Stress and parenthood go hand in hand. Coping with lively children, not to mention running a home and holding down a job and all the other myriad demands on us, creates tension. The seemingly unrelenting pressures which we face on a daily basis can conspire to push us over the edge – headaches, sleeplessness, excess alcohol, unhappiness, panic attacks, anxiety and depression – all commonly experienced and often the result of physical and psychological stress.
Creating excitement in our lives can be very productive and can brighten up a dull routine. A certain amount of stress is actually a very positive thing – too much stress, however, is not.
The moment a child is conceived the balance shifts from a world where, by and large, we alone dictate the pace of life to the demands of another. The worry of pregnancy and stress of childbirth, to crying babies, bedtime tantrums, the “terrible twos”, school problems and teenage rebelliousness – each state of growing up places different demands on parents. Even mealtimes can be a source of stress and tension.
The warning signs of stress are personal to each of us and these vary from headaches, aches and pains, skin rashes and upset stomach. Very often we will be prone to certain ailments that have been troubling us for a long time. Strange as it may sound, I tell clients to “make friends” with these ailments and view them as the body telling the mind that it needs to look around and make some changes. Often they will have battled with these ailments for years, seeing them as the enemy, but simply by shifting perspective, we can begin to help ourselves. By becoming aware of our emotional reactions and noticing increases in tension, mood swings and shortness of temper, we can take remedial action early. We may not always be aware of our mood state and so it can be helpful if our partner or someone close to us can tell us if we are unusually irritable or grumpy (they will of course need to do so in a very loving way so as not to appear critical then become the target of a sharp tongue)!
When we are stressed even the smallest of irritations can seem monumental, such as the children spilling drinks, or the saucepan boiling dry and even trips to the supermarket and pre-planned visits to friends can seem like major expeditions. Often we become fretful and the list of things to do builds up to the point where we do not know which way to turn or which task to do next. This is the point to stop and draw breath. If not…then stress is likely to manifest in more extreme ways, for example, obsessive checking that the door is shut, or the cooker is switched off, inability to make even simple decisions such as what to cook the family for supper, drinking alcohol during the day or consuming painkillers excessively. Mood dips may manifest as depression with increased lethargy and inability to copy with the normal everyday routine. When under stress, the behaviour of people might change quite considerably – gregarious people may become withdrawn, laughter and smiles can be replaced with tearfulness, insecurity and worry. The quiet, gentle person you know may disappear and in their place an aggressive, moody spectre. Closeness and decreased interest in sex may be noticed, or similarly desire for gratification in ways that are out of character for that person. The signs and symptoms of stress are all there, we just don’t recognise them.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- In the past six months have you been noticing changes in yourself or the world around you?
- Do you lack energy and feel tired more easily?
- Are people around you increasingly annoying you?
- Do you seem to be working harder and harder and accomplishing less?
- Are you often overwhelmed with sadness you cannot explain?
- Do you find it difficult to make decisions?
- Are you forgetful?
- Do you feel irritable and short-tempered?
- Are you shouting more?
- Have you stopped seeing friends and going out and having fun?
- Are you suffering from aches and minor ailments?
- Are you unable to laugh and joke…is joy elusive?
- Does sex seem more trouble than it is worth?
- Does playing with the children or having conversations seem too much?
Stress is reversible – start by stopping. Next, think about how you can be kind to yourself. Have an evening to pamper yourself; buy some bath oils and give yourself time to reflect; plan an evening out or do something you have not been able to do for a while. Sit down with a piece of paper and firstly make a note of all the physical symptoms of stress, e.g. difficulty relaxing, increased irritability, tearfulness, irrational fears, feeling constantly under pressure, frustration and anger, sadness and withdrawal etc.
Let these be your markers: score 0 – 10 beside each and at weekly intervals review your scores. Next, look at your life and write down all the possible causes of stress. Look for major life events such as a recent house move or bereavement. Note worries such as trouble with teenagers, or concerns such as redundancy or disputes with neighbours, relationship difficulties, money worries etc. Some of these areas will just need time to settle while others such as children’s homework problems may be resolved by a word with the child’s class teacher.
Next, look at your life and what you can change. For example, ironing as you wear clothes might be preferable to a whole evening stood ironing. Look at prioritising jobs into “musts”, “shoulds” and can waits”. Talk to your partner, friends and family or find yourself a good therapist – share your concerns. Try to make gradual changes to make your life easier – trying to change everything at once will only create more stress. The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone – there are many people feeling the same way as you do, but you can make changes to your life, however seemingly simple, which can make a great deal of difference. Start by listening to what your mind and body are telling you.
Until next time, Steve Clifford, Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist