Imagine you are at the top of a very steep, icy ski trail, one that is far beyond your skill level and there is no other way down. As you look down the slope, your heart starts beating faster, your blood pressure rises, your stomach churns and your jaw clenches. You feel stress and fear.
In Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk, she discusses a paper, “Improving Acute Stress Responses: The Power of Reappraisal” by Jamieson, Mendes and Nock.
They examined what would happen if we treated the stress response as helpful. They taught people that the feeling of stress, the physical experience of your heart beating faster and your muscles tightening is your body’s way of getting ready to tackle a challenge. That it actually helps you to perform challenging tasks. So, instead of believing that these physical sensations are unhealthy stress and something to avoid, they are your body preparing you to do something hard or challenging.
People who perceive stress as a threat physically experience a constriction of their blood vessels and a decrease in their heart efficiency. This is why stress can be a leading cause of health problems. Many of the kids I work with experience regular headaches and stomachaches.
So what happened to the people in the study who were taught to think about stress as their body getting ready for a challenge? Well, their blood vessels remained open and their heart efficiency improved. This response is similar to what happens in the body in moments of joy and courage. How amazing is that!
It’s not the experience of stress that causes potentially damaging physical responses but the combination of the stressful event and how we think about it. Yes, how we think about it!
Let’s go back to the top of that ski slope, you’re still up there and your child is up there quite often, too. But your child’s ski slope is made of things like homework, going to school, talking to new people, separating from you or trying new things.
The first step to getting down the slope is one you can teach your child. You can teach your child to think differently about fear and stress. Since stress and fear feel uncomfortable and for some kids down right painful in the body, the message most kids hear is… Avoid! They perceive a threat. Of course, if there is a safety issue, this message is accurate and avoiding is the best plan. But most likely, your child’s fear volume is turned up too high and they are responding to normal everyday things as if they are unsafe, as if they are threats. You can teach your child the true message, the message that your body is getting you ready, preparing you to be brave and to engage with the challenge. Your body’s telling you, “I’m getting you ready, let’s go do this!”
Teaching your child that the physical stress response is a helpful tool to prepare them for a challenge changes their physical stress response, makes it more likely they will be successful in handling the challenge, and creates confidence.