Exams, assessments, end of term projects and a slow emergence from Covid restrictions – it’s no wonder out teenagers are finding life a bit of a struggle at the moment. But then maybe we are all struggling. In family systems theory, if one member of the family is finding things tough then the whole family responds, even if unconsciously; we all feel a bit off and may not be able to put our finger on why exactly.
In my work in schools and colleges I use the research by Dr Judson Brewer to help young people to identify the major difference between stress and anxiety. If parents can identify the difference too for themselves, then they can help their children.
In a nutshell, stress as in the bodily stress response is a perfectly natural, important phenomenon. We need to have an alarm system that readies our bodies for flight or fight. We are all familiar with this ‘caveman’, old brain system. This part of the brain is responsible for life and death moments, it is charged to keep us safe and its job is to scan the environment to alert us to potential danger.
The problem arises on our modern day living. This old brain cannot differentiate between levels of stress, i.e., that some are more important than others. But the brain simply sets off the alarm in any perceived threat. Today this can be a boss or teacher asking for a deadline to be met; a loud and sudden noise.
In modern day society our body can be in almost continuous stress, which of course eventually makes us susceptible to illness, our immune system is compromised. The school system colludes with this, especially around this time of year when all young people are placed under exam conditions.
It is no wonder that anxiety is on the rise. So, if stress is the actual event or perceived event, anxiety arises when we think about the possible event or the aftermath of an event. Dr Judson uses the example of stepping out into the road and quickly stepping back because a bus is approaching.
You are ok, but the immediate stress response kicks in and you feel the heat pounding etc. Left to its own devices the body would then slowly return to a stable state, job done, stress reduced. However, because we have a sophisticated well developed forebrain, we have the ability to ruminate “what if I had been knocked down by the bus, I might have died, or be in hospital for weeks. What about my job? Who will look after me and the children? Etc etc…..”
It is this thinking about that differentiates stress from anxiety. By and large stress is reduced once the stressor has been dealt with. The thinking brain however is now working on what if… and the possibilities are endless.
The problem is that this level of anxiety then sends messages to the old brain that we feel stressed, and off goes the physiological response once again. We are literally wearing ourselves out in modern day society.
When you observe your teenager behaving in a way that indicates stress or anxiety, Dr Judson suggests this reflection. If you sit with them and make a list of all that needs doing, homework, revision, maybe household tasks and discuss the time management this may help.
The sign that it is helpful is when an item is ticked off they actually feel a sense of relief or accomplishment. The stress levels are reduced as the list becomes more and more manageable.
If, despite this kind of approach you still observe high levels of stress then they have probably moved into anxiety. Worrying about the worry of the stress. The first step here is a listening ear. Be fully present and identify for yourself whether this sounds like rumination. The clues are usually that the wording is generalised, or the same ‘problems’ are resurfacing each time.
Dr Judson states that research shows worry is less ‘bad’ than fear. We have evolved a new mechanism called worry to help us feel better than facing the fear of not handing in the homework in on time for example.
We create habit loops, where worrying about things at least seems to give us some control, it therefore feels rewarding to the learning brain. The brain is a problem solver and if we are frightened, we do not like this feeling, so if the brain can come up with a less threatening feeling it will.
Apparently, worry is that. Although of course, it doesn’t work in the long term. In some cases people can become clinically diagnosed with anxiety as it really stops them living life to the full.
Once we think our teenager may be suffering from anxiety the next step is to remind them that this is not their fault. It is simply the brain doing its brain thing. If we think it’s is our fault we add to the habit loop of being anxious about being anxious!
Self-compassion, kindness to self. What? I hear you ask. Yes I know this sounds counterintuitive, but research shows that compassion is more rewarding to the brain that admonishment. Expansion verses contraction. Breathing in deeply, bring awareness to the breath and a curious kind thinking to how this feels in this moment is the starting point to releasing the anxiety. Feeling is the key.
By focusing of the feeling rather than the thought itself, we bypass the habit loop and help the body to return to its more natural stable state.
We can of course model these simply changes in our own reaction to stress and anxiety so that our children see that it works. Our own ability to breathe and feel the discomfort with curiosity will affect the whole family system, and ultimately lead to a more peaceful household, even during exam time.