Pamela Cerrie often thinks back on the last parenting class she took before her son, Joseph Jr., was born 14 months ago. The speaker was a college professor studying new mothers, and instead of a chipper pep talk, the professor warned that being a new mom wasn't always fun, and that it could be exhausting and overwhelming.
"I thought, 'This awful woman! How could she say that about having a baby! It's wonderful and I'm looking forward to every second,'" laughs Cerrie, 29, of Fredonia, New York. "Now I'm glad she prepared me for some of the hardships of motherhood. I think as a society we don't prepare women enough."
The happiest event of a parent's life is difficult? You bet, says Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, M.D., medical director for The National Center for Children and Families, in Bethesda, Maryland. "It's normal to feel overwhelmed even about something as positive as a new baby," says Dr. Dryden-Edwards, who's also a family psychiatrist. "Stress is a reaction, a physiological and emotional adjustment to change."
Stress, as we know it, occurs when an event triggers our body's "fight or flight" response, causing symptoms such as elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, quickened breathing, and muscle tension. Major trauma, like a death in the family, can produce stress, but so can an inflated credit card bill, the prospect of giving a work presentation, or a life-change like having a baby.
These reflexes evolved long ago when a baby's cry in the night meant Mom might need to fend off a pack of wolves, not just stumble to the glider chair to nurse. Our bodies are constantly preparing us for action. If we don't find a way to control or release that tension (how many wolf packs have you fought off lately?), it can take a psychological and physical toll.
Stress has been implicated as a risk factor in health problems ranging from headaches and insomnia to high blood pressure and cardiac diseases. New mothers are especially vulnerable because they're already undergoing major physiological changes related to weight gain and loss, fluctuating hormone levels, and sleep deprivation. "You will live longer and be healthier if you learn to manage your stress," says Dr. Dryden-Edwards. You'll also be a more effective parent, experts say. "Mothers who are really overwhelmed may have difficulty sleeping, making decisions, and just maintaining daily activities," says Nancy Murray, a lactation consultant and a nurse clinician with Duke Children's Primary Care, in Durham, North Carolina, who works with new moms under stress. "These moms may find it harder to read babies' cues that they're tired, hungry, or need to be held. In turn, babies may become more fussy, mothers feel more anxious, and it gets to be a vicious cycle."
As a new parent, it's not realistic to think you can eliminate stress completely from your life, but you can and should minimize it. Recent research published by the American Psychological Association analyzed 293 studies and found short-term stress "revved up" the immune system and actually had a positive health effect, while chronic or long-term stress caused wear and tear and left subjects vulnerable to illness.
BabyTalk interviewed experts in psychology and parenting as well as veteran moms for the best advice on how to reduce your daily pressures. Here are the three most common stress "hot spots" and strategies for cooling them down.