Single moms can find little relief from chronic stress

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Stress is to single motherhood what mud is to rain and dirty dishes are to cooking, with more severe consequences. It's an expected but unwelcome consequence that must be cleaned up before it gets messy.

Unfortunately, like a NASCAR driver, the single mother faces stress at every turn.

Two divorced women and one single mom detailed their daily stress involving conflicts, loneliness and financial crises. Each said stress causes them aches and pains, lack of sleep, inability to fight off colds, and infections and exhaustion. All three repeatedly used the word "anxiety."

One even said the buildup of stress periodically causes a nervous breakdown.

They live lives on a hamster wheel. They are Davids against financial, social and political Goliaths without the biblical results. They sacrifice time, self-esteem, personal goals and relationships to focus full attention on their children, which, in turn, helps them relieve stress. But children with disabilities compound the problems with stress.

"Sometimes I think it's a ticking time bomb," said Maria Macioszek, a 46-year-old divorced, single mother from Brookline, adding that her sons, aged 12, 9 and 7, represent bright spots in her otherwise difficult life.

Loads of stress

Big traumas throughout life, or a constant barrage of unexpected problems and conflicts of daily life, can lead to chronic stress. The result is a heightened risk of disease caused by the persistent flow of stress hormones that the person has trouble halting. Chronic stress requires different management techniques than those recommended for managing daily stress or acute stress. Medical or psychiatric help can be necessary to treat chronic stress, said Bruce S. Rabin, the University of Pittsburgh immunologist and an expert in stress management.

Chronic stress can begin early in life, when maternal stress from major life issues, such as the death of a loved one or a divorce, affects the fetus. Chronic stress heightens when sexual, physical or psychological abuse occurs in childhood, then is compounded throughout life by further persistent or traumatic stress.

A person suffering from chronic stress releases hormones, including adrenalin, norepinephrine and glucocorticoids that prepare the body for the fight-or-flight response. The heart beat rises. Certain bodily functions, including digestion, are halted so all energy can be redirected to the heart and muscles to deal with what the brain translates as a life-or-death threat. Unfortunately, the immune system becomes activated with increased inflammation to prepare the body for potential injury. Under normal circumstances the inflammation is countered within 20 minutes by the release of cortisol that returns one's system to normal.

But for people suffering chronic stress, inflammation continues flowing, and the body eventually begins releasing less cortisol to counter it. Continuing inflammation from the stress-activated immune system eventually can lead to heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, autoimmune disease, gastrointestinal problems and depression among many other problems linked to stress.

Managing chronic stress, Dr. Rabin said, requires different techniques than the methods of deep breathing, recalling funny events in life or repeating a mantra he recommends for acute stress in daily life.

For chronic stress, he recommends religiosity or spirituality, possibly because religious events involve human interaction, which is a prime method for reducing stress. Some say prayer and religious belief bring the benefits.

Expressive writing involves writing, without censorship, about a troubling event in life, then ripping the paper up into small pieces and discarding it. It helps a person exorcise the mental effects of the emotional experience.

Guided imagery requires a person to listen to a calm voice that guides a person through relaxing mental tasks and happy thoughts against a background of soothing music, all of which induces relaxation.

Meditation trains the mind to briefly erase all disturbing thoughts, preventing the mind from dwelling or even acknowledging any of the day's stressors.

Physical activity is a classic method to reduce stress. Lifestyle improvements, including a healthful diet, also help the body prevent the health impacts of stress.

Time bombs, exhausted moms

Single mothers who spoke to the Post-Gazette described lifestyles and mental states that fit the definition of chronic stress.

Ms. Macioszek survives on wages as a part-time employee of a fast-food restaurant, $168 a month in food stamps a month, with some disability payments she anticipates will expire in June. She said she cannot work full time while on the waiting list for day-care funding. A painter, she relied on some art income before the economy declined, along with her ambition to paint.

Sexually abused and abandoned as a child, Ms. Macioszek said she sometimes uses a prescribed drug to sleep. She has headaches, aches and pains, and gastrointestinal disorders. She missed a day of work last week due to a sinus infection. She successfully overcame depression. Divorced and now single, she used the federal Making Home Affordable program to prevent her house from being sold in a sheriff's sale, while she continues efforts each month to avoid repossession of her used car.

Besides the stress of daily life, she is frustrated by the lack of a safety net for single mothers.

"My goal is to procure full-time employment with a living wage as head of a household," Ms. Macioszek said. "I deserve to be able to care for my family. I want to be independent and don't want to be on government programs. I can't wait to get off food stamps. Being on these programs is demoralizing."

Single mom Miranda Ormsby, 27, of Mount Oliver, survives on $600 a month in child support for her 2-year-old son, Cain, who has autism. His condition has made it difficult for her to get or keep a job, although she did work phone lines during the election. She said she won't seek welfare but does rely on food stamps. An admitted hermit, she said Facebook is her only social outlet.

"Being a single mother is hard because there is no one to help," Ms. Ormsby said. "I'm too tired to take a shower. I have him all day. When he's throwing tantrums, those days are the hardest. I get overtired and cranky, and I'm up until 10 p.m., and by the time he's in bed, I fall asleep with him."

Stephanie Steiger, 45, of Slippery Rock -- divorced and now single -- is seeking a bachelor's degree at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania to improve her job prospects. Her three children include her unwed 19-year-old daughter who gave birth to twins last year. Ms. Steiger receives child support and received money from the divorce settlement but still runs a household on 25 percent of what she previously had. She sells cosmetics at night and attends school by day while running a household and caring for her children.

"My biggest challenge is time," she said, noting that she's forced to be more organized. "There's not enough time in the day to do everything. I don't have time for too many activities."

She lists 10 to 15 chores to accomplish the next day in her journal. The day she was interviewed, she was puzzling over a scheduling conflict. Her class and son's orthodontia appointment were scheduled at the same time.

Due to two car crashes, Ms. Steiger said overwhelming stress activates her injuries. "I'm days into my routine then something happens and throws a wrench into it and throws me off kilter," Ms. Steiger said. "I know when I'm under too much stress. It goes straight to my neck and shoulder."

And it gets worse: "Periodically when I'm stressed out about a couple things, I have a nervous breakdown and have to go and get therapy."

Stress and life span

A 2004 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and cited in the National Geographic documentary, "Stress, A Portrait of a Killer," describes the effects of stress on telomeres, the endpoints or caps on chromosomes that shrink, leading to disease and aging. Without telomeres the chromosomes would unravel, or their ends would join to other chromosomes. Telomeres are like burning candles that shrink due to age, lifestyle and stress. The study said women with the highest levels of perceived stress -- including mothers caring for children with disabilities or serious illnesses -- have telomeres shorter on average by the equivalent of at least 10 years of additional aging compared to women living with low levels of stress. Telomeres signal the harsh health impact that persistent stress has on life.

Robert M. Sapolsky, a noted Stanford University neuroscientist and stress expert, said there are "miserable effects of poverty on health" that still exist even when you control for race and ethnicity. It's a point that applies to many single mothers.

"In this country, low socioeconomic status is associated with greater risk of a variety of maladies that are stress-sensitive -- hypertension, obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease, inflammatory bowel disorders, anxiety and depressive disorders," he said. "There is also an increased risk of most cancers, but cancer, despite what too many people think, is not generally a stress-related disorder."

But the three mothers are not without optimism, each expressing plans to emerge successfully from their plight.

Fostering hopes of returning to normalcy, Ms. Ormsby sounded crestfallen in describing how she ignored having Christmas in 2011 but decided to give her son a good Christmas in December.

"I dug myself into a deep hole that I'm still paying off," she said. "Raising a child is one of the hardest things in the world because you are shaping an empty vessel into a human being. It's the hardest thing to do and doing it by yourself is even harder."

Some days she cries. Other days she says she has a sour attitude. Prospects are few, even nonexistent, for a relationship, especially when men discover her son has autism. It heaps stress on a life already buried in it.

"On a daily basis I put my mind on autopilot. I'm up and dressed. I'm pretty much not myself anymore," Ms. Ormsby said. "I'm a mother, but Miranda is elsewhere."

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David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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