-up they instantly regret. Relationships sometimes require a lot of work. But the important lesson is that these are all part of being a human. You aren’t alone, there are ways to deal with things on your own terms, and you can reach out to others for help. Willingness to reach out for help is a hallmark of a modern father. Embrace it and your relationships and parenting will be all the better for it.