Dealing with stress is an everyday reality for many of us. While we realize that this is often a part of being an adult, we forget that it is an everyday reality for our children too. It is important to be aware of the level of stress our children are experiencing and help them learn strategies to deal with it.
Positive versus negative stress
A certain amount of stress can be motivating and can help individuals mobilize their inner resources, get started, get finished, and meet the challenges of life. Generally, positive stress is when you can identify the source of the stress and meet the challenge. However, when stress is prolonged, or its source is harder to identify, or it is coming from many places at the same time- it is negative stress.
When you are stressed, your body has an alarm reaction. Your body releases stress hormones and mobilizes to either fight off a danger or run away from danger. This is also known as the “fight or flight” response. To be healthy, the body needs to return to normal functioning after the danger has passed. If the stress is prolonged, the body may remain in a heightened state of alarm for long periods of time. Then the alarm state, with its added stress hormones, sensations of fear or feelings of anxiousness, becomes the status quo for that individual. Research has shown that prolonged stress plays a role in many physical disorders such as cancer, heart disease, arthritis, and respiratory diseases, as well as many psychological disorders.
Stress, Anxiety and Learning
Prolonged exposure to stress is associated with higher levels of anxiety, which is known to interfere with learning in many ways. Studies have shown that less anxious children perform better than highly anxious children on tasks such as taking tests, completing homework, and reading. Other research shows that anxiety affects children’s ability to perform difficult or complex tasks, to use learning strategies, and to problem-solve. Finally, brain research is showing that both short-term and long-term memory are inhibited by stress. Researchers have seen changes in the physical structures of the brain of highly stressed individuals, including changes to neural pathways. So, stress interferes with the learning process in many ways.
What Strategies Help to Reduce Stress?
To reduce stress, we need to help the body return to a calm state-one in which hormone levels, heart rate, breathing, and the other manifestations of stress in the body have returned to normal levels. Just as we have a stress response in our body, we also have an innate relaxation response that we can learn to access. Techniques such as meditation, yoga, biofeedback, hypnosis, active imagination and progressive muscle relaxation can help access the relaxation response. Other ways to return the body to an unstressed state include listening to calming music, exercise and movement, reading an engrossing book, or taking a shower or bath.
Another important aspect of dealing with stress is learning to deal with the mind. Often, our thoughts influence how we deal with the challenges of life. Becoming aware of our thoughts and learning how to think more positively can go a long way towards decreasing stress.
How we can Help Our Children
Children can be taught techniques for reducing stress. They can learn to identify situations that trigger their stress response and begin to implement stress-reducing strategies on their own. Adults can help by assisting children in finding time each day for relaxation and supporting them in implementing the new routine. As the demands on children increase and the pace of life gets faster, learning to deal with stress becomes an increasingly important life skill. Reducing stress is crucial for helping children learn and perform optimally at school as well as improving their long-term health and overall quality of life. Children can learn to have a relaxation response instead of a stress response. It is never too late to make positive changes- try it as a family-everyone can benefit!
Information in this article is based on the book, Ready… Set…R.E.L.A.X by Jeffrey S. Allen and Roger J. Klein, Psy.D., Inner Coaching (1996). This book has short relaxation scripts that can be read to your child at an appointed time each day. They are categorized by specific stressful situations they address, including such things as test anxiety, social anxiety and poor self-esteem.