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Stress and the mind of young people

Are you feeling stressed?  Are you aware that the World Health Organisation estimates that by 2020, stress related deaths will be second only to cardio-vascular disease? It is also important to remember also that cardio-vascular problems have been linked to stress.  You may also be interested in knowing that the impact of stress can be far more damaging to young minds than to those of adults and we would do well to ensure that young people are provided emotionally healthy environments…here is why!!!

Collectively speaking, stress is a very difficult concept to define given the broad array of individual factors contributing to what one might refer to as stress.  From a neurobiological perspective stress is an adaptive response from some environmental stimuli triggering the emotional centre of the brain into some measure of action.  The emotional and physical responses an individual has to stress are set in motion by a series of chemical releases and reactions.  Therein lies a significant problem, too much stress, or more worryingly a chronic overreaction to stress, overloads the brain with powerful hormones that evolution designed for short-term duty in emergency situations only.  The cumulative effects of these hormones have been shown to damage parts of the brain and kill certain brain cells.  Moreover, the day-to-day realities of life can evolve into stressors resulting in the brain activating the very stress response designed to protect itself and these stressors do not discriminate on the basis of age.

All people deal with various stressors throughout their lives and developing coping mechanisms for dealing with stress is part of growing and maturation.  Arguably, most adults believe that they suffer the effects of stress to a greater degree than the young people around them.  After all, what does a young person without any adult-like responsibilities have to be stressed about?  The reality, however, is that a young mind is probably more vulnerable to the debilitating effects of stress than that of the adults around them.  This paradox lies primarily with popular definitions of stress which do not take into account the scientific literature on how the mind and body determine a stressful event and how stress impacts on young brains.

Stress is a highly individual experience that depends of specific psychological determinants to ignite a stress response in the brain and throughout the body.  A stress response is triggered when individuals face situations that are threatening, and/or novel, and/or unpredictable, and/or where an individual feels like they do not have control over the situation.  Therefore, while the ‘downsizing’ of a company engages a stress reaction in an adult, the same stress reaction can happen to a child on their first day of school.  In fact, because the brain continues to mature throughout childhood and adolescence, young people may be more vulnerable to the impact of stress then a mature adult brain.

Young Minds and Stress!

In order to understand how stress can be very detrimental to the mind of a young person it is important to have some understanding of what happens to the body when the brain triggers a stress response.  It is equally important to bear in mind that full maturation of the brain does not happen until the third decade of life and as such the developing brain is far more sensitive to the chemical processes involved while mediating a stressful event.

When a situation is interpreted as stressful, it triggers a system in the brain that tells the hypothalamus to release a series of chemical reactions.  These reactions, in turn, signal the fight or flight mechanisms of the brain which results in an increased flow of oxygen to the muscles requiring the heart and respiratory system to work harder.  Furthermore, during the fight or flight response, blood vessels in the skin may constrict to diminish any bleeding in case of injury, stored carbohydrates in the body are liquidated to provide sufficient fuel for any measure of response and the immune system may become enhanced in preparation for whatever part of the body is injured.  Given the reactive nature of the brain to stress it should be apparent that a prolonged or continuous stress response to the relative stressors around us means trouble over the long term.  Now consider the impact of stress on those whose brain is still developing and maturing.

There is a large body of research that tells us that young people who live in chronically stressful environments develop a variety of disorders as they get older.  There is also a growing body of neuro-scientific research telling us that the powerful chemicals designed for our survival in stressful situations can actually impact on the normal growth and development of very important regions of the brain, especially during the early stages of life and through adolescence.  It is also important to remember that children live in a less stable, more stressful environment than decades ago with higher divorce rates, variations in family structures, instant access to information, increased family mobility, pressure from society to perform and look good, access to globalisation and increasingly easier access to drugs and alcohol.  In other words, the stressors of childhood and adolescence may be of greater frequency and more pronounced than any other time in history.  That’s the bad news…the good news is that there are things we can do to help children and adults alike manage the stress around them and this will be covered in a future newsletter.  In the meantime why not talk to the young people around you about what they think stress is and what stresses them…you may be surprised by the answers you get.

Michael C Nagel PhD

mnagel@usc.edu.au

Check your calendar and plan to attend an important Australian event!

The University of the Sunshine Coast and its sponsors cordially invite you to the 1st Australian Biennial Conference on the Brain and Learning – Building Healthy Minds. Held in the beautiful city of Brisbane, this interdisciplinary conference focuses on improving the lives of young people by making cutting-edge research in neuroscience, psychology, education and health understandable and applicable to those who work with young people in multiple contexts on a daily basis.  With international and national speakers presenting insights into their work and research this inaugural conference will provide delegates with an opportunity to expand their own knowledge and understanding relating to Building Healthy Minds within their own professional practice.  Check the website to see the list of amazing speakers and full details of the conference at:

www.brainandlearning.com.au

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