Teens and Stressby Sarah Henderson, MSW, LICSW Stop any teenager on the street today to ask them about stress, and you will likely hear complaints about academic pressure, worries about college and career planning, complaints about workload, and concerns about relationships with friends and parents. In small doses, stress can be quite useful. It gives us the added physical and mental acuity necessary for a competition or high stakes exam. Too much stress can lead to physical illness, depression, and anxiety. Stress is an inevitable part of life, but it doesn’t have to control yours? What is Stress? Stress impacts your body and mind. Physically, it often shows up in the form of fatigue, headaches, distractibility, stomach problems, sleep disturbance, and decreased immunity. Emotionally, it can cause teariness, irritability, and worry. Behaviorally, stress can cause us to rush, procrastinate, avoid responsibility and withdraw from everyday activities. The stress response is an evolutionary mechanism that helped cavemen survive battles with tigers and wooly mammoths. When working, it allows us to perform well under pressure. If overused, the stress response can lead to long term health problems like heart disease, hypertension, panic attacks, and obesity. Learning how to turn off your stress response is as important as being able to activate it. Coping with Stress The good news is that there is much that can be done to manage your stress. Learning to assess your stress level and knowing how to de-stress will help you remain calm when encountering challenges. Some tips for managing stress are:
- Pay Attention: Learn your body’s cues that it is under stress and respond accordingly. Racing thoughts and rapid heartbeat are strong indicators that your body is under stress and needs to relax. Go for a walk, talk to a friend, or write in your journal. More irritable or worried than is normal for you? Take a mental time out to figure out what is causing you to feel stressed and talk with a trusted adult if you need help.
- Set Realistic Goals: Every good intention begins with a single step. Think about your goals for the future. Perhaps it is to go college, improve your GPA, or make friends. Pick one to focus on. Develop a timeline for how long it is likely to take for you to achieve that goal — 3, 6, 12 months. Make a list of things that you can do each day to help make progress towards that goal. Taking on too much, too fast increases the risk of burnout. It is important to prioritize the goals that will motivate you and increase your happiness quotient.
- Be Selective about Extracurricular Activities: You want to be captain of the varsity swim team, join student government, participate in the school play, and start a robotics club? Consider the time involved, potential for stress relief, and relevance to your goals and interests. Don’t forget, there is plenty of time after high school to explore your interests and hobbies. You don’t have to do it all now!
- Relax: Use breathing exercises and meditation to help lower stress levels and improve focus. With eyes closed, take deep, gentle breathes in through your nose and out through your mouth. Focus your attention on the breath. If your mind wanders, don’t worry; simply bring your attention back to your breath. If you need more help with focus, try counting the length of your inhalations and exhalations. Also check out Just Say Om, Your Life’s Journey, by Soren Gordhemer, which is an easy to read, guide to meditation and relaxation, for teens ages 13-18.
- Get 8-10 Hours of Sleep a Night: Sleepiness compromises academic performance, and makes you more susceptible to stress and illness. Keeping the occasional late night is permissible provided you make up for it on the weekend.
- Laugh: As the old adage goes, laughter is the best medicine. Watch a funny movie, laugh aloud with friends, think about a funny experience you had recently.
- Make Healthy Choices: Take time out to eat during the day. Limit caffeinated beverages to 1-2 per day. Alcohol should be avoided, since it taxes the body and will generally increase your anxiety. Quit smoking. Also, remember that physical exercise calms the body and mind. It will also help improve sleep and concentration.
- Focus on the Positive: Focusing your thoughts on positive rather than negative or worried thoughts will create an immediate mood shift. Optimists live longer, healthier, happier lives. For more exercises on cultivating optimism, see The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns M.D.