Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Divided Attention and Parents’ Stress: Part 1

The world we live in demands that we are constantly connected to our electronic networks for news, work, friends, and the latest trends on Twitter. We don’t just need to know…we need to know now. Parents, especially those with young children, also have to be constantly aware of their children in small ways (“don’t touch, that’s hot!) and big ways (“will she like the new babysitter?”). The divided attention needed to stay on top of everything seems to be no longer a choice for parents and has become a normal part of life. “Multitasking” is an expectation, and for most people, a source of significant stress. In the past, media messages and employers asserted that the human brain is limitless and that people, especially women, can manage a lot more work “simply” by multitasking (doing tasks simultaneously or switching back and forth between tasks very quickly). But, the latest research has demonstrated that multitasking has its price, in less focus, accuracy, and creativity, as well as increased stress.

You may be wondering why I’m bringing this up in a blog about babies.

If you are a Secrets reader, you are interested in understanding more about your baby’s behavior. You might be thinking that knowing more about your little one will help you feel less stressed. But knowing a little more about yourself might be more helpful. You may not be thinking of the ever-present need for divided attention as a source of stress but it is known to be so stressful, scientists use situations that require divided attention to induce stress for experimental purposes.

Here are some of the documented effects of divided attention:
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Perception that common tasks are more difficult to accomplish
  • Mood changes
  • Interference with the ability to remember things, including future tasks
  • Interference with retrieval of memories and reduced accuracy of those memories
What do these effects mean in the real world?
Let’s say you’re late for work because the kids haven’t been very cooperative. The baby might be getting a cold and your preschooler had a tantrum when you told him that he can’t wear his Halloween costume. You have a meeting in the early afternoon and co-workers have been texting you about it since you first woke up. You had planned to run errands on the way home from work and your spouse asks you to make another stop at a gardening shop that you normally like to visit. You’re almost out the door when you realize you can’t find your car keys. You get a call from your boss just as your preschooler disappears into his room. What happens next?
  • Your breathing gets a little faster and you feel overwhelmed and even a little sick
  • Anything your boss asks about seems out of line
  • You resent your spouse for asking you to run his or her errands when you already have too many of your own (even though you can’t seem to remember what those errands are)
  • You feel overly frustrated with your preschooler for going back into his room. After all, he “should know” you need to leave
  • You are certain that you left your keys on the counter and can’t imagine any other place that they can be (even though you put them on the hall table without thinking earlier in the morning)
Does any of that sound familiar? Put sleep deprivation in the picture and everything gets worse. It may seem that there is nothing you can do about this but there is! A few changes and you can make even the busiest morning less stressful. In part  2, we'll share these changes. In the meantime, take a deep breath and try to relax!

  1. Nebel, K et al. On the neural basis of focused and divided attention. Cognitive Brain Res 2005; 5: 760-776.
  2. Petrac DC et al. Differential relationship of recent self-reported stress and acute anxiety with divided attention performance. Stress 2009; 12: 313-319.
  3. Wetherell MA and Carter K. The multitasking framework: The effects of increasing workload on acute psychobiological stress reactivity. Stress Health 2013; epub, ahead of print.

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