The 11th to 17th November is National Psychology Week and to coincide with that the Australian Psychological Society (APS) have released their 2012 Stress and Wellbeing survey. The news - for Mums - isn’t overly good, with women reporting significantly higher levels of stress and distress than men. With a startling 52 percent of women reporting stress related to the health and wellbeing of their family.
“I think that even in these days where family roles are changing between men and women, it still is mainly women who feel responsible for the emotional and physical welfare of their family and if they have children, for the raising of their children,” says Executive Director of the APS, Professor Lyn Littlefield. “Even if they are working long hours, they still feel that primary responsibility to ensure that things are done, that their family is healthy and well looked after and that everything goes right.”
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) the workforce participation of women has steadily increased over the past thirty years and currently around two-thirds of mothers with dependent children are in the workforce. Once children reach the age of ten, almost three-quarters of mothers are back at work. Double-income families create a greater financial security – albeit at a cost to family time. Even so, it seems amazing that in a country with a comparatively high standard of living, with an abundance of fresh and healthy food, with an excellent education system and free medical coverage, so many of us are still worried about the welfare of our children. Do we, perhaps, need a quick real-life tour through a third-world country?
Professor Littlefield suggests that our expectations could be partly to blame for our stress. “There are incredibly high expectations these days on how we will bring up our children and what we will do for them,” she explains. “There are also lots of messages, some of them quite confusing and conflicting, about how things should be done. As a result, anyone who is at all a conscientious mother is worried about whether she’s doing the right thing or not.”
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) children tend not to stick to the textbook examples of how they should behave. “Women will then worry that it’s their fault,” observes Professor Littlefield.
If you are one of the 52% of women who experiences family-related stress (see ‘Symptoms of Stress’ tip box, below) then there are a number of practical things you can do to help alleviate it.
Time to yourself. “Finding some time to relax, to get some exercise, to maybe listen to music or do something else that you find relaxing can ease your stress,” says Professor Littlefield. “It’s important to have time by yourself - away from work, away from children, to unwind.”
Social support. Just being able to talk can be a great outlet! “Having a family member or friends who genuinely care about you and who you really can talk to about how you feel is fantastic,’ says Professor Littlefield. Spending time with people who you care about – and who energise you – is an important way to manage stress.
Speak nicely to yourself. If we tend to use our second-best manners at home then it’s probably true that we save our absolute worst manners for ourselves! “From a psychological point of view we call it “self-talk”, says Professor Littlefield.
“Essentially it’s what you say about yourself in your head. The two extremes are, for example: “Oh gosh, this is dreadful, things are piling up, I can’t manage.” In other words, catastrophising things that are going on. Catastrophising things makes it much more difficult to cope with them, as opposed to saying something like: “I’ve had problems before, I’ve had stress before, I know I can manage. It will be over in a month’s time and in the meantime I can work out what the real problem is and work out steps to solve the problem in small steps.”
It’s not all bad …
Professor Littlefield emphasises that not all stress is bad. “A little bit of stress – positive stress - can energise and motivate you and can propel you to do things that you otherwise might not do,” she explains. “But once it gets to the point of overload and you start to get physical symptoms such as headaches, insomnia or nausea or mental health symptoms such as anxiety or depression, that’s when it has become negative stress and is having an impact on your mental and physical health.”
When to seek help?
While we all feel a bit stressed form time to time, constant ongoing symptoms shouldn’t be ignored. “If your physical and mental symptoms are becoming chronic then don’t let it go on – you should seek help,” encourages Professor Littlefield. “Truly, most stress is quite easy to deal with once you have learnt coping skills. Psychologists can teach you the types of strategies and skills that will enable you to turn the whole situation around.