Anxious/depressed children & teenagers: riding the cortisol roller coaster and then running out of steam?

Concerned about your child who seems fatigued, frazzled and lacking in motivation? This could be linked to their cortisol levels and over exposure to stress when they were younger.

Research has discovered a link between child behavioural issues, high cortisol levels and poor performance at school. Cortisol is the steroid hormone produced by the cortex of the adrenal gland that helps in responding to and coping with stress, trauma and environmental extremes. It regulates our blood glucose, the immune system and helps to increase energy and metabolism and regulate blood pressure. But when cortisol is over-secreted during our ‘fight or flight’ response, it can cause physical and mental health issues and over time can become ‘blunted’.‎

It would seem that the body adapts to long-term exposure to stress by diluting or shutting down the cortisol system – which affects our overall health if not functioning well and helping regulate our hormonal responses.

Children demonstrating either ‘internalising’ behaviours, such as depression and anxiety or ‘externalising’ behaviours, such as aggression or attention deficit are on the cortisol ‘roller coaster’. Over time, too much internalising or externalising can create a blunting affect to cortisol levels.  It’s like shaking up a cola bottle. The bottle once containing a normal amount of bubbles, becomes so full of energetic bubbles that it either explodes or erupts in short, sharp bursts until there is virtually no fizz left or it’s all gone flat. Teenagers who deal with prolonged stress issues become disengaged and less reactive to normal stresses. They often don’t step up academically or get busy studying for exams as quickly as their peers.  A frazzled seemingly ‘not bothered’ attitude can become the norm.  Fatigue can ensue and this impaired stress response can lead to further anxiety and depression.

Mood disorders, as well as ongoing anxiety and depression can manifest and lead to physical changes in the brain. The brain shifts into less functional patterns, altering mood and affecting short-term memory function.

So what are contributory factors to high cortisol levels? Over-worked at school; separated or divorced parents and exposure to their conflict; bullying; long-term friendship issues; poverty; family loss and abandonment are just a few indicators.

How can we tackle the issue? By seeking help from nutritionists and therapists; trying to avoid stressful situations and keeping the channels of communication open. Following a healthy diet, regular exercise, reducing caffeine, ensuring more rest and better care of oneself is key.  Don’t let it get to a state of crisis. If young children are showing signs of stress then seek help as soon as possible.