We all experience stress and anxiety at different times throughout our lives, and on a daily basis too. Evolutionary, having this high-alert stress response system used to help our ancestors respond to threat – when they saw a danger their ‘fight or flight’ response system would kick in and help them fight the danger or flee from it. However, while we don’t have the same threats as our ancestors did, we still manage stress on a daily basis and have our stress response systems activated – this can all be very difficult. As humans, we like to feel in control of a situation. When we feel out of control, our stress and anxiety levels rise. This can mean that we feel dysregulated, as a result, we may be more likely to engage in unhelpful interactions with others, or we may withdraw and avoid people and places. Covid has meant that we are all living with constant uncertainly which has an impact on all of our stress levels.
So what helps us to cope?
- Normalising stress. It is a normal human response to threats, and we all feel anxious some of the time. It is important that children and young people know that what they are feeling is normal and shared by others.
- Understanding that we are all different. How we experience stress and how we manage stress is very individual. A key to helping yourself and others to manage stress is to work out what the triggers are for feeling anxious. It will be helpful to help children and young people identify places and events and activities which they find stressful.
- Working out how stress makes us feel. How we are feeling has a big impact on us physiologically. It may affect our stomach, give us a headache, make our shoulders tight or make our legs go to jelly. How does stress affect you? Help children and young people to talk about where in their body they feel stress and what it feels like. This can be difficult so you can prompt them: e.g. ‘Is the feeling bumpy/smooth? Where is it? What makes it go away?
- Understanding how stress affects our thinking. Some children and young people will find it hard to talk about their thoughts and feelings and to make sense of these, especially if they are young or if they have ASN. However, asking some children and young people how it affects their thinking can be really helpful. When we are stressed, we develop ‘tunnel vision’ and it can be harder to see the bigger picture. We wear ‘ grey coloured spectacles’ and tend to focus on the negatives, or what we have done badly. This is when we use thinking errors – e.g., when we ‘catastrophise’ and always think the worst of ourselves, or assume what others are thinking about us. Remember, it is important for children and young people to know that their thoughts are not facts- they are just their thoughts and often there is evidence to prove that they are inaccurate.
- Working out how to make things more manageable. Once we have worked out what makes us feel anxious or stressed, and how it affects our body, it is easier to work out how to address it. This website will provide some resources and ideas to help you and children and young people work out what they are feeling, and how to make things a little easier to manage
The following questions may be helpful.
- What changes can you make in your environment or daily routine that remove a trigger?
- What strategies are you already doing that help you or a child to feel better? What do you do to look after yourself that you enjoy?
- What physical activities can you engage in to bring your stress levels down? E.g. breathing exercises (simple but so effective); walking; doing a favourite sport.
- What evidence have you got to challenge thinking errors?
- What could you do now to climb the first rung in the ladder and to alleviate a little bit of the anxiety?