Can’t cope? Won’t cope? Tackling summer stress

Gaps in childcare, the guilt of being an absent parent and an unforgiving boss are the perfect ingredients for making the summer holidays a huge source of stress for working mums that are faced with doing it all; talked to the experts on how to deal with rising heart rates and conflicting demands.

Gaps in childcare, the guilt of being an absent parent and an unforgiving boss are the perfect ingredients for making the summer holidays a huge source of stress for working mums that are faced with doing it all; talked to the experts on how to deal with rising heart rates and conflicting demands.
Many working parents are faced with being ever more creative over the long summer holidays to ensure that salary isn’t entirely expended on childcare. But keeping costs to a minimum and juggling the children, perhaps between friends and families, can cause a lot of stress – not only in terms of the guilt that many parents may feel by shunting their children from carer to carer but also in terms of trying to do it all – be a good employee and a good parent. Neil Shah, Director of the Stress Management Society, says the first thing to note is to recognise when you are getting stressed.
The signs:
“Stress usually starts with a physical response; our heart rate starts to get faster whilst our blood sugar and blood pressure rises. We can’t think clearly, our muscles tense up and we may start to grit our teeth. It’s generally a feeling of being ‘pumped up’,” says Neil.
When we get stressed,  the hormone cortisol is secreted at higher levels during the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response. This is the body’s response to perceived threat or danger. During this reaction, cortisol together with other hormones like adrenalin is released, giving the body a burst of energy and strength. The response was originally named for its ability to enable us to physically fight or run away when faced with danger,. It’s now activated in situations, however, where neither response is appropriate, like during a stressful day at work or when we are dealing with the dual demands of childcare and work. When the perceived threat is gone, systems are designed to return to normal function via the relaxation response, but in our times of chronic stress, this often doesn’t happen enough, causing damage to the body.
Short-term stress:
When we talk about short-term stress we usually mean very short periods of time, so if we see our child about to fall down some steps we may be stressed for the period it takes to run to the top and rescue them. Working mums may, however, feel stressed during the length of the summer holidays and the problem is that our bodies aren’t designed to cope with stress over that period of time.
“If you ask a 100 metre sprinter to run a marathon they won’t be able to stay the course,” says Neil. So why should working mums? Neil points out that the downside of all this stress is the side effects. “There are several side effects to be wary of such as damage to our immune system, the impact on our higher brain function, and our sexual function,” says Neil. ”In all these cases our ability will either diminish or shut down entirely.” What happens in the next stage is that we lay ourselves open to a whole host of other problems so if our immune system is weakened we may be susceptible to irritable bowl syndrome and/or Crohn’s Disease for example.
Coping with conflicting demands:
Being aware of stress and its impact on the body, doesn’t however, save us from falling into its trap and, says Neil, when we are stressed our ability to deal with the source of stress is often weakened. “When we are stressed our ability to problem-solve diminishes and it becomes difficult to find solutions to the problem,” he says. 
Having some ‘me-time’ is a desire for most working mums but more often than not it is buried under the ‘to do list’ but Neil insists it is vital to the wellbeing not only of mums but the entire family. “If you’re on a plane and the oxygen mask comes down, what do they tell you to do – they say you must put the mask on yourself before assisting the child because if you can’t breathe then you can’t help your children. It’s the same with looking after yourself. If you want to give 100% to your family then you need to look after yourself and that means building in some time for you every day.”
Lynn Copp, managing director of the Worklife Company suggests that you can glean some time by using your female network. “ One of the most important things is your female network,” she says. ”Trade time with friends and family. Also, do job swaps – one does the ironing whilst another takes the kids swimming – even ironing becomes desirable when you can have quiet time without the children!”
Lynn says that we must recognise that the lion’s share of care for children continues to fall into women’s laps during the summer holidays and she says that women shouldn’t be scared to ask for time themselves over the holidays.  And for full-time working mums she says: “For those mums in full time work, why not request compressed working weeks or trade time for an increase in time later in the year? John Lewis does this with parents as they would prefer to have longer hours during the busy Christmas period than in the summer.”
Other stress busters:
Helping ourselves also includes eating a healthy diet, low in processed foods, without too much salt, sugar, alcohol and caffeine.
Getting enough and good quality sleep is also vital. Neil says: “Many mums lavish this amazing bed time routine on their children, perhaps with a bath, a warm drink, a song or a book but when it comes to themselves they don’t warrant the same care and attention.” Neil says we should and suggests that we all build in time at the end of the day to wind down before we get into bed.
Another great stress buster is learning to say ‘no’. Taking on too much just adds to further stress. Learning to prioritise will help you sort out what you can realistically achieve and what is important to you and your family to get done or what you’d like to do.
Finally, learn to laugh. Laughter can improve our mood and also relieves stress and improves our immune system. Learn to put things into perspective, if the washing isn’t done, or you haven’t written that thank you note or sent that email  – it can wait and the world won’t stop.
Wishing you relaxation and a stress less summer holidays.

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