Being a parent can be tremendously stressful. The constant struggle of getting everyone settled and managing the day-to-day needs of the family can feel overwhelming. These tasks are often in addition to work outside the home, extended family obligations, and community obligations. When the weight of all these responsibilities is placed in context with our needs for personal time and down time to recharge and refresh, it can feel like we are always being pulled in a million different directions. Some of which are in contrast to what we really want to be doing.
Feeling stress can be positive in some instances to motivate us to take on challenges or meet new goals. However, when stress is endured on a continual, daily basis, the body can become overwhelmed. Being overwhelmed with stress incessantly can harm us, both mentally and physically.
The Stress Response
Stress causes the body to release a very specific, well-organized cascade of hormones and modify physical functioning. This response is commonly called the “fight-or-flight” reaction. Fight-or-flight occurs to stressors that our body interprets as life-threatening, such as a near-miss car accident, and non-life threatening, such as traffic or family arguments.
When stress is perceived, the eyes and/or ears send information to the amygdala in the brain. The amygdala is a small group of neurons at the base of the brain that helps with emotional processing. During the stress response, the amygdala will interpret the images and sounds it is being sent and instantly send a message to the hypothalamus if danger is detected.
The hypothalamus is another part of the brain that controls many hormones and the body’s involuntary body functions, such as breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, and the dilation or constriction of blood vessels and lung alveoli. The hypothalamus, through the autonomic nervous system, is the command center during stressful situations. When stimulated, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system and causes a big burst of energy to take on the stressor. When the stressor has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system slows the system down again.
These changes by the amygdala and hypothalamus happen in a very coordinated and automatic way. Lots of times, the system is responding at the same time it is still gathering information. An example would be when you pull your hand away from a dangerous object even before you realize what is happening.
Consequences of a Continuous Stress Response
Current research has begun to reveal what happens when the body is continuously subjected to the stress response. Long-term exposure to stress affects both the physical and psychological health of a person. A sustained stress response has been linked to high blood pressure, clogged arteries, and brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction. Similarly, new studies are linking stress to obesity through direct processes (i.e. stress eating) and indirect processes (impaired sleep and decreased exercise).
Not being able to find ways to slow down and escape from the stress response keeps the sympathetic nervous system activated way too long. After a while, the body can’t manage. Cortisol levels, a stress hormone, increase to try to rebuild the body’s energy stores that were used during the stress response. However, when the stress response is continuous, those cortisol levels can contribute to increased fat tissue and weight gain by triggering hunger.
Since the stress response is hard wired into our bodies as a survival mechanism, we cannot remove it. We can only learn to manage stress. Finding ways to stay calm when everything seems to be going out of control can help you take control of stress and avoid the negative consequences of a prolonged stress response.
Techniques to stay calm
- Relaxation techniques have been found to be very helpful in lowering stress levels. It is not a complete fix, but can greatly reduce the level of stress being experienced.
- Examples: Deep abdominal breathing, prayer, visualization of a peaceful scene, a repetitive mantra or word.
- Difficulty: Easy. Can be done anywhere and at any time.
- How-to: Close your eyes to block out extra stimulation and, if possible, block out sound with ear plugs, soothing music or white noise. Then begin by taking a deep breath. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. Relax your body with each breath. Prayer, a mantra, or visualization can be added at this time.
- Exercise is useful to burn off built up stress. Physical movement can help release the stress that occurs when something keeps rolling around your mind without being resolved. Exercise moves the blood around, gets the muscles moving, and increases deep breathing.
- Examples: Brisk walk, stretches, yoga, tai chi, running, dancing, etc.
- Difficulty: Easy to moderate. Can be done anywhere and modified to the environment.
- How-to: If space is limited – stretch or put on some music and dance in place. If space is moderately limited – take a brisk walk around the block, the room, or location where you are. If space is not limited – put on some comfy clothes and practice a sport of choice or go for a long walk/run to sweat out the stress.
- Social support is great to help you avoid feeling alone. A listening ear can be a source of comfort and acceptance.
- Examples: Family, friends, soul mates, spouses, and/or companions
- Difficulty: Depends on the closeness of the relationship.
- How-to: Pick up the phone, Skype, text message, go out for coffee, ask someone for lunch, etc. Just get connected with someone. Don’t stay alone.
- Professional assistance is always justified when stress keeps you from doing the things you feel like doing. Sometimes it all just builds up and is too much to handle. When this happens, seek professional help immediately. There is no shame in reaching out. None.
- Examples: Primary care physician, school nurse, psychologist, counselor, therapist, etc.
- Difficulty: Depends on resources available in your area. However, all health care plans should have mental health specialists and a contact number to call for assistance.
- How-to: Make an appointment with your health care provider and tell them that stress is keeping you from doing the things you want to do.
Or, if you don’t have a health care provider or feel insecure talking directly to them, call the phone number for client assistance on the back of your health insurance card. Call this number and ask to speak to a mental health specialist. Follow the instructions they give you.
In the end, stress is a part of life. The key is not to let stress take over your life. Understanding what stress is, how it can affect you, and some simply strategies for reducing stress can help you prevent the negative consequences that a prolonged stress response can cause. Recognizing that you have the power to manage stress can help you stay calm when everything is chaotic. Most importantly, you can find a healthy response to the stress you will encounter as a parent.
About the instructor
Dr. Deanna Marie Mason PhD
More than 20 years of clinical experience helping families:
Bachelor's Degree in Registered Nursing, Master’s Degree in Pediatric Nurse Practitioner and PhD in Nursing. University professor, patient education specialist, pediatric researcher, published author and reviewer to first-line international scientific journals, continuous philanthropic activity related to health promotion and education, wife and mother of two children.