Exercise: More Than Fitness


Prolonged complex trauma adversely affects the nervous system. You may find that a child seems to be always on alert, scanning for the next possible threat. Their sympathetic nervous system is engaged, making it difficult to turn off.

Signs of Stress or Dysregulation in Children

Signs of stress or dysregulation in your child may look like:

  • Eyes wide and darting around
  • Difficulty with comprehension and speech
  • Inability to remain still (clenched hands, fidgeting, bouncing legs)
  • Quick and shallow breathing
  • Sweating without cause
  • Face appearing red
  • Poking their tongue in and out of their mouth

Stress and Sugar

The sympathetic nervous system’s primary role is to prepare the body when facing dangerous or stressful events. The nervous system activates, making blood move quicker around the body, heart rate rises, and breaths become heavier. This response helps the body survive or escape danger and occurs automatically without conscious thought.

One of the parasympathetic nervous system’s roles is to counteract what the sympathetic nervous system has done, helping the body recover from a stressful event. Stress is unpleasant, and we often turn to sugary foods for relief. This sweet remedy weakens the body’s response to stress, masking it rather than alleviating it.

A child may come home stressed from school and seek chocolate or lollies to soothe their state. However, sugary foods are not a positive solution to stress and can lead to other health issues despite providing short-term relief.

Counteracting Stress

There is a healthier way to counteract stress: engaging the parasympathetic nervous system through exercise. Exercise provides natural benefits such as cardiovascular fitness, muscle and bone strengthening, improved skill, and the sensation of well-being.

Exercise does not have to be a sport or an organised event. It can be incidental, such as kicking a ball in the backyard, walking and climbing in nature, swimming, or digging holes at the beach. The goal is to raise your child’s heart rate and get them puffing.

During puffing, children learn to take long, deep breaths. This type of breathing—long breaths in and long, slow breaths out—helps reset the sympathetic nervous system by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system.

Practical Tips

The next time you observe your child expressing signs of stress, invite them for a walk down the street or a picnic in the park. Engaging in these activities can release feel-good hormones, benefiting both the child and the adult.

“No matter how old you get, may you always stop to fill your pockets with smooth stones, empty snail shells, and other little treasures.” – Nicolette Sowder