Stress Is Real for Adults and Children: What You Should Know
Stress impacts adults and children alike. Get tips for recognizing and managing stress in people of all ages from licensed clinical psychologist Jenna Mendelson, PhD, in this 2 Your Well-Being discussion with WFMY News 2.
What exactly is stress?
“I think in our current cultural context, stress has a lot of negative associations but actually the formal definition of the word is pretty neutral – it's any environmental or physical pressure that elicits a response from an organism. And when you think about it that way, it's actually something that's been really necessary and important for adaptation and survival and in our modern world. Some degree of stress is healthy and can help us grow as people and achieve our personal goals. But it’s not some amount of stress is healthy and normal and just a part of day-to-day life – it's really when it keeps on going at elevated levels for an extended period of time that it can become problematic.”
What are signs that stress is having a negative impact on you?
“So stress is a very real physiological response that humans have adapted to have over time… we can experience physiological symptoms of stress, and those can include general muscular aches and pains, chest pains or feeling like your heart is racing, feeling exhausted all the time or having trouble sleeping, headaches or dizziness, or even shaking. High blood pressure can be the result of stress, muscle tension or jaw clenching, and even stomach and digestive problems can all be the result of stress.”
“Of course there are also emotional symptoms of stress, and that can include being generally more emotional than usual, so being quicker to get angry or quicker to become tearful. That can be a symptom of excessive stress. Feeling overwhelmed or on edge can be a symptom of stress, having trouble keeping track of things or remembering things that you need to remember, having trouble focusing and having trouble getting things done like having the initiative to start and see things all the way through – those can all also be symptoms of stress."
Does stress show up in children in the same way it does in adults?
“Many of those same symptoms do show up in children, but something that can be a little different among kids is they may not know that what they're experiencing is stress, or they may not have the words to express it. So it can come out a little bit differently, such as in the form of abrupt behavioral changes. Children acting extra grouchy or even acting out in an angry or aggressive way can be the result of stress. Children who are avoiding things that they used to enjoy or trying not to do things that they used to easily do, that can also be a sign of stress.”
What are things we can do to manage stress?
“Some healthy things that we could all do to manage stress: Exercise is really, really effective at managing stress. What typically gets recommended is 30 minutes a day, five days a week. There's some newer research that's come out suggesting that shorter, more intense bursts of exercise – like 10 or 15 minutes – can actually have a comparable benefit. So I tend to recommend just starting where you are and doing what you can. These benefits are so well documented that I think when starting some kind of exercise, you can anticipate to feel a little bit better. Also maintaining social support – I think a lot of times when we get stressed out, we can feel like we don't have time to talk to friends on the phone or arrange to get together, when actually making time for those kinds of activities and connecting with the people we love can be a way to manage our stress and be more effective in our day-to-day lives.”
How do we know when stress has become too much?
“A major red flag that stress may have gotten to be too much is if you start having thoughts like ‘it wouldn't be so bad if I didn't wake up tomorrow,’ where it's not quite like suicidal ideation, but like you're feeling like it would be pretty good if this situation ended. That is a good sign that you are dealing with too much stress, the situation has become too much, and it's time to get help. I often say though, you don't have to wait until it's a crisis to get help. In fact, in many ways, it's better to just get some help if you're feeling like there's stress in your life and you could use some better coping strategies. Kind of like when you do your proactive doctor's appointments, that kind of thing, just to tune up to make sure that you're in the right place mentally, physically, all of that.”
How has COVID-19 impacted kids’ mental health?
“COVID has really triggered a mental health crisis among children and adolescents in the US, and really around the world. There's now a really strong body of evidence indicating that rates of depression and anxiety are higher than ever among children and especially older adolescents, girls and people with neurodiversities. So it's really a crisis.”
What can parents and caregivers do to help their kids manage stress?
“The kids who were able to cope more effectively with COVID and not go on to develop depression and anxiety had a few factors in place, including regular exercise, regular connection with some kind of social support, positive relationships with their families and access to some kind of entertainment, which, of course, was really hard during the initial COVID lockdowns, but luckily has gotten easier – entertainment like going to baseball games, and going to museums and science centers. and things of that nature.”
Learn more by watching the full video interview above.