Understanding stress

Understanding stress
Your youngest is throwing a tantrum, your eldest has a stomach bug, it’s crunch time at work, and there are a million things to do around the house. Stress can stem from any number of factors—but just what is stress in the first place?

Your youngest is throwing a tantrum, your eldest has a stomach bug, it’s crunch time at work, and there are a million things to do around the house. Stress can stem from any number of factors—but just what is stress in the first place?

Stress is a normal part of being a parent. You could even say it’s crucial, because it allows you to adapt to new, difficult, or unexpected situations and react to danger.

Psychologist Nathalie Parent offers the following example: If you saw your little one running toward the street, it’s very likely that the stress would send you sprinting faster than ever to get to him in time. “Stress is also what gives you the energy you need to be prepared when you’re expecting your first child or when you’re heading out on a family trip,” Parent adds.

Blame it on hormones

When your brain detects what it perceives to be a threat, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol, two hormones that give you a surge of energy. Adrenaline helps the heart pump more blood to your muscles to boost your strength; it also stimulates the lungs to increase the amount of oxygen entering your bloodstream. Meanwhile, cortisol helps keep your energy level up and heighten your awareness.

A stressful event needn’t actually take place for your body to produce stress hormones. It’s how your brain interprets a situation that determines your body’s reaction. “The mere thought of a stressful event can trigger the release of stress hormones,” says Sonia Lupien, president of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress.

Though helpful in small doses, stress hormones become harmful when they build up over a long period. If you frequently and regularly face stressful situations, stress can become a chronic condition; it’s “almost like being permanently wound up,” explains Parent.

Chronic stress is bad for your health. It can lead to problems such as changes in mood and trouble sleeping and even prevent the body from working properly, which raises the risk of developing health problems such as abdominal obesity, depression, high cholesterol, heart disease, and diabetes.

A recipe for stress

Situations that involve one of more of the following elements will cause your body to release stress hormones:

N for Novelty

Whether you’re expecting your first child, you and your partner have just separated, or your infant is starting daycare, any new experience is a potential source of stress.

U for Unpredictability

Being faced with an unexpected event can also be stressful; imagine, for instance, your child throwing a tantrum at the grocery store or the daycare educator asking to meet with you out of the blue. Mathieu, father to 4year-old Lily and 15monthold Charlie, recently had to deal with his daughters getting sick one after the other. “It wasn’t anything serious, but I had to take quite a few days off work,” he explains. “I was stressed because I didn’t see it coming.”

T for Threat to the ego

Situations that test your abilities are another source of stress. The same goes for moments when you feel judged or experience selfdoubt. For Lily and Charlie’s mom, MarieÈve, breastfeeding in public is one of those moments. “I always wonder whether people will give me funny looks,” she explains. Taking her daughters for regular checkups at the doctor can also be an ordeal: “I feel like the doctor is really testing my mommy skills! My kids are healthy and I take good care of them, but that doesn’t keep my heart rate from skyrocketing.”

S for Sense of control

Lastly, situations that are out of your control can also trigger stress—for instance, when you can’t seem to soothe your colicky baby, when your child is born prematurely, or when traffic is about to make you late to pick up your kids from daycare.

Together, these elements form the acronym NUTS. Use this handy tool to quickly recognize—and avoid—the ingredients that cause stress.

To each their own

Stress affects everyone to some degree, but it also depends on your personality. “What you find stressful won’t necessarily be stressful for other parents,” says Lupien. “For example, you might be a ball of nerves the day your eldest starts preschool since you’re new to the situation, but it would be no big deal for the parents of four kids who have been through it all before.”

People who have a natural tendency to worry or overreact are more likely to experience stress,” adds Steve Audet, a social worker and psychotherapist at the Centre de consultation conjugale et familiale de Québec, a centre for marriage and family counselling in Quebec City. Moreover, studies show that individuals with anxiety or low selfesteem produce more stress hormones.

You’re also at greater risk of experiencing stress if you live in a disadvantaged area, have financial difficulties, or struggle to meet basic needs, such as providing your family with food and shelter.

Your outlook on life can also affect your stress levels.

Living in an isolated area or taking care of a child who has an illness, disability, learning impediment, or developmental disorder are yet further sources of stress. On the flip side, having support and a strong network can help keep stress at bay. That’s why it’s important for parents to seek support from friends and family, or from selfhelp groups and community organizations.

“Even online groups for parents can have a positive effect,” says Lupien. “When you have a newborn and aren’t getting any sleep, it’s comforting to get advice and encouragement from other parents. It makes you feel like you’re regaining control of the situation.”

Does lack of time equal stress?
Though many people blame stress on being short on time, they may be pinpointing the wrong issue. “It’s not a lack of time that causes stress but rather the feeling that you have no control over time,” explains Lupien. “Some people are extremely busy and constantly running around yet don’t feel the least bit stressed.”


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, November 2017
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Dr. Nicolas Chevrier, psychologist