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International Stress Awareness Week & National Stress Awareness Day

By USCRI October 31, 2023

International Stress Awareness Week & National Stress Awareness Day

By: Rosalind Ghafar Rogers, PhD, LMHC, Clinical Behavioral Health Subject Matter Expert with USCRI’s Refugee Health Services in Arlington, VA

In recognition of International Stress Awareness week (Oct 30 to Nov 3) and National Stress Awareness Day (Nov 1), USCRI hopes to raise awareness about stress and its harmful effects, particularly in the lives of migrants, refugees, and displaced populations, and highlight the ways stress can be reduced and better managed.

Global forced displacement has reached unprecedented levels with the number of refugees fleeing their countries due to armed conflict surpassing 20 million in 2021 (UNHCR, 2021). In addition to potentially traumatic events in one’s homeland and during the migration journey, post-migration stressors exert a powerful influence on the physical and mental health of refugees, increasing the risk of both physical and mental illness and intensifying or prolonging the mental health effects of pre-migration trauma (Sim et al., 2023). Research has found that post-migration stressors, such as social isolation, barriers to accessing resources, discrimination, insecure residency status, and inadequate or unsafe housing, contribute just as powerfully to refugees’, migrants’, and displaced populations’ distress as the violence of war.

What is Stress?

Stress is a normal human reaction when we feel under pressure, overwhelmed, threatened, or unable to cope. Stress can be positive or negative. Short-term, mild stress can be positive because it keeps us alert, motivated, ready to avoid danger, and helps us rise to many challenges. Any situation we perceive as threatening or which requires us to adjust to change elicits the stress response and this is where the trouble begins because our body is not good at distinguishing between life-threatening events and day-to-day stressful situations. When the stress from a terribly threatening event, like war, is never fully switched off or when our body repeatedly experiences the stress response because of far less dangerous situations, like financial worries, the burden on our bodies increases and wears down our ability to adapt and cope. Long-term or chronic stress continuously activates our body’s stress response which can damage the body and contribute to physical and mental health problems.

 

What Causes Stress?

The situations, changes, threats, or pressures that cause stress are known as stressors. Stressors may be caused by external factors that are major threats or life events, like violence and natural disasters, or smaller, everyday situations such as work demands. When even small stressors accumulate, however, they can endanger our physical and mental health. Stress may also be caused by internal factors such as how we perceive or interpret a situation, so thinking too much, dwelling on problems, imagining worst case scenarios, and beating ourselves up for mistakes will all increase our stress levels. In addition, the ways in which we cope with stress can either reduce or increase our stress levels. Unhealthy ways of coping with stress, like withdrawing from family and friends, drinking too much alcohol, or denying our feelings, often negatively affect our health and become sources of stress themselves.

 

From pre-migration to post-resettlement, migrant, refugee, or displaced children face a host of stressors and traumatic events. Stressors may include armed conflict, persecution, family separation, displacement from their homes, discrimination, harassment, or bullying, family conflicts, lack of a sense of belonging, academic difficulties, or living in poor housing with limited resources.

 

What are the Signs of Stress?

Stress can affect our bodies, behaviors, feelings, and thoughts. The signs and symptoms of stress may show up similarly in children as they do in adults, but sometimes stress affects children differently. Some common signs of stress in adults and children include:

Physical Body

  • Muscle tension & aches/pains
  • Rapid breathing & heart rate
  • Difficulties sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Rashes/skin irritations
  • Digestive problems

 

Children

  • Sleep problems, including nightmares
  • Physical complaints, such as stomach aches, without a clear medical cause
  • Changes in eating
  • Frequently sick

Behavior

  • Withdrawing from others/isolating
  • Fidgeting, restless, biting nails
  • Angry outbursts
  • Smoking, drinking alcohol, or using drugs more
  • Avoiding stressful situations
  • Overly clingy and needy
  • Defiance or rebelliousness

 

Children

  • Aggressive behaviors, such as hitting, kicking, biting, or throwing things
  • Troubles at school or with peers
  • Not playing with other children
  • Trouble separating from caregivers
  • Acting younger than their age, returning to younger behaviors that child has grown out of, such as bed wetting or thumb sucking

Feelings

  • Irritable, frustrated, angry, defensive, sensitive to criticism
  • Worried, anxious, confused
  • Overwhelmed, helpless, hopeless
  • Mood swings

 

Children

  • Frequent crying/tearfulness
  • Sadness, hopelessness
  • New or recurring fears, worry, or anxiety
  • Anger or irritability
  • Excessive sense of responsibility or guilt
  • Emotional outbursts/temper tantrums

Thoughts

  • Inability to concentrate or make decisions, easily distracted, memory lapses
  • Loss of self-confidence
  • Negativity, pessimism
  • Thinking too much, jumping to conclusions, magnifying/exaggerating problems or feelings

 

Children

  • Trouble paying attention/concentrating or remembering things
  • Changes in how they think about the world

How to Manage Stress?

Everyone manages stress differently, so finding the right combination of strategies will be key to effectively managing and reducing stress. Here are some recommendations:

  • Adopt a healthy lifestyle and practice self-care. If we eat a healthy diet, drink plenty of water, get adequate sleep and rest, exercise regularly, and take time to do things that help relax us, our bodies will be better able to cope with and reduce stress. Encourage good sleeping and eating habits for children and ensure that children are physically active, spend time outside, and play with other children their age.
  • Breathe and be mindful. Deep breathing and mindfulness – being fully aware of what is going on in the present moment without judgment – are some of the fastest and most effective ways to deal with stress in the moment. Practice deep breathing with your child when he/she feels anxious or worried. Parents/caregivers can teach and model to children other coping strategies.
  • Reach out to people for support. Ask for help. Speak with family members, a healthcare provider, or a child’s school counselor or teacher. Encourage children to talk about stressful situations with a trusted adult who can help them put things in perspective and find solutions.
  • Change your thinking. Be gentle with yourself when you make mistakes, think of best the best possible scenarios, and see challenges as opportunities to learn and grow. Children and youth can easily fall into negative thinking and thinking poorly of themselves, so help them change their negative thoughts into positive ones.
  • Manage your time wisely. Prioritize important and unpleasant tasks, problem solve, set goals, and make to-do lists. Establish and maintain routines to provide structure, support, and predictability for children.
  • Lean on your faith. Pray, meditate, practice gratitude, or attend religious services.
  • Limit time following the news. Too much time following the news on tv and social media can increase stress.

 

Despite overwhelming stress and unrelenting hardships, migrants, refugees, and displaced populations show incredible resilience. Helping refugees identify stressors, signs of stress, and effective ways to manage stress can promote greater resilience and foster positive adaptation and future success.

 

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide or would like emotional support, call or text 988, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline that is available 24/7. If you or someone you know is having a life-threatening emergency, please call 911.

 

For resources or more information about USCRI’s Refugee Health Services program for resettled Afghans, please visit: https://refugees.org/the-behavioral-health-support-program-for-afghans/

 

References

Sim, A., Puffer, E., Ahmad, A., Hammad, L., & Georgiades, K. (2023). Resettlement, mental health, and coping: a mixed methods survey with recently resettled refugee parents in Canada. BMC Public Health, 23, 386. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-023-15300-y.

 

UNHCR. (2021). Mid-Year Trends. Retrieved from https://www.unhcr.org/mid-year-trends.html.


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