Breaking the Cycle of Competitive Stress
The issue with stress, is that it has become almost fashionable to compare:
- Who has the most to do
- To declare how stressed we are
- To tell everyone about how much we have to get done
- To wear our badge of stress and overwhelm as a badge of honour to our friends, family and social media
But, what is the risk? What is the detrimental impact of us using our stress as a badge of honour rather than a warning sign that we need to take drastic action to protect our health and well-being?
Stress / stressed / stressing
Now, the NHS defines stress as: “Stress is the body’s reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure. It’s very common, can be motivating to help us achieve things in our daily life, and can help us meet the demands of home, work and family life”.
Frequently, we hear adults talk about young people having ‘nothing to be stressed about’ – but in reality, in a world with more stressors and triggers than ever before in all age groups, what happens internally?
Stress which is not well managed or is inflicted from external factors can cause physical, emotional and intellectual symptoms. Long term stress which is not managed can cause health issues.
When the brain identifies a situation as a ‘threat’ it activates the chain of behaviours associated with stress, triggering the amygdala and consequently the sympathetic nervous system. This chain of events triggers the central nervous system, which in turn releases adrenalin and cortisol to create the physical responses in the body.
However, these stressors can be internal, external and self-inflicted
They can be caused by:
- Internal issues such as – Health issues, unrealistic expectations, negative self-talk, thoughts and feelings, low self-esteem, an addiction to stress and stressful events, a constant lack of sleep, lifestyle choices such as excessive alcohol, caffeine or sugar, smoking, use of drugs
- External issues – Major life events such as; family breakdowns, financial problems, family issues, abuse, neglect, bullying, bereavement, loss of employment, supporting a family member with an addiction or mental health issue.
- Physical environment – excessive lighting or noise, pollution, unsafe environment, overcrowding,
- Self-inflicted issues such as – over-committing ourselves, not taking breaks, overbooking our diaries, not prioritising self-care
Symptoms of stress
In the short-term, children and adolescents may experience symptoms such as:
- Complain of headaches or dizziness
- Have muscle pains or tension
- Suffer with stomach issues
- Be fatigued
- Have frequent stomach aches
- Make complaints of heart hurting or pounding
- Ringing or noisy ears
- Have difficulty sleeping or nightmares
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Eat more or less than usual
- Regress in behaviours e.g. thumb sucking, bed wetting
- Find it difficult to make a decision
- Become easily distracted
- Become easily upset
- Have difficulty regulating their emotions
- Watch situations with hypervigilance
- Have emotional reactions which are not relative to the situation
- Worry frequently
- Be irritable or agitated
- Be withdrawn
- Have thoughts which are ‘stuck’
- Moodiness or unhappiness
- Have changes in personality, such as going from easy going and confident to fearful and upset
- Becoming easily overwhelmed by situations
- Avoid particular people or situations
- Become easily overwhelmed
- Complain about the environment e.g. sounds, crowding, temperature
- Lose interest in activities that they used to enjoy
- Become agitated or stressed when things do not go to plan
- Become withdrawn or isolated
- Be overly critical or unhappy about situations
- Find it difficult to make a decision
For many, stress may be short term, and quickly over. For instance, a set of exams or a short period of stress after a house move. However, in circumstances where there is a cycle of stressful events, or when stress comes from our physical environment or internal causes what happens?
The frequent issues that I see in my work as a therapist with children and their families who are stressed is that there are themes to the causes of stress:
1 – Young people who overcommit or become addicted to being overwhelmed in a belief that it will make them ‘better’ or more ‘successful’
2 – Parents who overcommit their child to too many activities, events or commitments, such as clubs, activities, school clubs, sports leaving no time in the week to relax
3 – Belief systems installed from parents, professionals or the young person that it is positive to be ‘busy’ but this business has become out of control leaving no time to process, relax or have downtime.
The issue is, that in the short term, the issue may not appear to be an issue – but what happens when it goes on for weeks, months or years?
Chronic stress can cause a range of issues such as:
- Mental health problems
- Memory loss
- Chronic fatigue
- Weight gain
- Reduced immune system
- Digestive issues
- Sleep problems
- Personality disorders
- Cardiovascular disease
- High blood pressure
- Heart attacks
- An increased risk of substance misuse
Long term stress is dangerous. We all have different thresholds for how much stress we can manage and when stress has long term impact on the body, the outcomes can be life changing. So, why on earth do we brag about it?
How is it positive to be so busy that we cannot relax?
How is it something to be proud of that we have excellent grades but our mental health is in tatters?
Is it truly beneficial to keep children and young people so busy that they cannot experience joy or happiness?
Is it worth the drama to go seeking out stressful activities to fill a ‘need’ but to end up with long term psychological problems?
We know that stress is bad for us, so when will we start making time for our health?
As a family or professional, you can support young people by”
#1 – Setting realistic expectations
We need to have realistic expectations. It is not realistic to be at school 830-3 and at after school activities from 330-8 and do homework and have good mental health. Do a regular lifestyle review and diary review and ensure that there is downtime in the week and weekends.
#2 – Being clear on the priorities
Happiness, joy, health and sleep are by far our priorities over over-committing and exhausting ourselves. Whilst academics, activities and sports are important, downtime to relax and develop a sense of self and self-esteem are core to our mental health. Ensure that the week includes activities without expectations and outcomes.
#3 – Exercise and get out in nature
Exercise naturally balances mood and improves mental health, reducing mood disorders and depression. Our brains need endorphins, dopamine and serotonin to feel good. Planning in regular time outside, to allow us to unwind and release those vital neurotransmitters is important to both our mental well-being and our physical health. It also improves our focus, concentration and reduces inflammation in the body.
#4 – Plan some down time
Our brains work 24/7, and in order to process events, they need some time where they can breathe. Therefore, taking some time to rest, relax and recuperate is really important in terms of allowing us to take stock. Staying busy can be great fun, but often it delays the processing and can mean that things catch up with us later. Taking 1-2 days a week for quiet activities, albeit it art, gardening, walks, reading or construction toys etc can allow us some vital downtime.
#5 – Eat well
Our brains are reliant on us providing it with the correct nutrients. When we eat well, we feel better. So, taking the time to try new recipes, cook new foods, or even get out to pick your own farms and collect some wonderful, rainbow coloured ingredients to use at home are perfect ways to improve our well-being.
# 6 – Connect with people
When we spend time with friends and family, it makes us feel better. Connections release oxytocin and dopamine which improves our mood and well-being. Whilst talking on the phone is great, spending time with people in person raises our mental health. Think of that saying ‘when you spend time with people who are good for you, you feel it in your soul’
#7 – Get out in nature
Whilst it might feel tempting to pull the covers over our heads and hide, when we get out in nature (think woodland, beach, hillsides, lakes or mountains) we increase the levels of serotonin and endorphins in our bodies which are natural mood boosters.
#8 – If in doubt seek professional input
If you have concerns about a child or young person’s stress, accessing therapy and supporting resources such as therapeutic stories, hypnotherapy audios, mindfulness or relaxation activities can help children to manage their stress and reduce the impact on their central nervous system.
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For more articles about mental health visit – HERE
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For resources to support child and adolescent mental health visit – HERE