Sign posts: How to know if someone is struggling and how to best support them
By Dr. Tim Sharp
‘Negative emotions’ like stress and anxiety are normal aspects of life. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel upset from time to time.
Stress and anxiety are not always bad. In fact, they are important human emotions, which can have a positive impact on our lives by enhancing performance and cognitive functioning via heightened physiological arousal and reaction times.
Our goal as adults and parents should not be to eliminate anxiety and stress completely but, rather, to manage them so they stay within normal, useful, adaptive levels.
So how do you determine when ‘normal’ stress becomes ‘abnormal’, and what can you do about it? What warning signs can you look out for?
In short, normal stress or anxiety becomes abnormal when it begins to impact daily functioning (social, occupational or educational); becomes invasive and pervasive; continues for prolonged periods (such as weeks rather than just a bad day or two); and if it’s accompanied by significant changes in mood or behaviour (for example, changes in academic performance or presentation at work).
So, if you, your child or anyone you know is excessively worrying or upset about a particular issue, or if they’re struggling to do whatever they need or want to do, then it’s almost certainly worth considering one or more of the following practical strategies.
It’s easy to fill up every minute of every day with every manner of school, work or extra-curricular activities. While many of these are stimulating and worthy, it’s important for all of us to have some ‘nothing’ time for relaxation and recuperation.
Don’t forget about sleep
Sleep is just as important as rest and relaxation. The average person is getting an hour less sleep each night than he or she needs, which detracts from physical and psychological health.
Let the children play
It’s hard to be stressed if you’re having fun. Children and adults need fun and play. Research suggests that play enhances creativity and cognitive functioning.
Manage your own stress
As a parent, friend or teacher, you should make sure you set a good example – so exercise, eat well, get enough sleep and manage your stress. In doing so, you’ll be teaching children and students important life lessons.
Label negative emotions
Talk to your children or students about how stress and anxiety are normal emotions and help them label the different types of unpleasant emotions. Research suggests that if you label your emotions, you’ll manage them better and they’ll have less impact.
Develop good coping strategies
Spontaneity and flexibility are important, but so too are structure and organisation. Assist those you’re trying to help get organised by collaboratively developing an after-hours timetable that includes study but also exercise and fun.
Teach that mistakes are OK
Stress often comes from feeling like we’re not doing as well as we should be doing, but many of these expectations are unrealistic. So remind others to set more realistic expectations and help them accept that it’s OK not to be perfect all the time.
Reach out and encourage others to reach out
We all need support – it’s alright to ask for help either from parents, teachers or friends. This should never be seen as a sign of weakness or failure but, rather, as an effective and positive coping strategy.
Focus more on what they can do
Another significant contributor to stress is the perception of lack of control – but there’s always something we can control. Teaching children to focus on what they can do and on what they can control, even if it’s not everything, will increase their confidence and ability to cope with whatever comes their way.
Exercise is not just good for our physical health, but also for our psychological wellbeing. It is one of the most powerful stress busters and mood enhancers. Make sure your children are not spending too much time in front of screens and are spending enough time running around and being active.