Stress and Our Kids – Part 2 (of 5)

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Lazy, unstructured time has become a rarity for today’s hurried kids – and they are paying the price in terms of stress.  This stress is showing up in a growing number of illnesses in our kids, often unrecognized because a stressful lifestyle has become our new “normal” for how we do life today.  Some kids develop psychosomatic problems such as stomach-aches, nervousness, tics and headaches; other kids become more susceptible to colds, flus, and other infections because their immune systems become weakened; and kids who struggle with chronic allergies or asthma find that stress makes their problems worse.

Behavioural problems are also on the increase:  stressed-out kids may be hyperactive or have difficulty controlling their anger; they may have trouble sleeping or concentrating, and they may have nightmares or wet their bed.  I’m seeing a growing number of kids diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety, as well as problems regulating their emotions.  There’s also been a significant increase in drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, depression and suicidality amongst our teens.  While every child who experiences stress won’t get sick, become severely depressed or attempt suicide – the truth is that stress has consequences and our kids are experiencing more and more of that.

But beyond the traumatic or unpleasant areas of life as a source of stress, there is much less research directed toward helping parents and kids cope with everyday stress, ongoing stress and enjoyable stress.  Most people understand how unpleasant or traumatic life experiences can stress out a child, but we either ignore or fail to understand how the apparently exciting, challenging and positively demanding experiences of childhood can also produce stress.

Most of us understand the “fight or flight” response that our body has, where our body becomes hyper-aroused to deal with some perceived danger.  Without an outlet to deal with that perceived danger, our body responds to the stress with physical symptoms – this is probably something all of us have experienced and understand.  But it’s often the insidious stress of daily life where our body reacts to positive challenges that we miss.  In the end, our symptoms are exactly the same – the first from our “fight or flight response” but the latter, from “overstimulation” stress – same results that are damaging to our health and well-being.  I work with many clients, including young people, who are suffering from burn-out and what we call adrenal fatigue because of too much stimulation with too high expectations, too much work, too many exciting opportunities, and for kids, too much extreme sports or an over-stimulation of their brains from video games and movies.

Let me explain some more what happens to the body with stress – remember that ANY type of arousal to the body is considered stress – that is whenever the body is physically or mentally “stirred up” enough to focus on some activity and carry it out.  Every child must therefore embrace a certain degree of stress – it’s where we get the term “good stress” – but whether a child is listening to music, playing a game, competing in a sport, or observing a catastrophe, all of the body’s responses to these situations are called stress.

In one sense, all of these experiences are the same; they differ only in the intensity of the physical and emotional reaction.  But there’s another factor that differentiates between stress that is normal and healthy and stress that is damaging, and that is duration – the longer the body remains in a state of excitement, no matter the level, the greater the potential for stress damage.

So what might some of these longer term stresses be?  A child who suffers a lengthy illness will experience prolonged stress and be at greater risk for stress disease; so will a child who becomes the pawn in a lengthy divorce proceeding.  But so will a child who competes regularly in high-tension sports tournaments or who is allowed a steady diet of high stimulation TV or video games.  The longer the stress stays around, the greater the potential for damage.  In other words, the only good stress is short-term stress.

To understand how stress impacts our bodies, let’s talk about the adrenaline connection.  Whether it’s exciting video games, thrilling roller coasters, or winning a hockey game, an adrenaline surge is triggered in our bodies – this causes feelings of pleasure in our bodies.  Kids and adults are coming to depend on that “rush” of adrenaline-rousing activities.  You ever find yourself seeking to do something “fun” or “exciting” or “challenging” because you’re feel de-motivated or bored?  You ever say to yourself, I work best under pressure?  It’s all adrenaline.

Adrenaline is the “fight or flight” hormone but it’s also the “spicy” hormone that gives zest to life.; that rush of adrenaline is what fuels the surge of excitement we feel as we go water-skiing or step onto a stage.  It’s the hormone of excitement and it can make us feel more competent and alive, provide a heightened sense of well-being, increase our energy levels, and reduce the need for sleep.  But it’s all at a price – humans weren’t designed to live at a constant state of arousal.  Instead, we need a balance of high and low arousal.

So what happens if we don’t maintain this balance?  After extensive studies, researchers have concluded that over-arousal of the adrenal system is the core of stress problems.   On top of that, we also become accustomed to abnormally high levels of adrenaline.  If we’re constantly stimulated, that level of stimulation begins to lose its pleasure value and our need for stimulation gradually increases.  There’s now a disorder called anhedonia plaguing our teens which looks like depression but is actually the inability to experience pleasure because of the over-stimulation of their adrenal system.

So, what are some of the common causes of high adrenaline in our kids?  Here are some of the primary culprits:

Pressures.  Many of today’s kids feel tremendous pressure to perform, to compete, to succeed, to be the best.  Even though parents rarely overtly say, “we’ll only love you if you live up to our standards”, the reality is that our kids internalize that message nevertheless; we do that when we praise them for their performance, when we brag about how well they do in school or sports to our friends, when we model high achievement and success, when they hear us commenting on or criticizing how others are doing, when they don’t see us dealing with failure.

Noise.  Noise, especially loud or sudden noise, is received by the body as a threat and therefore stimulates the release of adrenaline.  While the brain tries to ignore noise and will eventually seem to tune it out, the body is still responding by feeling threatened.  There are many kinds of noises from city and traffic noise, to the hum of computers to loud TVs and loud music.  For kids, loud music may not bother them but it is still stimulating the adrenaline system.

Over-Crowding.  If you live in the city or even the suburbs, chances are you drive on roads that are busy, shop in malls that are crowded, and your kids go to schools that are over-crowded.  Studies show that kids who are constantly in high-density situations have higher adrenaline arousal – they become more competitive, feel more irritable and tense and easily annoyed.

TV, Video Games, Electronics.  The visual media, particularly violent ones, are directly stimulating, but even daily programming encourages hyperactivity with its frequently changing scenes.  Even commercials with their fast-moving, high-stimulation visuals are culprits.  Unfortunately, the over-use of these electronics can have many negative impacts:   they can prevent kids from learning to concentrate; reduce our kids’ ability to cope with stress and to enjoy low-arousal alternative activities such as bike-riding or imaginary play; stunt their verbal ability, social skills and motor development; and impede their development good listening skills.

Emotions.   When the emotions of anger or fear are triggered, large amounts of adrenaline are released because the body believes it’s being threatened.  Kids naturally tend to be quicker to anger and to fear because they haven’t yet learned to control their emotions.  However, adrenaline-producing emotions can become habits and even become addictive, especially anger.  Because that state of adrenaline arousal can be enjoyable, a child can easily make it a permanent part of his or her psyche.  This child then reacts to even the mildest forms of frustration with anger because “letting off steam” feels good – the anger also gives the child a sense of power and of being in control – but it can also lead to a bad habit that not only destroys relationships but eventually damages health.

“Extreme” Sports.  In our North American society, a strong value is placed on working hard, but then “playing hard” as a reward.  And so more and more children are exposed to exciting activities, sports and hobbies that regularly produce a “high”.  Even “normal” childhood activities such as bike-riding has become more about “trick-biking” and risky challenges than about an opportunity to get some exercise and explore the outdoors.

While the “adrenaline rush” can be pleasurable, it can also produce a let-down and even depression-like symptoms.  These are like withdrawal symptoms and include irritability, restlessness, a strong compulsion to “do something”, poor concentration and feelings of depression.  We now see how addicted to thrills and excitement our entire culture is – we need excitement, we love a challenge, and we avoid boredom at all costs.

What does this mean for our kids?  I speak more in parts 4 and 5 about the many ways we can help “stress-proof” our kids, but a sobering truth we need to look at very seriously is the way in which we allow – and even encourage or model – the non-stop quest for thrills, excitement and challenges.  The habits of adrenaline arousal in childhood will often lead to adrenaline addiction so that their bodies adapt and high adrenaline becomes the norm.  But because the wear and tear on the body and mind increases dramatically under higher levels of general arousal, we need to teach our kids how to control their level of arousal and literally “switch off” their adrenaline when it’s no longer needed.  Their very health, happiness and longevity depend on it.

Stay tuned for part 3 of this series next week when I talk about some of the signs of stress to look for in your child or teen.  If you missed reading part 1 of this series from last week, be sure to check it out!


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