I’ve been watching videos, reading posts, and listening to podcasts where many individuals have been mentioning the state of their physical self. Some are saying their skin is breaking out, they’re more tired than usual despite extra rest, or their head has been hurting more frequently. What’s going on? How can so many people be experiencing newly-developed problems with their bodies? Sure, maybe some individuals are not getting as much fresh air as usual or their diet may have changed since they’ve been staying at home for a month. Something more notable, though, is that each and every person on the planet is experiencing more stress.
What is stress?
Adults are likely hear someone mention that they’re stressed on a daily basis. This stress may be related to work, deadlines, family-related issues, or a lack of time in the day. Although the word ‘stress’ is used frequently, it is not widely known that not all stress is bad for you. The individuals expressing stress are talking about distress, which is a negatively-associated term. Distress can be caused by external issues such as the ones listed above as well as internal issues such as fears, worries, and thought patterns.
In contrast, eustress is a positively-associated type of stress that occurs at such times as starting a new hobby, which can feel exciting and motivating. Eustress is something that your body and mind can cope with naturally, but distress is not. Being outside of our natural coping mechanisms, distress is something we all have to put work into. Sometimes distress is something that we feel as though we cannot handle, so we suppress or shutdown our emotions. It can be especially difficult for children to cope with distress due to their brain’s emotional development, possible lack of coping skills, and not having the words to express their emotions.
What happens when we suppress our stress?
Positive and negative emotions are normal and natural. Both children and adults have a wide-range of emotions that occur daily. The suppression of difficult emotions is also normal, but can have a big impact on our physical being. “Emotional experiences are translated into potentially damaging biological events when human beings are prevented from learning how to express their feelings effectively.” (Maté, 2011).
Have you been feeling more sluggish? Are you having more aches and pains? Have your children shared that their tummy aches more frequently and that they are having trouble sleeping at night? After ruling out any underlying medical issues, please note that these are common reactions of suppressed emotions.
How can we acknowledge stress?
As mentioned, distress is at an all-time high during these unprecedented times. Although you can take the necessary precautions and make adjustments to your daily routine, you may sense a loss of control in your life. Information stemming from schools, work, and news sources changes regularly and there are also a myriad of unanswered questions about the future. “The research literature has identified three factors that universally lead to stress: uncertainty, the lack of information and the loss of control.” (Maté, 2011). It is no wonder that right now may be the best time to learn about your own emotions and have discussions with your children about theirs.
A question that I ask my clients regularly is, “Where do you feel (emotion) in your body?” Many children and teens take time to answer this question, because they may not be aware of how their emotions are affecting their physical state. Common answers include noticing tension in their shoulders or jaw, a gross feeling in their stomachs, and a tight chest. Sometimes you may notice how your body hurts or aches before noticing that you are emotionally distressed, which is why checking-in with your body regularly is important.
How can we deal with stress?
There are many ways to check-in with your body and simultaneously use coping skills.
Body scanning is the meditative practice on focusing parts of your body in order to check-in and feel more relaxed. Meditation is a skill and, therefore, it’s helpful to start with shorter practices such as this body scanning video for adults and this video for kids.
Similar to body scanning, progressive muscle relaxation is the practice of tensing and relaxing muscle groups in order to feel calmer. Follow along to this audio-only practice or join with your kids to follow along with this video that I use in session frequently.
It can also be helpful to move the parts of the body that generally show signs of stress. This 10-minute yoga practice can relieve tension in the neck, shoulders, and upper back. Yoga is great for kids, too! This practice helps kids connect with their bodies.
Remember, your emotions are normal, not all stress is bad for you, and bringing acknowledgement to your emotions is helpful for both your mental and physical state. Aim to check-in with your body and mind at least once a day, and have your children check-in with theirs, too. Sometimes it can be helpful to do it together. “Emotional competence is what we need to develop if we are to protect ourselves from the hidden stresses that create a risk to health, and it is what we need to regain if we are to heal. We need to foster emotional competence in our children, as the best preventive medicine.” (Maté, 2011)
For more information about understanding the mind-body connection, check out When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection by Gabor Maté, M.D.
Meghan Zeien, LMSW