As an adult, stress can feel like a pretty “normal” part of your life. Between work and home life, you’re probably juggling enough challenges to make anyone’s head spin, and you find yourself constantly pushing down the rising stress or anxiety in order to keep up with your daily duties.
Unfortunately, our modern lives are plagued by a great deal of stress. No matter how hard we try to avoid it or manage it—through meditation, relaxation, even the occasional vacation—stress often gets the better of us and interferes with our happy, healthy existence.
But did you know that it’s not just you who is being affected by your stress? It turns out that your stress could be affecting your child as well!
A number of studies have been conducted into the ways stress can affect children even during the prenatal stages, and the results will shock you.
One 2008 study  found that prenatal exposure to stressful life events can significantly increase the risk of Autism Spectrum Disorder, as well as other problems, such as depression and schizophrenia. As the study states, “prenatal stress can produce both (a) abnormal postnatal behaviors that resemble the defining symptoms of AD, and (b) other abnormalities that have elevated rates in AD, such as learning deficits, seizure disorders, perinatal complications, immunologic and neuroinflammatory anomalies, and low postnatal tolerance for stress.”
That’s a pretty scary thought, isn’t it? Stress during childbirth may have seriously long-term negative effects on the child . The high cortisol levels in the mother’s body can actually cause the child’s brain to develop, an adaptive response to the stress-triggered hormone. This increases the risk of Autism Disorder and ADHD, among other conditions.
Even after the child is born, parental stress can put the infant, toddler, or child’s health at risk.
One 2011 study  found that children whose parents are significantly stressed during the earliest years of their lives are affected on a genetic level. The genes involved in neurological development and insulin production were altered, leading to negative changes well into their teenage years. This is because stress is believed to cause “epigenetic” changes, which means genes get turned on/off according to their environment.
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In one animal study , mother rats with lower stress levels took better care of their pups (grooming and cleaning them), which in turn led to better development among the rat pups, who turned out to be more exploratory and calmer than rats whose mothers experienced high levels of stress and therefore took less care of them.
While these changes occur on the physical level, there are other changes occurring on a psychological level. Children look to their parents to show them how to behave in life. When they see their parents stressed, anxious, or worried, it can instill fear in a child, leading them to believe that their environment is unsafe. They may also develop anxiety themselves, both due to the genetic factors mentioned above and in response to their parents’ stress—a “learned behavior” common among children.
As a parent, it’s so important to shield your child from the dangers in the world—including one of the most insidious and widespread dangers: mental health problems. Stress and anxiety are two of the greatest contributing factors in a broad range of mental health issues. If you’re a source of that stress and anxiety, you could increase the risk of your child struggling with the same down the line.
Of course, it’s easier said than done to “manage stress” or “control anxiety”. You’ve probably been wrestling with it for your entire adult life—it often feels like the stressors will never be eliminated, and there will always be some source of anxiety around.
The first step is to get help. Talk with a counselor, therapist, or psychologist who can help you identify the greatest causes behind your stress and anxiety. Don’t see it as “needing help because you’re defective”—that’s not at all the case! You’re simply seeking advice from an expert who understands the way the human brain and consciousness works, a guide to help you identify the stress triggers and source of your anxieties.
You can also take steps to combat stress and anxiety at home, too. Use meditation techniques to help you corral your worried thoughts when you feel like you’re spinning out. Practice mindfulness when you feel stressed, and let the soothing comfort of guided meditations—like those we offer on Zonia—calm your mind.
As you learn to manage your stress and anxiety, you’ll model that behavior to your children, and their stress and anxiety levels will decrease along with yours. As a parent, taking care of your mental and emotional health is one of the best things you can do to shield your children from this particular danger and show them the right way to handle what they, too, will one day have to deal with.
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