Stress is a common presence in our daily lives and its impact on the body (physical, emotional, and spiritual) requires us to be aware of its presence and to seek ways to mitigate or reduce its effects. In therapy terms, our attempts to manage our stress comes down to our willingness and ability to engage in self-care. During the pre-flight instructions, flight attendants instruct passengers on the use of the air masks that will drop down in an emergency—the biggest factor they emphasize for parents and those traveling with others is the need to put on your own mask before attempting to help others with theirs.
Adults stress about many issues and factors in their lives. Financial stress tends to be the number one problem we face. Cost of living seems to keep increasing, grocery prices continue increasing and it’s beginning to feel like there is not enough money to cover everything, at least for some of us. During 2019, the United States Census Bureau estimated that 34 million Americans were within the poverty threshold, also referred to as living below the line. This means that adults, especially parents, have had to choose between paying bills and feeding children. This increases the risk for malnutrition and lowers our immune system effectiveness.
Another stressor relates to work or education. With so many requirements and obligations to our time we struggle to manage our commitments and our time usage. This stress increases when there is a deadline or time limit attached to the tasks we are completing. Unfortunately, work or educational stressors also include time we miss in self-care and with our own families doing activities we enjoy. This increases the potential for relational stress as we try to meet work and educational obligations.
Other stressors we face include major life changes. At times, these stressors intertwine with one another. So how does stress impact the body? In an article on their website, the writers of Vkool explain the negative effects of stress on the body. According to them, there are ten major areas where stress has an impact.
- Sleep disturbance—reported difficulty with falling and/or staying asleep or experiencing low quality sleep. This can cause increased irritability, difficulty focusing, hyperarousal, and decrease immune system efficacy.
- Impaired digestion—hormone rushes from cortisol release, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate all negatively impact digestion as the body is then forced to work harder. This can lead to development of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms, stomach ulcers, and diarrhea which prevents the body from absorbing the nutrition needed throughout the body.
- Asthma—incidences of asthma attacks increase and are exacerbated by high stress levels as the airways become constricted. (Note: Stress does NOT cause asthma to develop)
- Weakened immune response—Cortisol (the stress hormone) increases and inhibits the body’s natural immune response by inhibiting the release of prostaglandins that play a role in the immune system. This increases the risk for infection and development of cold and flu symptoms.
- Impact on the brain—during times of high and even extreme stress we often have difficulty with our cognitive processes and especially difficulty applying therapeutic techniques to control anxiety and stress. Stress impacts ability to focus and concentrate, decreases our self-regulation abilities, increases our emotional responses, and increases the potential risk for Alzheimer and dementia development.
- Skin and aging—stress acts as a stimulator which accelerates the aging process at the cellular level.
- Cardiac issues—stress causes hormones to be released (Cortisol) which constricts blood flow, increases blood glucose, and restricts blood flow in the body increasing the risk for development of cardiac diseases including heart attack. Recreational drug use, drinking, and even smoking to manage stress also damages the heart and can lead to heart disease.
- Hair loss—if you’re anything like me, high stress (especially the more you think about it) leads to you putting your hands into your hair and gripping it as you try to consider potential solutions to the issue stressing you out. Depending on how hard you pull as your hands are in your hair, your hair may come out.
- Weight gain—there are generally two responses to high stress: eating for comfort and not eating due to lack of appetite. Either response leads to weight gain. It seems counterintuitive that you gain weight when you don’t eat right? However, consider it this way: when you don’t eat, the body will look elsewhere for nutritional resources. So when we do eat again, our bodies will store everything that was consumed since it was previously deprived.
- Headaches—we are all familiar with tension headaches. These are caused by restriction in the blood flow which can also cause tiredness and lack of sleep, hunger, and the mind having to work in overdrive.
One of the most neglected areas in our lives is self-care. Its importance is overlooked, and we allow the demands of our routines and care for others to push self-care to the side and to be forgotten. If you tend to put yourself at the very end of your priority list, especially when that list gets long, that means you’re not only neglecting yourself, but you’re also neglecting everyone who relies on you.
As a parent, I struggle to prioritize self-care. Parents want to give all of themselves and do anything for their children, but they burn out along the way. They forget that self-care is like a personal gas station where we refuel and top off to continue caring for others. It feels selfish to put myself first and care for myself and the guilt is hard to contend with. However, as the saying goes, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” If you are so busy giving yourself to others that you neglect yourself and your needs, you’ll have nothing left to give to the other people in your life.
One of the most effective ways to care for yourself and your family, is getting the proper sleep. There are six ways to foster and achieve better sleep:
- Stick to an actual sleep schedule. We need at most seven to eight hours of sleep, but more than that can disturb our circadian rhythm. The time we go to bed and the time we wake up daily should be the same or approximately the same with no more than an hour difference on the weekends. If there is a struggle to fall asleep within the first twenty minutes it may be best to get up and engage in a relaxing activity, such as reading or listening to music, until you feel tired.
- Pay attention to what we eat and drink. Going to bed hungry or stuffed could impact being able to fall asleep or stay asleep due to discomfort. In addition, nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol impact sleep and should be avoided prior to bedtime as they act as a stimulant.
- Create a restful environment. Ensure your room is dark and quiet and decrease or eliminate light exposure within the room. Also avoid technology devices which emit blue light wavelengths that impact the circadian rhythm. Bubble baths, meditation, and other calming activities prior to bed may be helpful to sleep.
- Limit daytime naps. We all become tired during the day but more than a thirty-minute nap during the day and especially taken late in the day will impact our ability to fall asleep and can confuse our circadian rhythm.
- Get physical activity. While exercise is excellent in terms of self-care and highly recommended to keep the body healthy and manage stress, exercise and physical activity too close to bedtime will affect sleep. Our activities and the hormones released with those activities can become confused when the timing is wrong. Spending time outside soaking in the sun and fresh air will have a positive effect on the body and restorative sleep.
- Manage your stress. It’s common for the mind to cycle through your worries at bedtime, preventing relaxation and sleep from occurring. One suggestion is to write down your worries or journal about them, then mindfully put the worries aside prior to bed. For stress management with worries, we recommend making a list of tasks you need to accomplish, prioritizing what is most important and focusing on one task at a time.
Unfortunately, there is also some confusion about what self-care is. Self-care is not simply putting yourself first; it is finding what makes you relax, destress, or manage stress, and feel renewed. Some ideas for self-care include:
- Creating a to do list and checking off tasks that have been accomplished
- Disconnecting from TV, phones, video games, and computers and sitting down with a book from the “want to read pile.”
- Sitting and relaxing and doing nothing
- Meditation, Yoga, exercise.
- Taking a long hot bubble bath or treating yourself to a spa day
- Binge watching a show on tv
- Crafting or exploring a new hobby
- Ordering in or out and not feeling guilty for not cooking
- Decluttering or finally completing your cleaning and organizing goal
- Having a mini dance party or singing loudly
- Taking a mental health day from work
- Watching the sunrise or sunset
This list is not exhaustive, but it provides potential ideas for some self-care time and inspires you to take time to prioritize yourself and manage stress. The goal is to take care of ourselves, to feel refreshed and to prevent damage from stress. As parents, self-care is good to model for our children. They need to see the importance of taking care of themselves as well.