Each year, a group of non-profit wellness and mental health awareness organizations sponsor National Stress Awareness Month during the month of April. Along with Stress Awareness Month, they also promote a National Stress Awareness Day. This year we observe Stress Awareness Day on Sunday, April 18th.
Last year at this time – mid-April 2020 – we found ourselves toward the beginning of what turned out to be one of the most stressful years in memory.
2020, as we all know, was coronavirus pandemic year.
In our article last year, published on Stress Awareness Day, we joked:
“Stress Awareness Day? Are you kidding? 2020 is basically Stress Awareness YEAR.”
In most of the country, we were barely a month into our series of stay-home orders – but we had no idea how right we’d be.
2020 did, indeed, turn out to be stress awareness year.
We think that means we get to give 2021 a completely different label.
Here’s what we propose:
2021: The Year of Resilience
What do you think?
To celebrate resilience, we’ll refurbish our stress management tips from last year – now more important than ever – and include information about the effect of stress on children. That’s a topic of conversation and concern for parents around the country. We’re invested in helping parents learn ways to help their children manage stress, and along the way, we hope to help parents manage their stress, too.
First, we’ll talk about the effect of stress on children.
Stress and Kids: When Does Stress Become Toxic?
Adults understand that stress is part of life. Stress creates adaptation, which leads to growth and change. Another way to look at stress is to call it a challenge. Challenge creates change in our life. That’s true for our psychological development, our emotional development, and our physical development. It’s perhaps easiest to understand in terms of the stress-adaptation-response model of physical training, i.e. exercise.
It goes like this:
We stress our bodies with a workout. When we’re done, our bodies go into recovery mode. We respond by rebuilding and repairing the stressed muscles and other physiological systems when we eat and sleep. Then, after the recovery process runs its course, we’re a little bit stronger, faster, and durable.
Stress can be the same, but unfortunately, it’s not. Our bodies understand how to repair and restore things automatically. They’re doing it right now, in some form, in most of our bodies. But stress is different: our automatic mechanisms for handling psychological and emotional stress are not always productive and healthy. In fact, sometimes they’re the opposite. They end up being what mental health professionals call maladaptive.
Right now, most parents around the country worry their children may have developed maladaptive coping mechanisms to process the stress of the past year.
So, as a parent, how do you know what kind of stress is good – like the exercise kind of stress – and what kind of stress is not good? How can you identify the kind of stress that leads to maladaptive coping mechanisms?
The people at the Harvard Center on the Developing Child talk about this topic in terms of stress response, which is how we react to stress. In children, they define three types of stress response:
A positive stress response is an essential part of growing up. In children, a positive stress response can occur in response to things like moving, starting a new school, studying for a test on a tough class, or nervousness related to social situations. During a positive stress response, a child or teen experiences a temporary increase in heart rate and circulating levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
A tolerable stress response happens in reaction to challenging, significant, and difficult life events. The loss of a loved one (including a pet), a major illness or injury, a natural disaster, and a global pandemic all qualify. A tolerable stress response has the same characteristics as a positive one, but everything is more intense and severe. Without the presence of a responsible adult to help the child manage the stress episode – which the Harvard experts call buffering – a tolerable stress episode may become a chronic stress response and cause lasting psychological, physical, and emotional problems. It’s important for parents to understand, particularly at this moment in time, that positive, protective, buffering relationships with adults can mitigate the potential damage related to this type of stress.
A toxic stress response happens is a reaction to long-term exposure to adverse events, experiences, and circumstances. For children, these include, but are not limited to neglect, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, exposure to violence, exposure to parent/caregiver substance use or mental health disorder, poverty, and prolonged economic hardship. This year, some children may experience a toxic stress response in reaction to the pandemic. Isolation, fear, uncertainty, and loneliness can all accumulate and become toxic. In addition, grief and loss related to the absence of milestone events such as prom, school trips, graduation, and other annual celebrations can lead to a toxic stress response.
Continuous exposure to these types of stress results in chronic activation of the stress response system, which can damage vital organs, impair development, and lead to decreased cognitive function and illness. In the absence of supportive, protective adult relationships, the consequences of toxic stress in childhood can persist through adolescence and have a negative impact on long-term physical and mental health.
What we want you to learn from our description of these three types of stress is the concept that stressful events – like this entire year – do not automatically mean your child will develop the type of chronic stress response that leads to dysfunction, mental illness, or physical pathology.
Because of you. And because of any support you seek from a mental health professional if and when your children display the signs of chronic stress. Children, for the most part, have not developed the psychological or emotional coping skills to process severe stress. That’s why their stress response systems stay activated, and that’s why they need adults to teach them techniques that work.
Which brings us to the next section of this article: how to recognize the signs of stress, and how to handle them when you do.
Stress: Warning Signs and What to do About It
Symptoms of stress are different for each person, but there are common signs and patterns we should all know about. Understanding what they are can help you identify the stress in your life, whether the things you experience perfectly match classic stress symptoms or not.
First, let’s talk about the common signs of stress in teenagers.
Five Signs of Stress in Teens
1. Phantom Ailments.
Headaches, stomachaches, and other physical discomforts that have no apparent physical origin and do not resolve with typical solutions. Examples include headaches that don’t respond to hydration, rest, or standard medication, or a stomachache that comes and goes at random, and is not related to hunger, overeating, or something else straightforward.
2. Anger and/or Irritability.
Teens under significant stress often don’t know it. They may not understand what’s happening inside. In response to overwhelming or confusing emotions, they may lash out at friends or loved ones. They may act irritated or angry. These are common signs of stress in teens that parents should understand.
A teen under stress will often express an unusual amount of worry. They’ll about typical things like school and friends, but they’ll also worry about random, unrelated issues. During the coronavirus pandemic, stress may have manifested by disproportionate worry or anxiety over pandemic-related things, such as whether their friends wear masks, whether they’ll get sick, or any number of things. Granted, this type of worry has a very real origin, but constant, repeated anxiety over the same things may be signs of a developing anxiety disorder.
4. Problems thinking and concentrating.
A teen under stress may have problems initiating, focusing on, or completing schoolwork. They may also have problems organizing their thoughts, in general. This can lead to a drop in academic performance, which is also a sign of stress in teens.
5. Recurring illness.
This is similar to the headaches and stomachaches we mention above. There’s a difference, though. In this case, we mean actual sickness, such as colds. Chronic stress has an adverse effect on our immune system, which can make us – and your teen – more vulnerable to common pathogens. A teen who gets sick frequently, but, according to their doctor, is in good health, overall, may be experiencing an unusual amount of stress.
All five signs above are also signs of stress in adults. In addition to those, adults should monitor themselves for tell-tale signs of stress such as insomnia, depression, and chronic fatigue. If you experience those things frequently – as in every day for two weeks or more – we suggest you take action to mitigate the stress in your life.
Tips for Handling Stress: Adults and Teens
This has been a novel and challenging year. And although the stress we all experienced this year was new, the tools we have at our disposal to process the stress of this year are the same tools we’ve always had. We simply need to tweak and tailor them to meet our current needs, and they’ll keep us healthy, productive, and – if we’re lucky – happy and optimistic that the end of this very stressful episode in our lives is nearing a conclusion.
Five Ways We Can Reduce Stress
1. Name it. Remove it. Resolve it.
We can’t remove coronavirus from our lives, but we can name it as a source of our stress in our lives. That’s an important step. We can also take several measures to resolve its influence and protect ourselves from the negative consequences of the pandemic. All of us have the option to take a vaccine when available, and we can continue to practice the public health guidelines we know so well by now: social distance, mask wearing, and handwashing.
Everyone talks about the importance of exercise. Especially mental health experts. They go on about it, ad nauseam. But that’s because they’re right: it works to help reduce stress. Something you should understand, though, is that the upshot of all the constant talk about exercise is that we should all be active almost every day. You don’t have to be gym-obsessed or run five miles every day at 5am. Exercise can mean walking, gardening, or doing a project around the house. Whatever gets your body moving works – and counts as stress-relieving exercise.
Mindfulness means slowing down and learning to live in and savor the present moment. Many well-known mindfulness practices, when combined with exercise, are superb for stress reduction. Things like yoga, tai chi, and mindful walking are perfect. Meditation works, too – and it’s not hard to learn.
4. A Healthy Diet.
Consistent eating habits and a diet made up of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean protein is excellent for both your mind and your body. Stress-wise, it also helps to cut back on caffeine, processed sugar and snacks, fast food, and junk food. Don’t misunderstand us: we’re not saying you can’t have coffee with sugar, or that grabbing a burger is the end of the world. However, if foods high in sugar and fat make up most of your diet, and you drink coffee all day long, then those eating habits may contribute to your overall stress levels.
5. Find Support.
If you, your teen, or anyone in your family is struggling with the cumulative stress of the pandemic, we recommend finding a mental health professional to help find your way to the other side. Talking helps. You don’t have to go to a mental health professional, even though we think that’s a great idea. A wise, trusted friend can help too: the point is to talk to someone freely and openly about your life. Once you start talking, the floodgates may open, and you may learn you had far more to get off your chest than you realized. And once you do, you may feel better than you have since the pandemic arrived.
The good thing about this list is that you can implement these tips immediately. Right now, you can name the stress in your life – the pandemic. You can get out of the house and take a walk. You can find and complete an easy mindfulness exercise, eat a healthy lunch, and reach out to a friend today.
And if those things work for you, then please share what worked, why it worked, and how you did it with your friends and loved ones. We’re all under stress right now – although we can see the light at the end of the tunnel – and these tips can help anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Let’s join together to make 2021 the year of resilience!