When we feel threatened, our brains go into what is known as the “flight or flight” response, an elevated level of sensory awareness and physical energy. It is the instinctive mechanism of avoiding risk and minimizing survival threats.
For young people, whose fight/flight responses are in hyperdrive, due to hormonal and brain development, slipping into a state of high arousal and impulsive reaction is both immediate and frequent. Anyone with a child between the ages of say, ten and twenty will be familiar with the concept, but while this kind of response is natural, it is also exhausting. The brain and body can only stay on high alert for so long before things begin to break down.
There is much talk today about the high anxiety of youth. Indeed, with the stress of school performance and the risk of social isolation, both on-line and off, it is no wonder young people are feeling threatened. We have, in many ways, created the very circumstances that undermine our desire to raise “happy and carefree” young people.
The consequence of being hyperaroused, that is constantly being in the physical and emotional state of fight or flight, is usually one of two options. The first is to proactively manage the stress. Young people who recognize their anxiety levels can develop both healthy and unhealthy habits for coping. Healthy habits might include exercise, meditation, closer interaction with family and trusted friends and any other technique that helps the teen find calm in an otherwise chaotic world. For some this comes naturally; for others it takes some guidance to find the right technique for him/her.
Unhealthy coping habits include self-medication with drugs or alcohol (escape), self-harm such as cutting, or eating disorders that create an illusion that the teen is taking control. In all of these responses, the bottom line is that the stress has become intolerable and the youngster is taking steps, albeit misguided steps, to reduce that stress in any way possible and perhaps as easily as possible. It is much easier to develop a bad habit of drug use than a good habit of daily exercise!
The second option related to hyperarousal is one that is not so much a choice as it is a long-term natural consequence. When the brain and body exhaust all energy, they go into a state of hypoarousal, that is, of almost complete shutdown. Motivation and energy goes out the window and a more or less permanent state of apathy may turn a once vibrant young person into a full blown hermit, withdrawing from family, friends and interests in anything outside of his/her room.
So when the chaos of potential fight or flight scenarios rules the teen years, as we likely all have memories of it doing, teens have three basic responses, healthy coping habits, unhealthy coping habits or withdrawal. The first will come naturally to some with less excitable and more manageable natural personality attributes. They are the winners of the DNA lottery. For others healthy habits will come as life-altering lessons learned from family, stable friends or positive mentors. It behooves us all, then, to try to be such positive role models, even in the face of moments of teen dysfunction. A healthy teen will have good days and bad and that’s okay.
However young people who develop unhealthy habits, or start down the road of personal isolation, will tend to have a lot more bad than good days and that is not okay. Changes in behaviour might be small at first but they will grow, both in intensity and in duration. It is here that a good network of supportive individuals can intervene in order to reverse direction. While many bad days pass, and even a few phases pass, the entrenchment of poor coping mechanisms into the adolescent brain will greatly increase the risk of a lifetime of mental health issues, substance abuse issues and social isolation. The best opportunities for successful intervention will be early in an evolving behavioural pattern.
Of course, noticing changing behaviours and recruiting support to intervene successfully is not as easy as it should be. While schools are good resources for accessing counselling help, they are generally overwhelmed in their capacity to effectively treat youth mental health issues. There are private counsellors, psychotherapists and psychiatrists who can help but the cost, for some, might be prohibitive or even impossible. There are some programmes run by churches and youth organizations which can provide some positive peer support and perhaps influential adult mentors.
But without a question, the most important foundation for supporting a teen struggling with stress is the home. A parent, or parents, who will accept that the teen years are difficult, will listen attentively to the free expression of feelings and anxieties, and will offer judgement-free coping advice as well as active participation in distracting activities (family hikes, bike rides, game nights, movie nights…) can have a significant impact on a teen who is regularly feeling threatened or insecure. Parenting is important in all phases of life, but never more than during those chaotic teen years!