Why Am I Feeling So Overwhelmed?
If you ask middle schoolers about what stresses them out, you will likely get a mile long list, with homework and social pressures near the top. Managing time in an increasingly frenetic world is challenging for most adults. Tweens are often dealing with an increased school workload, and many of my kids have very busy extracurricular lives. And of course, their social worlds are taking on a bigger role in their lives.
When I was young (and to be honest, not much has changed), I ferociously guarded my free time. Part of this was my introverted nature. I recharge my batteries in quiet still spaces. I remember several years ago feeling my own anxiety ramp up, and figured that I needed more downtime, as I must depleting my energy reserves. My solution was to lock down my weekends and evenings. This didn’t help. In fact, it made things worse, and I was at a loss to figure out ‘what my problem was’.
I started reading ‘The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook’ by Edmund J Bourne and came across a ‘Life Events Survey’ that shed a whole new light onto why I might be feeling so overwhelmed for no apparent reason. Upon completing the test I was shocked at how high my stress score was–especially given that I was taking time for myself, and my life was in a really good place.
What I hadn’t realized until that survey, was that the common link with stressors is change. Humans tend to psychologically hang onto changes for a good two years. Changes are not all bad either (changing to a job you love, a great new relationship, moving to a dream location, having a baby), but we have a finite capacity for change. Once we pass a certain point, no matter how good the changes are, we are likely to start exhibiting symptoms of stress and anxiety.
It is important to note that some changes also come with a bundle of other changes attached; If parents are going through a divorce, it may also include a change in living situation, a change in school, which would include a change in all daily routines and friendship circles. That change can change everything.
Some common symptoms include
General aches and pains
This realization changed a lot about how I view stress. Often when we feel overwhelmed, especially when we aren’t sure why we feel that way, there is the tendency to beat up on ourselves (and I’ll get into negative self talk later). Taking a moment to think about the changes we have undergone in the last two years can help to reframe our view and reduce the self blame.
Below is a middle school adapted version of that test, thanks to my colleague.
Life Events Survey
Death of a parent: 100
Divorce (parent/close family): 73
Marital Separation (parent/close family): 65
Death of a close family member: 65
Jail term in immediate family: 63
Personal injury or illness: 53
Marriage in immediate family: 50
Failing an assignment or test: 47
Marital problem in immediate family: 45
Retirement in immediate family: 45
Change in health of a family member: 44
Pregnancy in immediate family: 40
Gain of a new family member: 39
Change to a new school: 39
Change in finances in household: 37
Move from middle school to high school: 36
Fighting more with parents: 31
Family conflicts: 29
Sibling leaving home: 29
Parent stops work: 26
Outstanding achievement or award: 26
Change in living conditions: 25
Revision of personal habits: 24
Trouble with teacher: 23
Change in routines at school: 20
Change in residence: 20
Change in school: 20
Change in recreation: 19
Change in church activities: 19
Change in social activities: 18
Paying off a big purchase: 17
Change in sleeping habits: 16
Change in number of family get togethers: 15
Change in eating habits: 15
Minor violations of the law (e.g. shoplifting): 11
Determine which life events have occurred in your life over the past two years and add up your total stress score.
Between 150 – 300: You may be suffering from chronic stress
Over 300: You may be experiencing some detrimental effects of cumulative stress
Please note that the stress scores are averaged over many people. The degree to which any particular event is stressful to you will depend on how you perceive it.
What Can You Do?
Take stock (and have the kids take stock) of changes kids have gone through in the past two years
Remind kids that feeling overwhelmed isn’t a sign of mental or emotional weakness; it is a natural reaction to life changes
Make a list of events/aspects of their lives they can and can’t control
Make a list of ‘change reducers’ (limiting new activities, creating some routines they can self manage)