Posted: 14 May 2018

Awareness of stress on young people

This mental health awareness week we spoke to one of our mental health professionals, Charlotte, on what stress is and how it affects the young people she sees every day.

What is stress?

On the subject of ‘stress’ I cannot help but reflect to a summer holiday several years ago, I was talking to a Jamaican bar man about my job in mental health. He quizzed me about the term ‘stress’. ‘What is this “thing” you call stress?’

I guess our lived experience is all we have to go on, and for the bar man on a beach in Jamaica, it was not a thing that he could relate to at all. So what is it? The dictionary defines it as; ‘a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances’.

Stress is a subjective thing really, everyone will have varying degrees of resilience to stress and often, what causes you stress will be very different to what another person might experience. However, I think we can all universally agree that our modern lives are often the source of that thing we call ‘stress’!

My work with children and young people

I am an Occupational Therapist working for our new Shropshire ‘Beam’ service. It’s an exciting new drop-in service for children, young people and their carers to access. The focus is on improving emotional health and well being.

Occupational Therapy seeks to enhance well-being through meaningful activity, so naturally when a young person comes in experiencing stress, I explore what this means to them and then look to address occupational balance.

Combating stress

Research suggests that exercise can help to improve cognitive function and reduce fatigue, so I am always asking young people what portion of their week is spent exercising. Our modern lives are increasingly sedentary and those electronic devices we all love to interact with so dearly are only adding to this issue. I often ask the young people I work with: ‘When was the last time you viewed your Facebook feed while cycling or walking?’

Exercise is not only good for your mental health, but it can also be a great way to escape from the devices, social media feeds or conversations with friends or family that could be causing you stress.

The extra stress young people can face

During a therapy session at Beam recently, a young person came in to address her anxiety in regard to exam stress. When I explored her anxiety, the overwhelming pressure for her was the exam room, the environment itself – the oppressive conditions, silence and the constraints. It made me think about how much unnecessary stress we create for our young people.

Performance targets, expectation and comparison all pile up on young people. I shared a tool for managing increased anxiety. The tool is a very simple yet effective strategy that everyone can benefit from. It’s a simple thing referred to as ‘breathing’!

We sat in the drop in, closed our eyes and I took her through the technique of ‘belly’ breathing. You fill your diaphragm with as much C02 as you can get in there, gently holding it until a natural release is required, we then released the breath with a slow, concentrated exhalation. After which, I talked about perspective and mindfulness.

Top tips to combat stress for everyone

We also chatted about music as a tool to relax in between these ‘stress’ experiences. Playing music can absorb attention away from negative thinking. I also talked about sleep hygiene, an occupational therapist’s dream (no pun intended).

Showering before bed, shutting down electronic devices at least thirty minutes before shut eye and general nutrition and hydration. It is all simple stuff really in the battle against stressful situations. Perhaps I will listen to my own advice next time I feel that ‘thing called stress’ creep up on me!

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