According to an article I read recently, 82% of Indians are stressed today. Has stress increased over the years? If I were to compare the lifestyle of my grandparents with mine, I would say I barely have time for myself, I am constantly grappling with deadlines, work and personal, and my head is buzzing with the many to-do lists that I keep making, in fact, I am even stressing about giving myself some me-time or pursuing a hobby. Blame it on the fast-paced technology-driven world we are living in or the multitasking attitude that seems to be the new normal, we are definitely adding a lot to our plates. What about stress in children? Yes, children are equally impacted by stress.
What is stress?
“Stress” is originally a term used in engineering and physics, meaning the force exerted on an object. For example, when you press a rubber ball forcefully with your finger, you create an indentation. The condition in which the ball is under pressure by such exterior force is called stress.
Who was the first to use the word “stress” as a medical term?
Dr Hans Selye (1907-82) of the University of Montreal in Canada, a pioneer in stress research, used it for the first time in an article written in 1935. He referred to the tension produced when a person receives a stimulus as “stress” and the stimulus itself as the “stressor”. Nowadays, we use the term stress to mean both the stimulus or origin of the tension and the reaction to it.
In layperson language, stress is a feeling of tension or pressure, this could be physical or emotional. It may occur due to an event, a person, or even a thought. In a stressful situation, one feels emotionally drained, frustrated, angry, confused or nervous. The element leading to stress is called a stressor.
If stress continues even after the stressor has left, it is called anxiety.
How does stress affect our physical and mental health?
Sometimes the source of stress as explained above is an external stimulus but it could also be over imaginary things conjured up in the mind. Fear and anxiety, uselessly fretting over a situation ultimately lead to a build-up of stress.
Robert M. Sapolsky makes an interesting observation in his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, where he draws a comparison between how humans create stress as opposed to other mammals.
He says, ‘Unlike, say zebras on the African savannah, humans can feel and create stress with the help of our evolved and complex brains. This makes humans susceptible to all kinds of stressors, such as problems envisioned in the future, that other mammals do not experience. This stress is not only bad in itself, but it also has effects on our cardiovascular system, insulin production, reproduction and, in the end, our overall health.”
Stress has ill effects on physical health, yes, but also leads to mental health issues like depression, which is common in both adults and children.
What are the different kinds of stress?
When stress leads to a brief increase in heart rate and there are mild elevations in stress hormone levels, it is considered positive stress. If one tackles stress at moderate levels every day, it may actually positively impact one’s life. In fact, some researchers also call positive stress, eustress.
So what does positive stress look like? In an adult’s life, it could be the first day at a new workplace or meeting one’s prospective life partner, or going on a blind date. In a child’s life, it could be learning how to ride a bicycle or swim, going to the doctor’s clinic for a flu shot, a stage performance etc. These stressful experiences are actually good for a person. In children, it may even build resilience.
Let’s face it, one cannot fully avoid stress. However, sometimes stress may lead to alerting the body’s responses to a great degree. There are certain activities that may cause stress albeit temporarily and can be reduced by the support received from one’s caring support system. For an adult, it could be shifting homes or cities, saying goodbye to a pet, getting a serious injury, or a natural disaster. For a child, it could be moving cities, going to a new school, getting bullied, getting separated from friends, or losing a pet.
Some researchers called negative stress, distress. They are rare but not uncommon. In adults, these could be losing a loved one, going through a heartbreak, physical or sexual abuse, finding out about a life-threatening disease etc. In children, it could be losing a parent or loved one, physical or sexual abuse, violence at home, etc. These situations produce toxic stress that may permanently alter the way an individual functions.
Stress in Children
The ongoing uncertainty, loss of loved ones, grief that has not been dealt with, lack of social interactions, fewer opportunities to step out of the house, fear of contracting infections, fear of falling behind academically and many other factors have led to rising stress and anxiety in children. Many young children and young adults are heavily weighed down by the stress Covid-19 have brought with it.
Extreme stress is leading to mental health issues like depression and lifestyle diseases like diabetes and obesity in children. In fact, because adults around children are battling with mental issues too, it is leading to a chain effect.
Talking from personal examples, I have been battling mental health issues for a few months now. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you that a fortnight before writing this article, I was cooped up in bed, feeling hopeless, desolate and not having the desire to live anymore. I was in a dire frame of mind and had almost given up the hope of going on!
I had to seek professional help in order to come out of the quicksand of depression. At the onset, my psychologist asked me why I was feeling like this. I had to identify the ‘trigger’. When I reflected deeply, it turned out that it all started upon my return from a long vacation. As soon as I reached home I was overwhelmed with all that needed to be done. I was anxious about all the responsibilities that lay ahead of me. I was in charge here and it scared me! Fear and anxiety gripped me and my mind told me just to forget about everything and hide.
It is only when I spoke to my psychologist did the gravity of my situation sank in. She explained that my mind was conjuring up these fears and making me feel incapable of rendering my responsibilities. The only way to change this was by changing the direction of my own thought process. I decided to give up everything because there were other people filling in for my responsibilities. She put it in a very straightforward manner to me. I could hide and sleep all day because I had the ‘luxury’ to do so. But what if my support system decided to give up on me? I would be left with no choice but to go on with my responsibilities. Her words came across as a sharp sword piercing my very being. I gathered myself and, bit by bit, with the support of my family, I am back to the normal self that I am.
The immense stress that I experienced was self-created. It was the devilish working of my own mind. I know now that I must pick my thoughts wisely. Our mind thinks up of many things, we must be judicious enough to retain a few and discard the others. If this indeed is the key to living a stress-free life then how does one train their mind to do this? How does one sift out the safe thoughts from the unsafe ones?
It’s all about mindfulness. And, this is how we can help our children. Let me explain this better.
My eight-year-old son would dread going to school every Friday as his swimming lessons were scheduled on that day. Before I understood the solution to sifting safe and unsafe thoughts, every Thursday would end up in an argument with him. I would throw harsh words his way without realizing that the fear of the swimming lesson was leading to stress in him, I would force him to go to school.
Then one Thursday I sat down and we talked about it. For once, I heard him out and explained that running away from the problem would be no good. How many Fridays could he avoid going to school? It would be better to confront his fears and conquer them once and for all. He opened up about his fear of drowning. I explained to him that it was his mind creating an irrational or negative thought in his head. I had to assure him of his safety so I spoke at length about adult supervision and even safety gear. Somewhere during our discussion, I could see him calming down. All he needed was reassurance from an adult he trusted, his mother. Suffice it to say, this discussion has led to peaceful Thursdays and cheerful Fridays. In fact, he is actually enjoying his swimming lessons now.
I mindfully steered his thoughts in the right direction. I held his hand and helped him sift out the unsafe thoughts and discard them. I helped him manage and regulate his emotions.
Coping with stress and emotions is possible.
The Science behind Stress
Understanding it from a more scientific point of view, the brain releases hormones into the bloodstream under stress. These can have long-lasting effects on the body. Having enormous levels of these hormones makes it difficult to have normal stress responses and recovery.
While under stress, the body puts on hold regular maintenance functions like tissue repair, digestion etc. If that happens for a long time nothing in the body will ever get repaired. As a result, there is less surplus energy, more fatigue, increased risk for ulcers and greater vulnerability to infectious diseases.
Stress can also become the cause of underlying diseases like arterial and heart diseases, increased risk of diabetes, and issues in the reproductive system. Stress produces changes in the brain that resemble depression and make recovery from trauma more difficult. Interestingly, the changes that take place in the brain and behaviour of a depressed person are actually very similar to those experienced by a stressed person. Stress saps dopamine from our pleasure pathways, making us less likely to feel pleasure. The workings of the human mind are subtle though. Many people can maximize their potential while they are stressed, so it really depends on how we act under stress. Stress is unavoidable both for children and adults alike. So balancing stress response systems is the key.
How can parents reduce stress in children’s lives?
- First, it’s important to identify that you/your child are stressed. If you notice a change in their behaviour, sleeping pattern, or eating habits, if they appear dull and low on energy, if they are not opening up easily and prefer to be on their own, they may be stressed. Be vigilant and available.
- Try and recognize signs of stress that are unresolved in your child. Perhaps they are still grieving the loss of a loved one/pet even though you may have moved on.
- Mindfully sifting thoughts go a long way in helping one feel more in control. Be a role model. Stress is often transferable, so keep your stress under control by practising mindful sifting of negative/unsafe thoughts.
- Provide a safe space for a child to express their fears without the fear of being judged. Communicate constantly with your child. Positive experiences and family time can help alleviate stress.
- If your child is prone to get stressed, always prepare them if there is a change coming.
- Physical activities, exercise, yoga and deep breathing keep stress at bay. Even Reading books and storytelling goes a long way in battling stress.
- Avoid rebuking your child for scoring poorly/underperforming in a sport, instead understand what caused it by listening out to them.
- Do not compare your child to anyone, each child is a unique individual. Do not shame them for fearing things.
- Offer support. Be patient and remain calm. Do not shy away from seeking professional help.
Stress occurs as a means to keep us alive in life or death situations. But in the modern world, we stress out about everything, from missed deadlines to imaginary arguments. All this stress is terrible for the body, and for the sake of our health, we must teach our children how to cope with stress better.