EMPTY NEST SYNDROME: HEALTH EFFECTS AND HOW TO COPE
“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” - Dr. Seuss
As children grow up and leave the family home, many parents experience a sense of loss, sadness, and loneliness. This feeling of distress is known as empty nest syndrome and can considerably affect a parent's psychological and bodily well-being.
In this article, we will explore what empty nest syndrome is, how it can affect health, and ways to cope with this life transition. The stages of empty nest syndrome, symptoms, and causes are some other aspects that are also covered.
Understanding Empty Nest Syndrome
Empty nest syndrome is a normal and natural response to a significant life event.
While some parents may feel excited and relieved when their children leave home, others may grieve and feel empty inside. This is particularly true for parents who have spent a lot of time and effort raising their kids.
Empty nest syndrome, while not a clinical diagnosis, is a real and valid experience that can affect both mothers and fathers equally. It can occur when children leave home for college, move out to start their own lives, or get married.
Causes of Empty Nest Syndrome
Some common causes of empty nest syndrome include:
- Loss of identity: For many parents, their identity is closely tied to their role as a caregiver. When their children leave home, they may feel a loss of purpose and struggle to find a new sense of identity.
- Change in routine: With children out of the house, parents may find themselves with more free time and a change in daily routines. This shift can be challenging for some individuals who have grown accustomed to a busy family life.
- Relationship changes: The departure of children can also lead to changes in relationships, particularly with a partner or spouse. Some couples may struggle to adjust to a new way of relating without the presence of their children.
Stages of Empty Nest Syndrome
While the stages of empty nest syndrome can vary from person to person, there are generally three main stages: grief, relief, and joy.
- Grief: In the grief stage, parents may experience feelings of sadness, loneliness, and loss. This is a natural response to the absence of their children and the changes in their daily lives. Parents may mourn the loss of their role as primary caregivers and the close relationship they had with their children.
- Relief: After the initial grief, some parents may start to feel a sense of relief. This stage is characterized by a newfound freedom and the ability to focus on personal interests and goals. Parents may enjoy the extra time and space they have to themselves and may find new hobbies or activities to engage in.
- Joy: As parents adjust to their children being independent and living their own lives, they may experience a sense of joy and pride. This stage is marked by a shift in perspective, where parents can appreciate the accomplishments and growth of their children. They may feel proud of the individuals their children have become and find joy in seeing them thrive.
Empty nest syndrome affects people in different ways.
It is important to understand that these stages do not always happen in the same order for every parent. Each stage can happen at the same time or in different orders. Some parents do not experience all three stages.
Factors that can affect it include the bond they have with their kids, the help they receive, and their own personal well-being.
Signs and Symptoms of Empty Nest Syndrome
Since empty nest syndrome impacts individuals differently, the signs and symptoms can vary from person to person. Some common signs and symptoms include:
- Feelings of sadness, loneliness, and loss
- Difficulty sleeping or changes in sleep patterns
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Lack of motivation or interest in activities
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- Increased anxiety or worry
- Physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches
- Relationship conflicts with a partner or spouse
- Increased alcohol or drug use
If you have been battling these symptoms for some time, it might indicate a mental health issue. Those who find themselves unable to cope need to consult a doctor to receive an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.
How Long Does Empty Nest Syndrome Last?
The duration of empty nest syndrome varies across parents. Some experience these feelings for a few weeks or months, while others may continue to feel the effects for a longer period of time. Some sources claim that it can take parents an average of 3 months to adjust to an emptier household.
The duration can be influenced by aspects such as:
- Individual coping mechanisms
- Support systems
- Overall adjustment to the new phase of life
If you are finding it hard to cope with empty nest syndrome, it is best to reach out for support from healthcare professionals or therapists. They can offer advice and assistance to help you through this phase of life.
How Empty Nest Syndrome Can Affect Health
Empty nest syndrome can significantly impact a person's mental and physical health. Here are some ways that this life transition can affect health:
Increased Risk of Depression and Anxiety
A child leaving home can trigger many complex emotions, such as profound sadness, loneliness, and a deep sense of loss. If severe, all of these can lead to more concerning mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. These emotions might be a lot stronger for parents who have spent a lot of time caring for and raising their children. Parents who are suffering from marital problems may also be more susceptible.
Changes in Sleep Patterns
The emotions aroused by empty nest syndrome can disrupt a person's sleep patterns.
When stressed, the body produces more of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol can disrupt the release of melatonin, the main hormone that helps to regulate sleep. Parents struggling with empty nest syndrome may find it difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep, or sleep more than usual. It can also affect overall sleep quality.
Changes in Appetite and Weight
Some empty nesters may turn to food for comfort.
Eating activates the vagus nerve and calms the nervous system, which helps to relax the body. It is also known to promote the release of serotonin and dopamine. Both of these can improve mood, reduce stress, and help to distract one from intense emotions, such as sorrow or grief. Unfortunately, this coping mechanism often results in noticeable weight gain, increasing the risk of food addiction in some people.
Some empty nesters have the opposite reaction, experiencing a decrease in their appetite due to stress. When prolonged, stress-induced hunger suppression can result in weight loss.
Children often become pivotal to the parents’ relationship. As a key household member ventures out into the world, it can create significant changes in the family dynamic. This can affect the way parents relate to one another and may give rise to tensions and disagreements. For some, this places a strain on the relationship, which can lead to major conflicts between partners or spouses.
The stress of empty nest syndrome can also lead to physical symptoms. Examples may include:
- Frequent headaches that can range from mild discomfort to crippling pain.
- Stomachaches characterized by frequent discomfort in the abdominal region.
- Various aches and pains throughout the body that can make everyday tasks seem drawn out and more laborious.
Those with physical symptoms might be more sensitive to stress or suffer more than the average parent. If you have physical symptoms due to being an empty nester, you might benefit from professional therapy.
Coping With Empty Nest Syndrome
While empty nest syndrome can be taxing, there are ways to cope with this life transition. Here are some strategies that can help:
Preparing your mindset for your child's departure is an important step in coping with empty nest syndrome. This is a natural part of your child's growth and development. It can help to take a moment to look back on all the efforts you have put into raising your child. At this point, you need to know you have done your best as a parent and that your child has everything they need to start their own lives.
Stay Connected With Your Child
Just because your child has left home does not mean that your relationship with them has to end. Instead, your relationship with them will likely mature. Stay connected with regular phone calls, video chats, and visits.
Focus on Your Relationship With Your Partner
Without children around, parents may have more time to focus on their other relationships, such as with their partner or spouse and friends. There is a good chance that your partner or spouse is also experiencing the effects of empty nest syndrome. Use this time to connect and strengthen your bond.
Find New Hobbies and Interests
You now have more free time. This is a great opportunity for you to try new activities and find new things you enjoy.
Finding new hobbies and interests can be an effective way to cope with empty nest syndrome. What you choose to do should be able to inspire a sense of purpose and contentment in your life. Try out new activities and discover other things that you enjoy to find fulfillment in your life's next chapter.
Seek Support From Friends and Family
Talking to friends and family about your feelings and the challenges you face can be helpful in coping with empty nest syndrome. They can provide support, understanding, and a listening ear during this challenging time. Some of them may be able to offer practical advice from tried and trusted experience.
Take Care of Your Physical Health
During this life stage, maintaining your physical health is crucial. This is all the more important if you are struggling to cope or feel overwhelmed.
Focus on consuming a balanced diet, working out regularly, and getting enough sleep. These habits can be helpful to improve your mood and overall well-being. You might even find that you enjoy learning more about your health, your body, and yourself in the process.
Seek Professional Help
If you are finding it difficult to cope with empty nest syndrome, do not hesitate to seek professional help. A therapist or counselor can provide support and guidance in helping you to cope with your feelings. It may also help those who experience marital issues while transitioning.
Empty nest syndrome is a normal and natural response to a significant life event. While it can be challenging, there are ways to cope with this experience.
Be prepared for your child to leave the home, but not your life, and make use of this time to reinvent yourself. Remember to seek support from friends, family, and professionals if needed. With time, you can adjust to this new phase of life by finding joy and fulfillment in new hobbies, interests, and relationships. A therapist's guidance is one of the best tools in helping those who struggle with empty nest syndrome.
Disclaimer: Please note that Mya Care does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information provided is not intended to replace the care or advice of a qualified health care professional. The views expressed are personal views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Mya Care. Always consult your doctor for all diagnoses, treatments, and cures for any diseases or conditions, as well as before changing your health care regimen. Do not reproduce, copy, reformat, publish, distribute, upload, post, transmit, transfer in any manner or sell any of the materials in this blog without prior written permission from myacare.com.
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