A year after the birth of my second child, I found myself in an unlikely place: a cardiologist's office. For several months, I'd been experiencing heart palpitations and my doctor and I were baffled by them. They happened at odd moments, like the time my heart started racing while my husband and I sipped margaritas on an outdoor patio on a lovely summer evening.
For three days, I wore a high-tech monitor that measured my heart rhythms. Afterward, the cardiologist explained that while I was, in fact, experiencing abnormal rhythms, nothing was inherently wrong with my heart. Perhaps most telling: When he looked up from my chart and said, "Do you ever, just, relax?" I burst into tears. His prescription: I needed to slow down and do all of the things that I logically knew were important (you know, stuff like exercise and "me time") but, like so many moms, didn't think I could do because too many other things demanded my attention. I took a hard look at my life and made some changes, and the heart symptoms stopped nearly overnight.
For a long time, I was ashamed by the whole experience (shouldn't I be able to handle everything?), even though I knew from talking to other moms that the way I felt was far from unique. According to an American Psychological Association (APA) poll, almost a quarter of American women rate their stress as extreme--an 8, 9, or 10 on a 1 to 10 scale--compared with 16 percent of men. In another study, the APA reports that millennials (18- to 33-year-olds) are more stressed than older generations--more than 50 percent report that they have lain awake at night in the past due to stress. These large societal polls reflect what Parents found in our own exclusive survey of more than 500 moms with Quester, a research company in Des Moines. When respondents were asked to choose from a list of words the ones that best describe their state of mind on a typical day, 48 percent chose "stressed." Curiously, the next most popular answer, at 44 percent, was "happy," suggesting that moms aren't necessarily unhappy because they're stressed (or "rushed" or "crazy busy," the third- and fourth-place picks, at 37 and 35 percent respectively). "Society has a 'busier is better' attitude," says one mom in the survey. "People think that if they're not stressed they're not doing enough." This all raises the question: Is feeling constantly frazzled--even if you're happy--the normal baseline from which we operate each day? And perhaps more important, is being a 100-mph mom really the way you want to live?
There's no question that stress takes its toll--on your energy, your health, and even your relationships with your family. A study of 2,000 parents by psychologist Robert Epstein, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji, ranked ten parenting skills that predict kids' well-being, and number two on the list was how well parents manage their own stress. There are, of course, unique circumstances that cause acute stress--such as a job loss, a divorce, having a child with special needs, or a family illness--and these situations deserve attention. But in our report we're talking about the everyday "crazy busy," where the end of each day feels like crossing a finish line. With the results of our survey and an army of experts, we developed a stress-reduction handbook to help you hop off the hype treadmill.
What stress does to your body
Tension may be normal, but that doesn't mean it's good for you. Our research revealed that 71 percent of moms have stress-related headaches a few times a month. As for other stress-fueled conditions, 62 percent have stomachaches at least monthly, 37 percent experience heart palpitations monthly, and 21 percent have daily back pain. (Those figures alone could incite a panic attack.)
When you're under stress, your nervous system activates your "fight or flight" response--muscles tense, heart rate increases, adrenaline shoots up, and blood-flow patterns change. The problem is that your body reacts the same whether the stressor is major (a dog is chasing you) or minor (a friend rolls her eyes at you), says Amit Sood, M.D., chair of the Mayo Mind Body Initiative at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. "It's like lighting a candle in your house and having the entire fire department show up to put it out."
Over time, this takes a serious toll. In one study, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Elizabeth Blackburn and her colleagues determined that chronically stressed moms were physically ten to 17 years older than their actual age.
Health problems that can be caused by stress:
-Autoimmune disease flare-ups
-Increased cancer risk
-Irritable bowel syndrome