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What Brain Science Can Teach Us About Adolescent Stress and Resilience

Adolescence can be stressful without a global pandemic, but imagine having to deal with all of the usual suspects of adolescence in 2020 and then throw in a global pandemic. Whoa, right?

Their worlds were flipped upside down almost overnight. Schools closed and remained closed for the rest of the spring. Summer looked nothing like it has in the past. No pool parties, no family vacations. When schools were supposed to reopen in the fall, some did but most remained remote for the first semester.

Adolescents are a resilient group, but after the year they've experienced we need to support them as they navigate these new stressors while still grappling with the everyday stress of being a teenager.

Not sure where to start? Dr. Roselinde Kaiser, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at CU Boulder, has some advice for all of us to get through the next several months:

We can all agree that 2020 has been a real mess. The novel coronavirus pandemic has caused immense disruption to our daily routines, social connections, family relationships, working and academic goals, and plans for the future. Disruption in any one of these areas can be stressful. Disruption in multiple areas at once can feel overwhelming.


Anyone Feeling Stressed?


Even without a global pandemic, stress can be harmful. Stress is one of the most reliable predictors of depression, issues with impulse control, and suicide. In adolescence – a developmental period spanning puberty through the teenage years and early twenties – the risk of depression and other stress-related mental health concerns is especially high. The question is – why? What is it about this time in our lives that makes us especially vulnerable to stress?


My Brain Made Me Do It: Why Adolescence is a High-Risk Time for Depression


One answer may lie in the science of adolescent brain development. Adolescence brings with it a cascade of hormones that interact with changes in brain structure and activity, including changes in how different brain regions “sync up” in their activity over time. New patterns of synchrony emerge among parts of the brain involved in thinking about goals and parts of the brain involved in reacting to threat or reward. These brain changes seem to correspond with more intense feelings of stress and pleasure, but also improvements in the ability to regulate our own emotions and cope in healthy ways with stress. It’s a good thing that we get better at self-regulation, because adolescence is a time of profound transition to independence and new social roles. Navigating these transitions requires the ability to adapt and self-regulate in order to move toward goals.


Given the dynamic nature of adolescent brain and social development, perhaps it is no surprise that this is a time of both opportunity and risk. Coping with stress can be an important vehicle for growth, and our experiences excelling in a new school or resolving a conflict with a friend can boost resilience. Problems can arise, however, when we encounter stress that is too big, when we don’t know how to cope with stress, or we don’t have support to develop the right coping skills. This is when stress can lead to hopelessness, isolation and depression. Because brains and minds are changing in adolescence, those types of intense stress events may disrupt the development of self-regulation abilities and the brain systems that support those abilities.


Youth Mental Health During the Coronavirus


All of us are affected by coronavirus-related stress, but our research shows that adolescents have been stressed in unique and serious ways. Young people lost most or many forms of in-person social interaction with peers, during a time in which peer relationships are highly important. They navigated an abrupt transition from classroom to online learning. Key milestone experiences were cancelled or postponed – school graduations, birthday celebrations, first dates, independent travel. More generally, adolescents have experienced a sudden loss of independence, a developmental regression that has been both frustrating and disappointing for young people striving to find their place.

Youth Resilience During the Coronavirus


So, what can adolescents do to stay well?


We can start by acknowledging the disruption and distress that the pandemic has caused. It is normal to grieve for lost experiences, to feel uncertain about the future, and to be angry about the state of the world. These emotions do not make you weak or flawed. Experiencing emotional distress also does not make you powerless. In fact, it can happen alongside an understanding that stress – even coronavirus-related stress – can be an opportunity for new growth.


Here are a few tips:


  • Reflect on your experience of stress during this pandemic. Make a list of the top areas of coronavirus-stress that are most intense for you: is it the struggle to stay motivated in online classes? Is it the physical distance from a boyfriend, girlfriend, partner or friends? Is it conflict with family? Give yourself space to reflect on your stress, and take a look at how stress may be affecting your emotions and thoughts about yourself.
  • Inventory your best coping strategies, the active responses to stress that tend to be most successful for you. It’s okay if some of them seem impossible right now – this is an opportunity to think about what has worked well for you in the past. Perhaps you find that a tough workout helps you reset your mind, or maybe you had a Friday movie-night tradition with your best friend. What strategies helped the most? Why do you think they were successful?
  • Brainstorm how your coping strengths could be adapted to the coronavirus era. If physical activity helps you stay balanced, but your gym is closed, is there a streaming workout you could try? It’s okay if you are skeptical about the options that your brainstorming produces – the goal here is to let yourself think creatively at this step, without judging your own ideas.
  • Choose two of the coronavirus coping strategies that you brainstormed to try this week. Maybe pick the coping strategies that are easiest to do, or maybe pick the strategies that you believe have the best shot at success. It’s up to you how you decide which coping strategies to try out.
  • Try out your strategies, and keep a close eye on what happens. Which coping strategy helped you recover from stress, allowed you to stay on track with your goals despite feeling stress, or helped you feel connected to your values? Think of it like an experiment – you are testing out new ways of building wellness, and some will work better than others. If it helps, recruit a friend or family member to talk about your experience; they may have ideas for you, and you may be able to help them come up with some coping strategies to try out too.

It is impossible to predict what will happen in the coming months, although there will surely be new stress related to the coronavirus pandemic. Adolescents will confront uncertainty and challenge in their academic, professional and personal lives. Adolescents will continue to strive for independence, social connection and meaning. We can support them as they cope with coronavirus-related stress, forging pathways of resilience in brains and minds that will last long after this pandemic is over.


Roselinde Kaiser, PhD
Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience
University of Colorado Boulder


Listen to Dr. Neill Epperson and Dr. Roselinde Kaiser


Mind the Brain CME Information:
CME Survey for the July 22, 2020 Edition

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