Is It Stress or Anxiety: How to Help Kids Cope

Is It Stress or Anxiety: How to Help Kids Cope

A recent study shows that 5.6 million kids (9.2%) had been diagnosed with anxiety problems. Do you know if your child is experiencing anxiety or run-of-the-mill stress? We sat down with Jasmine Lamitte, KIPP SoCal’s Director of Mental Health and Support Services at KIPP SoCal Public Schools, to discuss and understand “is it stress or anxiety?”  

Can you speak to stress and anxiety both being a part of the body’s natural fight or flight response?

We all have an amazing alarm system in our bodies called the Automatic Stress Response System, also known as Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn. When we perceive a threat, meaning we see something, hear something, or feel something, this system kicks into gear.

Stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, are released into our body from our kidneys and go straight to our brains and turn off our logical thinking part of our brain (neocortex) so it doesn’t get in the way of our survival, tells our survival brain, or brain stem, to increase our heart rate, open up our airways so we can take in more oxygen, shunt blood to our muscles in case we need to run, and converts fat into sugar to give us more energy. Think of the stories you’ve heard where a mother lifts a car to save their child after a car accident - our automatic stress system can even give us what appears to be superhuman strength! If we aren’t thinking, 'There is no way I am strong enough to lift this car,' and instead go straight into action, fueled by adrenaline, we are capable of accomplishing incredible feats when survival is in question. 

How would you describe anxiety and stress to a young student?

When talking to early elementary age students about anxiety or stress, it is sometimes best to use a word like “worry” to help them grasp the concept. It’s also important to avoid using the term anxiety unless you are sure that they have been diagnosed with the disorder. You can have feelings of anxiety or feel anxious, but having an anxiety disorder is something completely different. Best to use feelings like stress, worry, overwhelmed. Metaphors are also a great way for any kid (or person) to understand a concept. For anxiety, the fire alarm metaphor works really well!

“Have you ever jumped out and said ‘boo’ to someone? Have you noticed that sometimes people look like statues when they are so surprised? We call that freeze. Have you noticed that sometimes people start backing up and moving away like they are trying to run away? We call that flight. Have you noticed that sometimes people get really mad that you said ‘boo’ and raise their voice and even make you want to back up? We call that fight. So when our bodies go into freeze or flight or fight they are responding just the way that they are supposed to when our feelings get big.”

With a few similarities, what are some distinct ways to tell the difference between the two? Can one turn into the other?

There is a fine line between stress and anxiety, but it is so important to know the differences to determine if the emotional responses are something that you can manage on your own or if you need additional support from a professional. It is normal to feel stress or to feel anxious from time to time. However, excessive, ongoing anxiety and worry that are difficult to control and interfere with day-to-day activities may be a sign of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Stress is a common experience that we all face and is usually triggered by something external such as a big homework assignment or project that is due, an argument with a friend or caregiver — usually once the situation is resolved or time has passed, you can feel a lot better. 

Anxiety, on the other hand, is something that is caused internally, there is a persistent feeling or worry that does not go away, even after the concern has passed, there may not even be an obvious trigger.

Typically, if you can connect your feelings back to a specific trigger or event, it is likely stress, but if the cause is unclear or your symptoms persist even after the concern or change has passed, it may be anxiety.

Yes, prolonged or chronic stress can turn into an anxiety disorder. Because of our automatic stress response, those stress hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol are great in short doses, but if that system is activated over and over again, it can lead to anxiety disorders or even mood disorders.

What are ways to treat/manage stress and anxiety in the classroom?

Our H.E.A.R.T approach teaches our educators to understand the impact that stress and trauma can have on a child’s ability to regulate their emotions, behavior, and ultimately learn. The goal of H.E.A.R.T. is to implement trauma-sensitive, research-based practices that are resilience-focused and culturally sensitive in order to prevent the negative effects of chronic stress and trauma. At the beginning of the school year, KIPP SoCal educators are trained by our MHSS department to identify changes in behavior and possible triggers in students. By being able to identify these, educators can navigate the best approach in supporting their students. 

In order to treat/manage stress and anxiety in the classroom, we encourage educators to facilitate the following interventions: 

  • Calm Classroom meditation curriculum, which helps students maintain focus and manage stress.
  • Calm Corners, which teaches students appropriate, proactive self-management of challenging feelings and situations, as well as encourages our students to practice self-awareness and self regulation. 
  • Incorporate Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) into daily interactions with students by conducting community circles, hosting regular emotional check-ins and modeling positive self-talk & social emotional language. In addition to incorporating SEL into their practices, we also have Evidence-Based Practice curriculums that are culturally responsive and “evidence-based” that all teachers have access to and that can be incorporated into advisory lessons. 
What advice do you have for parents/caregivers if they need to reach out for help?

Stress is a normal reaction to pressures and stressors that are felt from a situation or a life event. What contributes to stress varies from person to person, but what's important is how the stress is managed. 

As parents and caregivers, you are continuing to navigate these ever changing times all while continuing to support and provide for your children and family. It is important to be in tune with any physical and emotional changes within yourself, in order to identify what type of support is needed. Everyone needs some type of support and no one should be ashamed to ask for it. By prioritizing yourself as parents, you will feel more relaxed, energized and will be better able to show up for your kids. You are teaching your children that taking care of yourself is healthy and that their health and well-being is valuable. Taking care of you is the best thing you can do for your family.

For information about mental health, our support services, and additional wellness resources, please visit or email us at should you have any questions.