Stress can be defined as anything that places an added demand on your emotions and/or body. In today’s fast-paced world, stress is everywhere on every day at most every turn. There are stressors in good events in your life such as a job promotion, new home, and the arrival of a much-wanted child. Likewise, there are stressors in the more negative events in your life such as a death in the family, infertility, a miscarriage, failed adoption, or the loss of a much-needed job.
This extra demand, known as stress, can be manifested as physical symptoms, thoughts/feelings, as well as behaviors. In regard to physical symptoms, many of these biological reactions are a response to the age-old “fight or flight” reaction. The body has been well-equipped to respond to stressful events that can assist the person in fighting the stress or fleeing from the stress. For example, a caveman faced with the sight of a saber tooth tiger was clearly in a stressful setting. The caveman had two options: 1) he could fight or 2) he could take flight to run. In either circumstance, his body’s reaction to the stress would kick into high gear in order to help him in this stressful setting. While no longer faced with the sight of a saber tooth tiger, human beings continue to be faced with stressors that demand attention on our body and psyches to “fight or take flight.” Upon feeling stressed, our body beings to feel a rush, sweating, and a pounding heart, thus allowing our adrenaline to help with our choice to fight or take flight. Likewise, our muscles tighten to take action; our blood pressure rushes; and blood flows away from our digestive systen in order to flow to areas that may need it more.
Along with the biological symptoms, which can manifest in the body, certain thoughts and feelings often surface with stress. Irritability, anxiety, anger, cynicism, and panic are a few examples of these feelings. If the stress continues over a period of time, a person may exhibit hopelessness, confusion, resentment, and apathy. Difficulty in concentrating, as well as hostility, are not uncommon feelings. Prolonged stress can obviously lead to depression and thoughts of suicide.
When stress is demonstrated through our overt behaviors, it may be the first time outsiders are aware that their mate, friend, or coworker is suffering from stress. Mild stress can be seen in behaviors such as a loss of appetite, sarcasm, crying, and/or over-eating. Becoming more accident-prone and not taking care of your personal needs are also behaviors that occur when stress increases. Again, prolonged stress will manifest in more extreme behaviors such as drug use, aggressive or violent behaviors and the possibility of suicide.
There is now a well-recognized stress scale developed by Holmes and Rahe that assigns points to certain events in a person’s life that can be deemed as stressful. Each stress event has a numerical rating, with events like the death of a spouse and divorce earning the highest rankings. According to this well-known stress scale, a score of over 300 points in a one year period can result in an 80% chance of a stress-related illness.
While no one is immune to the effects of stress, it seems that adoptive and foster families may have their undue share of stressors. In an article that I wrote in 1995, I coined the phrase Post Adoption Depression Syndrome, PADS. PADS had its roots in the infertility process and progressed with some adoptive families after the adoption of a child into feelings of sadness and even clinical depression. I can also see this type of PADS reaction in families that have adopted special needs children and/or children from other countries. Needless to say, foster parents also can suffer from these same symptoms upon the arrival of a foster child into their home.
It seems that the infertility process actually sets families up for a windfall of stressors that are ongoing for each month that infertility treatment is underway. Stressors such as the death of a family member, (i.e.…your long-hoped for child), coupled with personal illness, change in a health status due to infertility drugs and/or invasive medical procedures, sexual difficulties, changes in the number of arguments with a spouse, revision of personal habits, and financial obligations placed couples at the 300 point level within one month of infertility treatment. What seems remarkable is that many couples will undergo this high level of stress and can be ready to embark upon a new round of the same stressors with the onset of the next menstrual cycle. Month after month, the stressors would inevitably their toll.
Many families would feel relief from the familiar stresses of infertility after the adoption of a child for the first month of so. Often, around the second month after an adoption, a sense of renewed stress and even depression would occur. Again, a review of the Holmes Rahe Scale would reveal that added stressors such as changes in sleeping and eating habits, added family get-togethers, gaining a new family member, and the inevitable changes in work, recreation, and social activities place a new adoptive family at the epi-center of a stress quake. Most new adoptive families, whether adopting domestically or internationally, have also experienced a change in their financial state due to the rising costs of adoptions. Families who adopt special needs children or foster special needs child are also subject to these stresses due to even more unique changes in their daily routine, financial condition, living conditions, and the added responsibility to meet a variety of needs for children from very diverse backgrounds that can include abuse, neglect, loss and abandonment.
For adoptive parents and foster parents to recognize that added stresses that are in their life is the first step to dealing effectively with them. In counseling, we remind new parents that taking care of themselves IN TAKING care of their new charges. I often suggest that they keep a copy of this stress scale handy so quick and ready reference. I also suggest that they keep a stress journal for a week to see what behaviors or settings actually trigger their stress buttons the most. By identifying their own stress buttons, the adoptive and foster parents can begin to develop strategies that keep them from manifesting their stress in unhealthy ways.
Coping strategies can be divided into several different categories, which include physical strategies, lifestyle strategies, organizational strategies, and interpersonal strategies. It is of interest to note that the first sign within the body is a biological reaction to stress. The biological reaction may be in effect before the individual even knows that the stress is affecting them on other levels. Like wise, the first coping response to stress that can decrease the symptoms is also a biological one….DEEP BREATHING. Scientists have ascertained that deep breathing is a positive and deliberate way to decrease physical symptoms while they are happening. Afterall if deep breathing can lessen labor pains, a volcano on the stress mete, it should be able to lessen everyday stress. Imagery and muscle relation are also suggestions that fall not the physical strategies for lessening stress. Physical imagery often includes creating a sanctuary when the mind can go that is safe and stress free. Images of an isolated beach, mountain, or sunset scene are common images that people use to take a “mini-vacation” from stress. Muscles relation can be couple with the deep breathing and imagery to “let go” of the stress. Start at the top of the head and progressively head down the body relaxing the muscles. Clearly, these techniques are simplistic and are on the spot stagies when the stressed feeling is approaching.
Being proactive about your body and the effects of stress can also decrease its effects. Good nutrition can assist your body in fighting the devastating toll that stress can take. Keys in the nutrition battle again stresses are to decrease your intake of salt, caffeine, and foods high in fat and cholesterol. An increase in the intake of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains also seem to arm the body for physical symptoms that a stress can cause.
While these first two strategies focus on reducing the effects of stress once they happen, lifestyle and organizational strategies can reduce the likelihood and or the severity of the stress occurring. Lifestyle and organizational strategies focus on giving yourself the most stress reduced environment possible in today’s rushes and demanding world. In researching ways to make an environment less stress, several findings surface again and again. The elimination of noise is a major issue in reducing stress. As any teacher will tell you, the best way to calm a noisy talkative class is to soften your own voice to the barley audible level. Keeping things on the “quiet side” at home. Set a volume levels on the television and radio that is acceptable in your home. Just as pep music revs our psyche up, classical music calms the angry stress beast. Many school and homes are now piping classical music in the background for a calming effect. Aromatherapy is also a way to reduce stress. Cotton balls filled with lavender in the home and car, use our olfactory senses to call the body. Aromatherapy candles and light rings are also good alternatives. Fresh flowers are another stress reducer in a home. Ever wonder why flowers are the age-old gift to a hospital patient? Research tells use that fresh flowers have a healing effect on the mind and body. Likewise, pillows and cushions have a calming effect on people while in your home.
Organizational strategies are essential to reduce stress for a busy family that may be meeting the needs of a new baby or the needs of six children with various schedules, needs, and demands. A large hang-up erasable weekly wall calendar is visually helpful to all members of the family to schedule the week’s events. Each Friday, the week’s events for Monday – Sunday of the nest week are arranged. This two-day lead-time gives parents and children time to adjust schedules if needs and reroute if needed. It also allows children the chance to participate in an organizational activity. Day timers for the adults in the household are another key to organization that can eliminate stress. The daytimer is scheduled fin different ways, according to what is know at the time. I always put standing dates in the daytimer when I purchase a new one in December. This forward thinking can include birth dates, anniversaries, standing bills, and the known standing schedules such as lessons, sports games for the upcoming season, and other “known commodities.” At the beginning of each semester, I put in all of the new dates that are known at that time. Then I use the daytimer each day to add to the schedule and make a weekly wall calendar from my own personal day timer. Pre Printer lists for chores, groceries, and other household needs are also helpful. A pre-printed grocery list hangs on my refrigerator. The children may add needs and “want” to that grocery list through the week. The final call for additions is on Saturday morning. Hopefully, the grocery list is completed and frantic trips to the store are eliminated. There are many computer programs that can help you pre-print and customize lists for your family that can take a burden off of you and eliminate your stress simply by becoming more organized. Learning to use slow cookers, crock pots, and double meals to work and stress on an overcrowded day is not only wise, but stress saving. The use of “dead time” is also a way to organize the family. We use the carpooling from school to home and/or waiting time to go over spelling words, read a story out loud, or to complete rote work that can be accomplished in the car. Establishing routines, places for needed items, and sharing responsibility are ways to help your and your children become more organized and less stressed.
No matter how well you plan for stress, there are going to be times and setting that stress is inevitable.
The first thing that anyone can develop is a strong support system to help in a crisis. We are social beings and need other human being. Our support systems can be helpful in a time of crisis to drive a carpool, watch a child, or simply listen to you vent a moment. Support systems can be based on mutual assistance needs like babysitting or carpooling. Support systems can also be based on mutual circumstances like an adoption support group of a foster care support group. Seasoned veteran in these groups can share ideas, give emotional support, and suggestions for outside resources that can help with a situation. More imitate support groups can be a small group of friends that can share our darkest secrets and greatest joys. A few close family members and/or friends who can allow us to be vulnerable can also give us perspective on our life.
Last of all develop a sense of humor. Stress is a normal part of our life. But infertility, adoption, and foster parenting can add stress that may be unexpected. Plan for stress. Use life styles that eliminate avoidable stress. Develop your own personal immediate and physiological methods that help you cut stress as it is happening. But above all, keep a sense of perspective and a sense of humor about some of life greatest moments……the road to and from parenting children.