Some stress is OK, but prolonged stress response carries health, psychological risk

Some stress is OK, but prolonged stress response carries health, psychological risk

At its core, stress is the activation of the flight, fight or freeze response and the undesirable changes in the body that result from it.

This response was originally designed to deal with an immediate threat, like a dangerous animal showing up. In our modern life, we get the same stress response, but for things that last much longer than an animal encounter would. Kids, for instance, may be stressed about assignments at school or relationships with peers. Prolonged stress response can lead to several health and psychological troubles.

When does stress become an issue?

Stress can be good for kids and adults. When the body and mind are given a chance to recover afterward, it can make someone more resilient. A comparable example is when someone puts stress on their muscles while exercising. It causes them to grow stronger, but requires rest.

Our more traditional stressors work in the same way. If a child is stressed about a quiz they have at school that day, they might put in extra work studying. If the test results come back positive, the child may feel more competent and confident.

We’re gearing up for the #SurvivingStress discussion next week with our #TimeForKids partners at @WISCTV_News3! @DannikaLewis will moderate the expert panel to address your questions about #mentalhealth.

— SSM Health Wisconsin (@ssmhealthwi) April 3, 2018

“However, stress can become an issue when it goes on for too long and the body isn’t given enough time to recover from it,” SSM Health psychologist Dr. Robert Peyton said. “Stressors that come too close together, such as continuous childhood bullying, can be just as detrimental as a major, traumatic event.”

Signs of stress

Peyton says there is no universal answer for how stress can present itself. But if it has been going on for a while or is extreme, kids can start to show symptoms of trauma. Those can include:’

Refusal to go to school
Loss of interest in previously preferred activities
Increased anger or fear
Big changes in eating or sleeping
Avoiding places where stress or trauma occurred
Hypervigilance — an unusually strong startle reaction where a child always seems to be on guard

“With the possible exception of hypervigilance, unfortunately any of these signs can be caused by other things as well,” Peyton said. “But nevertheless, these signs indicate that something is wrong and should be addressed.”

Effects on overall health

From a very early age, stress can impact a child’s general health. Even babies can experience it, usually from an inconsistent environment where feeding or sleeping is disrupted. As kids’ age, the stressors might shift, but the consequences do not – and without treatment and/or a change to reduce stress, there can be substantial impacts on a child’s health and happiness that can last long into their adulthood.

“This is the reason why schools and other organizations are developing ‘growth mindsets’ and other resiliency-building skills,” Peyton said. “The hope is to have kids understand that their abilities are not fixed, and can be developed through dedication and hard work.”