Stress and the family unit

Updated: Jul 8

AUTHOR: Lee Reicheneder

Stress can be something very real and challenging for any family unit, regardless of whether you are planning a baby, expecting a baby, or even if you have already raised your now-adult children. Often these stressors can lead to other stressors or difficulties within the family unit. Therefore, it is incredibly important to look at underlying issues and ways in which to minimize stressors and/or the impact of those stressors. While medical consultations, specialists, tests, medications, and even certain procedures can assist some people in managing their physical and mental health this only makes up a very small percentage of management; the remaining percentage is what we can do for ourselves as individuals and as a family unit. This post aims to explore these factors and to provide readers with different strategies or skill sets to support their individual and family well-being.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates more than 300 million people are affected by depression globally and it is estimated around 1 in 13 people globally are affected by anxiety. Furthermore, 800 thousand people globally are estimated by WHO to take their own lives each year as a result of these mental health issues. In fact, a 2006 study (Mathers CD & Loncar, D.) found that depression was likely to be within the top 3 greatest burdens of disease by the year 2030. In addition, rates of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from a pregnancy or birth experience has now become so common that it is now accepted that childbirth may lead to PTSD and according to Oates (2013) the leading cause of maternal deaths in the developed world is not medical complications of childbirth or postpartum – it is suicide. Therefore, it is more important than ever to be aware as a society of the ways we can identify potential signs along with ways in which we can support ourselves and our family members or friends through what may be harsh, unfamiliar waters.

Fight or Flight mode is something that has affected many throughout history – in fact, this mode has assisted many of our ancestors to escape what may have been a life or death situations. This is because hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released from the endocrine system when the body deems there is a risk and that action must be taken (fight – or – run/escape which we commonly refer to as flight). These hormones assist the body to initiate responses such as fast heart rate, energy boost, tense muscles, blood thickens to reduce bleeding if an injury occurs, etc. However, when these hormones are initiated as a result of unnecessary or on-going stress levels, they increase the risk of a variety of health concerns and of course can contribute to family breakdowns, mental health struggles, and even suicide risks. During childbirth stress and hormones can negatively impact the way birth is experienced from pain levels to the duration of labor and overall birth experience which is why a calm and supportive environment with respectful care providers is crucial.

What are the first signs of stress and potential mental health struggles?

•Memories of events interfere with sleep and intrude daytime thoughts •Nightmares or sleep disturbances •Flashbacks or disassociation •Avoiding activities or places (especially places which prove to be a physical reminder) •Avoiding people or conversations and social withdrawal •Self-blame, Negative beliefs about themselves, or Self-harm •Distorted sense of events and the involvement of others in those events •Negative beliefs about the world •A reduced positive outlook or reduced positive emotions •Frequent, long-lasting or re-occurring anger •Frequent, long-lasting or re-occurring fear, sadness or confusion •Frequent, long-lasting or re-occurring guilt or shame •Irritability or aggression •Frequent or exaggerated startle responses •Concentration difficulties

You or someone close to you may have experienced or are experiencing some of these difficulties and with many mental health concerns displaying similar symptoms, it is important to seek out a qualified professional for an assessment. In certain situations, there may even be more than one mental health difficulty affecting a loved one which requires attention and support. However, there are things that can be done to help reduce stressors and of course help yourself or your loved one if you/they are struggling with any form of psychological struggles. Below are some of the things you could consider incorporating into your lives to improve your family’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

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Nutrition: If you haven’t looked into the diet it is worthwhile doing so, as there is information to suggest that the level of particular vitamins or minerals within a diet can negatively or positively impact healing when struggling with stress, trauma, and overall mental health struggles. There are also foods and environmental factors that make it harder to heal by damaging the microbiome and foods which improve the microbiome. Consider speaking to your Doctor or Naturopath (if going through alternative routes for care) about how to go about acquiring tests to check for vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Even some of the basic tests can provide an indicator on some of your vitamin and mineral levels; therefore, helping you determine what foods or supplements (if that is your preference) to incorporate into your diet. If you eat meat or consume dairy it is also worthwhile considering what farming practices are used prior to purchasing and consuming these foods; a 2015 study by Chang expressed concerns that widespread use of antibiotics in agriculture impacts negatively on the bacterial diversity of the human microbiome.

Sunshine and Nature: In addition to the food’s nature plays a huge role in our overall well-being, particularly in relation to emotional and mental health. To further the case made above regarding vitamins and mental health it is important to acknowledge the global vitamin D deficiency issues (Holick & Chen, 2018; Palcios, C & Gonzalez, L. 2014; Roth, D. et al. 2018) and how our exposure to the sun or lack thereof contributes to a wide range of health ailments including but not limited to mental health (Penckofer, S. et al. 2010). Therefore, getting outside into that sunshine can often help to support you or your family member in relieving stress and healing through the absorption you obtain from naturally occurring Vitamin D. If you can explore nature without shoes on even better as there is some evidence to suggest connecting bodies to the earth through walking barefoot or gardening can positively benefit mental health (Chevalier, G. 2012 , Oschman, J. et. Al. 2015). Nature itself is also suggested to improve mental health and reduce stress levels (Morita, E. 2007; Pearson & Craig. 2014; Passmore, H & Holder, M. 2016). In fact, the simple act of walking can assist with overall wellbeing, lower stress levels, and promote mental health healing (Brenes, G. et. al. 2007;