Some people have asked to know more about how I got so passionate about parental stress relief. Here’s the story…
About ten years ago, I ran into a myriad of health issues that stemmed from chronic stress. I was exhausted, and a good night’s sleep didn’t seem to make a dent. Whenever I sat down, it felt like I was sinking into wet cement. My heart would flutter for no apparent reason. And the pain in my lower back sometimes reduced me to crawling. On top of that, my digestion was a mess; my stomach ached no matter what I ate. These were all glaring signs of an imbalanced system. I had always thought of myself as healthy and high functioning. Suddenly I wasn’t. My family needed me, but I was wiped.
That was the beginning of an odyssey for me: trying to figure out what had gone wrong and how to turn things around. The first stop was my primary care physician… who told me all my tests were so-called “normal”. That might sound like good news, but it was perplexing. It took years to unravel the mystery. I consulted with more practitioners than I care to remember. They represented everything from traditional western medicine specialists, to ancient healing arts (such as acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine and Ayurveda) to complementary methods (including chiropractic, holistic nutrition and homeopathy).
I learned something from each of them, but it was the integrative functional medicine doctor who finally gave me a name for my primary problem: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The Mayo Clinic describes it as “a complicated disorder characterized by extreme fatigue that can’t be explained by any underlying medical condition.” The cause? STRESS! For me, there were lots of factors, including the chronic emotional stress of worrying about my son’s struggles, and physiological stress from eating foods my system thought were allergens.
To heal myself, I had to approach the problem from as many angles as there were factors. I started reading all about how stress affects health and became my own guinea pig, testing every new technique meant to fend off stress and restore wellness. What I figured out is that it is possible to defuse stress and practice self-care, even in the midst of calamity.
Beware: Stress Creep
During this process, I also learned that I wasn’t the only one having this experience. In addition to meeting other parents like myself, I stumbled on a large body of research about how chronic stress affects parents of children who struggle.
Many of us assume we can manage the stress “for now”. But we don’t realize that the stress is slowly impacting our health. It creeps up. Have you ever gotten your eyes examined and realized you needed a prescription for glasses? “Oh wow, I can see the leaves on the trees again!” you might say. Stress is similar; we get used to it. We stop noticing that our chest is tight and we don’t feel so good.
But we need to pay attention!
If My Story Didn’t Convince You to Consider Your Stress, Read This
- Studies show that parents of children who struggle experience substantially higher levels of stress than parents of children who are “unaffected” (not that anyone needed proof).
- They are also more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.
- More studies have shown that parents aren’t just reporting serious stress, they have the biological markers to prove it.
Here’s a quick review of what those bio-marker studies found: Parents of children who struggle showed stress hormones gone awry, signs of advanced cellular aging, and weakened immune systems.
> Blunted Cortisol (Stress Hormone) Response
One study conducted by Marsha Mailick Seltzer and team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that mothers of adolescents and adults on the autism spectrum had cortisol patterns comparable to those of combat soldiers and others who experience constant psychological stress.
Your body releases the same stress chemicals (including cortisol and adrenaline) whether you’re dodging bullets on a battlefield or worrying about your child’s issues. When your body is constantly activating the stress response, it’s as if the pedal gets jammed. Eventually your body doesn’t have the capacity to respond to all those warning signals. Changes in cortisol patterns like this have been associated with chronic health problems, and can influence such things as immune function, glucose regulation, and what else? Oh yeah, mental activity.
> Advanced Cellular Aging
Another study by UCSF’s Elizabeth Blackburn found that caregiver mothers of chronically ill children had blood cells that were, genetically speaking, about a decade older than those of their peers, whose caregiving experience was more typical. Most interesting to me was that they found those mothers within the group who held the perception of psychological stress had greater cell damage than those who didn’t.
> Weakened Immune Systems
If stress hormones gone awry and advanced cellular aging isn’t enough “proof” of how our health can be impacted, Brian Lovell and team at Northumbria University found that parents of children with autism or ADHD get sick more often. They were more likely to suffer from colds, coughs, and headaches as a direct result of the increased stresses linked to their caregiving responsibilities (such as behavioral problems and additional complex needs). The same study also found higher levels of C-reactive protein in these mothers, a marker of inflammation linked to heart disease and diabetes. To quote a bit of their summary “The stress of caregiving exacts a significant psychophysiological toll.”
Another study showed mothers of children with developmental disabilities mounted a poorer antibody response to flu vaccinations than parents of typically developing children, suggesting a reduced ability to fight both bacterial and viral infections.
Hellooooo! This is Your Friendly Wake-up Call
I share this research with you not to be an alarmist, but as a friendly wake-up call. You may not see your situation as being comparable to mine, or to the parents in these studies, but if a child in your life is struggling, chances are good that your stress levels are elevated. You may even be dealing with other health issues.
The good news is that tiny tweaks in your daily habits can make a difference, and this site is here to inspire you. We need to calibrate for the long haul by taking care of ourselves. Stress is cumulative. If we chip away at stress, a little bit each day, we can buffer ourselves from its deleterious effects.
Why not start today? I’ll be right there with you.