Let’s talk about stress. Stress has developed a pretty awful reputation, and for good reason, right? Sweaty palms, heart racing, butterflies swirling around your stomach. Maybe just thinking about stress causes your shoulders creep up toward your ears.
But the truth of the matter is, stress is a part of life, and it’s not always a bad thing. In fact, the body’s stress response is an essential part of our survival, and an important part of development for children and teens.
What’s really going on?
What we call stress is actually our body’s natural response to our outside environment or circumstances, to something that we perceive as a threat. For our prehistoric ancestors, this trigger could have been a lion lurking around their camp, but threats do not have to be physical to cause us stress. For many students today, in particular, tests and social pressure can be common triggers for the body’s stress response.
No matter what the trigger is, stress signals our brain to start the same chain reaction, causing a rise in heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and muscular tension, otherwise known as our “fight or flight” response. When the stressful situation involves a potential predator, these reactions are an amazing thing that allow us to exert ourselves in a physically demanding situation to survive. Modern stress, however, often does not have the same physical demands, which can leave your body feeling tense and overwhelmed.
Good Stress vs. Bad Stress
The initial physical reactions that stress causes actually have benefits for healthy growth and development. The increase in heart and breathing rate boosts oxygen to the brain, and can enhance performance, memory, and even learning.
And when kids experience short-lived stress throughout their childhood, it gives them the opportunity to develop the coping skills and resilience necessary to thrive as adults.
Only when stress becomes prolonged, or when children lack supportive relationships to help them feel safe, does stress become a serious health issue. According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, “the constant activation of the body’s stress response systems due to chronic or traumatic experiences in the absence of caring, stable relationships with adults, especially during sensitive periods of early development, can be toxic to brain architecture and other developing organ systems.”
Stress, especially chronic stress and toxic stress, can negatively affect your body, your thoughts, your feelings, and your behavior. In the short-term, unchecked stress can lead to a variety of problems, including sleep issues, irritability, ulcers, fatigue, headaches, anxiety, lack of motivation, and sadness. Over time, chronic and toxic stress can contribute to more serious health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity (Ratey, 2008).
Yoga + Stress
So even though a little bit of stress can be a positive thing, it’s essential for kids and teens to know how to manage their stress effectively in order to keep stress from spiraling out of control.
Yoga is one great way to help kids pull in the reins, not only because it’s a physical activity that helps control the immediate physical and emotional feelings of stress, but because it promotes their self-awareness, attentiveness, and emotional regulation.
Breathing techniques, yoga poses, and relaxation exercises are all tools that teach students how to use their body to help them consciously calm down. These tools actively trigger the body’s relaxation response, interrupting the body’s fight or flight impulse and allowing kids to let their feelings of stress go, along with the physical stress symptoms. Taking deep breaths, for instance, sends a signal to your brain to calm down and relax, which the brain then forwards along to the rest of your body. When kids learn this pattern, they can tap into the body’s natural responses to manage their own stress, and as a result, their feelings and behaviors.
The best part? Yoga tools are easy and fun for kids to learn and apply throughout their lives off the mat. Ryder, a second grader who has been practicing yoga for one year, says that relaxation is his favorite part of class.
“I love doing yoga because it relaxes me,” says Ryder. “It makes me feel calm, and relaxation at the end of class is like taking a nap, but better!”
In yoga class, Ryder has learned to “breathe like the ocean,” something that he believes is a good idea for all kids to know, because it “helps you to relax wherever you are.” For example, Bianca, a middle child of 5 kids, knows that even home can be stressful place, but with yoga, she has learned to use her breath to calm herself down. “Yoga makes me happy,” says Bianca, even when her siblings may not.
Levi, a 12-year old, observes that like himself, “most kids have pain or stress.” And learning yoga at a young age has allowed Levi and his classmates to counteract their stress, no matter where it stems from.