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Recognizing and Coping with Stress

Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, PhD
Henniker, NH, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 37 No. 2, April-May 2001, pp. 27-28

Rejuvenation moments

Take 20 minutes for yourself at least once every day. Read a book or record your favorite television show to watch at a convenient time. Paint your nails, have a relaxing bath by candlelight, or phone a friend. Take a walk, sit outside and took at the stars, write in your journal, and pamper yourself!

Mothers work hard. It's not unusual to run out of day before you run out of items on your "to do" list. And Leaders are not immune to these pressures. We are often more stressed than the mothers who call us for help. Before we can be available to mothers and others in our lives, we must periodically de-stress. if you're feeling frazzled, relief is in sight. You can live life at a more manageable pace. But first, let's consider some of the things that make us feel stressed.

Why Mothers Are Stressed

As we enter the dawn of the 21st century, we should recognize that some forms of stress are inherent in our role as mothers, and others are unique to our age. See if any of these sound familiar to you.

Too Much and Too Many

Too much clutter and too many obligations are a common source of stress, and this problem can take several forms. The US leads the world in many of these stressors, but other nations are not far behind.

Driving

We've all heard the joke "a mother's place is in the car." How true it is! The US Department of Transportation estimates that a person with children travels 49 miles a day - that is per person, not per family. Driving is a major stressor for many mothers. Mothers drive children to school, extracurricular activities, and appointments, making an average of 4.3 trips per day. And this number is probably on the low side for many of you.

Housing

In many parts of the world, housing costs are astronomical. Housing costs dictate many other lifestyle choices, such as the type of job a person takes, the number of hours he or she works, and how far a person commutes.

Housing costs have increased, but so have our expectations. New houses being built in the US, for example, are typically twice the size of houses built in the 1950s.

Paper

An average person handles about 300 sheets of paper per day including catalogs, magazines, flyers, newspapers, notes, junk mail, faxes, and school papers. In five days, a family of five can accumulate 7,000 pages. In a month, this figure jumps to 45,000 pages. Americans annually handle 660 pounds of paper, and we save a lot of it. The average four-drawer filing cabinet holds 18,000 sheets of paper (Abramowitz and Matoon 1999).

Work

Americans are working too much. We have recently surpassed the Japanese, and now have the longest workweek of any industrialized nation. But other nations, particularly in Asia, are not far behind. The number of people in the USA with second jobs is at a record high. People now work the equivalent of eight weeks longer per year than they did in 1969 (Armey 1996).

Debt

Families are incurring record amounts of debt. Debt, unfortunately, severely influences families. It dictates how much both mothers and fathers work and is a source of chronic stress. Mothers often feel that they have no choice in whether or not to seek outside employment. They sometimes have not one, but two jobs (American Debt Management Services 1998).

Information

We are overwhelmed by information. More books are published every day than you could read in a lifetime. News is available 24 hours a day. Newspapers and magazines and nonstop information are available via the Internet. This overload of information begs the question of how much you really need to know.

The Long Arm of Technology

Modern technology has provided us with items such as cellular telephones, laptop computers, and email. No doubt about it, many of these are nice to have. But these innovations have also increased our availability for work. How many times do people check email - even on vacation? I recently went camping with my family and noticed that each site was equipped with a computer hookup - in a tent site!

While technology has opened some wonderful avenues, such as the ability to work at home, it has also increased the demands placed upon us. It used to be that only doctors were on call. Now, an increasing number of "regular people" are too.

Vacations

Whenever I travel, I'm amazed at how stressed families are while on vacation. Theoretically, vacations should be times of relaxation and refreshment. But often that is not true. Because we are all working more, vacations can take on a more work-like feel. First, we tend to work right up to the day we leave. We spend a frantic couple of hours packing and preparing the house for our departure, and this is usually a mother's responsibility. We may drive or fly for hours, and even change time zones. Once there, we dash from activity to activity We return home, only to go back to our daily routines the very next day. Is it any wonder that we often return from vacation more tired than when we left? How many of us have seen a stressed out vacationing parent being short-tempered with their children, while simultaneously commanding them to have "fun."

The Consequences of Life in the Fast Lane

Of course, a life like ours does not come cheaply. We are paying for it with our mental and physical health. Here are some of the ways that fast-paced lifestyles negatively affect you and your family.

Why Stress Is Bad for Us

Much has been written in the past 40 years about the consequences of chronic stress. For starters, chronic stress suppresses the immune system, which means you are more likely to get sick and stay sick longer. When you are chronically stressed, you are at higher risk for diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, and hypertension. You may develop eczema or psoriasis. You are more likely to suffer from chronic fatigue. Chronically elevated stress hormones can even damage your brain. In sum, it is possible to make yourself very ill when you are always under stress. Your physical health may be affected to the point that you have no choice but to make major life changes.

Why Stress Is Bad for Our Children

When we're stressed, we are not the only ones who suffer. Let's face it, stressed-out mothers are simply not as available to meet the needs of others. And our children need us. When we have more work than we can possibly do, when the mountain of laundry threatens to overwhelm us, do we really have the ability to listen to our children? If we are preoccupied, can we find out if our children are being picked on, or that they are struggling with math, or that their teacher yelled at them? Getting to know our children, or anyone for that matter takes relaxed time. Spontaneous revelations can occur while we are doing dishes, or walking, or watching the sunset.

What You Can Do

Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to make your life more manageable. Becoming less stressed may take weeks or even months, but here's a couple of suggestions that will help right now. Try to think of this as a journey rather than a sprint.

Stop Describing Yourself as "Busy"

When we're swamped, it's easy to tell anyone who will listen that we are very, very busy. Resolve right now to stop describing yourself that way. Your thoughts are very powerful. Viewing a situation as negative releases stress hormones, and this is not good for you! Mentally rehearsing your busyness accomplishes absolutely nothing positive and is most likely harmful. Not only that, everyone is busy these days. It's pretty boring to hear about the busyness of others.

Guard Your Mind

Be careful about what you allow in your mind. There is way too much information available on almost any subject, and much of it is junk. Pay attention to what you watch, listen to, and read. Even books or "art films" can be excessively negative and nihilistic. Try to be selective and look for material that builds you up and nourishes your spirit.

Take Care of Your Body

Often, when you are busy, you are likely to neglect your body. This is something that you must change. Mothers tend to put others first. While this is admirable in one sense, it is not a good practice in the long run. You must learn to strike a balance between your needs and the needs of your family. And you cannot do that if you are constantly run down. Therefore, you need to consider it a priority to eat well, exercise, sleep, get regular medical checkups, and even a hair cut. Many of these things go by the wayside when you are overloaded. How many of you get up early or go to bed late so you can catch up on a few extra chores? If you're going to dig yourself out of stress, then you must stop abusing your body.

Plan Restorative Vacations

Give some thought to your leisure time. Are your vacations restorative or do you return from them exhausted? Every family differs in what they enjoy and what they find relaxing, but here are a few guidelines. Stay within your budget. There are many inexpensive getaways. Don't add the stress of paying for your trip over the next year (or more). Instead, try traveling to someplace close to home. Go somewhere that will allow you to relax, too; don't spend your time cooking and cleaning. While at your destination, set a moderate pace and try to avoid a manic schedule of activities. Finally, allow a day before your vacation starts to pack and prepare the house. When you return, allow at least a day to unpack and slowly reenter normal life.

Be Grateful for What You Have

And finally, adopt an "attitude of gratitude" by learning to be grateful for what you already have. The stressed lifestyle always keeps us looking to what we don't have, what we haven't accomplished, what's wrong with our lives. When we're in the middle of things, it's hard to realize how blessed we really are. How many of us can even fathom what it would be like to have half of our children die before the age of five? Or to spend a large portion of our day doing nothing but hauling water? Or worry about getting enough to eat.? Even if we feel financially strapped, those of us who live in the USA are most likely materially better off than women in other times or who live in other cultures. Sometimes it's really helpful for us to think about all the things that we take for granted and to be truly grateful for them.

Learning to live life at a more leisurely pace is good for you, your families, and the mothers who come into your lives. Start today. You are worth it!

Mini-vacation

If a relaxing vacation away from home is not possible or within your budget, consider taking a "mini-vacation" without ever leaving home. Set aside a long weekend and spend it together as a family. Let others know you will not be available for a few days, If necessary, tell them you'll be away for the weekend! Cancel all outside commitments; don't answer the phone or read the mail or turn on the computer. Steep late, listen to music, play games, read an entertaining book aloud. Tell stories of the past; share dreams of the future. Spend all day in your robe and slippers. Talk, sing, hug, laugh, make a pot of soup, bake bread, work on a craft project-together. Focus on your family and enjoy the opportunity to get to know more about each other.

References

Abramowiwtz, J. N. and Matoon, A. T. Cutting the Costs of Paper: Saving Forests, Water, Energy,... and Money. Worldwatch Institute, 1999. www.worldwatch.org

American Debt Management Services. Debt and Credit Card Statistics. 1998. www.ccsny.org

Armey, D. Time is money: Economic crunch is taking time from parents and children. World. 1996; 3:10.

US Department of Transportation. Transportation Statistics Annual Report, 1999. www.dat.gov

Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, PhD, is a Leader in Henniker, New Hampshire, USA. She is mother to Ken (10) and Chris (8). In her professional life, she is a health psychologist and Research Associate at the Family Research Laboratory, University of New Hampshire, a job she telecommutes to from home. She is also the newly appointed chair of the New Hampshire Breastfeeding Promotion Task Force. This article is excerpted from her newest book, The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood. Coping with Mothering Stress, Depression and Burnout. She will give a presentation on this topic at the LLLI Conference in July 2001.

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