Stress Management: Learn to Identify What Causes Stress
When we teach our children healthy stress management techniques, we empower them to thrive in an unpredictable world. Stress affects mood and can cause physical discomfort. The actions we take to feel better can either help us grow stronger or damage our health, well-being, and even relationships. And one of the keys to taking effective action is helping teens understand what’s causing the stress in the first place.
Stress is Not All Bad
Stress can be a good thing. A small amount of stress focuses attention and enhances performance. Genuinely life-threatening crises send the mind and body into survival mode. This literally saves lives by preparing us to connect to others, escape, and even fight when necessary.
The problem is that the body’s stress-response system was not designed for today’s world. Long ago — when people were jungle dwellers — having an emergency nervous system helped ensure survival. One never knew if a tiger might jump out and attack at any moment. If that were to happen, they thought about nothing but running away from it. There was no stopping to try and work things out with the tiger! When we generate the same response to a mild (not really dangerous!) stressor as we would to a true life or death emergency, it can be self-destructive. This is the reason understanding stress management techniques is so critical to a teenager’s short and long-term health and happiness.
Stress Biology 101
The stress response prepares our body so we can run from dangers we encounter. When it is fully activated we feel it immediately. We get butterflies as blood shifts to muscles so we can run. Our heart beats fast so it can pump the blood. Breathing intensifies so it can oxygenate that blood. We sweat to cool off. And our pupils dilate so we are less likely to trip as we run away.
During times of extreme stress we are not supposed to think or solve problems. After all, you wouldn’t turn to a tiger and ask, “Can’t we just work this out?” You run! Nor are you supposed to ask the tiger what it feels like for him to want to eat you. In times of maximal stress, we can’t empathize or think clearly. This basic understanding of stress biology offers a starting point for being able to effectively guide our teens to manage stress.
Have a Mindset of Resilience
There are some stressful events that require the strongest and most immediate reactions. Natural disasters. Dangerous people. A tiger on the prowl. There are other stressors for which deep feelings are a critical step towards healing. A death in the family. The loss of a cherished relationship. These real crises demand every drop of energy. The stress response system is designed to get us through these times.
But most crises are not life threatening. Arguments with friends. Grades. Even losing a job. If the stress response system is fully activated in reaction to these difficult but safe situations, it undermines our ability to get through them. In these cases, maintaining focus, problem solving, and empathy are each key to overcoming the challenge.
Resilient people conserve energy. They control how deeply stress gets under their skin. They do the hard work of preventing everyday stresses from being blown out of proportion. They focus when needed. They run when they should. We must remind our teens of this important tactic.
Avoid Catastrophic Thinking
Viewing a “threat” out of proportion to its real potential for danger is’ known as “catastrophic thinking.” A person who experiences catastrophic thinking may be highly anxious and mistrustful. They may lose the focus, concentration, or social skills needed to resolve the issue. For these reasons, it is important to teach our children to reframe negative or catastrophic thoughts. We are not saying to paint everything through rose-colored glasses. Rather, we’re saying an accurate, realistic assessment of a situation allows the situation to be handled with confidence.
Distorted or catastrophic thinking gives too much power to what might otherwise be a manageable situation. The simple suggestions provided here are rooted in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a well-tested strategy that shifts people to healthy thinking patterns. If you think you or your adolescent could use even more practice, consider looking for a professional who uses CBT to support clients.
Parents as Role Models
Your words will remain in your children’s thoughts for years to come as they work to realistically assess challenges as the first step towards overcoming them. I often think of my grandmother’s words. She’d always say “This too shall pass.” Then with a twinkle in her eye she’d add, “With a sense of humor you can get through anything.”
As critical as words may be, your wisdom is best shared through actions. By watching you, your children develop the “muscle memory” to make wise decisions. From you they learn that they can choose how to react. They learn how to control their thoughts, enabling them to remain calm even during moments of panic. And from you they can learn to gain composure when life feels out of control. Taking care of yourself, and actively demonstrating how you do so, is a strategic act of effective parenting.
Three Questions to Put Things in Perspective
Three questions can help control thinking and allow a situation to be viewed through a realistic lens.
- Is this a real tiger or a paper tiger?
- Is this problem temporary?
- Is this good situation permanent?
Real Tiger or Paper Tiger
The mindset of resilience begins with the ability to distinguish real tigers from paper tigers — things that stress us out but pose no real danger. If we can’t tell the difference between the two, our fight or flight system gets revved up, preventing us from using our ability to think, feel, and problem-solve. We are designed to run from tigers. And when we do, the thinking, rational part of the brain shuts down because this is the time to escape not negotiate. It is the time to flee, not feel.
The problem is sometimes we mount this efficient escape system in situations that stress us out, but are not threats to survival. When we do this, we lose the ability to think practically despite the fact that thinking offers the best chance of resolution.
If tweens or teens think getting a B+ on a test is a tiger, they’ll never focus on the test. If they misread your disappointment as a threat they’ll never see your viewpoint. They should start with the question, “Is this a real tiger or a paper tiger?” Then learn to say to themselves, “No tiger here!” when there’s no potential for real physical harm. “It’s only a paper tiger.” They can take a few deep breaths and restore calm. And then they can face a realistic challenge with focused attention and increased empathy.
Is This Problem Temporary?
When a problem strikes, many imagine it will lead to a larger problem or that the consequences will be far-reaching and long-lasting. We must teach our children to learn to ask themselves, “How will I feel in a week or even a month?” If the answer is, “I won’t be upset about this,” they can reassure themselves with the reminder, “This too shall pass.” When your child is barely able to contain his/her worry, give comfort with the reassuring phrase “You’ll get through this.” With your words or continued presence communicate “I’ll be by your side.” In his book, The Optimistic Child, Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, writes about the benefits of viewing problems as short-lived and resolvable.
Is This Good Thing Permanent?
Sometimes even when good things happen it can trigger anxiety. People may believe their luck will run out and they’ll be overcome by a “fear of failure.” Precisely because something good has happened they become anxious that they may not remain deserving and will lose their good fortune. This expectation of impending failure reinforces a lack of control. In a self-defeating preemptive strike, some people may choose self-sabotage rather than take the chance they will be hurt later. We must work to make sure this isn’t our children’s first reaction.
Instead, remind them that good things can be permanent. Let them know they were deserving and earned the good circumstances they find themselves in. The challenge is to continue creating the circumstances where good things will come to them rather than assume they will be taken away.
The Power of Yet: A Word That Shows Change is Possible
Self-defeating thoughts often begin with words like “I never” or “I can’t.” This leaves no room for progress because hope is undermined. Help your children learn to add the transformative word “yet” to their thoughts. “I can’t solve this problem” becomes, “I can’t solve this problem yet.” Hope restored. Now make an action plan.
We want our children to possess a mindset that doesn’t accept failure as a permanent state but sees setbacks as opportunities to try yet again. Throughout their lives, we want them to see their limitations as challenges they have not yet learned to overcome or work around.