Stressed and Loving It

being a working parent comes with plenty of stress. that’s a given.

but is it good stress that propels you into “the zone,” spurring peak performance, well-being, alertness and optimism? or is it harmful stress, that makes you anxious, less competent, unable to relax, or plagued by chronic headaches, minor illnesses or fatigue?

while being “stress-free” used to be regarded as an ideal state, a growing number of researchers and therapists are coaching people to strive for a little more good stress and dial back the bad kind, as i report in my “work & family” column this week.

parents’ attitude or “appraisal” of a challenge, as researchers say, makes much of the difference in whether they regard tasks with optimism and hope, or whether they see them as threatening, likely to bring failure or loss. and the amount of support parents get from family members or bosses can make a difference too.

some people find raising children so motivating and invigorating that their productivity and focus improves to new heights. in my case, i was so determined to “make it all work” and meet my long-term goals for my kids that i found new ways to get more stuff done at work and home.  parents who are pumped up by “good stress” are more engaged on the job, more productive and less likely to quit, says a 2007 study in the journal of applied psychology.

but many parents face discrimination on the job that robs them of career opportunities, or rigid work schedules that make it impossible to juggle family responsibilities. this is linked with harmful stress – producing such symptoms as high blood pressure, a spiking heart rate, digestive problems and an inability to perform, research shows.  this in turn hurts performance on the job, says a 2005 study in the academy of management journal.

fortunately, stressed-out workers can learn, through biofeedback, meditation or other methods, to notice when their stress levels reach harmful levels and bring them back down, says benjamin kligler, vice chairman of integrative medicine at beth israel medical center, new york. “you may not think you can lower your blood pressure if you just want to, but in fact, you can learn.” among the most helpful techniques are abdominal breathing, meditation and training in mindfulness, or regulating one’s own mental and physical state. free classes in mindfulness are offered at, and certified biofeedback programs can be found here.

readers, what kind of stress do you experience most as a working parent? do your day-to-day challenges bring mostly beneficial stress, helping you get into “the zone?” or do they  erode your health and optimism?  what stress-reduction techniques work best for you?


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