From stress to chronic illness

How the stressful things happening in a young person’s life can affect their physical health and well-being.

You might be surprised to learn that the seemingly never-ending cycle of chronic illness in teens – including chronic fatigue syndrome and chronic pain – all starts with stress. This could be mental or physical stress.

Lots of things can cause stress in teenagers. Firstly, there are external stressors – these are things happening in a young person’s world which cause them some level of distress, ranging from trauma and big life changes to daily hassles.

12 examples of external stressors which can affect your child’s wellbeing:

1.      Moving home or school

2.      Bullying

3.      Exams

4.      Social Media

5.      Friendships

6.      Pressure to succeed

7.      Bereavement

8.      Parents’ divorce

9.      Emotional or physical abuse

10.  Illness – such as glandular fever or a viral infection

11.  Money worries

12.  World events – such as Covid or the war in Ukraine

Young people are also affected by internal stressors. These are the thoughts and feelings that make them feel uneasy and cause them stress. For young people, these could include low self-esteem and negative self-talk, being uncertain or apprehensive about a situation, or having unrealistic expectations of themselves or others.

Internal stressors can affect anyone, at any time. However, there are a few personality traits which make some people more susceptible to this type of stress than others. Thinking about the young person you know with a chronic illness, can you identify any of these traits?

The personality traits associated with young people who experience internal stress the most:

1.      High achiever

2.      Sensitive and empathetic

3.      Perfectionist, with high expectations of self and others

4.      Self-critical and experiences low confidence and self-esteem

5.      Often frustrated and dissatisfied with their efforts

6.      Worries and overthinks things – can be anxious at times

7.      Prone to procrastination

8.      Finds it hard to relax

9.      Feels the need to fix, help and please others

Whether stress comes from internal or external sources, and or they are more vulnerable to internal stressors due to their personality type, the most important thing to remember is that none of it is their fault. Their mind and body are reacting to the stress they are experiencing instinctively.

From stress to chronic illness in teenagers

On the face of it, teen chronic illness including chronic pain, CFS, anxiety and long Covid, are very different conditions. But the truth is they all start in the same place (stress) and they can all be treated in the same way.

When we experience stress, our body reacts by launching the fight or flight response. This raises our heart rate to get more oxygen going to our arms and legs in case we need to fight or run away. We are all born with these instincts, and while it was really useful when we needed to protect ourselves from the threats and challenges of primitive living, in modern society, our survival instincts are frequently triggered by other stressors which aren’t life or death.

Charlotte’s story – school bullying triggers CFS

Stress

25-year-old Charlotte Marks completed the New Pathways programme in (2019). She had suffered with chronic fatigue syndrome since she was a teenager. Bed bound and unable to put on her socks or brush her teeth on most days, she didn’t believe anything could help her.

Charlotte said: “When I was 13 I was badly bullied at school. I think the stress of it was the trigger for my chronic fatigue syndrome as afterwards I started to feel drained all the time, like I had no energy.  I felt like I was in a pit and there was no way out.

“The doctors thought I had a viral infection at first and then they tested me for diabetes, but all the tests were coming back normal. Then my sister’s gymnastics coach suggested that I might have chronic fatigue syndrome – we suggested it to the doctors and I was officially diagnosed.

“The CFS affected everything. My school attendance went down to 30% and even after I left full time education, I found it difficult to hold down a job.

 

The fight or flight response – which was triggered by bullying in Charlotte’s case – is driven by the part of the brain called the amygdala. If you are experiencing a lot of worry, anxiety or fear in your daily life, the amygdala is switched on more often and it becomes highly sensitive to repeated stimulation.

When external and internal stressors continue to happen regularly, like with bullying, the sensitive amygdala then triggers the release of more stress hormones, which make you feel worse creating more negative thoughts, feelings and emotions. These thoughts and feelings keep firing up the same stress-inducing neural pathways in the brain and reinforce them. Over time, the stress response happens automatically, and it then becomes even harder to switch off as it does it without you even thinking about it.

Experiencing sustained stress over a long period of time can start producing mind (psychological) and physical (physiological) symptoms, most commonly affecting the immune and digestive systems. It also takes its toll on a young person’s mental health.

Charlotte’s recovery – “My life has changed immeasurably”

My parents found Steve online and thought I should give the course a go. I felt revitalised after the first day, I couldn’t believe it. Steve explained what was going on with me and how to get out of it. The course was 9-3 for three days which would usually be a long day for me, but it wasn’t at all.

I discovered what my stress triggers are and now I have the techniques to cope with anything life throws at me. It takes work and practice – it’s not an overnight fix – but it gets easier when you know how.

I’ve gone from not being able to hold down a job and feeling like I had no prospects, to joining a gym, meeting a partner, moving into our own house together and getting a new job. I completed a diploma course in sports injury massage during lockdown too.

I can live my life as normal without worrying about the consequences of doing too much. I’ve even started to make friends, something I have always struggled with in the past.

My doctors told me that I just had to live with CFS, but I didn’t have to. All you need is the right mental state and a belief that you can recover.

 

What we do at New Pathways is give young people simple strategies and techniques to stop the unconscious stress response and replace it with positive responses that allow the body and mind to function in a normal, healthy way. Young brains are less developed and more malleable than an adult’s, so they are easier to reprogramme with positive neural pathways. Charlotte’s story is not unique – we give young people the tools to get well and stay well, and changes can happen very quickly.

If you think stress could be causing your child’s chronic illness, get in touch today to book a free discovery call.

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