Increased Stress for Mothers of Young Children

Rick and Jan Hanson's picture

by Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Jan Hanson, L.Ac.

Prior to kids, I had an intense Wall Street job in New York. I thought nothing of 60 hour weeks and late nights. People said I could handle stress really well. But now, at home with a 3-year-old and a baby, I'd have to say that my life today is actually much more stressful. It's hard to explain to someone who's not a mom, but it's just relentless. I'm on the go all the time, there are constant interruptions and frustrations, a lot of things are anxiety-provoking or frustrating or both, and there's almost no time for a break. I'm actually worried about my health from all this. What can I do?

It's probably little comfort to you, but many studies have born out your personal experience: long hours taking care of young children by yourself is more stressful than most jobs. And mothers on the average are more stressed than fathers or women not raising children.

And you're also right to worry about your health. Stress is a hot topic these days -- maybe because there's so much of it! -- and researchers have found that chronic stress is not just an unpleasant experience. It relentlessly wears on five major systems of your body, with the effects noted:

  1. Gastrointestinal -- Ulcers, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, constipation
  2. Immune -- Weakened response to colds, flus, and other infections
  3. Cardiovascular -- Hardening of the arteries, heart attack
  4. Endocrine -- Increased Type II diabetes, low libido, less DHEA (the "anti-aging hormone")
  5. Nervous -- Heightened sensitivity to upsetting experiences, depressed mood, sleep disturbance, a kind of blah flatness of emotion, measurable changes in portions of the brain

Stress triggers the sympathetic nervous system into fight-or-flight intensity. So what is it that brings that system back down to baseline?

It's the parasympathetic wing of the nervous system, the part that is responsible for ongoing bodily maintenance, exhaling, keeping your heart beating and blood moving into your internal organs, etc. When you feel relaxed and peaceful, your parasympathetic system is really humming along.

These two are like a see-saw: as the parasympathetic rises, the sympathetic declines, and vice versa. Therefore, learning how to light up the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is a great way to manage stressful situations with minimal wear and tear on your body and mind.

Here's how:

  • Inhale as deeply as you can several times. That expands the bronchioles of the lungs and activates the PNS in order to bring the bronchioles back to more normal size.
  • Deliberately relax, even for only a few seconds, which turns on the PNS. Here are some common, quick methods: Relax your tongue or eyes or diaphragm (the area just below your rib cage); imagine being in a very comfortable setting; feel everything draining out of you and sinking deep into the earth
  • Try a method adapted from the HeartMath Institute: for a minute or more, (A) breathe in such a way that your inhalation and exhalation are about the same duration, while (B) imagining that the breath is moving in and out of the center of your chest, and (C) bringing to mind a heartfelt feeling such as gratitude or love.
  • Since the PNS monitors internal bodily states, bringing your awareness down into your body energizes that system. Even in the midst of a busy day, you can privately focus on the sensations of breathing in your chest or stomach, or the sensations of a chair against your legs, etc.
  • Yawning. It really does work.
  • Meditation both activates the PNS in the moment, plus has lingering benefits. There are lots of methods, but we like simple and classic: for a minute or more, sit in a relaxed position (eyes closed or open) and keep bringing your attention back to the sensations of breathing.
  • Focus on positive emotions, and take a few extra seconds to have those good feelings really sink in.
  • Fiddle your lips. It's seriously goofy, but this actually does work. (People also use it with horses, children who bite, etc.) Lots of nerves from the PNS go into your lips, so when you stimulate those, you stimulate the PNS. Blub blub blub!

Rick Hanson is a clinical psychologist, Jan Hanson is an acupuncturist/nutritionist, and they are raising a daughter and son, ages 12 and 14. With Ricki Pollycove, M.D., they are the principal authors of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships, published by Penguin.

Copyright © Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Jan Hanson, L.Ac. Permission to reprint granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.