Stress and Anxiety – What’s the difference?
At this time of year, many of our children will be experiencing stress and anxiety. This blog clarifies the difference between stress and anxiety and provides 10 ways you can help your child create good mental health and resilience.
What is Stress?
A person experiences stress when faced with a demand which they do not believe they have the resources to cope with. As a consequence of stress, the body releases hormones designed to help the individual cope. Epinephrine (adrenaline) causes the heart rate to increase, blood vessels to constrict and airways to dilate and cortisol increases blood sugars, blood pressure and insulin resistance. These were very useful hormones when our ancestors needed to fight or flight; however, in our modern world, this extreme physiological response is damaging our health.
The Mental Health Foundation (2019) found that:
- 60% of young people had felt unable to cope with the pressure to succeed
- 47% of young people felt stressed by their body image and appearance
- 57% of young people felt stressed by making mistakes
- 39% of young people had experienced suicidal thoughts
- 29% of young people had self-harmed
In my own research of 70 14-18 year olds, students reported the following physical and psychological symptoms of stress:
- 41% reported tiredness
- 34% had been ill from stress
- 34% felt angry
- 25% felt depressed
- 20% felt worried
- 20% felt tense
- 19% felt annoyed
- 16% experienced shaking
What is Anxiety?
1 in 6 young people will suffer from an anxiety disorder (Anxiety UK, 2018).
Anxiety is an umbrella term for many different psychological disorders including: Separation anxiety disorder, selective mutism, specific phobia, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, panic attack specifier, agoraphobia, generalised anxiety disorder, a substance-induced anxiety disorder. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is no longer categorised in this section of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual V but does often feature anxiety (American Psychiatric Association, 2019).
Like stress, anxiety is a useful psychological response to situations that could be harmful to us. Stress is defined as being more imminent whereas anxiety is future orientated. Professionals consider it a problem with it persists and leads to significant changes in life, for example not being able to attend school.
What do young people do in response to stress?
Piko (2001) carried out a large-scale study using a stratified sample of 1039 14 to 19 year olds. Coping behaviours were categorised into four groups; passive coping, such as praying and wishing it would go away. Problem analysing, for example creating an action plan and thinking of different solutions. Risky coping included drinking, taking illegal and prescribed drugs or using a risky strategy that could work. Finally, support seeking, asking for advice or accepting sympathy from another.
The results showed there was a positive correlation between problem analysing and support seeking with well-being and healthy behaviours. Girls were more likely to use support seeking and passive coping, whereas boys were more likely to use problem analysing. Boys and girls were equally likely to use risky coping, and this correlated negatively with well-being scores. Older students were less likely to seek support; Piko suggests this may be because the older adolescents were trying to be autonomous.
Students who took part in regular vigorous exercise (e.g. running) had better stress management, better quality sleep and took part in more health-promoting behaviours, for example, healthy eating and avoided illegal drugs.
Some Ideas to Help with Stress and Anxiety
Care for others: Can your child care for someone or contribute to the household? For example, do you have a pet, relative or household task they could help with? Ensure that the task is age appropriate. This will help to take the focus away from themselves and make them feel good for helping others.
Learning to be compassionate to yourself and others is fundamental for our mental health and builds resilience as well as self-esteem. Self-esteem is often synonymous with mental health. Practice empathising with others and with yourself, explain to your child we can be our own worse critics. A simple way to do this is to consider would you talk to a friend the way you talk to yourself? A good habit to start is a daily diary consisting of 3 things you are grateful for and a self-compassionate statement. Rebecca Ziff suggests parents need to practise and model self-compassion, learn to describe and accept the emotions you feel, and challenge catastrophic thinking. See 5 Tips for teaching your kids self-compassion and Compassion focused therapy training exercises worksheets.
Diet and Sleep:
These two have been reoccurring themes across my blogs. Eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep supports the brain’s functioning. Processed and high sugar foods restrict blood flow to the brain and mean it is lacking in vital nutrients. Sleep is essential for the formation of new memories.
Do something you are good at:
Doing something your child enjoys will help distract them but also build their self-worth and confidence. Try to build in regular activities they find fun. A great analogy is the spilling cup. Draw a cup and explain that if they don’t have the resources then the cup will spill over from too much stress. Now draw some holes on the cup, these things help your child to relax and feel less stressed. See how many ideas you can come up with together. Where possible let your child lead this activity.
Reassuring a child they are loved unconditionally builds their resilience. It engages their neo-cortex which enables them to make better decisions and think clearly. As opposed to stress and anxiety which activates the reptilian brain (i.e. the brain stem which first evolved). You can read more about this in the Whole Brain Child and No Drama Discipline by Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson. Could you combine this with exercising or doing a fun activity together?
Female students in my research found social support was also effective at helping them to manage stress. This is particularly the case when it is not possible to change the cause of stress.
My own research found that for both male and female students exercise was the most effective way of reducing stress whether it was high or low intensity, individual or team based. Yoga is a very powerful way to reduce stress because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, as opposed to stress which activates the sympathetic nervous system which releases the stress hormones.
If your child’s stress and/or anxiety is having a lasting impact on your child don’t hesitate to get professional advice. It is also worth contacting your child’s school/college to see what support they offer.
Ian Morris at Wellington College has been teaching Mindfulness since 2006. Mindfulness originates from Buddhist teachings and was developed for mental health purposes. Morris cites students who have enjoyed Mindfulness; ‘It is… the most useful thing that I have learnt’ and ‘It really did calm me down for the week.’ Susan Greenland, Sumi Kim and Jessica Morey all advocate the importance of learning this with your child and state it can be started from birth. Children mirror their parents they recommend you pause, focus on your breath, and observe what is happening. See Mindfulness for children for more ideas and book recommendations.
Once your child is feeling calmer and able to think with their neo-cortex, work together to consider:
1. What is the cause of stress or anxiety? Be as specific as possible
2. Identify the facts about the situation, it is easy to misinterpret or misunderstand something when we’re feeling stressed
3. Mindmap options to the problem
4. Evaluate the options and act on the best one
5. Review the option to make sure it is working, if not try the next best option.
In some cases, a cause of stress can’t be removed but there may be ways to reduce the impact. Emotional support is a better option when there are no practical ways to improve the situation.
You may have seen this technique on social media, it’s proving very popular. See www.copingskillsforkids.com for more ideas on grounding and mindfulness.
5 things you can see
4 things you can touch
3 things you can hear
2 things you can smell
1 thing you can taste
Take Home Messages for Stress and Anxiety
- Stress is present-focused and anxiety is future focused
- Solutions to stress and anxiety may depend on the situation
- Model what you want your child to learn
- Diet, exercise and sleep are fundamental to mental and physical health
- Start habits that will build resilience for your child
- Seek professional advice if you are worried about your child’s mental and physical health