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 (22- to 37-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 every day "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.
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.
The moms we surveyed say that money is their biggest stressor. It makes sense; the U.S. Census Bureau reports that in the years since the official end of the recession, the American family's household income has fallen 4 percent, nearly the same decrease as during the recession itself. Gaining control through help from a financial expert or library books about money management will make a difference. So will a change in perspective.
Question what's "essential." "I want to know that my kids have everything they need," one mom said. But look closely at wants vs. needs. "Most of what you think your kid should have is unnecessary," says Parents advisor Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.
Share. Swap childcare with a friend, or organize toy trades or neighborhood potlucks. "People feel isolated when it comes to money worries," says Dale Atkins, Ph.D., author of Sanity Savers. "Helping each other erases that lonesome feeling and gives you a sense of control."
Don't shop for sport. Even though money worries are your biggest anxiety-producer, when we asked respondents how they relax, one of the most popular answers was shopping! Instead, find other ways to zone out.
When you're on the food ledge, Parents advisor Elisa Zied, R.D.N., a nutritionist in New York City, suggests these ways to talk yourself down.
Wait it out. Take 15 minutes. Go for a walk, snuggle with your partner, knit, paint your toes. Doing something else can distract you from your craving.
Eat—but in your mind only. In one study at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, when people merely imagined eating a food such as cheese, they subsequently ate less of the food they'd imagined eating.
Brush, floss, and rinse with mouthwash, or have a strong mint or a piece of sugarless gum. The routine may also help you convince yourself that eating time is over now that your teeth are cleaner.
If all else fails, indulge in your craving but in the right portion size. Measure out a 5-ounce glass of wine, serve yourself one scoop of your favorite ice cream, or have one snack-size bag of chips.
Many moms report that the daily tasks that irritate them most involve catering to family members' needs. "Resist taking the roles of Sherpa, butler, crabby concierge, short-order cook, talent agent, and hospital staffer wiping the bottom of people old enough to do it themselves," says Dr. Mogel. Some ways to lay down the law:
Don't snap to attention every time someone makes a demand. "Kids aren't hothouse flowers; they're hardy perennials," Dr. Mogel points out. "Let them be cold, wet, or hungry for more than a second and they'll appreciate the chance to be warm, dry, and fed."
Assign a task the next time you feel mom-martyrdom creeping in. "It's the worst thing in the world to feel resentful," says Dr. Atkins. Annoyed that no one sees that stuff on the stairs except you? Don't sigh dramatically as you haul it off—delegate the job to someone else.
When that doesn't work, practice selective perfectionism. "Deal with the one or two things that bug you most and force yourself to let everything else go," says Parents advisor Alice Domar, Ph.D., author of Live a Little: Breaking the Rules Won't Break Your Health.
"I feel like I'm running in circles. I have good intentions to get things done, but by day's end my list seems longer than when I started," confesses one mom. Sound familiar? When our moms were asked to describe their current state of mind, they used terms like "pulled in all directions," "hectic," "preoccupied," and "too much to focus on." The upside is that 58 percent say a typical weekday is "busy but fun." A few strategic maneuvers can help you keep the busy in check and capitalize on the fun.
Identify the high-stress parts of your day. Figure out how you can make those times more relaxed, suggests Ashley Stoffel, O.T.D., clinical assistant professor of occupational therapy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. If mornings are chaotic no matter how much you plan, try getting up 20 minutes earlier so that you have some quiet time to get organized or even do some calming stretches. Or try writing out a step-by-step routine to keep everyone on task.
Plan your to-dos-don't simply put them on a list. "One of our biggest stressors is the ticker tape of tasks that runs through our head," says Julie Morgenstern, author of Time Management From the Inside Out. To tackle them, integrate them into a calendar or a planner that goes where you go (not a calendar on the fridge). Write your usual to-do list, but then input two or three tasks into each day's schedule, along with how long they'll take. Example: Instead of scribbling "buy teacher gifts" on a Post-it, mark out an hour on your schedule when you can tackle it, she suggests.
Set a timer. When you time your routine tasks, you learn how long things really take. "We tend to think that something we dread, like doing the dishes, takes an hour when it's really more like seven minutes," says Morgenstern. Realizing this makes tasks feel more manageable--it's easier to sort through a pile of unopened mail when you tell yourself you'll do it for just 15 minutes.
Automate. "The primary job of parenting is not chores; it's being present for your family," says Morgenstern. Put all of the jobs that nag at you on autopilot: Make a list of ten rotating dinners that your family likes, sign up for deliveries of diapers and household goods, assign a time for chores: Put in a load of laundry first thing each morning, gas up the car every Tuesday, etc.
Says one mom, "Before I became a parent, I could just decompress in my living room without feeling like I was hiding out." And another: "I always have so much on my mind--being a good mom, wife, employee, friend, sister, daughter, not to mention getting everything done."
But learning how to relax doesn't have to mean disengaging from life, says Dr. Amit Sood, whose clinic has taught relaxation skills to more than 40,000 patients. "You don't have to retreat to your basement and meditate for 45 minutes." (Although if that works for you, go for it!) Try these tips:
Institute family downtime. "A while ago, I read a study showing that families where both parents work outside the home spend less than two minutes together when they first reunite in the evening before moving on to other things," says Dr. Sood. "So my family purposefully started spending 15 minutes together each evening. We don't do anything special, we don't try to improve each other during that time, we just be. It helps you gain perspective."
Let your environment lead the way. For instance, try listening to a favorite playlist while you do dishes instead of suffering through the sounds of Power Rangers in the other room. Says one survey respondent, "When I'm tackling household chores, I put on hip-hop. It energizes me."
Don't numb out. Our first impulse when we're stressed is often to dull the feelings—with food, say, or by escaping into bad TV. But this doesn't defuse the tension; it just temporarily puts it off. In fact, data from more than 45,000 people collected over 35 years show that people who ranked highest on happiness scales watch the least television. Instead, look through old photo albums, write an over-the-top bucket list, listen to TED talks, or watch a video from TheMoth.org, a series of cool monologues.
Avoid "contaminated free time." In other words, you collapse on the sofa after a long day but you spot a toy on the floor so you go pick it up, and the next thing you know you've spent 20 minutes cleaning. Or you sit down to send a quick e-mail and 45 minutes later you're still online. Enjoy every second of your time off, whether it means turning off your phone or even leaving the house (and its laundry piles) to go for a walk.
Go to bed 30 minutes earlier. "I always take quiet time at night," says one mom. "Sometimes I go to bed extra early just to have time for myself."
"I never have a free moment," says one mom in our survey. "It's rare that I ever get to do something just for myself. That's stress, baby." Explains another, "I feel like I don't even have ten minutes for myself. My older kids have after-school activities and my 5-year-old needs my time too—and my husband is just like one of the kids sometimes. Everyone needs my attention."
But here's a radical thought: The obstacles to having more free time may be self-imposed. Think about it—maybe the only reason why you "can't" meet a friend for coffee on a Saturday afternoon is because you haven't given yourself permission. A quarter of us even admit to lying to our own family about our schedule just to get a little time on our own. Some of our surveyed moms' desperate stories are shown below (1 through 3). But it's 4 through 6 we can learn from—moms who have taken time for themselves and are all the better for it.
1. "I was dying to see a movie that no one else in my family was interested in, so I said I was working late one night and snuck off to the theater."
2. "I was at a doctor's appointment and my family kept texting me. I told them that my phone battery was dying so they'd leave me alone."
3. "I told my husband that I was stopping for groceries after work and I'd be about an hour late. I went shoe shopping instead. I felt sort of devious but..."
4. "I never made time to read because life was so busy, but then I realized that life would always be busy. Now I read every day."
5. "My husband and I make sure that we each have a few hours to ourselves once or twice a week. I catch up with friends over a glass of wine, or sometimes I go for a bike ride or watch a show."
6. "Once a month, I take an afternoon off from work just for me."