March 2019: Making Stress Your Friend

As March draws to a close, our thoughts turn to spring and flowers and warm sunshine and end of term grades and, for our 8th graders, high school choices and MCAS testing...Oh no!  I can just feel the stress building! 

We have all heard about how dangerous stress can be and how harmful it is for our children (and ourselves) to be under consent pressure. We've heard the links between stress and heart attacks, between stress and high blood pressure, between stress and suicide.  Stress, no matter how we look at it, tends to be seen as harmful. 

The truth is, stress isn't all negative.  While what we call it has changed over the years, psychologists have always looked at stress as multilayered and multidimensional.  There are some kinds of stress that are mostly negative and can have deeply enduring impacts.  Abuse, neglect, poverty, and exposure to violence are examples of this kind of stress.  When these occur, and are continuous, it can build into something called toxic stress, which can lead to all kinds of health (physical and mental) problems. Part of the reason these stressors are so damaging is the aspect of helplessness that comes with them. If we feel that we can not control any aspect of what is happening to us, it can have a more negative effect than when we feel some small bit of control.

In addition, when we are feeling stress, our bodies go into what is known as "flight, fight, or freeze."  You've felt this multiple times in your life, when you are in a situation in which you feel you have to defend yourself.  A silly but effective example would be to imagine yourself in your office or at home, comfortable and relaxed.  Then, all of a sudden and with a great deal of noise and clamor, a bear bursts through the door.  What would happen?  What would you feel?  Likely, your heart would pound, you'd jump up, startled, and you would start breathing very fast.  Some people might start to sweat, others would notice their bodies tensing up.  Very few people would be in this situation and feel hungry or wonder if they left the oven on.  What's happening here is that your body is preparing you to run from (flee) or take on (fight) or play dead for (freeze) the bear.  This is adaptive and useful and has protected us for thousands of years.  The problem is, our bodies are programed to react this way regardless of the perceived threat. It could be a bear or a deadline or a test, but our bodies will respond in the same way. 

In the case of toxic stress, our bodies are in that constant fight, flight, or freeze mode which creates a whole new set of problems.  It would be as if the motor on an engine was constantly revving and running- it would eventually burn out.  We aren't designed to be in a constant state of heightened alert.  Luckily, most of us move in and out of that state throughout our days or weeks.  We may have moments in which we are stressed and reactive but these are often balanced with moments of calm and relaxation.

There is no way to remove stress from our lives.  Even the happiest of events come with some amount of stress.  Weddings?  Joyful and fun but still stressful.  Moving to a new home?  Usually a positive change but still stressful.  Celebrating a birthday?  So much fun but still stressful. So what's the difference?  Why do we respond so differently to "positive" vs "negative" stress? 

The difference is in how we perceive the stress.  If we look at the situation and see it as something fun or something for which we have prepared and are ready, we feel less panicked and the stress has a very different impact than in a situation in which we feel out of control or unprepared.  Even more important is what we do after the stress has passed.  If we can examine the situation and our reactions, learn from them, and make a plan for what to do next time, we become far more resilient and ready to face our world.  

In short, stress is a part of our daily life.  As such, we have to frame it so that we see it as a challenge we can face and learn from, rather than something to be feared. Of course this isn't true for all stress, as mentioned above, but for many of our daily life stressors- tests, grades, deadlines, various decisions- this could be the key to feeling stronger and more empowered.  If we can model this for our children, we can provide them with a powerful tool for managing and coping with their own daily lives and the inherent stress within them. In fact, the only way to build resilience is to experience stress or failure and to have the experience of moving on and forward- if you never fall, you never know how to get back up.

See below for more information on stress and ways to change how we think about it.  It may come as no surprise if you've been reading these entries, that most of how we learn to cope with stress and how we build resilience goes hand in hand with positive, trusted connections with others.

Get outside and enjoy the early spring- research says that even ten minutes of walking outside can improve mood and help us cope more effectively with (you guessed it!) stress.

---Dr. J.

TED talk about making stress your friend
Article from NIMH about stress
Helping your child cope with stress 
APA paper on resilience
How to build resilience in children 

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