When I reflect on family wellness I believe that we are largely susceptible to common illnesses when under stress. What happens in our bodies when we experience stress? Neural fibers in our sympathetic nervous system descend from the brain into both primary (bone marrow and thymus) and secondary (spleen and lymph nodes) lymphoid tissues (Felten & Felten, 1994). These fibers can release a wide variety of substances that influence immune responses by binding to receptors on white blood cells, Suzanne C. Segerstrom and Gregory E. Miller, 2004).
We know that there’s “good stress,” when a life challenge activates us to rise to the occasion. Then there’s “bad stress,” which is characterized by chronic worry about something that is often out of our control. Our bodies were wired to fight, flee or freeze when faced with immediate, real danger, like an invading tribe or fierce tiger. In the modern world, danger often takes the form of a troublesome colleague, nasty manager, or impending unemployment. Our nervous and immune systems evolved from more immediate dangers than these and are better equipped to deal with them.
Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neuroscience at Stanford University, wrote, “Stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions (1994, p.7).” From Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: A Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Illnesses, and Coping.
I highly recommend Sapolsky’s (1998) The Trouble with Testosterone, and Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament – informative and funny!
The answer to turning bad stress into good: find a way to be proactive and take control rather than be the victim. It might sound something like a suggestion to your boss that you find some time to talk through how to work more productively together, even if it means bringing in a third person. When coping with an invasive family member, you can bring your blood pressure down by breathing deeply and then being curious as to what might be motivating behaviour that appears intent on annoying you.
Family wellness – there’s physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness, and they’re interwoven. When life is balanced, our immune systems are better equipped to fight off infection. For me, balance means I am looking after myself physically, having authentic, affirming relationships with others, and feeling connected to life as a whole. I access universal connection through nature, dance and gardening. When I am balanced, I can stay well, plus respond in a measured way to my child and partner. When I have provided myself with emotional, physical and spiritual supports, I can enjoy health in all those areas.
Hierarchy of Wellness: How those we look after depend on us looking after ourselves
– children are better equipped to stay well under stress when the parent(s) are managing their health;
- Parents can best manage their health when they have support from each other (if co-parenting) and the outside community. This includes access to a liveable wage and adequate housing; access to friends, family, supportive people who can share the load.
To obtain this:
- Reduce your expectations and goals during winter. Do less, sleep and relax more. All plants and animals slow down or go dormant during winter. Humans try to trick ourselves that the seasons don’t affect us, but they do. We are healthier when we attune ourselves to the light and temperature.
- Accepting winter’s limitations beats the winter blues!
- Make a list of tasks you can take off your list!
Notice which tasks you are convinced are essential for survival itself, such as cleaning the car or the stove, or reading your Facebook notifications. Listen to whose voice in the past is whispering in your ear when you put work before relaxing in nature and with your children.
- Pay attention to early warning signals of tiredness in yourself before you get sick. You’ll save more time going to bed early and warding off a cold than staying up late finishing the paperwork then laying in bed sick for a week.
- Find healthy ways to cope with stress, like dancing, music, being in nature. Kiecolt-Glaser & Glaser, 1988) found that people’s efforts to manage the demands of stressful experience sometimes lead them to engage in behaviors—such as alcohol use or changes in sleeping patterns—that also could modify immune system processes.
- When you notice yourself thinking or saying that others aren’t helping enough, e.g. “My ex said he’d take Johnny to football but he always has an excuse” or “I helped out my sister last week when her child was sick but she’s nowhere to be seen when mine is”, use it as a signal that you’re tired and need self-care. You are the best person to look after yourself. Others can help, but you’re the expert on self-care. We waste energy in resentment. Look at who follows through with commitments and invest your energy with them.