My teenage daughter always seems stressed and/or anxious about one thing or another – especially school – and she is not sleeping well. What can I do to help her?
A certain level of stress is normal. Positive stress or anxiety responses from events such as changing schools and meeting new friends can actually help students learn and grow. But when exposed to recurring stressful events without the tools to manage feelings, stress and anxiety can become emotionally and physically harmful.
We tend to tell our kids to “calm down” without ever giving them explicit directions on how to deal with stress and anxiety. There are a lot of tools to help a teen struggling with anxiety and the ultimate goal would be to prevent future excessive or uncontrolled anxiety. Breathing is important! It truly is one of the most efficient tools you can give a person struggling with stress and anxiety, especially a teen who will face many more stressful situations in the near future. It’s so simple, yet has such a big impact on your body’s physiology.
When you are calm and relaxed, your body is in “rest and digest” mode. You breathe normally, your heart rate is lower and your muscles are relaxed. However, when stress or anxiety or anger occurs, your body automatically switches into “fight, flight or freeze” mode. Your muscles become tense, your heart rate increases and your breathing becomes shallower. Taking deep breaths, instead of shallow breaths, is one way to tell your body to slow your heart rate and get back to resting and digesting. That’s why deep breathing is important! The only way to control your heart rate is with calm mental thought and with slow breaths using the diaphragm.
When children struggle to regulate stress, it affects the whole family. Parents are used to being able to fix problems, and not knowing how to help can be frustrating and potentially add to stress in the home. Fortunately, parents can implement the following tips to reduce symptoms of toxic stress:
- Don’t over schedule Psychologists say teens need time to decompress and develop naturally through non-goal related activities. Lessons, sports teams and other activities may be helpful when it’s time to apply to college, but should be scheduled around what works best for each child in moderation.
- Ensure the right amount of sleep Sleep reduces student inattention, and aids student learning and memory skills. When kids don’t get enough sleep, they are at a greater risk of depression, suicidal thoughts and self-harm. So how much sleep is enough? The American Academy of Pediatrics advises 8-10 hours for teens.
- Serve a healthy diet Family meals should include a variety of fruits and vegetables and foods made from whole grains and protein, according to U.S. guidelines. Parents should also limit processed foods and those containing sugar, which may be linked to sleep problems and depression.
- Incorporate exercise into the daily routine The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans by the CDC recommends at least one hour of exercise per day for children and adolescents to strengthen cardio fitness and keep depression and anxiety at bay. Surprisingly, just 1 in 3 children get physical exercise each day. Teens may need more structured activity, like organized sports.
- Seek outside support Finding networks outside the home to help support your teen’s regulation of stress and anxiety may be necessary if the above methods have not worked. A few smaller studies have been done displaying that neurofeedback for anxiety is effective. In each of these studies, neurofeedback training resulted in reduced anxiety. Neurofeedback is a form of brain training that allows you to restructure anxiety networks in your brain. At SIRRI we have found neurofeedback for anxiety to be consistently helpful.
One of the best ways to teach these self-care strategies is for parents to follow them, too, and lead by example!
Dan Williams PT, CSCS, BCN is the Owner & Executive Director of SIRRI Developmental Rehabilitation & Learning Center, www.SIRRIAZ.com, (480) 777-7075. Dan is Physical Therapist Board Certified in Neurofeedback and also a COPE Certified Optimal Health Coach & Founder/CEO of Platinum Health Coaching