Kirsten Panachyda

Writer, Speaker, Singer-Songwriter

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Parent Stress when a kid has mental illness

Stress can fray us physically, mentally, and emotionally when we are parenting a kid with mental illness.
Image by CJ from Pixabay

Kirsten Panachyda

The stress of caring for a kid with mental illness can take a significant toll on a parent. This experience can weaken an immune system, exacerbate existing conditions, and retrain the brain to respond in unhealthy ways to any negative stimulus. This toll, all too often, comes as an unexpected cost to a parent. I know it did for me.

We live in a suburb of Syracuse, New York. I spent twenty winters there. I thought I was somewhat inured to winter conditions, beyond the typical, mostly good-natured grumbling with strangers in the grocery store line. February and March of 2015 just about did me in. Even in a city grown used to its place on every “worst winter weather” list, people were ground down by that winter. The average temperature in February that year was 9 degrees, the coldest on record. Snow fell every single day from January 29 through March 9. Besides the constant accumulation, the snow clouds also meant limited sunshine. 

It’s hard to find enough adjectives to describe how I felt during that endless winter. Desperate. Defeated. Insignificant. Failed. Battered. Crumbled. Fruitless. Weak. Sick.

Besides the weather, we were enduring the depths of a crisis season which had lasted for over two years by then. Our son Nicholas came home from his most recent hospitalization somewhat more stable, but still suffering from daily suicidal ideation. We never left him alone, and most of my time was spent on his care, either appointments or homeschooling, or even just thinking, praying, and researching. I would never give up on hoping and working for my son’s well-being, even though some days I almost wished I could. But there was a real possibility my body would give up on me.

I started finding the shower drain clogged with clumps of hair. I was wrapping the elastic around my ponytail an extra loop. Googling “hair loss” led to a little questionnaire asking about stress six to eight weeks back. The life cycle, or whatever, of hair follicles meant that stress could show in hair loss after that length of time. Oh. Well. Yes. Maybe it had been a little stressful to agonize over whether Nicholas would be going into residential treatment.

“Did you punch me in the chest while I was sleeping?” I asked Dan one day, teasing but a little worried. “It aches when I take a deep breath. It hurts to the touch.” My fingertips felt my sternum and the pain like a tender bruise. 

Later, Dan sent me an email with the subject line “Maybe it’s this?” I opened the attached link. It led to a medical site with a short article describing costochondritis, an inflammation of the joints between the ribs and the sternum. Symptoms: sore to the touch, pain upon coughing or deep breathing.  Often brought on or aggravated by, yes, intense stress.

A week later my doctor confirmed my internet diagnosis. I was in her office for headaches, which turned out to be a sinus infection and double ear infections. I brought up the pain in my chest. Although she ran tests to make sure it wasn’t a heart problem, she agreed that it was probably costochondritis. Plodding through my days in a fog of pain and low grade fever, I waited for the antibiotics and ibuprofen to do their jobs. All I wanted was to stay under the covers in a quiet darkened room with the door shut.

Within a couple weeks, I was back in the doctor’s office. “I have this rash,” I told her. “It’s really irritated. I’ve tried putting lotion on it, but it’s spreading and kind of blistery.”

She looked at the angry blotch on my rib cage, then moved around the table to look at my back. “Ohh,” she said.

“Oh what?” I craned my neck around trying to see what she had noticed back there.

“You have shingles.” Her face was sympathetic. 

Later I was back in front of the computer, going to the few medical websites I trusted to inform accurately. An outbreak of shingles is commonly linked to a weakening of the immune system. This can sometimes be traced back to, yep, stress.

As a last straw, one morning as I put away laundry and straightened up my bedroom, I blacked out. I was turning from my dresser to get something else to put away, and then my face hit the floor. I wasn’t aware of losing my balance or falling until I hit. For a stunned few moments I could not tell if I was okay.

After some skin glue to patch up a heavily bleeding cut, a CT scan, and another prescription for painkillers, I went home from the urgent care clinic. When the bandage came off, I had a strange-looking eyebrow and a deep purple bruise that looked like goth eyeshadow. 

I wish I had known that the stress of caring for my son would require real attention, especially during the crisis years. We can be much healthier as people, and much more effective caregivers if we expect, and plan to mitigate, the effects of stress.

Tina Yeager (Licensed Mental Health Counselor)* says,  “You need to restore yourself. Adrenaline overload will cause you to get knocked out in the process whether you want to or not, because you’ll get sick.

“(Chronic stress) can cause chronic illnesses or exacerbate chronic illnesses. It can cause digestive problems, heart problems, even something as severe as stroke. People can develop fatigue syndromes or fibromyalgia. It can cause you to be unable to concentrate. You can get insomnia. Stress is not good for any of our physical, mental, or emotional systems. 

“Finding some small stress relief things is really good for a parent. You can pray while you’re doing relaxation breathing exercises, invite the Holy Spirit to bring restoration and healing. Also some exercise is really, really good. Exercise helps restore serotonin levels. And it doesn’t always take a lot of time. You could probably even do that with your child. And if they’re right there, you don’t have to worry about being vigilant about what they’re doing while you exercise.”

Remember:

  • You will experience heightened, sometimes extreme, stress while parenting a kid with mental illness.
  • Chronic stress can cause negative physical, mental, and emotional impact.
  • You can take steps to keep yourself healthy by limiting the effects of stress, if you are intentional.

Take care of yourselves and each other, friends,

Kirsten

Infusing Courage into the Soul-Weary

*Tina Yeager, who was gracious enough to be interviewed for this post and my future book, is the author of Beautiful Warrior: Finding Victory over the Lies Formed against You (click here to learn more) and the host of the podcast Flourish-meant. You can find her at TinaYeager.com.


Nature: Tool for Destressing and Restoring

 

Rocky Mountain National Park

 

Tax season is upon us. Some people spend hours in their home offices doing the painstaking task of reading through all the tax booklets and filling in schedules. Dan and I think its enough work to organize and gather our documents and bring them to an accountant. Of course, Dan had to drive through a snowstorm to drop it all off.

We all know taxes are a fact of life. I choose to improve my attitude about it by deciding in my own mind what my personal taxes pay for. So when I fret over the withheld money on the pay stub or the check I need to write to the government, I tell myself, “I don’t know what other people are spending this money on, but I am funding libraries and parks. And sanitation workers.”

I am thrilled to be part owner of the city, county, state, and national parks. Regular use of these resources improves the quality of my life. There have been many times when sitting on a public beach or walking a lakeside trail has made it possible for me to face the hard circumstances waiting for me when I left. I feel a loosening, a freeing, when I spend time in nature. God speaks healing into my soul through His creation.

More and more research bears out the beneficial effects of the natural world on mental health. I started looking into these studies first with the intent of finding new ways to support my son in his recovery. But I believe the benefits are for everyone who seeks to improve mental wellness, not least the stressed and distressed parents of kids with mental illness.

How can connections with the natural world help us, and how can we make use of them?

1) Nature helps improve attention and focus. 

In studies, time in a natural setting has been found to improve attention both in people with and without disorders like ADHD. This is not the effect of extra physical exercise, which tends to increase when people are outside. Subjects were tested doing the same activities (eg walking, soccer) in indoor and outdoor settings. Also,the positive effects on attention, concentration, and memory continue even after the the time in nature is over. (“Why ‘Getting Away’ in Nature is Good for your Mental Health,” Ellen Hendricksen Ph.D Savvy Psychologist, Scientificamerican.com, 11/7/18)

2) Time in natural settings aids emotional regulation.

Did you know city-dwellers have a higher risk of anxiety and mood disorders and even schizophrenia? Lack of access to the natural world may be a factor. A study by Stanford researchers discovered that brain scans show decreased activity in the part of the brain that produces repetitive thought focused on negative emotion after 90 minutes spent in a natural setting. (“Stanford Researchers Find Mental Health Prescription:Nature,” Rob Jordan, news.stanford.edu, 6/30/2015)

3) The setting is flexible. 

Experiments in using nature-focused programming in the UK to specifically treat people with mental illnesses have shown great promise. One interesting facet to the work is that programs have been conducted in a variety of settings, from wooded areas, to beaches, to urban green spaces. All seem to offer similar benefits. This is encouraging because it tells us we can seek out the most convenient and accessible settings to receive the positive effects of time in nature. (“What Makes Nature-Based Interventions for Mental Health Successful?,” Dan Bloomfield, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, 11/14/17)

4) Even a little can be beneficial.

For stressed and overbooked parents who need to care for their own mental health, this one is important. We can benefit even from little doses of nature. A houseplant. The tree next to the driveway. A view out a window. Even watching a nature program can help us. The key is to give our attention to things not made by humans for a while. Can’t go to the park for an hour? Notice and appreciate the plantings in the road median. Stuck in a long winter? Spend a couple bucks on a hard-to-kill plant, then spend a few minutes taking care of it and looking at it each day. (Go ahead and talk to it if you want — I won’t tell.)

Robert Treman State Park

For people of faith, it should come as no surprise that science shows connection with nature is good for us. 

Consider:

Romans 1:20 tells us that “since the creation of the world (God’s) invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made…” 

Psalm 23 reminds us that God restores our souls by making us lie down in green pastures and leading us beside still waters. (Psalm 23:2-3) 

And in his Gospel, John writes: “All things came into being through (Jesus, the Word), and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” The same Jesus who loved me enough to die for me, who conquered death for me, and who lives to intercede for me (Hebrews 7:25) made all of the natural world. 

If you are looking for ways to battle stress and find restoration for your soul, try looking to nature. 

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