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Getting to Know Your Brain: Dealing with Stress

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Pam Noble:

Hello! Welcome to the Getting to Know Your Brain: Dealing With Stress. We will be talking about what stress and anxiety are, where they come from, and different ways of coping with them. We will also talk about how the brain works in teenagers and why this is such an important time of development. So, let's get going! Okay, so we are talking about stress and anxiety. So the first question is: are they the same thing?

Well, the answer is no. While the signs and symptoms of stress and anxiety can be the same, they are not the same thing.

So here are some of the differences between stress and anxiety. Stress is generally a response to an external cause, such as taking a big test or arguing with a friend. It goes away once the situation is resolved and it can be positive or negative. For example, it may inspire you to meet a deadline or it may cause you to lose sleep. One is good and one is bad. Anxiety, on the other hand, is generally an internal thing, meaning it is your reaction to stress; it's coming from your brain. It usually involves a persistent feeling of apprehension or dread that doesn't go away and that interferes with how you live your life. It is a constant thing even if there is no immediate threat around you. So those are the major differences between stress and anxiety.

Okay, so I did say at the beginning that we’d talk about how brain function is different in teenagers and that leads us to question number two: why is adolescence an important time in brain development?

So, the answer is that adolescence is a time of many psychological and physical changes, especially in the brain. Some of the most important changes going on during development in adolescence is in the limbic system and the executive system. Both of these areas are still maturing. The cortex, which is in the executive area, controls the impulses and the emotions that come from the limbic system, but the communication between these two areas are not fully developed in adolescents yet.

The teenage years are a time when there is a massive burst of growth and development in these brain areas. This actually changes the structure of your brain and the connections between neurons. Because so much is going on, this is a time when your brain is extra sensitive to the things going on in your environment, both good and bad. But it also means that this is a perfect opportunity to begin developing healthy behaviors so to become a habit for the rest of your life. Part of that is learning how to deal with stress and anxiety.

Okay, so we know that we all have stress in our lives and many of us experience anxiety at some points, as well. Is it okay to just ignore the symptoms of anxiety?

Well, the answer to that is no, of course. It is important to be aware of your emotions and how your body feels. You should always be aware of your mind and body reactions whenever you're having excessive stress, whether it is good or bad stress.

It's important to be able to identify the signs of stress. Some of these things can be rapid heart rates, having headaches, stomach aches, a lack of energy, being irritable, decreased concentration or ability to focus, body aches and pains, or weight gain or weight loss. It's important to recognize your emotions and how your body feels to know what you're feeling and why you're feeling that way. Sometimes just admitting that a situation is stressful and being prepared to deal with it can reduce your anxiety. Once you recognize that you're having some symptoms of stress or anxiety like feeling agitated, rapid heart rate, worrying, losing focus a lot, or any of those other symptoms listed on the last slide, you can take charge of it by addressing it and trying to reduce those symptoms. Some options are trying to exercise, meditation, getting organized, which is a way of taking control of what you can control, taking some me time, doing things you enjoy, or even just making sure you're getting enough sleep, but not too much sleep, remember that that could also be a symptom of stress.

Okay, so we've covered some options for coping with stress so far. That leads us to the next question: are there any wrong ways of coping with stress?

Well, the answer to that one is a big yes. There are several ways people might try to cope with stress that actually just make things worse. Some unhealthy coping strategies that some people might try are things like using drugs, overeating, smoking, taking it out on others, watching TV mindlessly, or playing video games all day, or oversleeping. All of these things might make you feel better in the short term, but in the long run they end up just making things a lot worse. Some positive options that are some that were mentioned earlier like my exercise or meditation, as well as going to therapy, talking things out with friends or family, writing in a journal, or picking up a creative hobby to focus on.

Remember, like I mentioned earlier, the burst of growth and development the teen brain goes through makes it extra sensitive to everything going on around you, and the choices you make now can lead to forming healthy or unhealthy behaviors that will develop into lifelong habits. So it's super important to make the positive choices now.

Okay, so we've talked about a few different positive coping strategies, but how do you decide what works for you? Or, even if you do already practice some of them, you could try a few different things by using a stress catcher.

You can download the template for a stress catcher at From that website you can print out the template and directions for making it, and then use it to randomly choose a new coping strategy to try.

After downloading and printing the template from the NIMH website, color your stress catcher.

When you're done coloring, cut out the square.

Place the stress catcher face down, fold each corner to the opposite corner, and then unfold to create two diagonal creases in the square.

Fold each corner toward the center of the square so that the numbers and colors are facing you.

Turn over the square and again fold each corner into the center so that the color names are visible.

Fold the square in half so that the color names are touching and the numbers are on the outside.

Then open it and fold it in half the other way.

Turn over the square and insert your thumb and first finger of each hand in a pinching motion under the flaps.

To use your stress catcher, pick a number and open and close the stress catcher that number of times.

When you're done, it should be open so you can see the colors. Pick a color. You can either continue to open and close the stress catcher, once for each letter of the color you chose, or open it and read what is underneath that color. Then, try what it says. Once you have tried that method for reducing stress, you can use the stress catcher again either by yourself or with a friend.