Another Explanation: How our labels influence us longer than we use them

I was called in for an impromptu consultation with an eleventh grader, told that they’d asked to meet with me.

I’m seated in the principal’s office, waiting, when I learn that actually said child is not in school today.

A series of names are rattled off, and the principal beckons those students to come to their office.

They leave after telling them to talk to me.

I pause and ask three questions of the room.

Do you know who I am?

Do you know that you don’t have to talk to me?

Do you know that there are no consequences to not talking to me?

The response? “Sure, I can talk to you; this is pretty typical here.”

I’d been contracted in response to a student mental health crisis, tasked with addressing elements in school culture that were contributing to student and teacher stress and anxiety.

I asked a graduating senior if they felt stressed by school, and was told, “I mean not really. It just kind of always feels like you’re drowning under water, but it’s really fine and manageable. I do fine here.”

This memory sequence came to mind as a surprising association when I noticed that a random person, I’d met traveling while in college had liked one of my pictures. It had escaped me that we were still in contact, as often flings like this end soon after they happen. It sent me mind to anecdotes from that period and younger, and soon after to a conversation with an adult that I had while in high school.

She was talking to me about setting boundaries dating and in sex, and kept refencing this internal signal that she experienced that let her know when she had gone as far in a situation as she was comfortable with. I listened, and looked as perplexed as I felt before interrupting to comment.

I don’t have a signal like the one you are describing I shared candidly. I don’t enter situations without setting my boundaries for the extremes. To this day, I still feel oriented to this setting, anticipating my comfort multiple questions at a time, forgetting easily that there are interim steps possible to end on.

Fast forward five years or so later, I remember a therapist telling me that I would discover this whole playground of in between intimacy within my relationships, expanding from all or nothing in my attachment and engagement. That I would feel like I had more choices than I was able to give myself now. Similarly, I struggled to connect with this advice, feeling like it was inauthentic to my current boundaries. Feeling perhaps too like it blank slated me more than I was comfortable with.

Two weeks ago I was leading a Parent Forum on Toxic Stress and its effects on the mental health of teenagers, and how it might present realistically. I referenced the example of my conversations with students like the one above, as well as memories from my own adolescence. What I wanted to highlight was something that amazingly isn’t obvious to most of us, that is that environments are a central factor.

As I went through my need’s assessment at this high school, three important themes emerged in my conversations with young people.

· Students indicated that they didn’t trust adults to respect their boundaries

· Students indicated that they didn’t trust adults to respect their privacy, especially regarding personal information

· Students indicated that what they most craved were peer to peer support spaces, and related skill building and confidentiality

What was clear was that the solutions in place didn’t accurately reflect students’ experiences of their environments, and consequently, how they were habituating to it in order to cope.

Adults were overconfident that they were positively or at least neutrally deemed supportive to students, when overwhelmingly they were perceived negatively. A focus on help seeking behaviors that didn’t consider the environment’s culture would fail to change any of these stated concerns.

An adult asked me in our conversation to further describe examples of causes of toxic stress, and I realized further in that moment the persistent disconnects in our language and discussion.

To ask what causes toxic stress is to miss the urgency of needing to notice when stress is persistent. It is that persistency, and overuse, that is our call to action on a mental health level. The fact that it is the nature of stress to get you used to the level that is normal, in effect creating a tolerance for what is meant as an emergency setting, reserved for extremes, and short bursts.

What we’re seeing instead is a normalizing of toxic stress in our environments, and an apathy for addressing its root causes.

What we’re feeling instead is that our anxiety is present regularly, and our bodies are responding to what our environments have told us and trained us to expect.

For me as a teen, what I took away was that risk was relative, and that boundary violations were the norm, paralleled to a lesson that this was ok and a sign of how capable I was at managing my stress.

What perhaps is invisible to us is how these lessons present amongst peers, who are passing back and forth tolerances of what is considered normal and tolerable.

What I reflect on with increased language as an adult is exposure to environments that included less chronic stress, and support systems that had different associations with my forms of coping, especially risky ones. That in leaning into peer support, we’re at the mercy of collective wisdom and language, and that swings all ways in terms of what we take away and internalize more deeply.

There is explicit risk in looking at your experiences with language that you didn’t have at the time, especially if that language assigns harm.

There is also explicit risk in labeling toxins in your environment that remain unchanged, and in many cases enforced formally and informally.

The example that drives that home for me is from a workshop I led on emotional safety planning at school, where I asked students how they could respond to the following scenario. Say it’s a school night and they have a huge deadline for school, but they unexpectedly go through a breakout, or face a family loss, or are supporting a friend in crisis. What choices would they make, what gets prioritized? Could it be ok to choose not to turn your assignment in on time?

Unanimously students expressed that not finishing their homework wasn’t an option, and that the only thing they could give up would be sleep.

I asked additionally, what happens when your body stops allowing you to pull all-nighters when you need to? What happens when you can’t function under your current levels of stress?

We weren’t able to resolve this question, but what was introduced was an understanding that stress causes a physical toll and not only an emotional or mental one.

What I was validating was that something can be normal, and expected, and encouraged, but not sustainable.

Living with toxic stress is not an infinite option for us, even though we get better at hiding our duress with practice. We get better, until we snap, and what we’d thought was true of us is tested by a period of crisis or deteriorated health, or a worst-case scenario we were not prepared for. As if we can really ever prepare for traumas and how they affect us, especially if trauma isn’t a word we have to use.

What I can appreciate as an adult from my own adolescence is the risk of allowing adults to choose the words you use for your experiences, even if a part of us agrees with their explanation. What we reject is the link to having to cope differently. The disconnect that we have as adults to being a source of young people’s stress exasperates their withdrawal from existing support structures. Structures that seem to be an exchange for what they know works for them. Structures that don’t offer them more skills, customization, or access to peer support, and need time to establish as trusted or effective.

When our bodies stop registering how stressful something is, risk can only be detected within extremes, and release and learning comes from crisis moments.

And yet experience is what changes how we process and interpret stress and harm, and that is a reference point within our environments and relationships.

Even age can’t necessarily undo those changes to our body’s communication with us, not unless our stress levels our meaningfully reduced.

Reduced enough that our experience of functioning as if that was normal is challenged.

Reduced in such a way that we believe there are risks we are no longer comfortable with, and support that newly feels safer.

It’s then that those signals have the possibility to be tracked, or validated as not your truth.

In either case, the labels get to be chosen by you, and changed when they no longer apply.