Preventing the Contagion of Stress

Stress is a fact of life for special needs parents. How to cope.

By Carl Pickhardt, PhD

Stress is usually experienced as a state of threat arising from two questions. "Can I cope with this situation?" "And if I can't cope with this situation, what will happen to me then?" Stress both registers this sense of threat and mobilizes energy to respond to the emergency demand life has created.Thus, although stress tends to be experienced negatively, it also has positive survival value.

The demand with which stress is usually identified is some kind of pressure -- for example, from being injured, pushed, blocked, let down, cut off, overloaded, or from otherwise being overwhelmed.

Stress is not a problem in life, it is simply a part of life because so much of what happens to people is unexpected and outside of their control. When stress is occasional, a person feels depleted after coping with the threat, but then recovers and goes on.

When stress is ongoing,however,then a person can register stress on four increasingly damaging levels as he or she gets more depleted and worn down.

  1. FATIGUE: "I feel tired all the time."
  2. PAIN: "Physically or emotionally I hurt all the time."
  3. BURN-OUT: "I have lost caring for what I normally care about."
  4. BREAKDOWN: "I can't seem to physically function anymore."

Unfortunately, these levels are additive, so by the time someone reaches breakdown, he or she is also burdened by some degree of fatigue, pain, and burn-out.

It takes keeping oneself well physically,emotionally, and spiritually maintained, being able to limit excessive demands from oneself and others, and holding a positive mental outlook, to keep stress from inflicting more than normal wear and tear on a person's life.

Hardest of all can be keeping one's stress from becoming contagious to other family members.

How can stress become contagious? Recall the four levels of stress outlined above. Because FATIGUE from stress can cause a person's outlook to turn negative, it can be easy to become more CRITICAL of other family members. Because PAIN from stress can cause a person to become oversensitive, it is easy to become IRRITABLE with other family members. Because BURN-OUT from stress can cause a person to become unresponsive, it is easy to become INSENSITIVE to other family members. Because BREAKDOWN from stress can become disabling, it can be easy to simply become UNAVAILABLE to other family members.

To live around someone who is continually acting critical or irritable or insensitive or unavailable or in all of these ways can cause one person's stress to stress the entire family. Thus a hard day for one person becomes a hard night for everyone.

The solution? Take responsibility. Remember that how one handles stress is a matter of choice. Stress loved ones and one may lose their support. Rather than remain close, to protect themselves they may elect to pull away.

Therefore, rather than act stress out in harmful ways, talk it out in helpful ways instead. Explain the stresses going on, how you feel, and think of relaxing and renewing ways to all be together.

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D. is the author of a number of parenting books, including Surviving Your Child's Adolescence and Stop the Screaming. Copyright All rights reserved. Visit his website