Mothers are the world's best jugglers: family, work, money — they seem to do it all. However, all that responsibility can often leave moms feeling overstretched and stressed out. According to an APA 2010 survey, women are more likely to report physical and emotional symptoms of stress than men, such as having had a headache (41 percent versus 30 percent), having felt as though they could cry (44 percent versus 15 percent), or having had an upset stomach or indigestion (32 percent versus 21 percent) in the past month. The same survey also reported that women are more likely than men to report that they eat as a way of managing stress (31 percent versus 21 percent).
With Mother's Day fast approaching, it's a good time for moms and their families to recognize the importance of addressing stress and managing it in healthy ways.
"How a mother manages stress is often a model for the rest of the family," says APA psychologist Lynn Bufka, PhD. "Other family members will imitate her unhealthy behavior."
In particular, married women in the APA survey reported higher levels of stress than single women, with one-third (33 percent) reporting that they have experienced a great deal of stress in the past month (8, 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale) compared with one in five (22 percent) of single women. Similarly, significantly more married women report that their stress has increased over the past five years (56 percent versus 41 percent of single women). And, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, 80 percent of family health care decisions are made by women, which saddles mothers with the added role of family health manager.
"It's particularly stressful to be the health care decision maker for yourself, your children and possibly aging parents," says Bufka. "People who handle stress in unhealthy ways may alleviate symptoms of stress in the short term, but end up creating significant health problems over time, and, ironically, more stress."
APA offers these strategies to help mothers manage stress:
Understand how you experience stress — Everyone experiences stress differently. How do you know when you are stressed? How are your thoughts or behaviors different from times when you do not feel stressed?
Identify stressors — What events or situations trigger stressful feelings? Are they related to your children, family health, financial decisions, work, relationships or something else?
Recognize how you deal with stress — Determine if you are using unhealthy behaviors to cope with the stress of motherhood. Is this a routine behavior, or is it specific to certain events or situations? Do you make unhealthy choices as a result of feeling rushed and overwhelmed, such as stopping for fast food while running errands or picking up your kids? Put things in perspective — make time for what's really important. Prioritize and delegate responsibilities. Identify ways your family and friends can lessen your load so that you can take a break. Delay or say no to less important tasks.
Find healthy ways to manage stress — Consider healthy, stress-reducing activities — taking a short walk, exercising or talking things out with friends or family. Keep in mind that unhealthy behaviors develop over time and can be difficult to change. Don't take on too much at once. Focus on changing only one behavior at a time.
Ask for professional support — Accepting help from supportive friends and family can improve your ability to persevere during stressful times. If you continue to feel overwhelmed by stress, you may want to talk to a psychologist who can help you manage stress and change unhealthy behaviors.
"Mothers often put their family needs first and neglect their own," says Bufka. "It's okay to relax your standards — don't put a lot of pressure on yourself to have the 'perfect' house or be the 'perfect' mother. No one expects you to be Superwoman."