Straight Talk Advice

Jan 26, 2011

Most kids today need “stress band-aids”

DEAR STRAIGHT TALK: I’m a retired high school nurse interested in how kids self-soothe in order to de-stress. I observe kids having such stressed childhoods that most have some type of addictive behavior they use for stress relief. It doesn’t have to be alcohol, state-changing drugs, or cutting. It can be coffee, nicotine, food, shopping, extreme sports, sex, gaming, TV, movies, Facebook, pornography, or workaholism. Would the panel be so brave as to disclose what they do to make themselves feel better? —Toledo, Ohio

Leif 21, Berkeley, Calif. Ask me a question

I have healthy and unhealthy ways of self-soothing. My unhealthy self-soothing involves escape (via TV or video games). My healthy self-soothing involves perspective: remembering the big picture, the things that truly matter; laughing at myself. Meditation allows me to simply “be” with all my mental events (including stress).

Chris 21, Los Angeles, Calif. Ask me a question

Stress is a prime subject in my psychology classes. One professor defines stress as, “The perception of inability to cope with a significant event.” In other words, when an important event (upcoming game, exam) threatens our ability (skill, knowledge, preparation time) to manage that event, stress occurs. But the key is that stress is a perception. This professor would pass around a picture of a dog to “focus our minds” into the dog’s mind. The dog cares about five things: food, sleep, shelter, sex/love, play. The professor then asks: “What else do humans really need?” This change in perception makes life more manageable.

Katherine 16, Petaluma, Calif. Ask me a question

My closest friends keeps me grounded from scholastic pressure and I feel no need to drink, smoke, etc. when I’m hanging with them. However, as a social person, it’s easy to get caught up and stressed by other drama. When this happens, I hit the gym hard or calm myself with yoga.

Gregg 19, Sacramento, Calif. Ask me a question

To de-stress, I run, read a book, or sleep. Sometimes whatever I’m working on makes me stressed, so I finish it.

Jessie 19, Eugene, Ore. Ask me a question

I hang out with friends, sleep, or journal. Talking about my stress is also therapeutic.

Mark 24, Laguna Niguel, Calif. Ask me a question

I’ve snorted cocaine, smoked marijuana, chewed ‘shrooms, drank alcohol, popped ecstasy. This is self-soothing for one born into a confused world. I have ran miles, written poetry, sang songs, made tremendous love. This is self-soothing for one walking a clear path. I have meditated, met the source of all energy and been enlightened. I am soothed indefinitely.

I was born into a corporate-led world constantly injected with unabated stimuli and information. Self-soothing is nothing more than a cover for wounds. It doesn’t cure them. We are taught to self-soothe. We are taught weakness. The main wound today is lack of identity. Males don’t know how to be manly, nor females womanly. The commercial media disconnects both from their identities. Males are lost and dive into substance, gaming, and porn. Females think they need thin, false bodies to look beautiful and seek destructive male attention. These misconceptions stem from a void in child development. Voids always attract the flow of least resistance (i.e., the addictive behaviors you mention).

DEAR TOLEDO: Stress is the new pandemic. I agree with you that few people aren’t self-soothing in some manner. And I agree with Mark that self-soothing is a band-aid for stress. While every era has stress and some coping methods are healthy (the panel mentions many), to really thrive as humans we must heal the root causes of how stress affects the brain. Leif and Chris talk about a shift in perception that needs to occur. Mark talks about healing the male-female identity crisis and the void in child development. Personally, I believe early childhood is key. Give infants and young children happy, stress-free childhoods and the brain can manage stress properly later on. Readers: What have you observed?

Editor’s Note: Because stress is the true pandemic of our time, I want to introduce everyone to Dr. Gabor Maté‘s work on the connection between stress, addiction, and the destruction of early childhood. I believe that his thoughts on how to cure stress at the source are the best going and I’m excited to share them with you. Dr. Maté is a Canadian physician and bestselling author of the books: “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction,” “When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection,” and “Scattered: How ADD Originates and What You Can Do about It.”

First off, some background: the brain circuits involved in all forms of addiction involve endorphins and dopamine. Endorphins are the feel-good chemicals of the brain. They control reward and pleasure and are also the chemicals of love. Heroin addicts, food addicts, and shopping addicts, for example, seek that endorphin rush. The chemical dopamine is involved in incentive, motivation and ADD/ADHD. Stimulant drugs like cocaine, meth, Adderal, Ritalin, nicotine and caffeine, as well as sexual acting out, extreme sports and workaholism all elevate dopamine levels in the brain.

Dr. Maté‘s work shows that the brain circuitry involving endorphins and dopamine isn’t functioning very well in people susceptible to addiction. Maté notes that in all his work with hardcore dug addicts, there isn’t one who didn’t have tremendous adversity in childhood. And his theory is that susceptibility to addiction (both hardcore and lesser addictions) is caused by early childhood stress, not genetics. Early childhood stress causes the brain to form a compromised endorphin and dopamine system. Thus, as the person grows, he or she has to seek other ways to create these chemicals. This is the self-soothing that we are talking about. The band-aid behaviors.

Maté believes that the world we live in produces stressed-out mothers. (Ya think?!) Who in turn produce stressed-out babies. Going back to work one to six weeks after having a baby, sending the baby off to daycare, is a HUGE stress for both baby and mother. The stress load doesn’t have to be more dramatic than this unnatural separation — even though it often is compounded by a multitude of other problems, especially as child-bearing/rearing becomes more and more a fatherless affair. When mother is stressed, the baby/young child picks up on this and becomes stressed also. This affects the development of the dopamine/endorphin circuitry in the brain.

The point I want to drive home is that it is our lifestyles that are causing stress and addictive behaviors to flourish, not that some people are simply “genetically susceptible” and “there’s nothing we can do about it” (other than pills or therapy). Furthermore, it is the structure of our society that sets up the stress. To stop the pandemic, we need to set up social systems that allow mothers and babies to be together and not feel stressed. All the other approaches are, speaking figuratively, band-aid solutions. —Lauren

  1. By Alexis, age , from Sacramento, CA on 01/26/2011

    For me, the best way to deal with stress is to have someone I can confide in about anything that is bothering me.  I’m lucky enough to have a sister close in age with whom I am very close.  We share a room and have an understanding that we can talk to each other about anything that is bothering us no matter how bad or embarrassing it may be and it just stays between us and we do not judge or criticize each other about anything we confide in each other about.  We also are lucky enough to have a hot tub and sometimes when one or both of us is stressed we get in there to talk.  Since we’re sisters, we can use it together in the nude without any shyness which is the best way to use a hot tub.  Being in the hot bubbling water with nothing on is also very relaxing and helps relieve the stress, but it is secondary to having someone to talk to about what is stressing me.  Before, trying drugs I think everyone should try to see if there is someone like a sister or close friend to talk to.  It works wonders.


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  2. By Karen, age , from Santa Ana, CA on 01/26/2011

    Many kids I know try to use pot, booze, or other drugs to relieve stress, and from what I can see while it sometimes gives temporary relief it makes things much worse in the long run.  This includes my stepsister who I’ve been stuck sharing a room with the last six months because her mom could no longer handle her, so now I have to suffer.  Sometimes she’s so high she keeps me awake all night and other times she’s totally out of it.  I can’t even have friends over because she totally embarrasses me, like one time I came in with a friend and she was high and bouncing up and down on the bed like it was a trampoline totally nude.

    I stay away from drugs and have found that exercise and other physical activity is the best way to relieve stress.  I’m in much better shape than those who try to use drugs.

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  3. By Patty, age , from Roseville, CA on 01/27/2011

    I feel the same way as Alexis.  Talking things out with my big sister in confidence in our room does much more for me to relieve my stress than pot ever did, and I was lucky enough to stop using it before I got hooked on it too bad.  When I’m really stressed, I take off my clothes and my sister is kind enough to massage me while I talk which also helps me relax, but like Alexis having my sister to talk to is what is most important.  Not everybody is lucky enough to have a sister to confide in like we do.  However, most people should be able to find a friend to talk to rather than using drugs.

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