Hope Molecules: Helping Kids Cope with Stress

Many of you know that health and fitness are one of my top values. Prior to administration life, I was a secondary health and physical educator. I was playing structured sports starting at three years old and played through high school and college. Once my college career was done, I dabbled into kickboxing, spin classes and other group fitness. Post college and into my adult life I became an ultra runner, snowboarder, powerlifter and fitness instructor/personal trainer.  It never dawned on me how I could be so busy with multiple jobs, a small homestead and life in general but maintain balance and cope with life stressors.

As I noted in my previous Miner Mail, I started reading at night to wind down. One of the items I read was a study about hope molecules, more specifically called myokines. It is said that during exercise, your muscles contract, secreting chemicals into the bloodstream. One of these chemicals is myokines, which are small proteins that travel to the brain and act as antidepressants. Myokines, also referred to as hope molecules, can enhance your overall health by improving your mood or ability to learn and will protect the brain from the effects of aging.  

In this study, I learned that because hope molecules cross the blood-brain barrier, they can also positively impact your mental health by reducing symptoms of depression or trauma and increasing resilience to stress. I had always known that exercise was a stress reducer, but I had never made the connection to my overall mental health.    

Connecting this to our philosophy and programming at the PRA Middle School, the importance of physical education has never been more clear. The ability to take a brain break from our rigorous programming, getting up and moving, learning teamwork, skills in collaboration and communication are key skills we want all students to master. Coupled with the ability to learn skills that they can use throughout their lives to reduce stress are huge. Many of our PRA students are busy bees with multiple after school activities and club sports, which is great, however the importance of the break during the day is highly important for the students to be able to deal with their stress. The teen brain changes a lot during their middle school years. Having feelings of stress and anxiety are normal. How we—family and school help support them to find means of coping.      

As a parent, here are a few things, according to Johns Hopkins, that you can do to help your teen cope during times of stress:

  • Acknowledge your teen’s fears and emotions. Don’t ignore it or dismiss it by saying, “You have a good life. You shouldn’t worry about that.” We need to take their emotions seriously and be ready to listen. Don’t meet them with too many questions, let them talk, and sit in silence.
  • Remind them that other kids are anxious too. Try to avoid labeling our teens with negative labels such as “shy” or “anxious.”
  • Start with a level of exposure — slowly working up to the worry, but providing positive reinforcement for tasks and social activities they are worried about.
  • Give your child love and empathy.
  • Make time to talk to your child every day without distractions.
  • Encourage healthy diet, physical activities and good sleep habits. 
  • Strong parent-teenager relationships are good for young people’s mental health and are protective.
  • If you need to seek more help, reach out to your pediatrician or trusted psychologist/counselor for additional support. School counselors can also be helpful.
  • Encourage exercise and nature therapy

What are you going to do to get up and move this weekend as a family?

by Casey Drzewiecki-Baldwin
MS Assistant Principal and Athletic Director

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