People seem to be more worried than ever about stress. We hear that stress can lead to everything from depression to cancer. Especially when it comes to kids, we have moved from the “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” ethos of the baby boom generation to helicopter parenting, shielding children from as much adversity as possible.
But the right kind of stress can actually be beneficial. And it’s particularly important for young people, whose brains and bodies are uniquely sensitive to the impact of experience.
Stress is really just our body’s response to a challenge. The key to good stress is that the challenge be something you can manage and even master.
We all have experienced the relationship between a challenge and the degree of stress we feel in response. It follows an “inverted U” function: As the pressure goes up, so does performance — but only to a certain point. Beyond that, greater pressure causes performance to drop.
That’s why a challenging teacher who incites mild anxiety is more effective than one who is either permissive or terrifying. Good teachers know how to push students without making them so anxious that they give up. They have found the sweet spot for stress: Too much or too little and people don’t do their best.
When humans are under acute stress, their bodies secrete the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. This helps them respond to the demands of the situation. A burst of cortisol mobilises glucose for energy and stimulates the immune system, while adrenaline increases attention.
But chronic stress — when adrenaline and cortisol levels are persistently elevated, as they are for children growing up in neglectful or abusive circumstances — can lead to health problems like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, while also impairing cognitive abilities.
A brief pulse of cortisol can enhance the growth of neurons in the hippocampus, which is critical to learning and memory. But chronically high cortisol levels have the opposite effect, causing those neurons to shrink.
Dr. Conor Liston, one of my colleagues at Weill Cornell Medical College, and his team examined the effect of chronic stress in 20 healthy medical students during the month they prepared to take a major exam. Dr. Liston found that those students with the greatest degree of perceived stress were slower on a test of cognitive flexibility. When he scanned their brains, he found that they had less functional connectivity in their prefrontal cortex — a centre of critical thinking. When the students were reassessed a month after they had taken the exam, those adverse effects had disappeared.
And finally, chronic stress typically causes insomnia and sleep deprivation, which can impede neurogenesis in the hippocampus. So if you like to pull all-nighters to study, think again: Your brain is a poor learner without sleep.
And here parents do have something to be concerned about. A 2017 survey found that about 40 per cent of adolescents in 2015 slept less than seven hours a night, compared with 26 per cent of teenagers in 1991. This large increase is bad news.
But parents, don’t get too overbearing about it; trying too hard to control your kids is likely to backfire. One small 2012 study found that anxious and inhibited kids whose mothers tended to be overprotective were more likely to have anxiety disorders during adolescence than those whose mothers were not overcontrolling. The implication is that parents who tried to shield their children from experiences that made them anxious actually prevented them from learning to be unafraid.
This suggests that exposure to some level of stress promotes resilience. So what can we do to encourage more of it?
One clue comes from research showing that when people felt in control of a difficult situation — whether they were actually right about being in control or not — they were less impaired by stress than those who felt out of control.
Dr. Alia Crum, a psychologist at Stanford University, and colleagues demonstrated that you can change your emotional and biological response to stress just by adjusting your mindset about it. She examined the response of a group of healthy undergraduate students to the stress of giving a public speech. Students who viewed stress as enhancing had levels of the stress hormone cortisol that were neither too high nor too low, and were more likely to ask for feedback about their performance than those who saw stress as debilitating.
The idea is that our attitude about stress — something that’s pretty easy to change — can influence whether we experience it as manageable or noxious.
Don’t get me wrong: We should do all we can to protect children — especially those with psychiatric illness — from chronic and unmanageable stress. But for most young people, everyday stress is beneficial and promotes resilience.
No need to shield them from the world with trigger warnings and the like. Instead, let’s enhance their capacity to handle stress and succeed in the face of adversity.
— New York Times News Service
Richard A. Friedman is a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, and a contributing opinion writer.