So you have a child experiencing teen stress. Want a good role model for stress management? Get a dog.
Unless you pick a Chihuahua, your pooch will likely loll around most of the time, looking out the window, relaxing, sniffing, breathing with the measured skill of a yogi, etc. But the second a threat arises (whether it’s mail poking through the mail slot or a squirrel invading the yard), your dog bursts into action; barking, chasing, chewing and otherwise exerting her prerogative to protect and to serve. Then, once the squirrel is gone or the mail’s been chewed to death, it’s back to her blankie to rest until the next emergency.
Stress is intended as a situational response to an immediate threat; its purpose is to rally all of the mental, emotional and physical resources at our disposal so that, like your dog when the mail arrives, you can instantly spring into action to tackle an emergency. When we detect a threat it triggers a stress response almost immediately. The hypothalamus hollers at the adrenal gland to pump out adrenaline and cortisol. Your heart rate, breathing and blood pressure spike; your metabolism goes into overdrive. Blood speeds to your muscles and your liver releases glucose for energy. Your pupils dilate to improve vision. Beads of cooling sweat appear on your forehead. You’re ready to chase, to fight, to conquer, or to run like heck. All of these physical changes prepare a person (or dog) to react quickly and effectively handle the threat. Once the threat is gone, though, your stress should be gone too. Like your canine mentor, you should be ready for a nap.
But where most dogs have only a few stress triggers that get pulled with just enough frequency to make their day interesting, their unfortunate owners have created a world of unrelenting stress. For teens, who are emotionally charged to begin with and haven’t yet learned to cope with adult-style pressure, stress may seem to circle constantly, threatening and taunting. Tests, gossip, competitions, pimples, mean girls, family issues, a learning disability, an overscheduled life, etc., can lead to an abundance of teen stress. While many of these factors may seem as harmless as the mail is to your dog, they have the same effect; they trigger stress response. That means that your teen’s hypothalamus is constantly hollering at her adrenal glands, keeping her body and brain in a sustained state of emergency. She’s always ready to fight or to run away.
Unlike the family pet, however, there usually isn’t a nap on the horizon for your teen; at least not for a while. It’s only after the constant flood of adrenaline and cortisone utterly exhaust her that your anxious teen is likely to fall asleep. But her sleep will be the fitful, fearful, unproductive sleep that accompanies depression. She may be unable to sleep at night and unable to stay awake during the day.
The symptoms of chronic teen stress can include not only expected elevated behaviors like agitation, irritability, restlessness, argumentativeness and running away, but also depressed behaviors like withdrawal, oversleeping, drowsiness and sullenness.
If you suspect your teen is experiencing a high level of stress, the first thing to do is just ask! She may or may not be willing to share, but either way, your concern and attention communicate love and help create a sense of safety. If she’s willing to share, help her identify the triggers that seem to keep her stress level high. With the help of a therapist (if she’s willing to engage that level of care), explore a combination of reducing exposure to stressors where practical (e.g. dropping a sport, avoiding gossipy social media) and practicing effective coping strategies when stressors can’t be eliminated (e.g. some level of academic pressure, social situations, etc.).
Lifelong stress-management practices can include DBT techniques, yoga, moderate daily exercise, dietary adjustments (favoring whole, unprocessed foods including fruits and vegetables), meditation, time-management skills, and (of course) keeping a pet! Encourage you daughter to start practicing some of these now; it’s never too early to help her manage her teen stress.