Stress is a necessary part of life. People have a special nervous system designed to manage stress. The stress response keeps us alive while under threat. During the stress or “fight or flight” response, the sympathetic nervous system instantly puts all body systems into emergency mode. Pupils instantly constrict to improve eyesight. Substances like adrenaline and glucose are released into the bloodstream to maximize strength. Breathing, heart rate and blood pressure increase in preparation for the fight or the escape.
Besides its usefulness for survival, the stress response also is responsible for motivation to act, prompt reaction time and a robust response to pressure. In other words, the same parts of the brain that cause people to slam on the brakes to avoid a car crash also cause them to prepare for an exam, try to look their best, and put effort into the things they do and say.
Stress becomes a bad thing when it becomes too overwhelming. Sometimes the stress response is not enough to prevent harm from the triggering threat, resulting in trauma. Other times, the stress response goes on for too long, depleting the body’s energy stores and causing neurohormonal derangements. Too much stress leads to physical and/or mental illness.
Stress on the developing brain
Dramatic changes in sympathetic nervous system reactivity occur during adolescence. Stress sensitivity and responsiveness appear to be greatly increased during this time of rapid neuronal growth. As a result, teens may be more sensitive to stress and have more pronounced responses. Also, teens may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of prolonged or repeated stress.
The effects of stress can be adaptive, resulting in greater self-confidence and resilience, or triumph over adversity. Maladaptive effects can include mental and behavioral disorders, such as depression, anxiety and substance use. Parents can be instrumental in helping their children cope and adapt in a healthy manner.
How to help children cope
Social support and health-related behavior have long been recognized to buffer stress in people of all ages, including children and teens. Healthy relationships and lifestyles are instrumental for healthy coping.
- Set the example.
Children learn primarily by example. When parents handle stress in healthy ways, children tend to do the same. Setting a good example every day by getting enough rest, sleep and nutrition is essential. Children thrive in healthy, consistent environments.
- Communicate honestly and openly.
When parents communicate openly and honestly with their children, family members and friends, children learn to do the same. They learn how to express themselves and their fears to others, and to whom they should talk about what. They also learn the value of friendships and how important they can be during times of stress.
- Have fun.
Demonstrating a healthy balance of work and play teaches children how to live a balanced life. When work is done for the day, teens shouldn’t be left alone to isolate themselves. Family time with teens allows them the opportunity to relax, share their lives and learn the value of laughter.
Healthy relationships and lifestyles coupled with open communication and laughter provide a solid foundation to manage whatever stress may come along. Coping with the fast pace of modern society and its electronics, alcohol, drugs and violence can be a real challenge to teens and their families, but handling these challenges together promotes growth.
When physical or behavioral symptoms of stress affect daily life, prompt intervention and treatment may be necessary to prevent negative long-term consequences.
At White River Academy, we integrate multidisciplinary strategies to promote lasting behavioral health in young men ages 12 to 17. When stress becomes overwhelming, the White River Academy in beautiful Delta, Utah, offers state-of-the-art care, education and growth opportunities that can lead to a bright future. We treat every patient and his family with respect and understanding, helping them to heal and attain their potential. Our financial counselors can provide insurance solutions, resources and information about how to access the best care possible. For more information, please call our 27/7 helpline.
About the author
Dana Connolly, Ph.D., translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education.