Stress is caused by an existing stress-causing factor or stressor. Stress can be ‘routine’, related to everyday activities or ‘sudden’, brought about by a change or transition, or ‘traumatic’, in relation to an overwhelming event.
During stressful events our adrenal glands release adrenaline, a hormone which activates the sympathetic nervous system, our body’s defence mechanism which causes our heart to pound, blood pressure to rise, muscles to tense, and the pupils of our eyes to dilate. Historically, this prepared us to respond to attackers with one of three responses – fight, flight or freeze.
This stress response can still be helpful to us today. It provides a burst of energy which can help us to stay safe when suddenly facing a speeding car, for example. Or, it might help us meet deadlines and goals through increased efficiency and focus. Our stress response ceases to be helpful if it is activated too easily or at a level which is too intense or if it goes on for too long, preventing us from returning to a relaxed state.
Anxiety is stress that continues after that stressor is gone. When we are anxious, fear can take over whenever there is worry and apprehension. This can lead to irritability, low mood, social withdrawal, lack of motivation, poor concentration and nervousness, as well as physical symptoms like chest pains, disruption to eating routines, dizziness, shortness of breath, fatigue and panic attacks.
There are multiple triggers for stress and anxiety in young people today. Those most commonly reported include school, exams and future prospects; social difficulties including peer pressure, social media issues and bullying; family concerns such as conflict or financial problems; and major world events. For some, these factors can become overwhelming.
A good place to start when helping children and young people with stress and anxiety is to be aware of what we are thinking, feeling and doing ourselves. This will help us to tune in to kids and look after ourselves so that we can stay calm, alert and responsive. There are many routes to self-care – the 5 Ways to Wellbeing is one of them – How are you doing right now? What steps might help you to build your own self awareness and take care of your own support needs?
Secondly, psychotherapeutic work is naturally based on a belief that by talking and thinking about difficulties we create space for creative exploration, digestion/ processing, increased understanding and new perspectives/ opportunities. It can be helpful to take a moment to consider where you stand yourself with regards to talking about feelings.
And do you think your child/ teenager believes it is okay to have feelings? Whether the answer is yes or no, how might he/she have picked up this message? What do we think is likely to help give a message that it is okay to feel feelings and to talk about them?
We can begin by making time to notice how young people are doing, listen to their concerns without judgement and then take them seriously. In ‘How To Talk So Teens Will Listen’ and ‘Listen So Teens Will Talk’, Faber and Mazlish (2006) advocate: “Identifying thoughts and feelings . . . Acknowledging feelings with a word or sound . . . Giving in fantasy what you can’t give in reality . . . and . . . Accepting feelings as you redirect behaviour.” (p31).
To make the above possible, it helps if we can stay calm and avoid becoming either frustrated or overwhelmed with our own worries about the child’s worry. We also want to steer clear of trying to fix things too quickly as this can seem like we’re not really interested in a child’s felt experience.
Being listened to can start to give shape to what might often feel like a formless mass of uncontrolled emotion. Feeling understood can, in itself, help to bring anxiety under control. It then becomes more possible to actively build self-awareness through tools like a stress-graph or diary, which maps stress intensity across a day, week or year. Other visual systems using scales and colours can be helpful too. A 0-5 scale, for example, can enable children to identify the difference between a slight glitch, a small/ medium/ large problem, and a situation which feels quite huge or even like an emergency. Other systems like the ‘Zones of Regulation’ or the similar ‘Just Right State Program’ (widely used in Brighton and Hove schools) help young people to notice their emotional/arousal state at any given time and to learn what helps them either to up-regulate or down-regulate in those moments in order that they can relate and learn effectively.
Specific calming approaches can be taught such as deep belly-breathing or simple, unobtrusive techniques for the classroom like hand-breathing or square breathing. Positive self-statements can also help – in place of an ‘all or nothing’ catastrophic approach (“I’ve messed up this essay, I may as well give up”) the young person might say to herself, “I’ve done it before, I can do it again” or “this feeling will pass”. Others may benefit from being helped to express thoughts and feelings through writing or drawing. Others might need to move around, take sensory breaks, do Yoga, make a mess with clay, cook a meal together, make a special den, imagine a calm place, complete a puzzle, make a list or listen to a favourite story or a book about anxiety, like ‘The Huge Bag of Worries’ by Virginia Ironside. Lots of helpful ideas for activities can be found in Karen Triesman’s ‘Treasure Deck of Grounding, Soothing, Coping and Regulating cards’.
Young people who are feeling sufficiently safe and regulated might also be able to consider the bigger picture of how their thoughts, feelings, body sensations and behaviour all inter-relate and where they might be able to make one small change which could then have a beneficial knock-on effect. Read more on these approaches in books like ‘Starving the Anxiety Gremlin’ (Kate Collins-Donnelly) and ‘Overcoming your child’s fears and worries’ (Cathy Cresswell).
For young people who are specifically stressed about exams, the following links may be helpful:
– The #NoStressSuccess series of video clips on Youtube about a wide range of opportunities for education and training post-16, made by Brighton Met College students.
– The ASAP Science Youtube clips: 9 Best Scientific Study Tips and 7 Tips to Beat Exam Anxiety.
As supporters of children and young people, one challenge we have is to be regulated in the way that we offer help and ideas. If we overload with strategies and things to ‘do’ to make the stress go away, we can be in danger of increasing pressure rather than decreasing it. If we can remember to be accepting of our children and if we model self-acceptance ourselves, we might go a long way towards helping them effectively manage stress in their lives. Dan Millman has said: “Resistance creates suffering. Stress happens when your mind resists what is. The only problem in your life is your mind’s resistance to life as it unfolds.” And in a similar vein, the following Chinese Proverb tells
us that: “Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.”
Michael Reeves is a Psychotherapist working with children and young people aged 4-18 and/or their parents/carers. He is available as a clinical supervisor for training or practising therapists and counsellors, whose work is primarily focused on children/ families/ parents. He is available at our Lewes Practice.
Further reading by Michael Reeves –