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Your Teen: Stressed or Depressed?

Dr. Catherine Hart Weber

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Taming The Stress Hormones To Prevent Depression

"Depression also has firm roots in adolescence, with rates starting their most dramatic climb during the teen years . . . . There's no doubt stress plays a part . . . . Some evidence suggests that adolescents overall are more reactive to stress." - Barbara Strauch, The Primal Teen

The stress response, at its best, is what adds to the excitement and spice of life, but it also contributes to teens being vulnerable to anxiety and depression. Stress keeps our teens motivated to be creative and accomplish things. It is the body's way of rising to a challenge, mobilizing us to take action. And it protects us in tough or dangerous situations. For teens it gives the focus and strength they need to perform well under pressure. God even uses times of stressful difficulty and adversity to stretch and change our teens, helping them grow and develop character. Short-lived stress keeps teens alert to the protective response, equipping them to deal with challenges. However, not all stress is beneficial. The stress response causes damage if it is intense and can go so far as to trigger the onset of depression and anxiety disorders, which are increasingly becoming serious problems for teens. We are now seeing a dramatic climb in teen depression. Depression happens when the stress response system doesn't get time to relax and continuously stays on alert.

Teens are stressed out
When any stress -- good or bad -- is prolonged, excessive, and intense, a teen is at risk for problems. The overactivity of the stress response system, when it is not managed, can not only cause exhaustion and general fatigue but a high level of circulating cortisol, which, as the cousin of adrenaline, upsets the delicate chemical balance in the brain and triggers anxiety and depression. This is one of the primary reasons for the epidemic of depression we see in teens today, and the great challenge of helping them live balanced lives in a world that is now pushing us outside the limits of God's design. Just going through adolescence is stressful. Transitioning into adulthood is now more perilous and prolonged, and the result is parents of high school and college age kids are facing the disastrous fallout.

Teens these days feel they have too many pressures and demands being placed on them. As a parent, it is important to be aware of your part in contributing to these pressures and demands. Ask yourself whether you set reasonable expectations and manageable goals in academic and extracurricular activities? Does your teen complain you are unreasonable and unfair? Does your teen lose sleep worrying about academic and social pressures and problems? Is he moody, irritable, fidgety, and anxious about life in general? Is he afraid to come to you with the truth about what's going on in his life while secretly feeling burdened with unresolved problems and alone in his pain? These are possible signs stress is having a negative effect.

Teens are also just way too busy. They grumble of overloaded schedules that don't provide enough time to get everything done. They also multi-task by texting, listening to their iPod, spending time on Facebook, playing video games, and trying to do school work as well. Their brains are on overload, and it's stressing them out. Parents can help monitor this busyness by not contributing to it, and setting realistic boundaries.

Another factor for stress and depression is most teens are tired -- even to the point of exhaustion. Sleep research shows normal adults should get at least eight and a half to nine hours sleep a night. But teens need more -- up to two hours more -- for their brains to function normally. Teens need sufficient sleep, rest, and recovery time ("recuperation," as my daughter would say), as it is essential to reverse the damage done to the body and soul by excess stress. They also need time to relax and dream, allowing the inner swirling to get sorted out. This is tough for parents to enforce, but encourage your teen to get to bed earlier to allow for enough sleep. Let them sleep in on the weekends, or at other times when they can.

Preventing the stress, depression, and anxiety link
There are four important elements regarding stress and stress recovery parents should know:

1. Stress overload can trigger depression. This is especially true if your teen is at risk for depression. The main culprits in modern-day depression and anxiety are excess levels of the stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol. Early intervention and treatment gives a child's brain the best chance for avoiding depression later.

2. Stress has negative consequences. It lowers the immune system, causing vulnerability to colds, the flu bug, or whatever is going around. The body also forms free radicals that are associated with all sorts of disease and illness. Stress causes damage to brain functioning, causing teens to be forgetful, confused, and unable to concentrate. This will affect their school performance.

3. Teens need recovery time from stress. Make sure your teen gets enough down time, sleep, rest, and recuperation. Sleep is important in sorting out the emotional and mental turmoil of the day. It also helps the body recover from the damage of stress hormones flooding throughout the body.

4. Teens can recover from stress damage. Support your teen's involvement in stress-reducing activities. Passive recovery includes anything that reduces the stress hormones and is relaxing and fun. Active recovery is done through exercise and physical activity, which work excellently as a stress reducer because it helps burn off stress hormones. This can come via sports, healthy social interaction, hobbies, or other positive lifestyle choices. Exercise is an active approach to overcoming depression as it releases feel-good hormones in the brain. Also help your teen eat well. Balanced mini-meals eaten regularly throughout the day -- rather than heavy meals far apart -- can help lower stress. Provide your teen with a high quality vitamin and mineral supplement and avoid the use of caffeine.

The preceding items are adapted from Archibald Hart and Catherine Hart Weber's book, Is Your Teen Stressed Or Depressed?

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