Calm down, cheer up and get together

Numerous studies show that stress can not only cause disease in parents, but can also adversely affect their children – even in utero.

By
January 7, 2012 22:02
Mother and daughter.

mother and daughter family 521. (photo credit: iStockphoto)

 
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Advising people to calm down, reduce the stress in their lives, become more sociable and improve their marriages is like being in favor of motherhood and apple pie. If an author also explains how to accomplish this, the book would certainly become a best-seller. And if the writer bases it all on scientific research, his work would catch even more attention.

This is what has happened to David Code, a self-described marriage and family coach and Episcopalian minister residing with his wife and two children in State College, Pennsylvania, whose latest book, Kids Pick Up on Everything: How Parental Stress is Toxic to Kids has indeed become a best-seller since its recent publication in English in the US. With over 160 references to scientific articles appearing in Pub Med, the National Library of Medicine at the US National Institutes of Health, it is clear that Code – who is not a physician or scientist – has done his homework.

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Born on a farm in Saskatchewan, Canada, Code has lived in Tokyo, Moscow and Paris and learned Japanese, Russian and French to interview foreign families in their own language.

He sent the 184-page, softcover volume (available for purchase at www.DavidArthurCode.com and also sold for $12.20 via Amazon) to The Jerusalem Post for review, even though it – and he – seemed to have no connection to Israel or Jewishness.

But in fact, they both do. And Israelis – who are probably among the most stressed-out people in the world for obvious historical, economic and geopolitical reasons – would be interested as well.

The volume has caught much attention, and Code has been interviewed by respected papers and magazines and made numerous TV appearances around the world. The award-winning author, who draws on the latest neuroscience research, also used his own study of families in more than 20 countries across five continents. He studied at Yale, Princeton and the Georgetown Family Center (formerly part of Georgetown Medical School) and has over five years of supervised experience as a pastoral counselor, a hospital chaplain and a volunteer with AIDS and cancer patients.

There is absolutely no Christian missionizing by this clergyman. Code visited Israel in 1987, and in the last chapter of the book he quotes Hebrew University Medical Faculty pharmacology researcher Prof. Marta Weinstock- Rosin. He also endorses the concept of Shabbat, which he mentions as a Hebrew word.

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“Keep the Sabbath, and make that day your ‘relationship day,’ when you reach out by writing or calling your siblings and relatives.

A Jewish friend of mine remarked: ‘A whole day is too much for our family to dedicate to relationships. We simply practice a Shabbat dinner. It puts us back in touch with both our family and our roots.’” Another of Code’s interesting references is to “scapegoating,” which he describes as a “primal instinct that humans share with other animals. Any lab researcher can tell you the remarkable similarity the rat brain has to human brain structure. The similarity only seems shocking because humans have largely forgotten that we are animals, and we share with animals a little-known, unconscious instinct to scapegoat those around us.

This is what drives couples apart,” Code writes.

“But a simple awareness of our scapegoating instinct can transform how we view our marriages,” because blame is displaced, preventing our brains from being overwhelmed and unable to hunt, gather or procreate. The human scapegoat, he notes, is usually an innocent person blamed for the suffering or wrongdoings of others. Then he describes the ancient Jewish ritual of atonement during Yom Kippur in which one goat was sacrificed as a symbolic “payment” to God for the debt they amassed by their sinning, with the second goat driven into the wilderness.

Back to Code’s main thesis that he constantly refers to in the volume, he insists that excess stress in life is not only unpleasant, time consuming and harmful to the health of adults; it can be among the major causes of health problems – from learning disorders and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder to allergies, type I diabetes and autism – in children. It can even affect the fetus in utero, the author continues.

Autism is usually described by researchers as being linked to a number of unknown genes, but the author says that environmental influences like stress are undoubtedly involved as well, as the disorder does not occur in all identical twins.

“Since I grew up with few resources, I always assumed what many others assume: Families with more money and education must be more secure, more relaxed and just plain happier. But when I was ordained... in 2003 and served two wealthy parishes near New York City, I was surprised at what I found,” he writes in his introduction. “The wealthy families I counseled almost seemed to suffer more. Even the relatively normal families I visited often had children with allergies, asthma, learning disabilities, ADHD or mood disorders, and many were on medication.”

Code says he couldn’t understand such pathology when the children were born to “well-educated, well-intentioned, self-sacrificing parents who were doing what the experts told them to do.”

As he delved into the issue, the author’s conviction that “there is a mind-body connection between a parent’s mind and a child’s body became stronger. It almost seemed as though children become barometers for their parents’ state of mind. Could it be that children are ‘canaries in the coal mine,’ indicating when a family’s levels of stress has become toxic?” Code does not blame parents. He explains that today’s parents “are more stressed out because our social support networks are dwindling, and we don’t realize that, as our isolation increases, it drives up our stress levels.”

Over the centuries, children were part of a “team” keeping the household going, doing chores, he continues. This didn’t change very much for a very long time. But in the past two generations, he continues, parents began to believe that unhappy adults suffered a lack of love as kids. Thus, Code says, parents concluded that the more attention they give children, the more objects they give them, the healthier (psychologically) they will be.

In the course of giving all these things – from clothing and electronic gadgets to afterschool clubs – they have themselves become more stressed out and desperate while the children have soaked up the tension like sponges, Code argues.

The author’s belief that children can be affected physically by stress in the family, especially suffered by the mother, while in the womb wins support from the HU’s Weinstock- Rosin. Cortisol and adrenalin, which are stress hormones, are released when the body is exposed to stress.

“If parents paid more attention to children in the womb and already outside, it would be good for mankind. I agree with David Code,” she told The Jerusalem Post.

Weinstock-Rosin has worked for 26 years on the prenatal effects of stress on rats.

“We know that the neuroanatomy and hormonal influences in the rodents are very similar to that in humans, on whom one cannot experiment. We showed that messenger RNA can be altered as a result of stress and how genetic changes can be overcome. On this, Code is right on the button.”

Fortunately, reading the book is not a guilt trip for parents. He insists that it’s never too late to change one’s habits and ways of dealing with a spouse (he never discusses singleparent families) to reverse the harm that has been done.

As 21st-century people are much more isolated than they were in the previous centuries, Code gives lessons on how to socialize more.

“Get back to baseline,” he says, meaning that one should work hard to reduce stress by exercising, calling friends, reading, praying, taking a nap, meditating or getting into bed with one’s partner. Thus one is more able to “get in touch with the stress response... and transform your brain from upset, fight-orflight mode to thoughtful mode.”

Take a vacation every three months, and even every day, Code continues, the latter by leaving work for an hour so stress levels decline while you’re out and fail to rise to the heights they would have if you stayed at work. Socialize more with your spouse by exercising – even just taking a walk – together.

“Let the air out” of your inner dialogues, he says, just by listening to your partner express her/his feelings for three minutes before leaving for work. When you return home, both of you should in a few moments describe their “highlights” and “lowlights” of the day, instantly “creating a sense of shared intimacy and preempting future problems.”

Another piece of advice is realizing that “the grass is not greener,” that your marriage is probably as good as or much better than those that seem to others to be perfect. Code urges adults to socialize more with their parents (if they still have them), writing letters if they are too far away to see them. Also socialize more with siblings and other relatives, along with friends and work colleagues and neighbors to increase your support system. One can even organize a block party as people used to do for the neighbors many decades ago, he suggests.

Other tips for minimizing stress in children is to turn off TV, computer and cellphone screens after 5 p.m.; dine potluck once a week with friends – at their place our yours.

“It may seem too good to be true,” Code writes, “but this book gives you permission to have more fun... it actually insists that you have more fun” to increase the chances that your children will be better off. “Stress is by far the most toxic thing in our environment, and no single toxin impacts our children’s health more.”

The Post asked two prominent family physicians who have not yet read Code’s book to comment, based on an oral and written summary of his views. Dr. Amnon Lahad is head of the department of family medicine at the Hebrew University Medical Faculty and a staff member at the Hadassah Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine.

As a family physician, he says, it was clear that emotional stress can cause physical disease in the person affected as well as by those around them, but he wanted to see scientific evidence supporting the claim it was involved in autism. Pub Med publishes about half a million medical journal articles every year, and they are not uniform in quality, he notes. One must also remember that an article can show association but not necessarily causation.

Dr. Karen Djemal, a prize winning doctor who is director of Terem’s family medicine clinic in Jerusalem, comments: “It is clear that stress can induce or exacerbate nearly all medical conditions – asthma, diabetes, allergies and general well-being are known to be stress-related. It is also clear that children respond to their parents’ non-verbal cues, moods and states of mind, so that if they are pre-occupied, depressed or stressed, the child of course picks it up. This will become, in some but not all cases, a source of stress for the child too. Clearly a child with a learning disorder who is stressed at home, will function less well... Code’s list of illnesses and ‘dysfunctions’ is truly impressive,” Djemal concludes.

Thus this is a book that Israeli English speakers could benefit from as well as Americans.

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