Figure out what exactly is causing you stress. The first strategy that I recommend is quite simple, but many of us fail to do it. When you’re feeling stressed, understanding exactly what is causing or contributing to it is difficult because your brain and body are on overload. Try to take a few moments to yourself to reflect on what exactly is causing you to feel stressed. Is your toddler’s defiance frustrating you? Are you overwhelmed with getting everyone ready for school in the morning? Do you feel like your partner isn’t pulling their weight?
With all that’s going on in our country, our economy, the world, and on social media, it feels like so many of us are under a great deal of stress. Parenting, in particular, can be stress-inducing. We know chronic stress can be as unhealthy as smoking a quarter of a pack a day. It is also challenging to be a present parent when your relationship is under stress. What are stress management strategies that parents use to become “Stress-Proof? What are some great tweaks, hacks, and tips that help reduce or even eliminate stress? In this interview series, we are talking to authors, parenting experts, business and civic leaders, and mental health experts who can share their strategies for reducing or eliminating stress. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Emily Guarnotta.
Dr. Emily Guarnotta is a licensed psychologist specializing in perinatal mental health disorders and helping parents adjust to parenthood. She is the owner of The Mindful Mommy LLC, an online therapy practice specializing in parent’s mental health. Dr. Guarnotta also writes and contributes to a variety of websites on the topics of parenting, stress, and mental health.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to know how you got from “there to here.” Inspire us with your backstory!
When I first started out as a psychologist I was told that eventually I would have to narrow down my area of expertise. This felt like an overwhelming task because there were so many areas of psychology that I was passionate about! Someone told me not to rush the process — that eventually I would find my calling. When I became a mother myself I found the transition extremely overwhelming. Because I was a psychologist, I felt like I should instinctively be able to handle it all. I found myself being quiet about my struggle and too ashamed to admit that I needed help. That’s when it clicked. If I was feeling this way, then other new parents must be as well. In that moment I knew that I wanted to help other parents who were having a difficult time managing the adjustment to parenthood. Since then, I’ve become a certified perinatal mental health provider and established an online therapy practice specifically for parents experiencing prenatal and postpartum anxiety and depression and other reproductive challenges, like infertility and miscarriage.
What lessons would you share with yourself if you had the opportunity to meet your younger self?
If I met my younger self I’d let her know that it’s okay to let the perfectionism go. Like many other people today, I tend to be very Type A and focused on getting as much done as I can as perfectly as I can. But there’s a fine line because this can lead to unrealistic expectations and burnout. I’d love to meet the younger version of me and let her know that the world won’t stop if she doesn’t do everything perfectly. I’d also talk to her about enjoying the journey rather than staying so focused on the outcome. It sounds so cliché, but we really only have this moment and if we’re constantly trying to achieve something then we’re robbing ourselves of so much joy.
None of us are able to experience success without support along the way. Is there a particular person for whom you are grateful because of the support they gave you to grow you from “there to here?” Can you share that story and why you are grateful for them?
There are so many people that have inspired me throughout my journey that it’s hard to pick just one! I’ve learned so much from teachers, mentors, and supervisors throughout the years. The best ones have taught me that it’s okay to be myself and evolve into my role as a psychologist, rather than change who I am as a person. I’ve also learned so much from my past and present clients. They’ve taught me more than they will ever know about the strength that comes from vulnerability. I feel so grateful to have had so many of them open up and share their lives with me and allow me to help guide them through some very challenging experiences.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think it might help people?
I’m currently in the process of expanding my online therapy practice, The Mindful Mommy, LLC. We provide group and individual therapy to parents experiencing anxiety, depression, and stress. We also treat people experiencing infertility and those who have experienced a pregnancy or infant loss. We provide services to clients living in New York, South Carolina, and Florida.
Ok, thank you for sharing your inspired life. Let’s now talk about stress. How would you define stress?
Stress is a feeling that we get when we encounter a situation that challenges us in some way. It can involve physical and emotional tension and emotions like frustration, anger, overwhelm, and nervousness.
In the Western world, humans typically have their shelter, food, and survival needs met. So what has led to this chronic stress? Why are so many of us always stressed out?
For most of us, our basic survival needs for food, water, and shelter are met. These are not typically a source of stress in today’s world, though they can be. What causes most of us stress these days are what I call “human created problems.” Some of these are real problems and some of them are created in our minds. For example, if your boss says they want to speak to you, you might find yourself assuming that it’s something bad. You might come up with a whole story about what the meeting is going to be about. You might imagine him yelling at you and firing you, and then you imagine not being able to feed your family. You create this entire made-up story built purely on assumptions that you’ve created. Then you meet with him and find out it was really about nothing. That whole story that you created was false, but the stress that you felt when you constructed that story had a very real impact on you. In my work as a psychologist, I see a lot of stress coming from these stories that we make up about what other people are thinking or going to do or what’s going to happen, without any real proof for any of it. The human brain allows us to do so many amazing things, but creating negative stories built on assumptions is, in my opinion, one of the worst ways we can use our brains.
What are some of the physical manifestations of being under a lot of stress? How does the human body react to stress?
The human body reacts to stress by releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which affect nearly every organ in the body. Adrenaline increases your blood pressure, heart rate, and energy and cortisol increases glucose. These processes help your body to fight off stressors. Once the stressor has passed, hormone levels should decrease and your organs should resume normal functioning. However, when a person is faced with chronic stress, hormone levels fail to go back to normal levels. This is linked to health problems like digestive issues, weight gain, high blood pressure, aches and pains, sleeping problems, anxiety and depression, and cognitive issues. There is also an increased risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Is stress necessarily a bad thing? Can stress ever be good for us?
Stress is not all bad. When we face a stressor, stress can help mobilize us to deal with the situation and find a solution. We’ve all heard about the parent who is able to lift a car off of their child. It can also help in ordinary daily life. For example, when you have a tight deadline at work, stress can make you anxious enough that you find a way to prioritize the task and get in done in time. In these instances, stress is helpful and productive.
Is there a difference between being in a short-term stressful situation versus an ongoing stress? Are there long-term ramifications to living in a constant state of stress?
In the world of psychology we talk about two kinds of stressors: acute or “short-term” stresses and chronic or ongoing stresses. An example of an acute stress would be a deadline, traffic, or an argument with another person. These are temporary stresses that eventually go away within a few hours or days. Chronic stressors, on the other hand, last for extended periods of time. Examples include being in an abusive relationship, experiencing ongoing financial problems, or a global pandemic. Our bodies are designed to respond well to acute stress, but chronic stress puts us at risk for emotional and physical health problems like anxiety and depression, migraines, diabetes, heart problems, obesity, and certain autoimmune disorders, just to name a few.
Let’s now focus more on the stress of parenting. This feels intuitive, but it is helpful to spell it out in order to address it. Can you help articulate why being a parent can be so stressful?
Parenting is stressful for many different reasons. It is a 24/7 job with no vacations. You need to be “on” all the time, even while you’re sleeping. Plus there is the mental load that comes with it. Parents need to remember so many different things. We also call this the “invisible load” of parenting, since other people can’t see it. As a parent, you’re mentally keeping track of your child’s eating and sleeping patterns, doctor’s appointments, whether they brushed their teeth and took a bath today, did their homework, and how much television they watched. Then there are situations as parents that we face that are especially stressful, like if your child gets ill, injured, or struggles in school. Having children can also put greater demands on your finances and relationships, especially the relationship with one’s partner. All of these factors and more can impact a parent’s experience of stress.
Can you help spell out some of the problems that come with being a stressed parent?
Being stressed as a parent is inevitable. Even the most Zen of us find ourselves stressed at some points in time. But being chronically stressed can make it hard to enjoy the satisfying aspects of parenting. If we are constantly under stress, we’re less likely to get on the floor and play with our children and give them our undivided attention. Our physical and emotional health also suffers when we are under chronic stress.
Here is the main question of our interview: Can you share with our readers your “5 stress management strategies that parents can use to remove some of the stress of parenting?” Please share a story or example for each.
- Figure out what exactly is causing you stress. The first strategy that I recommend is quite simple, but many of us fail to do it. When you’re feeling stressed, understanding exactly what is causing or contributing to it is difficult because your brain and body are on overload. Try to take a few moments to yourself to reflect on what exactly is causing you to feel stressed. Is your toddler’s defiance frustrating you? Are you overwhelmed with getting everyone ready for school in the morning? Do you feel like your partner isn’t pulling their weight? When you’re clear about the causes of your stress you can move on to number two.
- Ask yourself “what can I do about it?” This also sounds very simple, but you’d be surprised how easy it is for people to get stuck on the feeling of stress and unable to think about what they can do to improve their feelings. For example, take a situation that is incredibly stressful for all parents: when your teen first starts driving. This milestone requires you to let go of control and trust in your teen to take everything you taught them and make good decisions. Stress is normal and healthy in this instance, but ruminating over the countless dangers that could happen will only make you feel bad. Instead ask yourself what you can do or what is within your control. Jot it down if it helps. You could make your child take an additional defensive driving class. You could talk to them about the dangers of texting and driving. You could make sure they have a safe vehicle. Once you have your list, put it into practice. Every time you feel stressed, remind yourself that you are doing all that you can do to help the situation. Beyond that, you have little to no control.
- Notice your faulty thinking. I find in my work as a psychologist with parents that negative thinking patterns are often to blame for stress. Specifically, I find that many parents struggle with catastrophic thinking, which is a cognitive distortion where people assume the worst-case outcomes. For example, you avoid taking your child to the park because of fear that they fall and break a bone. This leads to isolation, which makes you all feel more lonely and sad. Making assumptions is another common cognitive distortion. The key is to catch yourself when you are thinking this way and make an active effort to be more rational. Could your child fall off the playground and get hurt? Sure, but the chances are very slim and the positive benefits of getting outside, being active, and socializing with other children far outweigh the potential risks. This is an example of thinking rationally.
- Be aware of what you consume. When we hear the word consume we usually think of eating, but in actuality there are so many things that we consume in a day. What you read, listen to, watch, and look at all impacts you. If the first thing you do in the morning is jump on social media or read the news, then your first emotion of the day may be something like fear or anxiety. If you think you might be consuming too much negative content, try to cut back or replace some it with more positive and empowering content. Turning off social media notifications and taking the news off your phone are some simple ways to reduce your negative consumption.
- Do one mindfulness activity or practice each day. The research on mindfulness and meditation for stress, anxiety, depression, and overall wellbeing can’t be ignored. I urge every parent, regardless of stress level, to find one mindfulness or meditation activity or practice to do each day. It could be 15 minutes of formal meditation, a mindful walk, or just sitting and eating a meal mindfully without devices. Many people feel like they can’t meditate because their thoughts are too persistent. The truth is if you try to do any activity mindfully you will have thoughts pop up. As long as you are noticing this and redirecting yourself back to the activity, then you are being mindful. Over time, you will get better at doing this outside of your practice, like when your child is pushing your buttons or you’re feeling overwhelmed with the endless to-do list.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have inspired you to live with more joy in life?
Karen Kleiman has many fantastic books on postpartum mental health that I often recommend to my clients who are early in their parenting journey and struggling with feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed. “This isn’t what I expected: Overcoming postpartum depression” is a classic. I also recommend Daniel Siegel’s books on parenting, including “The whole brain child” to help parents understand what is happening in their children’s brains and how to support their development. “How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk” by Adele Feber and Elaine Mazlish is also a wonderful resource on how to communicate more effectively with your children and enhance cooperation.
I also recommend that my clients find something for themselves, like a hobby, that they can escape to. It’s so important to find a way to do things that you enjoy and that make you feel whole. It can be incredibly challenging to find the time as a parent, but even just doing some exercise or reading a book while your child naps can be helpful. Try to be creative and find ways to make time and space to feel like yourself.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I could start any movement it would involve creating a more collectivist approach to supporting parents in our society. Other cultures support parents much better than we do in the United States. For example, in Latin American cultures they practice “cuarentena,” where new mothers are encouraged to rest and stay home for the first few months after giving birth. Family, friends, and community members help with meals and housework so the mother can recover and bond with her baby. In the United States, we don’t have any rituals in place for new parents. Sometimes family and friends will stop by to meet the baby, but in my experience this is more about the baby than supporting the parents. I’ve even heard parents take on the role of “host” during these visits by preparing food for their guests. The whole thing is a bit backward! Instead, I’d like to see a movement toward providing meals, assistance with errands and housework, and check ins to see how the parents and new baby are doing.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.