In my work as a child and adolescent psychologist, when I ask kids today how they’re feeling, what do you think is the most frequent reply? Anxious? Angry? Depressed? No, no, and no Those come up, but by far the number one answer is – “tired.”
Kids of all ages come into my office, plop on the couch, and invariably report feeling tired – and stressed out. Which is exactly how their parents feel too And guess what their teachers report feeling much of the time? Yep, same thing.
So, why are kids so stressed?
Our modern lifestyle has become toxic to the human brain and spirit
The demands from parents, teachers, peers, mass media, social media, etc. never end as more kids (and parents and teachers) are plugged in 24/7. In the digital age, there is a constant demand for immediate results and craving for immediate gratification.
For many of today’s youth, information overload insidiously leads to emotional overwhelm. Current neuroscience research confirms what our common experience is telling us: repeated overstimulation leads to disintegration of our nervous systems and our relationships.
Our brains are wired to react to stress – that is, any perceived threat to our safety or security – with the famous “fight or flight” response. When sensory information that is overwhelming to us reaches the emotional part of the brain, it lights up the amygdala – two tiny almond-shaped alarm bells deep inside the middle of our brain.
The amygdala send out alarm signals that prepare us to fight or flee. (Do you know any kids who are prone to either arguing or avoiding…?!) The stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline flood our body – revving up our breathing and heart rates, tensing up our muscles, and short-circuiting access to the rational thinking part of our brain.
In desperate times of trouble, like facing a tiger or bear, there’s no time to carefully consider your options. You needed to be able to react, and react quickly, if you wanted to survive.
While we face many more psychological pressures than actual physical threats today, our brain’s stress response still kicks into gear the same way.
With the constant exposure to stressful demands, we experience repeated “amygdala hijackings” – which tense up the body and send our minds into emotional reacting mode, rather than calm, reflective thinking mode. Over and over.
When Does Stress Become Toxic?
Our nervous system evolved over millennia to help us survive the occasional, acute episode of stress – like encountering that dangerous tiger. But what happens when those stressors become chronic and unavoidable?
What happens when our basic sense of security and identity is repeatedly under assault by school pressures, work pressures, social pressures, family conflicts, along with social media and news reports reminding us of war, terrorism, natural disasters, local robberies, sexual assaults, economic hardships, government ineptitude, and injustices everywhere, everyday?
Here’s what happens. Our bodies and our minds begin to breakdown.
Our limbic brain, including the amygdala alarm center, is forced to work some serious overtime hours. The more it perceives danger, the more it fires up, and the stronger those connections get hard-wired into our brains.
Without even realizing it, our reactive “Downstairs Brain” gets stronger and faster, while our reflective “Upstairs Brain” grows weaker. (Brain scan studies confirm this.) We find ourselves unconsciously reacting to the demands of daily life in “fight or flight” mode – increasingly snapping, arguing, avoiding, or escaping.
We become hyper-vigilant for danger. We become hyper-sensitive and hyper-reactive to any perceive threats. We start seeing and believing that things are bad everywhere.
We have repetitive memories about past problems and repetitive worries about future ones. We get caught in a vicious cycle, a downward spiral of stress, anxiety, agitation, and despair.
The brain’s emotional warning system gets stuck in over-drive, until it burns up and shuts down. Then we go from fight to flight to freeze mode. Learned helplessness sets in. We feel overwhelmed, sometimes hopeless, and pretty much always exhausted.
We may find a way to keep going on auto-pilot. “You gotta do what you gotta do.” But we don’t feel fully here. And we’re usually not.
We’re more often preoccupied with racing minds filled with distorted judgments and harsh criticisms about ourselves and others. We beat ourselves up. “Oh, if only… I should’ve… I’m such a loser!” We ruminate about “What if’s…” or “Oh, no, I’ve got to…’s”, getting lost in thoughts that literally keep us up at night.
All too often, we’re not there, present, for our children. And since they’re swimming in the same toxic sea of stress, our children aren’t fully present either. At home. At school. At work.
We’re not showing up for our lives. Life is happening, constantly swirling around us. But we’re not present. Too often we’re somewhere else, perhaps even feeling like someone else, but not our true selves.
And our bodies keep the score, too. Chronic fatigue. Indigestion. Irritable bowel syndrome. Headaches. Migraines. Neck, shoulder, and back aches. Compromised immune systems – inflammatory responses – increased colds, allergies, and other respiratory ailments, as well as auto-immune diseases. Chest pains. Panic Attacks. Heart disease. Insomnia.
Welcome to the world of toxic stress. Breakdowns and Burnout.
How Do I Recognize Toxic Stress in My Child?
Toxic stress is likely present in your child’s life if you notice any these symptoms occurring frequently and interfering with normal daily functioning:
- Highly distracted – can’t sustain attention or effort
- Forgetful – loses track of time, materials, or what you’re doing
- Worries – nervous, anxious, jittery, restless
- Socially withdrawn – avoidant, shut down
- Depressed mood – tearful, repeatedly “down”
- Highly sensitive – overly reactive to seemingly small problems
- Agitated and irritable
- Angry and short-tempered
- Negative self-statements (“I’m so stupid” “Not good enough…”)
- Self-harming behaviors or suicidal statements of any kind
- Sleep problems – difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, sleeping alone
- Academic problems
- Social problems
- Behavior problems
What Can We Do About It?
One of the best ways to reduce the toxic effects of stress is by practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness provides the perfect antidote to today’s insanely busy lifestyles. It is the mental skill or habit of paying attention to the present moment, clearly, calmly, and compassionately.
Mindfulness is a skill that both you and your children can learn to develop in order to transform your relationship with stress – so you can better enjoy your relationship with each other.
In the coming weeks we’ll explore in more detail what mindfulness is, why it matters, and how to practice mindfulness in your daily life.
Meanwhile, if you feel your child is struggling with emotional distress or difficulties at home or school, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help.
Peter Montminy, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, mindfulness teacher, speaker, author, and dad. He invites you to join in an ongoing conversation that seeks to restore sanity to humanity – one child at a time. Join us at www.AMindfulVillage.com.