Stress is best defined as an emotional and physical state resulting in a physiological reaction where the body is prepared to fight or fly. When the brain perceives a stressor, it sends a message to the pituitary gland to produce cortisol. Cortisol is what informs the organs in the body to ‘prepare’ which can result in the unpleasant sensation of feeling stressed. This lasts until the threat has passed, or until the body is no longer able to sustain this state and falls into exhaustion.
Unfortunately, what can happen is that we can become used to a high level of cortisol in the system and continue to function without realising the damage we are doing to our body. And in news that will hardly surprise any parent, they can be more susceptible to this happening.
Why are parents prone to low level stress?
The brain has evolved to keep us safe, and that means it needs to be aware of anything that could potentially threaten our safety, or that of our offspring. Parents are almost hard wired and pre-disposed to seek out potential threat so they can ascertain risk and respond. This means not only are they in that state of vigilance for themselves, but it is elevated when they need to look out for their children too.
If we consider the practical lifestyle changes the pandemic enforced – working from home alongside home schooling, as well as shopping shortages (or no delivery slots), changing governmental requirements affecting business and education, the concerns any parent has that their child has a healthy start in life combined with social isolation and being separated from extended family, parents have cause to feel an extra sense of challenge. Children have also had disruption in socialisation, experienced loss of transitional moments (such as the Year 11 prom or the Year 6 leaving disco, and school trips), which is additional to the transitions, life changes and everyday ups and downs that people face. Parents do not just need to organise their children, but their own lives as well, and many are of the generation where they may be caring for their young ones, as well as their own aging parents.
The pandemic may have brought extra struggles (perhaps with furlough, or financial stress) – for example, it is much harder for parents to be there for each other and the children, and as such a source of support that may otherwise have been available is temporarily curtailed.
So what can we do about it?
The problem of low level stress becoming normalised is that cortisol (the functions of which are designed to be short lived to deal with the stressor and then dissipate) can be damaging to the body when it remains longer term. It can affect our ability to eat, sleep, concentrate and even our reproductive health. A lack of sleep can then have knock on effects on our relationships and work if we are more irritable, or less focused; and cortisol can result in weight gain, which can damage our self-confidence. Therefore, it is important to find a way of reducing its impact while navigating life’s ups and downs. A little bit of stress is OK - it can help us focus, achieve and overcome. It is important however that we are also able to regulate its effects when we don’t need that boost of adrenaline, and the following methods can help both release the feelings of stress in the moment, as well as act preventatively by minimising the amount of cortisol produced:
Even if it’s a brisk walk around the block, you are getting more oxygen to the brain, and the change in environment can also take you away from the area of stress.
Gardening and nature
People report a sense of peace and feeling grounded in nature, even looking at it can make a difference, so tending to house plants or opening a window and doing some deep breathing can make a real difference. Sunlight can stimulate production of Vitamin D which helps strengthen the immune system, as well as generate serotonin which helps regulate our sleep and appetite – and research notes when serotonin drops cortisol levels tend to rise.
This produces endorphins which are the body’s natural pain killers and they too can have a positive effect on reducing stress levels.
Healthy relationships (even stroking a pet!)
Whether it is the stimulation of oxytocin that minimises the production of cortisol, or simply being able to focus on something joyful like a loved one, research finds that a sense of love and security can reduce the production of cortisol.
A ‘calm kit’
It is important to model your own regulation of stress, so try a ‘calm kit’ that perhaps you can design with your children with little items that reduce stress, discussing with them what you’re including and what they might put in theirs.
As a family, you might even want to blend all five of those activities together – going for a walk, engaging in some deep breathing or exercise as a team, and finding things to talk and smile at. Not only are you finding ways to combat stress, together, but you are also building your connection as a family team.
Dr Audrey Tang is a psychologist, mental health and wellness expert and author of The Leaders Guide to Resilience****, Pearson, £14.99