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When it comes to health, it isn’t always easy for kids and families to navigate the facts. Health’s Up is a podcast that explores health choices through child voices. In a new series all about stress, join our host, pediatric nurse practitioner Kristi Westphaln, and middle schoolers at Mary Bethune School in Cleveland as we explore the science behind stress, easy ways to cope, and how to build a community of support even in these virtual times. Subscribe: iTunes | Stitcher | Spotify | Feed

Fight or Flight: Understanding Stress | Health's Up

Cleveland students in the Circle Scholars program attend a virtual session with the Health's Up team to learn about stress and how to cope. [Anna Huntsman / ideastream]
Cleveland students in the Circle Scholars program attend a virtual session with the Health's Up team to learn about stress and how to cope. [Anna Huntsman / ideastream]

When it comes to health, it isn’t always easy for kids and families to navigate the facts. That’s why we created “ Health’s Up ,” a podcast that explores healthy choices through kids’ voices, hosted by Cleveland pediatric nurse practitioner Kristi Westphaln. This episode is part of a series all about stress and easy ways to cope. Check out the next episode here. Teachers - find lesson plans  here !

Sometimes, life is stressful.

De’Naria, a seventh-grade student at Mary McCleod Bethune School in Cleveland, said stress can lead to feelings of isolation, frustration, and even distraction.

“I feel aggravated, and annoyed, and I just want to be by myself, and I [am] just drifting off,” she said.

De'Naria and some of her classmates at Mary Bethune are part of the Circle Scholars after-school program from University Circle Inc. in Cleveland.

The Circle Scholars students have their own definitions of stress.

“I think stress is about … when you end up being mad or something, and you need to be alone and you get stressed about what’s going on and what’s happening … it’s just very overwhelming,” said DaKa’la, a sixth grader.

She’s not alone – De’Naria said lately, she has been feeling stressed out about school work.

 “A lot more kept coming, and we tried to get it done, and it all had to be turned in that day, and we just kept getting stressed about it," she said.

Another seventh grader, Channan, said attending school online during the COVID-19 pandemic has added to the stress.

“They give us schoolwork every single day. It’s hard to fill out and do Zoom at the same time,” she said.

The science of stress

So why do we get stressed out from things like homework, school, and other aspects of our daily lives?

Stress is a feeling of physical or emotional tension that happens when we experience events in our lives and in the world. It's an adaptive response that helps keep our minds and bodies in balance. It involves the complex interplay of hormones and some interesting interactions with our central nervous system and other tissues and organs in our bodies.

The stress response is often called the fight or flight response. Imagine you hear a loud fire alarm. In that moment, our bodies are considering whether it is safer to run toward the fire and try to fight, or take flight by evacuating to a safer location.

Understanding what stress is and its different types can help us better respond to stressful situations in our daily lives, said Shaker Heights mental health counselor Robyn Hill.

Not all stress is bad, she said.

“Have you ever been anticipating a big day, like a birthday party or something, and you’re just excited and you can’t sleep? The anticipation all day has you keyed up and excited. That’s a good stress,” she said.

“Then, there’s bad stress. Getting a bad grade on a report card, [or] falling out with a friend. Those things can cause negative emotions and also have different effects on the body,” Hill added.

There are three main types of stress: good, tolerable, and toxic. Good stress is brief, mild stress that goes away after you respond to it, while tolerable stress is moderate to severe stress that does not resolve right away.  

Stress is considered toxic when it doesn’t go away, might even get worse as time goes on, and can even result in serious consequences for your health and well-being.

Guessing game

To learn more about the different types of stress, the Health’s Up team played a guessing game with the Circle Scholars students.

De’Naria and Channan mentioned homework and Zoom as sources of stress. Homework - what type of stress is that?

That is kind of a trick question because homework can be an example of all of the types of stress. It’s good or positive stress because your body recognizes that you have an important task, and it needs to kick it into gear to get it done.

Or, you might get really frustrated trying to do the work alone, but then get help from a friend and you feel better, which would turn this into a tolerable stress scenario.

But, if the homework is constantly piling up over time and you can’t handle it on your own, it might become a source of toxic stress.

How about an argument with a friend that hasn’t been resolved, and you come to school every day feeling anxious about it. What type of stress might that be?

“Toxic … because you keep going back and forth with each other and yelling back and forth. You might start off calm, and then if they keep aggravating you, they might go higher and higher and higher,” De’Naria said.

In this instance, De’Naria is right. If you get in a little fight with a friend and it gets resolved quickly, that might be more of good or tolerable stress – because you were able to handle it.

From exam rooms to classrooms, to newsrooms, and Zoom rooms – we know that healthy habits matter.   

Be in the know, stay healthy, and grow!   

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.