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Who’s the best stress management coach in the family? Your dog, of course!

Unless you pick a Chihuahua, your pooch is a model of effective stress management.   When she’s not playing, she’ll likely just loll around most of the time, looking out the window, relaxing, sniffing, breathing with the measured skill of a yogi, etcetera.  But the second a threat arises—like mail poking through the mail slot or a squirrel invading the yard—your dog bursts into action, barking, chasing, snarling and chewing.  But unlike her chronically stressed owner, once the squirrel’s gone or the mail’s been chewed to death, the family dog is almost immediately relaxed.  She’ll wag her tail in victory, walk back to her blankie and patiently wait for the next emergency.

Stress is intended as a situational response to an immediate threat; its purpose is to rally all of the mental, emotional and physical resources at our disposal so that, like a dog when the mail arrives, we can immediately take care of business.  When we detect a threat it triggers a stress response almost immediately.  The hypothalamus hollers at the adrenal gland to pump out adrenaline and cortisol. Your heart rate, breathing and blood pressure spike; your metabolism goes into overdrive. Blood speeds to your muscles and your liver releases glucose for energy. Your pupils dilate to improve vision. Beads of cooling sweat appear on your forehead.  You’re ready to chase, to fight, to conquer…or to run like heck.  All of these physical changes prepare a person (or dog) to react quickly and effectively handle the threat. Once the threat is gone, though, your stress should be gone too.  Like your canine mentor, you should be ready for a nap.

But where most dogs have just a few stress triggers that come and go with just enough frequency to make their day interesting, their unfortunate owners have created a world of constant stress.  For young adults in particular there’s an almost never ending list of stress triggers constantly circling, threatening, taunting.  School, work, budget, bills, boyfriends… Young adults are trying to assume the complexities and responsibilities of adult life but often lack adult coping skills.  For some young adults, their neurological resources are not fully developed yet, further complicating the task of stress management.   The result is that that the young adult’s hypothalamus is constantly hollering at her adrenal glands, keeping her body and brain in a sustained state of emergency. As a result, she’s always ready to fight, or to flee.

Unlike the family pet, however, there usually isn’t a nap on the horizon for the beleaguered young adult…at least not for a while.  It’s only after the constant flood of adrenaline and cortisone have utterly exhausted her that she’s likely to fall asleep.  But her sleep will be the fitful, fearful, unproductive sleep that accompanies depression.  Many stressed-out young adults are unable to sleep at night and unable to stay awake during the day.  The result is often a distressing stew of agitation, irritability, restlessness, argumentativeness, withdrawal, oversleeping, drowsiness and sullenness.

If you suspect your young-adult child is experiencing elevated stress levels, start by asking  her about it.  She may or may not be willing to share, but your curiosity and concern can create a sense of safety for future conversations.  Sometimes sharing your own struggles with stress can help normalize her feelings of anxiety, opening the door for a little more transparency.

If she’s willing to share, help her identify the triggers that seem to keep her stress level particularly high.  With the help of a therapist (if she’s willing to engage that level of care), explore a combination of reducing exposure to stressors were practical and practicing effective coping strategies when stressors can’t be eliminated.  effective lifelong coping tools include DBT techniques, yoga, moderate daily exercise, dietary adjustments (favoring whole, unprocessed foods including fruits and vegetables), meditation, and time management techniques. Oh, and don’t forget the stress-busting impact of having a dog around to play with and pet at the end of a tough day!