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Healthy Habits

Understanding Stress

What is stress? What causes it? How can it impact our bodies and minds?
5 min read
April 1, 2021
Susan O'Neill
Board-Certified Family Nurse Practitioner
Susan has experience in cardiovascular intensive care, urgent care, and family practice. She believes children are the future, and we must protect, provide, and nourish their minds, bodies, and spirits.

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Did you know that April is stress awareness month? This month-long holiday was created in 1992 to increase public awareness about the causes and treatment for stress. The Hazel team is participating in stress awareness month by sharing a series of articles to help families identify and deal with stress effectively. 

What is stress?
Simply put, stress is what a person feels when they are worried or uncomfortable with something. The symptoms of stress can be physical or emotional.

What causes stress?
Many things can cause stress. These are called stressors. Stressors can come from outside (family situations, schoolwork, friends, illness of others), and stressors can come from inside (setting a high expectation for yourself). Stressors can be temporary like running late to school, or they can be severe, like a natural disaster, family loss, or community violence. It’s important to remember that stressors change from person to person. What stresses one child may not stress out another.

Stress is not always bad. 
Adults and children can experience good stress and bad stress. Both types of stress can have a physical and emotional impact on the body. Your child may show certain behaviors when they experience each type of stress.

Bad stress: Your child may feel worried, angry, frustrated, scared, cranky, or afraid, and if stressful feelings keep going over time or are intense, it can cause their body to react.  Intense or sudden stressful events might cause a stomach ache, headache, muscle tension, heart racing, or increased breathing rate. 

If your child experiences continued or longer-term stress, they might show symptoms like having trouble sleeping, nightmares, grinding their teeth, tantrums, feeling depressed, or school issues. Bad stress can also cause eating too much or not eating enough, trouble paying attention, or being forgetful. 

If you are concerned about your child coping with bad stress, you should talk to your pediatrician or if Hazel is available in your school, you can contact us.

Good stress: Has your child ever had to present a project in front of their class? Did they complain of getting butterflies in their stomach or sweaty palms? These can be signs of good stress. This type of stress sometimes helps move tasks along. For example, a little anxiety or pressure to complete a project may encourage your child to be better prepared in advance and get their work done. Good stress can help your child build resilience and learn how to manage their time and commitments.

A busy lifestyle can also cause stress. Sometimes when your child has a lot going on, like multiple after-school activities (clubs, athletics, chores, working), it can be overwhelming. On the other hand, if your child has issues that bother them a little, a balanced amount of activity might be relaxing. You can gauge what type of stress your child is experiencing by talking to your child about if they feel overwhelmed by how busy they are.

How does stress affect moods?
How a child emotionally copes with stress can depend on age, experiences, circumstances, and personality. Many children feel anxious, worried, or sad when they are in stressful situations. Children also deal with stress in part by what they see from adults around them. When their family is calm and confident during high-stress periods, it can be reassuring for children and have a positive impact on their emotions. It’s important to remember that in every situation, everyone reacts differently, and their feelings may change over time. 

How does stress affect the body? 

Some common examples of stressors and the body’s reaction to the stress:

  • Stomach ache: Has your child ever complained of a stomach ache before going to school or during a test? 
  • Trouble sleeping: Has your child ever had trouble sleeping when something is on their mind or have so much homework pending? 
  • Headache: Has your child ever been so worried about something that they had a terrible headache? 
  • Nervousness: Has your child ever been afraid they wouldn’t do well on a school project, and complained they felt their heart racing? Maybe they chewed at their nails? 
  • Loss of appetite: Has your child ever heard an argument and didn’t feel like eating afterward? 

How can I help my child handle stress? 

Children often have a hard time coping with stress and can get overwhelmed.  Your family can take steps to provide stability and support that help young people feel better. You can use  SELF: Sleep, Exercise, Leisure (fun), and Food to help your child cope with stress in a healthy way. 

  • Sleep: Encourage your child to get a good amount of sleep, turn off devices one hour before bedtime and keep a solid sleep schedule.
  • Exercise:  Exercise is proven to boost moods and can help children reduce stress levels and build emotional resilience. Children should be physically active for 60 minutes every day. They can exercise in 5 or 10-minute increments several times a day or play for 30-60 minutes once or twice per day. 
  • Leisure: Balance school and play.  
  • Food: Help your child eat balanced meals and healthy snacks. (see our blog about healthy snacking here)

One way to reduce stress individually and together is to practice mindfulness techniques. The mind and the body are very connected. If you can help your child calm their body, it will calm their mind as well. You can teach your child how to do deep breathing exercises when they feel especially stressed or anxious. Take a deep breath, hold it for 10 seconds, and slowly release it. Other ways to practice mindfulness include listening to a guided meditation podcast together or keeping a daily journal in which each member of your family writes down what they are grateful for each day. Try to find something your family enjoys and do it at least once per day.

Now that you have the foundation of what stress is, what causes it, and some basic tips on managing it, you can start to help your child with their daily stressors.  Be sure to read part two of our series “How You Can Help Your Child Manage Stress.” We’ll tackle other practical ways that you and your child can work together to manage stress. 

Healthy students. Healthy schools.

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Parents: Let us know you are interested in Hazel for your school
We will reach out to your school district to let them know that parents at their school are interested in Hazel Health services.
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COVID-19: Learn how Hazel can improve access to care for K-12 students
Hazel services are offered with $0 patient responsibility for all students through the 2020-21 school year for at-home or in-school doctor visits, due to these unprecedented times. Get in touch with us to learn more.
Parent Story
A father was concerned when his son was showing COVID-19 symptoms. His school uses Hazel, so he was able to contact a Hazel doctor from home.

The Hazel provider recommended he get a COVID-19 test and shared resources to help find a testing center in their area. The father was eager to help his son feel better and appreciated being able to quickly get answers and advice.
Nurse Story
A student came into the nurse's office with a sprained ankle. After icing her foot, she still was in pain, so the nurse called Hazel. Thankfully, her family had provided consent for over-the-counter pain relief because she was able to take some medicine and return to class feeling better.

After the visit, the Hazel provider reached out to the school nurse to check on the student’s injury. The nurse shared that the student’s ankle was improving, and she appreciated the follow-up.
Parent Story
A mother noticed her son was getting low on his asthma medication. She tried to schedule a visit with his doctor to refill his prescription, but no appointments were available. She didn’t want her son to run out of medicine, so she reached out to Hazel.

The provider was able to send the refill to a local pharmacy within one day. The mother was happy that her son would have the medicine he needed. She was also amazed at how easy and fast the entire process was.
Student Story
A student was coughing and sneezing a lot, but her family wasn’t sure if she was sick or had allergies. Thankfully, her school used Hazel, and they could get an answer.

After talking with the school nurse and the Hazel provider about her symptoms and medical history, the student was happy to find out it was likely allergies. She got some medicine and returned to class feeling better.
Student Story
During the pandemic, a high school student was having a hard time coping. She was sad about COVID-19 impacting her senior year, and she was worried about the state of the world. The student was also struggling with some personal conflicts, and she felt she didn't have the right support at home. After discussing her feelings, a Hazel doctor connected her with resources that she described as “life-changing.” She was very grateful and shared that she didn't know where to go for help before Hazel.
Parent Story
Shortly after COVID-19 began, a student began to develop tics. Her parents took her to a neurologist, but they wanted to get her into counseling as well. The student’s mother was having a hard time finding answers to her questions and didn’t know where to start the process, so she turned to Hazel.

The Hazel doctor listened as the mother shared her concerns and frustrations. Hazel reassured her that they would find the right services for her child. After the initial visit, the Hazel doctor partnered with the school counselor and the student’s mother to identify resources and counseling services that are a good fit.
Student Story
A student came into the nurse’s office because his vision went blurry. The Hazel doctor looked at his eyes, but he did not see any injury. As he asked him questions about his symptoms, he started to sense that he was down about something. After a few minutes, the student shared that he was really sad because his mom was recently diagnosed with cancer. He explained that he feels worried, and it’s hard for him to focus.

Hazel called home, and the student’s mother confirmed her diagnosis. They discussed how to help manage the child’s stress, and Hazel offered to connect the child with counseling resources through the school. The mother was very grateful for the guidance and was eager to get her child help during a stressful time.
Counselor Story
Hazel Health has been integral this year in getting our students the mental health services needed to help them live healthy lives.  The staff has been attentive, prompt, and resourceful. There is an evident sense of caring for the work they do and the students they serve. It has been a pleasure partnering with Hazel Health in providing mental wellness for our Garland ISD families.