Stress can energize you and help you get things done, and it can motivate you to achieve optimal performance. But stress can also activate your physiological systems excessively, signaling an emergency to all of your organ systems, creating panic and interfering with your ability to function.
So is stress good or bad? Both, says Laura Kastner, Ph.D., and author of "Getting to Calm."
We talked to Kastner about the epidemic of stress facing parents and kids alike, and what you can do to ease the negative impacts of stress on your family.
Is there such a thing as good stress?
Put simply, stress is physiological arousal. It activates us and we move from passivity to an attentive state, poised to address goals and problems. The Goldilocks state is the “sweet spot,” where we become so perfectly focused that we can martial our mental and physical faculties for our best possible performance. We can nail that test, demonstrate our athletic prowess or connect in a relationship in a beautiful symphony of mutuality.
However, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Adrenaline, the stress hormone, can be released in such quantities that we become overwhelmed. When our reptilian brains get triggered, our minds register one thing: “Danger!” We will respond with fight, flight or freeze because our ancestors survived by making these reactions adaptive for dealing with predators and life-threatening circumstances.
Here’s the problem: The same reaction that can save a life can mess it up. When the fear circuit is triggered, neural activity bypasses the slower, cognitive circuits so it can send messages to 9-1-1 emergency centers all over the body for the fight/flight priority. A 9-1-1 system is a life-saver when you need to slam on your brakes to avoid an accident (who wants to take the slower-lane to “reason” about options?). But it can cause mayhem if there are false alarms and your kid freezes during a test, becomes terrified about homework stress or runs off the stage during a recital.
This trigger-happy, primitive 9-1-1 system has lots of false alarms. And when it gets stuck in the flooding gear, it causes anxiety and the avoidance of challenges. And importantly, once you are flooding — heart pounding, hands sweating and doom-and-gloom thoughts racing — you can’t reason with the reptile brain.
So how can we find that sweet spot when things get tough?
By “getting to calm,” you start to choose self-soothing and logical thoughts to figure out positive coping techniques or problem solving. But this set of skills represents a curriculum that most adults and children lack in our stress-saturated modern lives. And often, paradoxically, we are too busy with stress-inducing activities to invest the time and effort required to learn and commit to stress-reduction efforts. Just like learning to be proficient at chess or training for a marathon, building the “muscles” for self-relaxation through mindfulness, cognitive therapy or other methods takes a lot of work.
Here’s the classic scenario: Kids work hard all day, using up their willpower and self-control. It’s scientifically proven that we have limited amount of willpower per day and we all wear down by evening. Kids exert a huge amount of energy at school to obey rules, do what’s required in their classes, resist impulses to yell, defy or cry, and fit in with peer and school expectations. They come home and get glued to their screens, because media is gratifying, numbing and an ideal escape from stressors. Parents get upset and nag, becoming another top source of stress for their kids. Fights ensue, leading to more stress. Sound familiar?
What contributes to rising stress levels?
Our 24/7 marketplace means society is set up to keep us buzzed, over-wired and aroused. While connectivity can be rewarding and release dopamine (the pleasure neurotransmitter in the brain), it can also be stressful. Online access to work, shopping, entertainment and fast-paced expectations for communication turn-around doesn’t shut itself off anymore —ever.
The body was evolved to tolerate short sprints, not marathons. Adrenaline and stress hormones are constantly turned on, affecting our immune systems and health. The constant arousal leads to chronic stress, resulting in physical and mental health problems.
Another factor is that Gen Z kids feel compelled to stay connected on social media platforms. Tweens and teens have always wanted to feel important, recognized, included, respected and affirmed by peers. Social media offers limitless opportunities for these rewards to be experienced in positive ways, but also in ways that can result in vulnerability and harm. Kids can suffer FOMO (fear of missing out), perceived/real rejection, social cruelty, pressure to keep up with getting and giving “likes” and cyber-bullying. The draw of tweens and teens to social media is perfectly understandable from a developmental perspective, but it is associated with stress which is quite different from socializing at the mall.
News media about global threats also activate stress networks in the brain. While it is good to be civically and politically informed, constant consumption tricks the brain into thinking disasters are omnipresent and imminent. Adrenaline is released, nerves are on edge and positive emotions are less in supply. Stressed parents are irritable parents, who are challenged to maintain a mostly positive, affirming atmosphere at home.
he economic and career anxiety that parents feel about their kids’ futures render them unable to be the “smooth and soothe” parents they need and want to be for their kids. Instead, this anxiety turns into “stress and mess” when parents worry incessantly about grades, school performance, and college prospects.
Anxiety is a reaction to stress. Anxiety occurs when worry and apprehension about bad outcomes become a mental preoccupation. It can be contagious and the whole family can become infected! Home as a place to relax, seek sustenance for the soul, and prepare for sleep is a concept that disappeared with knickers in the last century.
So what’s the solution?
The solution for disabling stress is a commitment to mental and physical health. Modern lives are inevitably infused with stress. Therefore, we need to invest in “stress reducers”: sleep; nutrition; exercise; media shut-downs; mindfulness, prayer or other self-calming methods; time with supportive loved ones; experiences which enhance positive emotions; reading; music; games; and mega-doses of play and laughter.
What about enhancing the good kind of stress which helps us become energized, focused, effective and reach optimal performance?
The good kind of physiological arousal can occur by engaging in those stress reducers. When we’re having fun and spending time with supportive people IRL (in real life), we will have the release of oxytocin, the neurochemical often called the “tend and befriend” hormone because it is associated with bonding and nurturing.
The good kind of stress also comes from that Goldilocks level of challenge, be it academic, social, emotional, or athletic. Sometimes kids hate school because they’ve been overtaxed and experienced so many 9-1-1 adversities that they want to avoid homework as much as war veterans want to avoid fireworks or sirens. These kids may need tutors or extra help to scaffold their challenges until they find success again, but everyone loves mastery.
How can parents support their kids when they’re feeling stressed?
To support the optimal and successful development of their children, parents have always wanted to balance support and challenge. Despite all the benefits of technology and societal advances in the last few decades, modern stressors have challenged our physiological systems in ways that need to be considered seriously. The kids that have parents who value stress reduction and mental health more than star performance for college prospects will be the lucky ones. Maybe even the most successful ones!