The Stress Response
People these days are often stressed out. Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., correlates those increased chronic stress levels with higher amounts of depression, another mental disorder where the symptoms aren’t always obvious.
But chronic stress goes far beyond depression, manifesting in many signs. You might get a pounding headache, have digestive issues, become overly sensitive to criticism, or become angry. Some people stress-eat; others avoid eating when they feel stressed.
In other words, everyone responds differently to stress, and stress management begins by understanding how you react to stress and then adapting or modifying stress management techniques.
Let’s say you need a job and have an interview with a favorite company. For some people, that interview would feel like an excellent, even if challenging, situation. (“Bring it on! I can handle this.”) Others see that situation stressfully, which could manifest as irritability, low self-confidence, or feeling unworthy.
Why Are We Stressed More Today?
Stress carries no one definition, oftentimes making it hard to identify. Most people understand chronic stress as physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension. Feeling overwhelmed or presented with insurmountable obstacles often accompanies stress.
Experts provide theories about why we suffer more today: Weaker community ties, material pursuits (such as making money) that ultimately don’t fulfill us, and overly high expectations (manifested in the “you can have it all” philosophy).
Many of those issues impact children and adolescents, who juggle academic duties with peer pressure, extracurricular activities, and other demands that can become near-constant stressors.
These stressors can also impact your significant other. Long hours on the job, unaddressed relationship concerns, aging parents, and financial restraints are among the long list of concerns your romantic partner might experience that trigger stress.
Stress and Your Health
Researchers have studied the overall health and specific health concerns about stress for decades. Take your brain: For over 50 years, studies reveal stress’s impact on the nervous system.
This strain can cause structural changes in different parts of the brain that impacts learning, memory, and other cognitive functions. Chronic stress can actually wither away brain mass and decrease the weight of this vital organ.
Stress isn’t always bad. A little bit can make you stronger and more resilient to life’s constant demands. But that stress — called acute stress — should do its job and then taper down. Your stress button wasn’t always meant to be on.
The low-grade, simmering stress that constantly nags at wellbeing — called chronic stress — creates these massive health repercussions.
That stress takes its toll on you and others around you, including your significant other and your children. The signs of stress aren’t always easy to identify, but becoming more aware of them can help you build stronger relationships with those closest to you.
Stress and Your Significant Other
You come home in a great mood, ready to enjoy a pleasant dinner with your significant other. Unfortunately, they’ve had a highly stressful workday, which they subsequently take out on you.
If you’ve experienced such an episode, you know how stress can impact relationships.
In one study, researchers surveyed over 100 heterosexual couples in Switzerland about stress during the past year. They found that external stress—conflicts with friends, financial problems, long work hours— impacted their relationships.
Those stressors included workplace, ﬁnances, children, extended family members, neighbors, friends, and community. The more concerns these participants had, the more stressed they felt.
Chronic stress sneaks into relationships in subtle ways: You might forget something important, change your tone of voice, not ask how your partner’s day went, and not feel motivated for sex: All of which can isolate you from your significant other.
A few people might intentionally set out to provoke their significant other, but what’s worse is when you think you’re being supportive, but you only make the situation worse.
Wake Forest communication professor Jennifer Priem, who studies relationships to uncover helpful measures that reduce stress, notes that a supportive partner can lower their partner’s stress levels with specific calming actions.
Priem uses saliva samples to measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol among supportive conversations among couples. She notes that when your significant other feels stress, he or she often cannot interpret messages clearly.
How to Help Someone Who is Stressed
While Priem notes cookie-cutter strategies don’t help in those situations, she found these can help reduce your significant other’s (and your) stress levels:
- Acknowledge their level of stress.
- Make eye contact.
- Alternate verbal and non-verbal communication, such as listening and nodding but also asking questions.
- Offer emotional support and validate their feelings by listening rather than offering specific advice (unless they ask for advice).
- Modify your approach if you don’t see improvement in the conversation.
Ultimately, you can’t make your significant other handle stress differently. They must implement strategies to minimize stress’s impact and acknowledgment its impact on your relationship. At the same time, you can be supportive of your romantic partner and be the example you want to see in them.
Stress and Your Kids
Stress impacts children at a very early age. Early social experiences shape a child’s brain and body for good or bad. Stressful experiences such as poverty can alter a child’s thinking and undermine health, social competence, and the ability to succeed in school and in life.
Let’s say a child grows up in a war-torn city or violent neighborhood. Those changes may make them wary and vigilant. As a result, they can have a hard time controlling emotions, focusing, and forming healthy relationships.
But there’s a silver lining: Thanks to the ability of a developing brain to change and become healthier — called neuroplasticity — you can help children better manage challenging situations to buffer or even reverse that chronic stress.
Children constantly adapt to new circumstances including a new school, shifting familial relationships, pressures to perform academically and otherwise, peer pressure, and illness or death.
Any of these situations — positive or negative — can create or exacerbate stress levels. Children can’t always articulate those feelings, which can manifest in numerous and varied symptoms.
Likewise, emotional or behavioral symptoms aren’t always obvious — you might chalk them up to “growing pains” — but include anxiety, worry, inability to relax, and other emotions such as anger, crying, or aggression. Children might revert to earlier-age behaviors or suddenly decide to not participate in school or family activities.
How to Help Your Child Deal with Stress
Just like with your significant other, you can’t take away chronic stress with children and adolescents. However, you can help them cope with the constant stressors that can jeopardize their health and happiness.
- Provide a safe, comfortable home environment and establish regular routines (such as family meal night).
- Carefully monitor their media intake: Certain TV shows, for instance, can exacerbate fear and anxiety.
- Be the example you want them to be. Show your children that managing stress in healthy ways can make someone stronger and more resilient.
- Listen and be present. Use positive language around your children.
- Be frank and honest about big life changes like moving or separation.
- Foster a sense of self-worth in your children.
- Encourage regular physical activity. (Be that example by exercising regularly.)
- Recognize unresolved stress with your children and seek professional help if necessary.
Protecting children against the inevitable stresses life brings can do them a disservice. Instead, showing them the right coping mechanisms can make them stronger and more resilient as they grow up.
Everyone experiences stress, but learning the right skills can help you manage those experiences more effectively and reduce the far-ranging impact chronic stress can create.
The earlier in life children can learn to cultivate these skills, the more resilient and successful they will be in school and otherwise. And effectively managing your own stress levels can leave you in a better mental space to support your significant other.