Updated: Mar 22, 2021
This March marks the one year anniversary of the new stress called COVID. Congratulations moms, you have survived. Every day feels like a challenge. Trying to find a work-life balance seems like a thing of the past. This is just all too stressful, and this chronic stress is nothing to joke about. In fact, the Coronavirus-19 and Perinatal Experience (COPE) Study from New York University found that 78% of mothers reported an increase in stress due to such problems as financial issues, health issues, impact on their community, access to mental healthcare, impact on friends, as well as social isolation.
We need to sit down, evaluate, and be honest with ourselves about how much stress we are enduring. As mothers, we often try to be perfect - the caretakers of the household, the ones who have it all together. But, we need to listen to our minds and our bodies, paying attention to our needs. Stress affects the body and brain in a range of ways, and we must start giving ourselves the care and compassion we need.
DISCLOSURE: This information is not meant to be all-encompassing and should not replace seeking advice from your health care provider for specific questions, solutions, and concerns about your health! The purpose is to spark curiosity and gain some insight into your health.
Cortisol is the stress enemy!!
When we experience stress, the body and brain go into a protection mode through a number of changes that release a major hormone called cortisol. At the same time stress causes the “fight or flight system” also known as the sympathetic nervous system to activate.
Imagine your brain as a battlefield where stress causes recruitment of millions of little soldiers to help you protect against a threat! These molecules have fancy names you may or may not have heard of called catecholamines. The two most famous “soldiers” are called norepinephrine and epinephrine and they spill into the bloodstream to prepare your body to defend against any threat (in this case, stress!!). The body is marvelous and all this molecular cascade causes physical and mental changes you may have experienced in the past. Have you ever been in a stressful situation and your body feels alert, your pupils dilate, or you feel hot because of increased blood flow to your muscles? Have you ever experienced your heart racing or your breathing becoming rapid and shallow? Even your digestive system responds by slowing down. which you may experience as bloating or constipation. Additionally, cortisol and catecholamines act on motivational pathways in your brain to cause cognitive and behavioral changes in response to stress! Unfortunately, subjecting your body to constant stressful stimuli can cause long term damage.
The Influence of Stress on the Body and Brain
As stress is a part of our everyday lives, the stress response can be helpful or adaptive - preparing us for battle! When we experience acute and limited stress, the body quickly returns to balance. However, when we experience chronic stress (i.e., unremitting stress that lasts for long periods of time), our body is put in a constant state of imbalance. We are unable to return to a healthy, stress-free baseline. Chronic stress has detrimental effects on both the body and brain. Importantly, chronic stress can actually cause a decrease in the size of key brain areas involved in learning, memory, motivation, and mood. Additionally, chronic stress causes inflammation throughout the body and brain. These changes can manifest as digestive problems, chronic pain, headaches or migraines, depression, or problems in thinking or remembering information. To deal with stress, people often develop new unhealthy habits such as eating unhealthy foods (often those high in fat and sugar), smoking, drinking alcohol, or drug use. These maladaptive health behaviors can lead to problems such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, or substance use disorders (SUDs), among others.
Ways to Incorporate Stress Relief into your Daily Routine
Considering these detrimental effects of stress, it is important to listen to yourself and be realistic about how you are feeling during this time. We are all overstimulated, and we need to find a moment (many moments) of stress relief. Here we offer some suggestions on how to do this.
Take a moment: Take a moment for yourself. We now spend all of our time at home with all of our loved ones. Most likely, you have been in constant contact with one, two, or all of your family members from the moment you open your eyes until the time you close them. If you co-sleep, then it could be a 24-hour cycle. As a mother, this means that you are constantly caring for everyone all of the time. If you are a working mother, this means that you are constantly caring for everyone all of the time while working AT THE SAME TIME. We are all overburdened and burnt out. Take a moment just for you. This could be as simple as asking your partner to watch the kids and take a walk while listening to your favorite music. The quiet and lack of stimulation will help you to reset.
Turn off the devices: Mom is working on one computer, dad is working on another, one of your children is in virtual school, while the other is preoccupied on the tablet. We are on our devices all of the time. The constant absorption in virtual life can get exhausting. Even after we are finished with our work duties, we turn to these devices for entertainment - television, video games, social media, the options are endless. Try going device free for some portion of the day. You can even set some dedicated hours of the day that are void of devices. You can fill this time with board games, arts and crafts, or just talking about your day. You may also notice that one of the first things you do in the morning is check your phone. Try giving yourself at least 30 minutes to one hour to wake up without checking your devices.
Listen to yourself and be realistic about how you are feeling during this time.
Exercise: Exercise is one of the best ways to decrease stress. Even short bouts of exercise have been shown to decrease levels of stress, anxiety and depression. The American Heart Association and Center for Disease Control recommend that we get approximately 30 minutes moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise per day (~150 minutes per week). Exercise can instantly boost your mood, making you happier. Exercise actually enables us to be stress resistant by acting on stress-related neurochemical systems, including decreasing cortisol levels (or our cortisol levels in response to psychosocial stressors) and increasing serotonin levels - serving as a natural mood booster.
Meditate: Meditation is an excellent way to combat stress. Even short periods of meditation (~10 minutes a day) can cause stress resilience, making you better able to deal with your everyday stressors. The practice of mindfulness meditation can be practiced in many different settings, and you can use mindfulness periodically throughout your day when you are feeling stressed. For example, we all know the stressful nature of having to cook dinner and clean the house after a long day of work.
You can use mindfulness during times like this to help calm yourself and actually enjoy these day-to-day activities.
Spend less time cleaning: We could literally spend our entire day cleaning. We are now at home all the time with our children making messes all of those many hours. Try setting aside a time to clean and then not worrying about it for the rest of the day. With toys that have 100s of parts (think legos), try getting organization bins so that you can quickly clean up a mess. If there are a pile of toys on the floor that would literally take you an hour (or more) to organize, put them in a bag and set aside to organize later. That way, you can have your clean room and the time you need to relax.
Spend time doing nothing: At this moment in time, we are doing everything at every moment. We don’t even have a commute anymore to tune out and relax. In some sense, we have become addicted to our work, and it is impossible to find a work-life balance. So, spend some time doing nothing. Because we are so busy right now, we fill every moment with things that we need to do. Why not try spending time doing nothing? Find time for things that actively relax you. Read a book for fun. Binge watch some Netflix. Get an adult coloring book and color. As the spring weather is right around the corner, lounge outside with your favorite beverage.
Ask for help: You don’t have to do it all yourself. Ask your partner for help! Cleaning the kitchen or doing the laundry together can actually give you time and space to have a conversation and talk about your day. If you don’t feel comfortable bringing a housecleaner or babysitter into the house because of the pandemic, try to make the household chores a family activity. Your children might actually find it fun to help organize or put things away. Kids actually love organizing and putting things in order. You can make it a game or even give them a treat for their kind deeds.
As parents, I know we are worrying about every decision we make during this pandemic. Our children are likely getting more screen time than we would like. The foods available in the house may not be fresh or organic as normal. We may not be able to give our children as much direct attention as we used to pre-pandemic. Each of us has our own list of worries. This time will pass, but as we are experiencing it, we should try to be kind and compassionate with ourselves. Make time to de-stress a priority so that you don’t come to the end of every day feeling completely burnt out. Take care of yourselves - your body, brain, and family will thank you!
Please follow us on social media and continue learning about various mindfulness practices and how you can make a positive change in your life! Take a moment for YOU!
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Written by Julia C. Basso, PhD
Julia is a wearer of many hats. She is the Director of Research & Content Development. She is a neuroscientist at Virginia Tech working in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise as well as a teacher and practitioner of dance and yoga. She is also the proud mama of Juliette and Holden and a wife of a mad scientist. She is fascinated by the brain's capacity for plasticity and the body's ability to shape the brain. Her research centers around understanding how physical activity and mindfulness practices affect the brain functionally, physiologically, and morphologically. She understands both scientifically and personally that pregnancy and the postpartum period (and motherhood in general) are a time of significant change in a woman's life, and she is enthusiastic about being a part of Huddle Up Moms to help women successfully navigate their motherhood journeys.
You can learn more about Julia here.