While stress has become a ubiquitous experience for all of us, there are some unique developmental and neurobiological challenges for teens that heighten the impact of stress. Change is stressful. It has to be for humans to pay close enough attention to survive and thrive through change and transitions. The teen experience is one wholly defined by changes; in the body, in discovering who they are as people, in social and romantic relationships, in how they relate to and move away from family, in all kinds of learning, and in finding their place in the world. Beyond the normative day to day changes and trajectory toward a more independent future, teens are enveloped by profound environmental and worldly dynamics, taxing the teen brain’s resources even further.
A teen’s experience of stress can range from uncomfortable to life crushing. As much as we may want to help teens do away with their stress, stress is necessary for human survival. The stress response occurs in our most primitive evolutionary places in the brain, deep in the brain stem where our emotional center sits (the amygdala). This is also the part of the brain that has heightened sensitivity during adolescence. It works in tandem with the hippocampus responsible for mapping memories. Our brains are wired to detect cues in the environment that relate to our most negative past experiences as a way to be “on guard” to protect us and promote survival. We also rely on the thinking parts of our brains to assess the facts in a situation and calm our stress response when it misfires or over responds. The thinking and reasoning parts of a teen’s brain (prefrontal and other cortical regions) are the least mature parts of their brains, in constant competition with their emotional signals. It is difficult for them to understand the concept that emotions are not facts, especially when those emotions are expressing intensely, and decision-making regulation is premature.
The stress response is a physiological process that invokes a complex feedback loop between the mind and the body. When teens experience stress, it is not “just in their head.” It is also coursing through their whole body. When our stress response/threat system detects something (conscious or not) that it deems a threat (real or perceived), the body releases the stress hormones, cortisol, as well as adrenaline, that send signals to our body to prepare for a response designed to protect (fight, flight, freeze or fawn). Many systems in the body are signaled to engage when stress hormones are flowing (see image above).
The impact is far reaching. Stress hormones cause inflammation to increase blood flow to the systems it deems needed for the stress response to protect. Inflammation is also intricately involved in our immune system. The problem is that from the start of humanity, this system was designed for short term, acute danger, so we could escape being eaten by a saber tooth tiger, not for the persistent low-level flow of stress hormones responding to an ongoing and cumulative set of threats in a teen’s life: fear of social rejection, a high stakes sports game, AP classes, college aspirations, family troubles, social media promoting relentless comparisons, processed foods, lack of sleep, and oh… a pandemic! The ongoing flow of stress hormones also cause the depletion of neurotransmitters responsible for promoting positive mood, like serotonin and dopamine. No wonder we are seeing high rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders skyrocketing in teens. Seems like so much bad news!
Before your stress response system goes into full protection mode, there is an antidote, a competing neurobiological, evolutionary process designed to promote survival: social connection. While there is much discussed about how our system responds to threat, there is not as much attention placed on how we teach teens to complete the stress response cycle. The physiological response to stress in the body generates energy. That energy must find a way to be released. Without doing so, it builds up until something triggers its expression. Without understanding how stress works and skills for releasing stress in healthy ways, teens are likely to do so through unhealthy means; think substance use, eating disordered behaviors, aggression, avoidance, self-harm, or suicidality. There are however, healthy, evidence-based ways to encourage teens to move their stress response through completion by moving that energy out: physical activity/movement, creative expression, breathing, crying or another form of emotional expression (verbal, written, music etc.), laughter, and affection/social connection.
The competing evolutionary neurobiological process for which humans are wired for survival, is social/human connection. We are pack animals, designed to rely on each other. We seek acceptance and affiliation. Stress is mitigated in the context of feeling connected and cared for. This experience releases feel good, mood regulating neurotransmitters (serotonin and dopamine) and other hormones like oxytocin, that physiologically neutralize the chemical stress response. When we feel understood, supported, validated and part of a larger group, our safety/rest and digest system is activated, calming the stress response. We may not be able to eliminate the stressors and resulting stress for the teens in our lives, but we can engage in positive relationships as an antidote to stress.
To learn more about stress in teens and how adults can support them, join me for a virtual talk at the Nora School’s Parent Education Series on December 1, 2022. Register for free here: https://noraschool.org/
~Julie Baron, LCSW-C