Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Parenting Help: Self-Care and Stress Management

Much like it sounds, self-care is the act of taking care of oneself. This term applies to many categories, and the concept is frequently applied to taking care of one’s physical health. For example, when someone has a cold, taking a day off from work, getting rest, and eating chicken soup might feel like just what is needed. When a person breaks an arm, going to the hospital for an x-ray and a cast is a no-brainer. For a headache, most people reach for the ibuprofen. No problem. However, when it comes to mental or emotional health, the answer does not seem to be so easy. Reaching for the Prozac is rarely as easy as grabbing the Tylenol, and the recipe for chicken soup for the soul is not in the cookbook next to the chocolate chip cookie recipe. Caring for mental and emotional needs is a personal, often difficult and undervalued pursuit, yet it is very important, especially for parents. Aside from personal barriers, there are often external barriers that prevent parents from attending to these needs. Some come from a person’s culture, from society at large, and others may come from opinions of the person’s peer group or partner, and still yet, a lack of awareness, information or resources. However, when a person feels overwhelmed, frazzled, or stressed out - it is a sure indicator that it is time for self-care.

Naturally, since each person is an individual, what “self-care” means is different for everyone. What makes someone feel cared for?  Beyond “warm fuzzies,” when people feel cared for, they feel revitalized, assured, more at ease and recharged. They feel relief and ready to return to life’s routine a less-distracted, more “present” person. Some people find relief in an exercise routine like running or cycling, some find relief in meditation, yoga or other mindfulness exercises. Others feel like they are cared for when things are in order around their house or office or when they have a concrete project on which they can work - like an art project or major closet overhaul. The sense of personal accomplishment provides a respite from the stress that builds and overwhelms.

The body’s stress response is a natural and very useful instinct present in all animals. It helps people know when they are in danger (think dark alley, stranger suddenly turns to follow you - you get a stress response and the instinct to get out of there as soon as possible), which may save their life. However, when a parent feels the need to run away during a diaper change or when driving children to school, getting them dressed, thinking of how to pay the bills, or where one’s next paycheck will come from, that builds up and becomes a chronic issue that is not useful for self-preservation. Chronic stress carries negative physiological consequences, meaning that stress causes real effects on the body and its ability to function.  

What exactly is stress? Stress is the body’s chemical response to an actual or perceived threat that the body is uncertain how to deal with, which happens when the demands of the situation exceed the immediate available resources a person has to deal with it. So, in other words, a stressor is something that overwhelms, whether or not other people would react in the same way. All living bodies have chemical reactions in their brains when stress is present called a “stress response.” The stress response is a very important part of survival. Ever hear of the “fight or flight” mechanism? It is the body’s way of deciding whether or not a stressor is survivable or not. Quite literally, if a lion lunges from the bush to attack a herd of zebras, the zebras run and run fast. Their brains know that they cannot win a fight against the lion so they instinctively kick it into high gear and flee. It is because of the chemical known as “cortisol” that this response takes over. Cortisol helps to regulate many things, including hunger, mood and emotions, and increases during a stress response. When all of this cortisol shoots through the brain and into the body, some things move faster - for example, respiration (breathing), energy availability (an “adrenaline rush”), heart rate - while other things shut down, such as the sensation of pain, digestion, the ability sleep, tissue repair, reproduction, immune system. Only the systems that the body needs to survive the immediate threat are turned on and turned up, using all of the energy ordinarily saved for the systems that have been shut off.  

Chronic stress is when the body never regulates fully and is constantly in a state of stress response. People with stressful jobs, parents who do not have resources or who do not get a break, those who have experienced trauma, who live in poverty, are underemployed or financially stressed, who have ongoing medical issues, have relationship difficulties, or substance abuse addictions, among an endless list of others, are all at risk of experiencing chronic stress. The constant pumping of cortisol into the system keeps the body on high alert, which means that it also keeps resources from other “non-essential” systems of the body like sleep, emotional regulation and reproduction. The effects of chronic stress are all around - uncontrollable diabetes, weight fluctuations, high blood pressure, anger management issues, lack of patience, irrational thinking, panic attacks, and poor decision-making skills, to name a few. All of these can easily translate into troubled parenting. If parents are chronically stressed, their ability to maintain patience and a level head with an energetic, demanding, and not very verbal toddler is not at its fullest potential. Parents may have a quicker temper or find themselves resorting to more aggressive discipline techniques than they would otherwise. Or, they might use the television to entertain their children, when otherwise they might have enjoyed reading a book about his or her favorite subject, solely because they just cannot cope with the constant questioning of a curious four year old at that moment.

In a nutshell, what self-care boils down to stress-relief. No person wants to live in a constant state of agitation. Nobody chooses to be impatient with their child(ren). Yet, so often the very thing that might offer a respite from the feeling of being overwhelmed and over-extended - self-care - makes people, parents in particular, feel guilty or selfish. As if taking care of oneself were not, by extension, taking care of one’s other responsibilities or that by doing something for oneself is bad because it is time away from doing for others who are dependent. Being cared for, and in this case caring for oneself, allows the stress levels to reduce so all systems can balance out and function optimally and, thus, allows for people to be happier and more “present” in their tasks. Parents especially need to practice self-care because they have the lives of their little ones to manage as well, and they cannot afford to be anything but able to do so. Not to mention that a stressed parent makes for a stressed child. If parents practice self-care, children will learn that caring for themselves is an okay and valuable thing to do. So it is the furthest thing from selfish to practice self-care.  

So, take some time to think about what it is that makes you feel cared for.  A hobby - painting, building model cars, collecting stamps, scrapbooking, cooking? Athletics - running, yoga, martial arts, group classes? Socializing - social clubs that meet around topics that interest you, book groups, role play games, girls-night-out? Time alone - meditation, a hot bath, listening to music, reading a book? Academic pursuits - going back to school for a degree or a certificate, taking a pottery, photography, or dance class. Whatever it is, make time for you in order to make life for you and your others better.

Posted by Andrea Hohf, LSW