How you and your kids can get out of ‘fight or flight’ mode

"I thought you were never coming home,” my five-year-old daughter whispered in the early-morning hours as I brought her back to her bed and snuggled with her. This was more than four months after I had come home from Miami Children’s Hospital with her baby brother.  

At three weeks old, our 8 ½ pound newborn went into kidney failure and for more than a month, I lived at the hospital, 45 miles away, sleeping on a cot in the playroom.

Her grandmothers came down to help while her dad was working two jobs because I had no paid maternity leave. Marci had seen me for only brief visits. It was four-and-a-half months after I returned with her recovering brother that she verbalized that fear for the first time.

The number-one “how-to” search on Google worldwide in 2015 was “how to get rid of stress” (or some variation thereof). As adults, we know what stress is and can rationalize that, “things will get better” or “after this deadline, I can relax.” But children can’t – they only know they feel bad, or sad, and have no control over their circumstances.

Stress impacts every aspect of life, but may not necessarily be related to a sad event. Graduating from school, getting married, having children, divorce, chronic illness, lack of sleep, unemployment: all of these life events are stressful, but some are joyful, too.

Good and bad stress takes its toll. According to Hans Selye, an endocrinologist who coined the term decades ago, stress causes wear and tear on the body. Implicated in many diseases and chronic poor health, stress can be a killer.

The American Academy of Family Physicians says two-thirds of doctor office visits are stress-related.

Thomas Pratt, D.C. is a chiropractor who offers free workshops to the public on the effects of stress on the body and mind, and how to optimize healing and relaxation, get more restorative sleep, and experience greater well-being at Chiropractic Associates in Manchester.

“Stress reduction is the very foundation of a healthy life,” Dr. Pratt said. “This means that if we manage stress better, we could substantially reduce or eliminate most illnesses and the extraordinary cost of health care.

“On a personal level,” he said, “improved stress management means better health, fewer costs to your family, and a better life.”

The body’s “fight-or-flight” response is designed to deal with an occasional stressful situation. Unfortunately, the fast-paced stressful lives we lead trigger the response regularly. This continually elevates strong hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline to harmful levels long-term. We’re stuck on high alert.

“Most people don’t realize they’re stuck in ‘fight or flight’ mode,” Dr. Pratt said.

The National Institute of Mental Health reported that as many as 30 percent of Americans suffer from anxiety, which can cause panic attacks and that “I think I’m having a heart attack” feeling. They’re prescribed anti-anxiety pills. But medication doesn’t eliminate stress; it only masks the symptoms, said Dr. Pratt.

Your brain, body, and stress

We have a strong physiological response to stressful situations, such as facing the proverbial saber-toothed tiger. This is a survival mechanism, Dr. Pratt said.

When you’re in a stressful situation, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in via the vagus nerve, triggering the “fight or flight” response.

The sympathetic nervous system “lights up,” ready to turn on “Incredible Hulk” mode, said Dr. Pratt. Your heart speeds up, bronchial tubes dilate, and muscles contract and get a dose of glucose for quick energy, the adrenal gland releases adrenaline, and your digestive system shuts down.

The parasympathetic system, on the other hand, is the part of the nervous system that helps you “rest and digest.” After you’ve defeated or scared away the tiger or other perceived threat, this system kicks in via the spinal cord and brain to calm you down.

Your heart slows, lung function returns to normal, muscles relax, your digestive system restarts, and you return to a homeostatic or resting state.

These processes happen within moments, automatically, thanks to our autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary function.

The impact of chronic stress

When you’re subject to chronic stress, however, the sympathetic nervous system is on overload and in overdrive. “You can’t relax and it becomes a way of life,” Dr. Pratt said.

When stress dominates your life, effects of cortisol (the so-called stress hormone) include increased belly fat, diabetes, bone loss, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, asthma and allergies, racing mind, cravings for salt and sugar, anxiety, acid reflux, irritability, and inflammation.

You’re not at your best at work or home, and both suffer. Tension in the family is felt by children, and may even be internalized as “Mommy keeps snapping at me. I must have done something wrong.”

Signs of stress in children

Stressful events for children include welcoming a new sibling, starting school, moving, having parents who are ill, unstable or divorcing; death, struggling at school, suffering and/or witnessing trauma.

In her practice at Choices Counseling of Londonderry, Andrea Paquette sees kids as young as 5 and 6 who are experiencing stress.

 “We use the word ‘stress’ as an overarching word,” she said, but what does that mean to children?

“Think about how you describe your day,” Paquette said, “and have conversations with them about what that means.

“Sit down with your kids, take a breath together and talk about your day a bit. If you could make this a slower-paced time and do it daily, that would be amazing.”

Children’s stress often shows up as physical symptoms or disruptive, attention-seeking behavior.

“They don’t know the language, they feel crappy, they don’t know what it is. Besides stomachaches, they may complain of headaches.

“School is pretty stressful for a lot of kids,” Paquette said. “They’re working hard all day to be part of a group. They get over-stimulated at school and need a little de-stress time when they get home.”

Stress or low blood sugar?

“Children use a lot of energy even while sitting in school – mental energy. They need frequent healthful snacks with some protein,” Paquette said.

“When you have low blood sugar, you can feel anxious, shaky, your brain is not working quite right,” similar to symptoms of stress.

After school, kids need a snack with protein such as yogurt, protein bars or shakes, or string cheese. At home keep precooked chicken tenders or hard-boiled eggs in the fridge, she suggested.

The occasional complaint about school is pretty normal. There a lot of things that kids have to get used to or deal with every day. But if your child is refusing to go, or showing signs of anxiety, or doesn’t want to eat, you need to find out why.

“If your child has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) already, stress will make it even worse,” she said.

Stress-busting for kids

 “The first step,” according to Paquette, is “you’ve got to make time in your day for yourself and your kids.”

• Have quiet “snuggle” or reading time.

• Go outside and play.

• Do 10 minutes of yoga stretches and deep breathing together.

• Older children may need time alone, unplugged, journaling, for example.

• Play with a pet.

• Sing silly songs or dance your stress away.

It just has to be a break, she said. Even 10 minutes is good. Use that time to talk about what’s going on. “We need to practice and teach our kids daily coping mechanisms and how to deactivate stress.”

A patient of Paquette’s, a teenage girl, had a serious illness that hospitalized her for a time and kept her from school. It “stressed her out” that she was unable to keep up due to being sick, and she started having panic attacks.

“Over a year, she came to terms that it’s OK if she doesn’t get straight A’s. But this is an example of how very responsible, wonderful kids who would usually be fine on their own can suffer from stress. They pressure themselves.”

Get a grip on grown-up stress

The vagus nerve, on both sides of the larynx (voice box), goes to many organs of the body and sends messages to the brain that you’re not under attack, according to Dr. Pratt: “It interrupts the pattern.”

To stimulate the vagus nerve, and restore parasympathetic activity, there are a number of things you can do.

• Breathe with your belly (inhale to the count of 5, exhale for 7).

• Massage and stretch your jaw

• Stretch your shoulders to fight “turtling your head” (shoulders-in-ears syndrome).

• Stretch your body (yoga). At the very least, get up and move every half hour.

• Walk, preferably in nature.

• Do gentle exercise like yoga, tai chi, or use light weights.

• Hum or sing to stimulate the vagus nerve.

• Meditate (but if you’re stuck in survival mode, you won’t be able to).

• Enjoy a little red wine or dark chocolate (these are parasympathetic regulators, according to Dr. Pratt).  

Mary Ellen Hettinger, APR is an award-winning reporter, editor and writer, and accredited public relations professional.

Categories: Mind and Body