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Anxiety Caused by Parental Stress
Stress and Anxiety in Parents
The day-to-day pressures of parenting can leave even the most emotionally healthy mothers and fathers feeling stressed. Busy schedules, high expectations, inadequate sleep and family conflicts are common sources of parental stress. As a result, parents may experience anxiety, which is a condition that negatively affects mental and physical health.
Symptoms of anxiety can include the following:
- Feelings of losing control
- Rapid heart rate
- Near-constant worry
- Feelings that something bad is going to happen, even when no evidence supports it
- Frequent urination
- Poor sleep/insomnia
- Lack of appetite
Causes of Parental Stress
Anxiety caused by parental stress may stem from unpredictability in the home environment. For example, if a child has frequent temper tantrums, outbursts, sleep issues, or academic difficulties, parents may begin to feel edgy because they do not know what to expect next. Additionally, if a child or teenager is behaving erratically or dangerously, parents may worry excessively about their child's well-being and safety. Likewise, when dealing with troubled children who need mental health or medical care, it is common for parents to feel anxiety about the unknown, such as potential treatments and the outcomes of said treatments.
These persistent feelings of edginess stemming from parental stress can lead to anxiety. his can be compounded by marital problems or disagreements between spouses on how to handle these problems. Spousal conflicts about parenting are common among families, but are nonetheless anxiety provoking.. If parents disagree on how to handle disciplinary issues, for instance, these recurring conflicts can lead to anxious reactions simply because she cannot meet her own expectations.
Further, unrealistic expectations can be another cause parental anxiety. If a parent believes that she must be "the perfect mom," can never disappoint her children or take time off to care for her own well-being, she may develop anxious symptoms. This problem can be particularly pronounced in single parents, who may feel guilty about divorce and feel as though they must be both a mother and a father figure to their children.
Parental Stress Symptoms
Parents experiencing stress-related anxiety may feel edgy and watchful and have difficulty concentrating, even when they are at work or away from their children. Anxious and stressed parents may behave irritability toward their children and family members and have knee-jerk reactions to even simple problems or misbehavior. For example, an anxious parent may become angry and punish a teen who is five minutes late for her curfew. Likewise, stressed parents may make punishments excessive, for example, grounding a child a month for a minor infraction.
Anxiety also causes physiological symptoms, including muscle tension, insomnia, and fatigue. This may be a result of staying up late at night worrying about their child's health or well-being. Likewise, parents might dwell on their child's problems--for instance, feeling angry that their children got in trouble at school or got bad grades on a report card.
Parents with anxiety often experience irrational and persistent worry as well. For example, anxious parents may have ongoing concerns about their children's well-being even when their children are safe at home. They may have unfounded worries about being able to provide for their families financially. For instance, a father might excessively worry about losing his job, even though there are no problems at work or evidence indicating that he cannot meet his child's basic needs.
Anxious parents may also come into strong conflict with their non-worried spouses. The spouse may identify that her partner's worries are unfounded and try to confront these issues, only to be met with hostility or defensiveness. These arguments only serve to exacerbate the stress and anxiety since there is no family agreement on what problems are real and which are a product of anxious thoughts.
Treating Anxiety Caused by Parental Stress
Many parents can treat their stress-related anxieties at home. Meditation and deep breathing are both effective ways of reducing anxiety. For example, even taking 15 minutes alone to pray, meditate, or focus on non-parenting related positive activities can lower a parent's level of worry and stressed arousal.
Additionally, cutting down on caffeine and alcohol can reduce anxious symptoms. Even though a glass of wine or beer in the evening may temporarily reduce symptoms, it can create larger problems, as you can easily become dependent on these substances to relax. In other words, they can decrease a parent's natural coping mechanisms.
Exercising regularly can help reduce anxious symptoms. Even low-impact exercise such as walking, stretching, or taking a bike ride for 30 minutes, three times a week can release chemicals in the brain that naturally lower stress and anxiety.
Parents should also not underestimate the power of stepping away from parenting for an evening or even a weekend. Although many parents--especially single parents--may feel guilty or negligent getting a babysitter or leaving their children with a grandparent for the weekend, focusing on your own needs and interests (not to mention, just having fun!) can make you a less stressed parent and ultimately, a better parent.
Preventing Stress and Anxiety
Although it is impossible to eliminate all stress, parents can minimize negative emotions by dedicating time to relaxation. Setting bedtimes for children and taking 30-60 minutes every evening to read, exercise, or simply interact with your spouse can give you a healthy respite. While long-term time-outs from parenting may not feasible for busy parents, even short periods of time alone or with a friend or spouse can make a noticeable difference in one's mental health.
Realistic expectations about the parenting process can also prevent stress-induced anxiety. If parents take time to reflect on their expectations for themselves, their spouses and children, they can potentially eliminate anxiety-provoking beliefs. For example, it is important for parents to keep in mind that no parent is perfect. Moreover, it can be helpful to remember that as children get older, they will challenge boundaries and rebel from household rules. Although this might be stress-provoking, it is developmentally normal and healthy. Remembering this can help alleviate guilt. Just because a child does not behave the way you expect does not mean that you are doing anything wrong.
Maintaining an open, constructive dialogue with your spouse or the child's other parent can also help you allay worries. If you observe problematic behaviors, check in with the other parent to see if your concerns are something he or she worries about, too. If they are, this can help you collectively form a positive plan of action that will change behaviors and eliminate the need for worry, stress, and anxiety.
Natural Solutions to Parental Stress
When to Seek Help for Parental Stress and Anxiety
While almost every parent knows that worrying is just part of being a mom or dad, when stress and anxiety begin to interfere with your work performance or relationships, it may be good to talk to a therapist. Simple parental anxiety can snowball into something much more serious if left unchecked, but fortunately, it is relatively easily treatable. While some parents may need medications to help them control their anxiety, in most cases, approximately 12 weeks of talk therapy can make a significant difference in a parent's mood. Your therapist will likely help you make a personalized stress-management plan, with ideas that fit your schedule, values, and individual symptoms. Additionally, simply talking about your parental anxieties to a neutral third party can help you keep things in perspective.