Let’s Talk About Stress!

During this unprecedented time, many of us have been under what would be classified as Chronic Stress. Have you ever wondered what the body does when we encounter so much stress for so long? Below we talk about the stress response in the brain in both adults and children. It is our hope that some of the tips and resources in this article can help anyone who is feeling the effects of stress.

What is the Stress Response in the brain?

Our brains have amazing abilities. When we are faced with stress our bodies react in a particular way to keep us safe and our brains coordinate that physical response. There are several parts of the brain that work together: the amygdala, the hippocampus, the hypothalamus, and the prefrontal cortex. When we are startled or experiencing stress our amygdala activates our stress response system. Have you heard of fight, flight, or freeze? That’s our stress response system! When the amygdala detects stress it sends messages to the other parts of our brains to do things like increase our heart rate and breathing, increase blood flow to certain muscles and dilate our pupils. Our hypothalamus sends the hormone cortisol to make our bodies do all these things so that if we were faced with real danger, our bodies would be able to do things like run away or hide from a threat or maybe even defend ourselves. When we are faced with real danger our brains focus most of their energy into the fight, flight or freeze response so other parts of our brains may not work as well in those moments.

What about our Children?

Our children are still learning about stress, their prefrontal cortex is still developing which means they don’t always have the ability to make good choices when faced with stress. Children with neurodevelopmental differences such as ADHD, FASD, Autism or Learning Disabilities may have a more difficult time coordinating their Stress Response System. When we look at the diagram below, we can see how things like memory, planning, impulse control, and sensory processing all play a huge part in how our brain calms the amygdala. For example, in children with ADHD, development of the prefrontal cortex happens more slowly (as much as 30% slower than in children without ADHD). Our children with neurodevelopmental differences may need some extra support learning about stress.

Stress can actually be healthy! Brief experiences of minor stress can teach our children that small challenges are okay. It can teach them resilience. However, prolonged stress can have big impacts on our overall health, and children with developmental disabilities are at a greater risk for adverse effects.

What can we do to decrease stress?

There are many ways to decrease stress and to teach our children to as well. Understanding the stress response is a great step in understanding how important it is to take small steps towards managing it over time.

Ideas for Adults:

  1. Learning how to relax has been noted as an important way to decrease stress. Learning how to do deep abdominal breathing, meditate, focusing on a word that may be soothing (breathe, calm, still etc.), visualization, yoga and tai chi have all been noted as proven ways to relax.
  2. Physical activity in a moderate way to help deepen breathing and reduce muscle tension.
  3. Having a social network of friends, family and coworkers that are supportive has also been proven to be an essential part in supporting you emotionally decreasing chronic stress in the times of emotional crisis.

Idea for Children:

Try these daily stressbusters from verywellfamily.com:

At Home
Keep up with your family routines. Enjoy some fun activities together like playing games, reading stories or plan a movie night. Predictable time together at home can prevent anxiety and help our kids decompress in a secure environment.

Keep Kids Involved
Provide opportunities where your child can make decisions and choose what happens in their day.Let your child know about upcoming changes and invite conversation about new things. Kids are calmer when they feel successful, so sports and social activities are great ways to help calm our children’s stress response systems.

Your Actions
Children will practice self-care when they witness their parents doing the same. Keep an eye out for unusual behaviors as possible indicators of unresolved or prolonged stress. Be an active listener for your child and work with them to brainstorm solutions to any problems that come up.
Provide positive reinforcement and encouragement.

Resources that may be helpful?

Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre

Anxiety Canada

Vernon Family Resource Centre

Child and Youth Mental Health
https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/health/managing-your-health/mental-health-substance-use/ child-teen-mental-health

CMHA Vernon