Stress & Teenagers: What It Is and How To Help

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During the teenage years, a brain goes through HUGE changes. Neural growth and pruning means changes in the brain’s connectivity. The prefrontal cortex handles all your executive functions, things like: problem-solving, understanding risk and reward, prioritizing, thinking ahead, self-evaluation, long-term planning, and regulation of emotion. Healthy brain development and connections require a streamlining combination of brain plasticity, which fortifies certain connections so signals can be transmitted more efficiently, and synaptic pruning, which causes other connections to atrophy.

Important Definitions

Hormone: a chemical made by one part of the body that travels through your blood to send messages to the rest of the body

Nervous system: the brain, spinal cord, and all of the nerves. The nerves send messages between your brain and the rest of your body

Your body has two nervous systems. The voluntary nervous system, that lets you choose what to do, like eat, walk, or talk, and the involuntary nervous system, which keeps your body running without you worrying about it, we’re talking actions like breathing, sweating, and digestion. The body has two different pathways in the involuntary nervous system. One works while we’re relaxed, and the other works when there’s an emergency. These two systems can’t work together at the same time. We can shut off the emergency system by flipping a switch and turning on the relaxed system.

Our ancestors were hard-wired when it came to the nervous system. Imagine your ancient ancestor being chased by a lion… an emergency! The involuntary nervous system would kick in, and hormones would flood the body giving them a burst of energy to run, a sinking feeling would happen in their belly, and their heart would beat faster to pump more blood while they breathed faster to take in more oxygen. Their body would start sweating to cool them down as they ran, and as night came, their pupils would dilate to allow more light in.

Our ancestors didn’t think about anything but running, because there’s no stopping to reason with a lion.

I imagine that if our ancestors weren’t threatened by predators on a regular basis, they would have just settled in for a comfy ol’ nap most of the time. Stress can be a good thing sometimes. Our ancestors needed stress reactions to run and survive. Stress also kept them alert for the next lion down the road. Nowadays, we don’t have to run from lions, but we have problems and worries that turn on those same inherited stress responses in us.

Your kid is studying for a big test that she’s super nervous about. The same stress responses that set her ancestors fleeing across the plains as fast as their feet could carry them, are kicked up in her involuntary nervous system. She starts to sweat and get flashes of heat because her hormones are confused about why she’s not listening to them. She doesn’t use up stress hormones by running when she’s studying for her test, so they hang around and now they’re confused. Why am I sitting here when I should be helping her RUN?!

If we had different hormones for different stresses, parental pressure to clean a room would result in kids loving to do laundry. Alas, we only have hormones to flee, fight, or freeze. This means it’s important to teach kids (and their brains) what a real emergency is. Even when there are no real emergencies, our emotions make our bodies act like there is a huge crisis because the brain controls both emotions and stress hormones. If your brain thinks something terrible is happening, your body will react as if it really is!

Even a little bit of stress that never seems to go away can confuse the body. It makes the body work harder to prepare for an emergency that might not really be there. A lion about to eat you is a real crisis. If your kid believes a mild stress (like a math test) is an emergency, she won’t be able to study. Her body is preparing to deal with a real lion, so she can’t concentrate on anything but escaping (to something like social media). The trick is to help them learn when something really is an emergency and when their emotions are only treating it like one.

Emotions play an important role in how our bodies experience stress. How we think about a stressful situation and what we choose to do about it affects how it makes us feel.

Frequent stress is now known to damage brain’s hypothalamus as well as the pituitary and adrenal glands (the HPA axis). Together, these areas control reactions to stress and regulate many things like digestion, immune system, growth, sexuality, and body temperature.

What can parents do?

Don’t deny or dismiss a child’s fear or distress; instead, show empathy. Don’t get trapped in your kid’s bad mood. Confront the situation with a reassuring and optimistic sense that something can be done. Become your kid’s coach in managing life’s ups and downs. This type of parenting changes not only how a child behaves, but also the child’s brain. Your kid’s physiology will develop a greater ability to recover from stresses, which is important for the prevention of mental disorders.

What Chronic Stress Does

Stress hormones (glucocorticoids) attach to nerve cells in hippocampus, causing dendrites to shrivel and cells to shrink. They can also halt growth of new brain cells (neurogenesis). High levels in childhood are even more damaging, causing neurological damage, endocrine disruption, growth disruption, slowing rate calcium is deposited in the bone (don’t grow as tall and higher risk of osteoporosis) In the amygdala, your brain’s emotional center, the opposite happens: more dendrites grow. Shrinkage of brain cells in the hippocampus is associated with depression and memory loss. The growth of cells in the amygdala has been linked to overwhelming emotions and anxiety disorders. These changes in the hippocampus are usually reversible. Once the stress is removed or eliminated, memory and mood improve. But even in adults, changes in the amygdala - emotional changes - don't always change back.

Depression attacks the hippocampus with stress hormones.

All of this is perfectly disturbing, especially when you think about it in the realm of kids’ brains that are all about making new neurons and growing new processes. Everything we know about adult stress on the brain… multiply it ten-fold when you think about a ten-year-old’s brain.
— Dr. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, on Depression

Research studies by John Gottman, PhD have shown that children who grow up in households with high levels of hostility between parents tend to have chronically elevated levels of stress hormones, usually have poor memory of their childhoods and are predisposed to mental illness later in life.

The Relaxation Response

The same mechanism that turns on the stress response can turn it off. As soon as we decide that a situation is no longer dangerous, changes can occur in our minds and bodies to help us relax and calm down. This "relaxation response” includes decreased heart and breathing rate and a sense of wellbeing.  Teens that develop a "relaxation response” and other stress management skills feel less helpless and have more choices when responding to stress.

Teen Stress Coping Strategies

  • Allow plenty of time. Being too busy is a BIG source of stress.
  • Exercise! It eats up those stress hormones
  • Regular sleep
  • Talk regularly to something, a parent, a family member, a therapist, a coach…
  • Encourage time-outs
  • Cleansing breaths and meditation techniques
  • No more “To-Do” Lists! Schedule things on a calendar
  • Set the timer for 15 minutes to tackle intimidating tasks
  • Eat protein, and stay away from sugar and caffeine
  • Have a cup of warm tea or hot cocoa
  • Take a warm bath or shower
  • Read a relaxing book or magazine for a little while
  • Try some simple yoga poses, stretch, or take a walk
  • Teach kids to say “no” to any extras that have turned into stressors

Sometimes the best way to help your children deal with stress is to work on having high standards and low expectations, and learning healthy stress management techniques for yourself!

Kate Rufener