Increased Stress for Mothers of Young Children

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: