Stress is a natural reaction to any situation or circumstance that seriously challenges a person’s sense of well-being or security. While this reaction once played (and in some respects, still plays) a critical role in human survival, people in the modern world tend to experience stress as a recurring or chronic state that decreases the enjoyment of everyday life. Preteens and teenagers also experience this everyday stress. According to a study published in 2013 in the journal Neuroscience, enrollment in a stress management course can significantly boost the mental health of preteens and teens and help prevent the onset of depression and other stress-related ailments.
The stress you feel in everyday circumstances is directly related to the “fight or flight” response, an inborn reaction that tells humans when to run from trouble or get ready for aggressive action. On a grand scale, this response has long served as an automatic survival mechanism that prompts you to move your body rapidly without any direct intervention from conscious thought. Unfortunately, because of the ways we live in modern society, the “on” switch for the flight-or-flight response is frequently left at least partially engaged rather than going dormant or turning all the way “off.” On a physical, behavioral and mental/emotional level, this inability to avoid stress can have numerous harmful short- and long-term consequences. Physical effects associated with unrelieved stress include stomach upset, headaches, aching muscles, sleep disturbances, high blood pressure, impotence, reduced immune function, and heart disease. Potential behavioral effects include overeating, skipping meals, withdrawing from social contact, smoking or drinking excessively, and abusing legal or illegal drugs. Potential mental/emotional consequences of unrelieved stress include memory disruptions, loss of attention span, unpredictable emotional outbursts and unusual restlessness. Over time, chronic stress can also contribute significantly to the onset of diagnosable mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Stress in Preteens and Teens
Doctors can track stress levels by measuring your saliva for cortisol, an adrenal gland hormone that’s created as the final product of a stress-based chemical chain reaction that begins inside the brain. Several studies have identified elevated cortisol levels in the saliva of preteens and teenagers during the transitional social period associated with enrollment in middle school. As is true with adults, unrelieved stress in children can eventually lead to the development of depression, anxiety, or other serious stress-related health problems.
Stress Management and Depression Risk
As part of the study published in Neuroscience, researchers from the University of Montreal designed a stress management program specifically intended to teach stress relief techniques to 11-, 12-, and 13-year-old children attending middle school in two different Montreal-area schools. All told, 500 students participated in the study; half of these children received stress management training, while the other half did not. Prior to the active phase of the study, the researchers tested cortisol levels in all 500 children, and also identified specific children already experiencing clear symptoms of depression. Cortisol levels and depression symptoms were also assessed during the study’s active phase, as well as in the period marking the study’s end. The research team also conducted follow-up assessments three months after the active phase of the study ended. After reviewing the various assessments of cortisol levels and depression symptoms, the University of Montreal researchers made two important findings. First, they concluded that, when compared to the students who did not go through stress management training, the students who did receive this training experienced a statistically meaningful decrease in their average cortisol levels. This cortisol reduction was a clear indicator of lowered stress levels in these children. In addition, the researchers concluded that depression symptoms in the children who underwent stress management declined sharply. In fact, when compared to the study participants who did not learn stress relief techniques, these children had depression risks that were almost 2.5 times lower. Lasting Benefits The University of Montreal researchers believe that their findings represent the first verifiable evidence of the effectiveness of stress management training in middle school-age children. They also believe that widespread stress relief efforts in children this young could considerably reduce the incidence of depression and other serious mental health issues, both in the short-term and in the years leading toward adulthood.