STORY LAURA BERGELLS
PHOTOS BY TERRY JOHNSTON
You hear a ton about stress these days. What can you do to better manage your response to the tension in your life?
Dr. Steven L. Pastyrnak, Division Chief of Pediatric Psychology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and Assistant Adjunct Professor at Michigan State University, will offer a practical approach to dealing with stress at a 90 minute event at Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) on Wednesday, March 12, 2014. “Understanding and Managing Stress” is free and open to the public.
“Everyone feels stress at some point or another,” said Dr. Pastyrnak. “I don’t care if you are a two year old kid or a 102 year old senior, you’ve experienced stress at various points throughout your life.”
Stress is something that impacts all of us.
“What I would say as a clinical psychologist who’s been working with kids for 20 years now, is that ultimately the more stress that people experience, the more other issues develop in their lives: whether it’s physical, emotional, or performance-related,” said Dr. Pastyrnak.
“If we’re dealing with younger kids, we see a lot of physical complaints develop as a result of stress. We see school performance impacted.”
But what about as we get older?
“Not only do relationships and school performance suffer, then occupational performance suffers. How they do at their jobs. How they get along with people. Things like that.”
At the Children’s Hospital for the past 17 years and in his doctoral dissertation, Dr. Pastyrnak has developed expertise in intervention directly related to reducing anxiety and stress. When children are being treated for cancer or some other type of other chronic illness, he and the pediatric psychology team identify the kind of stress a child is experiencing. They can develop recommendations and interventions to help reduce that stress.
Dr. Pastyrnak identifies three pillars of stress: physical, mental, and behavioral.
“First are the physical symptoms that go along with stress. That includes your stereotypical six year old who doesn’t want to go to school and complains of a tummy ache. You can have stomach pains. You can have butterflies in your tummy. You can have your heart racing a little bit. You can have tingling in your hands and your feet. You can have this whole sense of numbness that takes over your body at times. And that can be very much stress related.”
Those are some examples of physical signs. But what’s going on in your head?
“When your body is feeling stressed, then you have a tendency for your mind to try to make sense of why it’s stressed. And that’s where worries come from. And that’s where anxious thoughts come from. ‘Well, I must be stressed because I’m late on my rent. Or I must be stressed because I have a test the next day. Or I must be stressed because this part of my life isn’t going so well.’ And it’s your mind’s attribution to what’s going on that we normally think of as anxiety. We think of it as worries, basically.”
Thirdly, Dr. Pastyrnak addresses the behavioral component of stress.
“The younger kids are, the less likely they’re to be able to communicate their thoughts and their physical symptoms. But more likely, we’re able to see it through their behavior. So ultimately, think of stress as your body’s emotional defense. It’s what triggers your fight or flight response. So kids who tend to withdraw or avoid things, or kids who tend to be more explosive (have tantrums and act out) are experiencing some degree of stress.”
Adult behaviors are often not that different from what Dr. Pastyrnak sees in children.
“If you as an adult have ever avoided anything because you didn’t want to deal with it at the moment, that is a little bit of a stress reaction. You may have avoided it as a way to protect yourself.”
“The reality is that anything that causes a physical change to your body is identified as a stressor. It doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. But your lack of sleep. Your lack of good nutrition. Sometimes your lack of exercise. These are things that can create stress in your body. If you’re fighting off an illness, this can create additional stress in your body and it can come out in different physical and psychological ways.”
However, the doctor emphasizes that stress is primarily physical.
“But then, it becomes psychological or behavior afterwards. And that’s why some people are more prone to stress, and other one are less prone. Just because their bodies don’t respond physically the ways others do.”
“We all have a certain genetic predisposition to experience stress. If we have a very high predisposition and a low amount of stress, we still may have the symptoms of stress. If we have a low predisposition but a high level of environmental things going on, you may be stressed. It’s really that equation that determines how stressed we are in a given situation.”
Beyond sharing an overview of stress, Dr. Pastyrnak plans to make the session interactive.
“We’re going to do some breathing exercises. We’re going to do some muscle relaxation exercises. Anybody interested in coming along should leave their reservations and their tight clothing at the door.”
Although Dr. Pastyrnak has a wealth of clinical experience, he also has personal experience dealing with stress. He and his wife Jennifer (also a psychologist) have two teenagers: Anna, who is 15 going on 16; and Camden who has just turned 17.
“I have two teenage drivers at my house,” said Dr. Pastyrnak.
How is the doctor responding to that stress?
“Y’know, so far, so good,” he said.
Even if you’re not feeling stressed, learn to help someone who is. Attend this free event in room 168 of the Wisner-Bottrall Applied Technology Center on Fountain Street at GRCC from 1:00-2:30 pm on Wednesday, March 12, 2014. For more information, visit the GRCC Psychology Speaker Series web page (https://www.grcc.edu/psychology/20132014psychologyspeakersseries).