Chronic Stress: What are the signs?
We all talk about stress a lot of the time. Whether it is in relation to the many things that we need to get done in a day, or the workload we have to complete, or juggling demands from family, commitments or health needs. If you followed my blog about competitive stress (find it here) a few weeks ago, you’ll know that we talked about the nature of outdoing each other with how stressed we are, and the dangers that this comes with.
So, what is stress?
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”.
For young people, managing stress can include:
- Managing expectations from parents and teachers
- Managing expectations from themselves
- Navigating social media and the expectations of their generation
- Juggling school work, commitments and extracurricular activities
- Negotiating changing social expectations
- Understanding social and behavioural cues
- Recognising and learning boundaries
- Making judgement calls about what they are and are not comfortable with, and the associated risk of rejection
- Managing online expectations, including gaming, social media, phone and screen time
- Working out what their identity is and where they fit in
When a child feels stressed it means that they feel suffocated by their thoughts or emotions, for some, to the point that they feel that they cannot function. Stress is an intense emotion and causes a flood of emotions in the body. It can create a fight-flight-freeze-faint response which can cause a great deal of discomfort in children.
When stressors occur, the brain reacts from the amygdala – it’s threat sensor. Reactions are emotional, not logical. Children all react differently to stress, just like us. They may fall into different response categories:
- Some children may feel able to bottle the emotions up
- Others may express them early on through behaviours or habit-based reactions
- Some may continually talk about the problem, needing continual reassurance and support
- Others may appear to sail through the event at the time, perhaps with you commenting ‘how amazing they have been’ for them to respond months or years later once the world has ‘settled down’
- Whilst some will process, question and manage the event and have no lasting issues
There are different types of stress, and we can move up and down the sliding scale.
Hypostress – Is boredom related, when we do not have enough structure or challenges
Eustress – Is motivational stress, when we have goals and targets to work towards
Acute Stress – Is when an event happens that causes us stress but it passes e.g. a speeding ticket
Episodic Stress – Is when we have frequent bouts of acute stress occurring in a period of time which overwhelm us, it gives a sense of always being under pressure and things always going wrong.
Chronic Stress – Is when someone has experienced prolonged stress which negatively affects their health and well-being, where someone feels pressured or overwhelmed for a long period
Signs of Chronic Stress
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
But what can it look like in your home or classroom?
- Becoming angry or irritable over small things
- Bursting into tears for no known reason
- Being upset or tearful
- Difficulty relaxing – needing to be on the move
- Restless or agitated
- Frustrated when things do not go to plan
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- Changes in eating patterns
- Feeling numb or frozen
- Feeling anxious
- Worrying, questioning or uncertainty
- Lashing out at others
- Panic attacks
- Negative or destructive thought processes
- Unable to stop their minds or ‘busy brain’
- Feeling tense – including headaches, jaw aches, grinding teeth and aches and pains
- Complaining of being exhausted or fatigued
- Difficulty concentrating
- Over reacting
- A sense of dread when having to approach a task
- A feeling that everything is ‘urgent’
- Flitting from task to task
- Being busy but achieving nothing
- Lack of pleasure or happiness from tasks
- Being self-critical
Note – If your child’s overwhelm is constant and causing them distress, or has no sense of an ‘end’ please ensure that you seek medical advice.
Inflammation in the body
When we experience stress which is not managed, it can create inflammation in the body. This can create health issues in the body. When we experience stress, it releases cortisol and adrenaline in the body (learn more on our stress course) this can create or worsen other medical issue. This can create additional symptoms in the body.
Stress influences our cortisol and adrenaline levels, which create a ‘fight-flight’ response in the body. This can inhibit our digestive system and immunity, and ongoing research is continually highlighting the sensitivities between these areas. Cortisol interacts with our glucose levels, blood sugars and our insulin production. Now consider, when you’re stressed do you always reach out for sugar? Adrenaline interacts with our heart and lungs, affecting airways, oxygen levels and heart rate. This makes our body adapt by using the glycogen in our muscles (stored sugar) to keep us moving – ever felt restless when you are stressed?
The fight-flight response created from ongoing stress means that our body is constantly pushing our energy to our limbs and away from our organs – preparing to fight a bear. In the short term, this is a useful strategy, in the long term, it means that our system can become exhausted, our digestive systems struggle and our immunity drops, making us feel tired, unwell and with no fight left. Leaving our body inflamed. Inflammation is a response to threat. The body treats stress as an invader in the body and tries to fight it. The more chronic our stress, the more unregulated our body becomes. In the long term, where stress remains unmanaged, the inflammation increases. This can cause:
- Digestive issues
- Mood issues
- Cardiovascular issues
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Stress and wider issues
When we feel exhausted, it can be an easy option to reach for pick me ups….sugar, caffeine, energy drinks… However, research shows that these place the body under even more stress, and as such we can exasperate the issues we are already experiencing. Good nutrition, plenty of water and rest are important components of supporting the body.
Steps to reduce it
So, where do we start?
#1 – 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.
#2 – 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.
#3 – 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.
# 4 – 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’
#5 – Reduce unnecessary stressors
Whilst we all feel like we have ‘everything to do’, without our health we will find ourselves doing nothing. Recognising the non-negotiables and those things that we need to limit becomes vital. Asking for help, delegate, extend deadlines or delay or stop unnecessary jobs to give some breathing space.
#6 – Practice daily relaxation
When we are stressed, we need to actively take steps to help the body release it. Breathing exercises, meditation, hypnotherapy audios, therapy, massage etc all help. Regular low impact exercise (walking in nature, yoga, stretching) and drinking plenty of water all contribute. As does taking part in activities for enjoyment (no targets).
#7 – Develop a strong routine
Whilst laying in bed may feel the right way to go, having a clear structure to the day gives the body and brain predictability and supports us to better recognise triggers, stressors and implement self-care.
© Dandelion Training and Development – All Rights Reserved
For more articles about mental health visit – HERE
To learn more about child and adolescent mental health visit – HERE
For resources to support child and adolescent mental health visit – HERE