A colleague and I were discussing the very noticeable increase of referrals for stress, depression and anxiety. I asked, “What’s in the water we’re drinking that is causing this seeming epidemic?”
I believe it’s worthwhile to look at this phenomenon to better understand how it affects not only our children, but ourselves as their parents and grandparents. As I often say, “We live what we learn and learn what we live.” Therefore, we have to understand the role we play in our child’s stress and anxiety and the role they play in ours.
We define stress as the feeling we get when there is too much to do and too little time to do it in. The events that provoke stress are called stressors or triggers and they cover a whole range of situations. For a teen, this covers everything from outright physical danger to making a classroom presentation or facing a semester in your toughest subject.
The human body responds to stress by activating the nervous system and specific hormones. The hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands to produce more of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol and release them into the bloodstream. These hormones speed up heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure and metabolism. Blood vessels open wider to let more blood flow to large muscle groups, putting our muscles on alert. Pupils dilate to improve vision. The liver releases some of its stored glucose to increase the body’s energy. Sweat is produced to cool the body. All of these physical changes prepare a person to react quickly and effectively to the pressure of the moment.
Stress does not always happen in response to things that are immediate or that are over quickly. Ongoing or long-term events can cause stress, too – and for some that type of stress is harder to handle. The nervous system senses continued pressure and may remain slightly activated and continue to pump out extra stress hormones over an extended period. This can wear out the body’s reserves, leave a person feeling depleted or overwhelmed; it weakens the body’s immune system and causes other problems.
Stressful situations are all around us. We don’t have to search stress out as it finds us. For years I have been working with children, teens and adults to discover what some of the stressors in their lives are. Over the years, I have formed categories of triggers that affect all of us. This makes it easier for the client to see his or her situation in a more general way.
Let’s look at these categories of stress triggers from a child or teen’s perspective. Please note that these are also applicable to adults.
The first category is that of “conflicts with people.” When we speak with kids, this is the most common stress triggers and includes conflicts with peers, family and teachers.
The second category is “inner conflicts.” This source of stress is not as readily understood. Areas of stress include concerns about appearances, accomplishments and worries about the future. Whereas females tend to worry more about how they look, boys and girls will worry about accomplishments and the future.
The third category is “changes within one’s life,” like a loss of a family member or friend, moving or going to a new school. These stressors affect different people in many different ways. In fact, some of the relevance of these stressors has changed as technology has advanced. In the past when someone moved away, or had a family member or friend move away, it was much more difficult to keep the relationship going. Nowadays with Skype, inexpensive long-distance phone fees, Facetime, etc. people can spend time together almost as if they were in the same location. Nevertheless, when kids change schools it’s still a very stressful time, especially in regards to making new friends and meeting new teachers. Related to this is the child’s level of social skills development.