Take breaks. Everyone needs breaks. Without them, it’s a quick road to burnout, especially as a parent. Yet, it can feel like breaks are an intangible luxury when you’re a parent. Breaks don’t have to be lavish or grand, they could be 2 quiet minutes spent in the bathroom, a walk in nature, or a warm bath. They could be moving your body or getting a big hug from someone you love.
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 Emma Loker.
Emma Loker is a mental health specialist from Healthy Minded. She is a practising trainee Child and Adolescent Psychotherapeutic Counsellor studying at the University of Cambridge and a professional psychology and mental health writer. She has extensive experience supporting children, adolescents, and parents with 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!
I’m originally from just outside of Cambridge in the UK. I grew up with my mum, dad, and two sisters. My family was under quite a lot of strain for a good few years when I was a child — my dad got diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, which meant my mum was the only one working. My dad had always been incredibly physically active, so this diagnosis hit his mental health pretty hard. With my mum working extra hard and my dad struggling, this led to a lot of stress for my parents. They split when I was around 14, and my mum, middle sister, and I moved in with my granny. My mum was still working hard and trying her best to manage her emotions after the separation, but there was still a lot of stress.
I was distracted at school and never really did my best, which led to OK grades, but nothing I was proud of. Everything changed for me when I went to university. I studied a BSc in Psychology, graduated with a 1st, and am now training to become a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapeutic Counsellor at the University of Cambridge. I’m also a Mental Health Specialist for Healthy Minded and a part-time writer, specialising in psychology, gardening, interior design, and real estate.
I believe it was my experiences as a child that led me to the path of helping others. Right now, I’m working with children and young people to help them understand and process their emotions using arts and play materials, but I’m hoping to go on to work with families in the future. I think there’s only so much change I can make while working with children alone — the parents need support, too.
What lessons would you share with yourself if you had the opportunity to meet your younger self?
If I could meet my younger self, I’d tell her not to sweat the small stuff. By the “small stuff,” I mean things you can’t change — there’s only so much that you can control in your life, and I tended to worry about everything, including the things I had no say over. Worrying about things out of my control took up a lot of my headspace and happiness when I was a child.
I’d also let myself know that my best is good enough. I was a perfectionist from an early age — if I couldn’t do something 100% perfectly, I didn’t want to participate for fear of looking weak. This stopped me from grabbing hold of so many opportunities when I was young. If I could have told myself that my best was good enough, I think I would have spent far less time fretting about not being perfect.
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?
Without a doubt, my mum is the person I’m grateful for. She showed me that she was proud of me and loved me whatever I did and wherever I ended up. I remember when my mum would come home from a full day of work and then cook dinner for all of us, and I’d go into the kitchen and talk to her all about my day — I can’t remember any of the things I used to speak to her about — just kid’s stuff. And she would always show interest in my day, even when she was exhausted and doing 5 things at once.
She’s still like that now. She always shows interest, demonstrates love, and makes time for me when I need her. She has helped me become who I am now.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think it might help people?
Right now, I’m focusing on finishing my postgraduate studies, as I’m on the home stretch before becoming a child and adolescent psychotherapeutic counsellor. I’m also continuing to create online content about positive parenting and mental health difficulties to inform people and give them tools to cope.
However, over the past few years, I’ve had an idea for a nature-inspired bullet journal and a reflective book for people looking to work as a psychotherapist or counsellor. I’m excited to gain some headspace once I finish my postgraduate studies and start exploring some of my own ideas alongside writing for others.
Ok, thank you for sharing your inspired life. Let’s now talk about stress. How would you define stress?
Stress is our bodily response to pressure or threat. When I say “threat,” I not only refer to real threats, such as being in an accident, I also include perceived threats — those anticipatory worries like “I hope I don’t mess up my words in my presentation tomorrow” or “What if my child is bullied?”
When we are under some form of pressure, our body releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which sets off the fight or flight response. This stress response triggers a range of physical symptoms, such as a quicker heart rate, increased blood pressure, pupil dilation, hyperawareness, fast breathing rate, and muscle tension. These physical changes help our body adapt to potentially dangerous situations.
Everyone feels stressed at various points in their life. For some people, stress will occur more frequently than for others. Stress can also feel different for everyone, and we all respond to it differently.
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?
The answer to this question lies in the type of threat causing us to feel stressed. Our ancestors experienced very real threats, such as whether or not they would find enough food or be attacked by a hungry animal. In this situation, it was threats right in front of them that set off their stress response.
However, nowadays, we live in safe villages, towns, and cities; we don’t have the same level of risk from predators and don’t have to fight for survival as we once did. Because of this, most of our worries are what you call “perceived” threats.
Our body reacts the same to each type of threat — whether real or perceived; it sets off our fight or flight reaction, which triggers the release of our stress hormones. While this bodily response was perfectly acceptable — and extremely useful — back when we were fighting for our survival, some serious issues arise when it’s in response to a perceived threat.
Perceived threats lie in the future, whereas real threats occur from a trigger in the present. I’ll use an example to illustrate my point. Say you are about to cross the road, you step out, and then you see a motorbike travelling at speed around the corner. This real threat will activate your stress response, and your body will (hopefully) move out of the way as your fight or flight response propels your body into action. However, a perceived threat could involve thinking, “what if I get hit by a motorbike on my way to work tomorrow?”
We are now stressed out for a larger proportion of the time because our brains can conjure up an infinite number of perceived threats. Whereas when we were only facing real threats, we were responding to the dangers in front of us. This also means that, nowadays, we can experience intense stress even when we’re comfortable and safe.
What are some of the physical manifestations of being under a lot of stress? How does the human body react to stress?
Stress affects every aspect of our physical being — our respiratory, nervous, musculoskeletal, endocrine, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and even reproductive systems.
The physical symptoms I mentioned in a previous question are some of the more obvious, well-known manifestations of stress. Others include feeling on edge, trembling, and losing control of your bladder. However, stress doesn’t just stimulate physical symptoms; it also represses certain bodily processes.
During the fight or flight response, your body does everything it can to optimise its survival. That means putting your blood pressure and heart rate into high gear to pump blood around the body so you can run away or fight. It also means placing processes that aren’t necessary for survival on the back burner — growth and reproductive hormone production, tissue repair, and digestion. Your body diverts energy from these processes and towards more “essential” survival processes. It also purposefully represses your pain response so that you can continue to fight or flee, even if you acquire an injury.
Is stress necessarily a bad thing? Can stress ever be good for us?
Stress, in small doses, is incredibly beneficial for us. For starters, it helps us react quickly to danger, which can keep us safe. This isn’t just helpful when it comes to threatening situations like accidents but also when we are at risk of illnesses. Moderate amounts of stress can trigger the release of certain cells relating to our immune system, which help kick our body’s natural immune response into gear, allowing us to fend off the most harmful effects of illnesses.
Small amounts of stress can also improve our general brain functioning, making us more alert and improving our overall behavioural and cognitive performance. We become better at learning — and more motivated — when we experience moderate stress levels.
The trouble comes when stress is chronic (long-lasting) rather than acute (short-lived).
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?
Experiencing ongoing stress can wreak havoc on your body. And this makes sense when we think about it — stress sends our bodies into overdrive.
The natural way our bodies respond to stress is: we experience pressure or a threat, activate our sympathetic nervous system, have a bodily response to stress, and then activate the parasympathetic nervous system to bring our bodies back to baseline — that’s when our heart rate and blood pressure decrease, our breathing rate returns to normal, our muscles relax, and we don’t feel quite so alert.
Let’s imagine if the latter part of this process doesn’t happen — if we continually perceive threats. Every threat will stimulate our fight-or-flight response. If we experience one danger after another in quick succession, our bodies won’t be able to return to baseline, as it can take around 20 minutes to calm down physiologically. This is what we know as an anxiety disorder.
As a result, our heart rate and blood pressure are constantly high, we’re hyper-alert to everything at all times, our breathing remains fast, and our muscles are continually in a state of tension. Staying in this state poses various risks to our health. For example, to pump enough blood around the body to fight or flee, our arteries and veins need to narrow, as this helps increase the speed at which blood can move through the body. Long-term blood vessel dilation may cause cardiovascular system disorders, such as heart disease, heart attacks, stroke, and high blood pressure.
The continual surge of stress hormones in your body can make it difficult to sleep, and the state of hyperawareness can cause concentration problems. You may also experience muscle tension and pain, as your muscles will constantly be constricting, and digestive problems due to the constant suppression of your digestive system.
Furthermore, chronic stress can impact our mental health, causing or worsening mood disorders like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, due to its impact on mood. It may also lead to personality changes, challenging behaviours, and cognitive difficulties.
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?
Gosh, where do I start? The demands are incredibly high for parents; children take all of your resources and still want more from you! The difficulties of trying to understand what a tiny human who can’t communicate with you wants is overwhelming and stressful. There’s also the drain on your finances, which can cause a lot of sleepless nights. And that’s without the additional stress that may come with not having much social support, being a single parent, or raising a child with a difficult temperament or medical illness.
I believe parenting can be particularly stressful for people who experienced poor caregiving when they were children — this goes back to John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory. Attachment is the initial emotional bond you share with your primary caregiver. Your early attachment bonds shape your views of yourself, others, and the world.
When your caregiver is responsive to your needs — feeds you when you’re hungry, changes you when you’re wet, soothes you when you cry — you’re likely to learn that you can depend on others. This kind of caregiving also leaves you with a positive internal dialogue, such as, “I’m good enough” and “I’m loveable.” When you receive this kind of care, you develop a secure attachment relationship with your caregiver.
However, when you don’t experience this pattern of caregiving — when your caregiver doesn’t consistently respond to your needs, for whatever reason, or if they are unsafe to be around — you will likely develop a different understanding of the world. This could be that people can’t be relied upon and that you’re on your own. We call this an insecure attachment style.
These early attachment experiences have a significant impact on our parenting. For one, insecure attachment can predispose people to stress and make them more likely to experience mental health symptoms, which can largely influence parenting. It may also affect a parent’s capacity to seek support.
Can you help spell out some of the problems that come with being a stressed parent?
For starters, being stressed as a parent can reduce your emotional wellbeing. While this may seem obvious, it’s important to name this one first, as most people focus on the potential ramifications for the child and almost disregard the parent’s experience.
Parents who experience high levels of stress tend to report more daily hassles, major life events, less life satisfaction, and a more negative mood. We may also be less likely to have a positive outlook on parenting when we’re experiencing chronic stress and experience less joy in our parenting role — this includes enjoying the time we spend with our children.
Being chronically stressed can also make us feel like less competent parents and less confident. All of these drawbacks of chronic stress can lead to mental health difficulties like anxiety and depression.
Being a stressed parent can impact our children, too. While we may try to hide our stress from our children, young children are far more perceptive than we think. So, often, they pick up on our stress, even if it’s only unconsciously, and this can impact their emotional wellbeing. Parents’ anxiety has been linked with children’s emotional problems, such as aggression, anxiety, depression, and behaviour issues.
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.
- Fill your cup too. When I say, “fill your cup,” I don’t mean take a day to engage in your hobbies — this would be unrealistic for most parents. Instead, I suggest doing the small things like taking a shower, drinking your morning coffee sitting down, slowing down and taking a pause in your day. These little changes can make a big difference to your wellbeing.
- Take breaks. Everyone needs breaks. Without them, it’s a quick road to burnout, especially as a parent. Yet, it can feel like breaks are an intangible luxury when you’re a parent. Breaks don’t have to be lavish or grand, they could be 2 quiet minutes spent in the bathroom, a walk in nature, or a warm bath. They could be moving your body or getting a big hug from someone you love.
- Practise mindfulness. Mindfulness is a stress-management technique most of us hear about a lot. There’s a good reason for this. Practising mindfulness — even if it’s just for a few minutes a day — can significantly reduce stress, including parental stress. Parents who practice mindfulness also typically see improvements in their wellbeing and self-compassion.
- Learn to say “no” Saying “no” to non-essential tasks is a way of managing your time, which ultimately helps you to manage your stress. Saying “no” doesn’t just give you more time to do what really matters. It also prevents you from overcommitting yourself, reducing stress and the risk of burnout.
- Tune into your body. Tuning into your body is a grounding activity that can help you acknowledge how you’re feeling and bring your mind to the present moment. Evidence shows that paying attention to your body’s sensations and having a greater sense of trust in your body can reduce anxiety and improve wellbeing.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have inspired you to live with more joy in life?
I really love positive parenting Instagram accounts. My favourite are @drhanaa.peacewithinhome, @gozenlove, @ourmamavillage, and @biglittlefeelings. While I’m not a parent, being a mother has always been one of my life dreams, and these Instagram accounts help me mentally prepare for that time in my life.
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. 🙂
I’d start a movement to obliterate mental health stigma if I could. I’d want this for everyone, but especially parents. Parental stress and other struggles aren’t normalised enough, leaving an enormous percentage of parents feeling alone. I’d love to break this stigma and give parents an open platform to talk about their difficulties — the good, the bad, and the supposedly “ugly.”
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
You can follow my work on the Healthy Minded website (https://healthyminded.co/), my LinkedIn profile (www.linkedin.com/in/emma-loker-986119160) or my website (https://www.emmaloker.com/).
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.