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Stress, Anxiety and Resiliency: What Emerging Research Tells Us About How Children Handle Pressure

Posted by Dr. Brad Reedy, Founding Partner on August 30, 2013

reedyBased on a New York Times Magazine Article, Published February 6, 2013 by Vera Tutinuk

Emerging knowledge of the brain is now revealing what intuition and experience have been telling Wilderness Therapists for years: often one of the best ways to increase resiliency and foster hardiness in children is to expose them to difficult situations instead of reducing challenges. In addition to exposure, training, and preparation for stressful situations may also mitigate and improve responses under stress.

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Recent studies from Taiwan (where standardized testing is associated with entrance into high school or placement at a vocational training program) may offer some insight into how children respond to stress and how we may learn to facilitate improvement in their performance. While some children may demonstrate giftedness under non-stressful conditions and then have that same trait significantly diminished during times of stress, others seem to thrive when the heat of the spotlight of performance, competition, and stress is highest. Scientists are interested in a genetic marker that tells us something about how we handle stress.

The COMT Gene. This gene carries the assembly code for an enzyme that clears dopamine from the prefrontal cortex. That part of the brain is where we plan, make decisions, anticipate future consequences, and resolve conflicts. “Dopamine changes the firing rate of neurons, speeding up the brain like a turbocharger,” says Silvia Bunge, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley. Our brains work best when dopamine is maintained at an optimal level. You don’t want too much, or too little.

Some scholars have suggested that we are all Warriors or Worriers. Those with fast-acting dopamine clearers are the Warriors, ready for threatening environments where maximum performance is required. Those with slow-acting dopamine clearers are the Worriers, capable of more complex planning. Over the course of evolution, both Warriors and Worriers were necessary for human tribes to survive.

The Taiwanese students with the slow-acting enzymes sank on the national exam. On average, they scored 8 percent lower than those with the fast-acting enzymes. It was as if some of the A students and B students traded places at test time. [1]

That is, brain-science speaks for the idea that some of us demonstrate very gifted, creative, and bright responses to problems when there is time to prepare and plan, while others seem to excel specifically when the pressure is increased. Many of those who are gifted under normal circumstances seem to crumble when stress is increased. And those who are prone to excel when the pressure is on, maybe underwhelmed and under-stimulated during the drudgery of day-to-day activities.

So is it all predetermined? Is there anything we can do to mitigate the effects of this COMT gene? Research shows that one of the great differences between the Worriers and the Warriors is their perspective on stress. Worriers tend to view stress as detrimental and Warriors tend to view it as motivating. So by changing the idea (first in our (parent) minds) about our children’s responses to “stress”, we might actually increase their ability to perform under pressure. Several studies show that high performers in competition, test-taking, and other pressure situations experience the same level of stress as Worriers, it is just their belief that the stress and anxiety is a positive that changes their response to it.

There are many psychological and physiological reasons that long-term stress is harmful, but the science of elite performance has drawn a different conclusion about short-term stress. Studies that compare professionals with amateur competitors — whether concert pianists, male rugby, or female volleyball players — show that professionals feel just as much anxiety as amateurs. The difference is in how they interpret their anxiety. The amateurs view it as detrimental, while the professionals tend to view stress as energizing. It gets them to focus. [1]

The instinct for many parents whose children struggle with responding to high-stress situations is to remove them from such situations. Our parental extinct tells us to protect our children from harm and when a child seems to stumble or fail in the faces of a difficult situation, we are inclined to insulate them.  Yet therapy aimed at treating anxiety almost always contains some elements of “exposure” to the stressful situation or helping the child “reframe” the stress as a positive motivator by challenging limiting beliefs.

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, the authors of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, introduces us to such a case example.  A mother from Pennsylvania uses a religious and ethical exemption to remove her gifted child from the standardized testing process because her child is exhibiting psychological and physical manifestations of stress related to the upcoming testing period. This response to our children’s’ struggles and failures parallels many other processes common in parenting today.  “Care-taking,” “rescuing,” and “enabling” is part of the common vernacular directed at parents who attempt to protect their children from pain, consequences, and difficulties, thus robbing them of the valuable learning that may accompany such experiences.

I have often stated that the first thing I learned as a wilderness therapist is that children are much more resilient than they or their parents think. I have seen children thrive under stress and challenge—I have seen their resiliency. In the nurturing context of a wilderness group, children are challenged to access their own resources in order to build a foundation of esteem and success. Our attempts to rescue or enable often reinforce a belief that they are fragile. I have sat in many initial therapy sessions with my students, listening to a new enrollee tell me, “I can’t do this…” I have learned to lovingly disagree with, “I don’t believe you. I believe you can. And when you are done here, you will know that also.” And I have been witness to hundreds and thousands of graduates who have come to the realization, through experience, that they can… if we, as parents, learn to get out of the way of our children, let them utilize the wisdom the comes from the discomfort of natural and logical consequences and dig themselves out of the hole that they are in.

[1] You can find the full New York Times Magazine Article at NYTM  Why some kids handle stress

For more information on emerging insights into parenting, look at the two following books from Bronson and Merryman, Nurture Shock and Top Dog.

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Emerging knowledge of the brain is now revealing what intuition and experience have been telling Wilderness Therapists for years: often one of the best ways to increase resiliency and foster hardiness in children is to expose them to difficult situations instead of reducing challenges. In addition to exposure, training, and preparation for stressful situations may also mitigate and improve responses under stress.