Chronic Stress Epidemic

stressed boy

Every year since 2013, teens have consistently reported higher levels of stress than adults in the American Psychological Association annual survey. In 2019, teens reported worse mental health and higher levels of anxiety and depression than all other age groups. Then 2020 came and brought a whole new level of stress to youth. Our high schoolers are very stressed!

In the short term, stress can be helpful… keeping us safe from danger, pushing us to practice before a competition, or inspiring a teen to study before a big test. But chronic stress is different. Stress persisting for long periods of time can have negative effects on our physical and mental health.

With teens facing more pressure than ever, it’s critical they learn how to reduce their stress levels and cope with stress in healthy ways. Today’s blog will consider the effects of chronic stress on our minds and bodies, the most common sources of adolescent stress, and healthy ways for teens to address stress.

Impact of Chronic Stress

Our bodies are not designed to be chronically stressed. Feeling stress most of the time actually leads to hormonal imbalances which can disrupt almost all of the body’s normal processes. Studies have shown that it causes a whole host of physical and mental effects, including:

  • Anxiety, depression, self-harm, and other mental health problems
  • Weakened immune system
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Impaired memory and concentration
  • High blood pressure and other cardiovascular disease
  • Eating disorders, including obesity on one extreme and anorexia on the other
  • Irritability and/or social withdrawal
  • Menstrual problems
  • Skin and hair problems, such as acne, eczema, and permanent hair loss
  • Gastrointestinal problems, such as acid reflux, gastritis, and irritable colon
  • Substance abuse disorder

Sources of Stress in Youth

Every teen is unique, so they each react differently to stressors. Therefore, there is no one reason for the high stress levels of today’s adolescents. However, the APA survey reported the most common sources of stress were school (83%), getting into a good college or deciding what to do after high school (69%), and financial concerns for their family (65%). In another survey on youth stress, teens reported their top stressors as school work (78%), parents (68%), and peer relationships (64%). The survey also indicated that they are stressed about social issues, including gun violence and school shootings, rising suicide rates, climate change, treatment of immigrants and sexual harassment. 

Some common sources of stress for teens include:

  • Academics and school demands
  • Negative thoughts or feelings about themselves
  • Changes in their bodies
  • Fitting in with their peers
  • Problems with friends and/or peers at school
  • Unsafe living environment/neighborhood
  • Parents who engage in high conflict relationships
  • Separation or divorce of parents
  • Chronic illness or severe problems in the family
  • Death of a loved one
  • Moving or changing schools
  • Taking on too many activities or having too high expectations
  • Family financial problems

Stress Management for Teens

With chronic stress a major problem for youth, adults need to teach them how to manage and cope in healthy ways. These strategies can help keep stress in check: 

Establish healthy habits. You can reduce physical stress by taking good care of your body. Make sure that you get exercise, eat regularly, choose nutritious food, establish a good sleep routine, and avoid drugs and alcohol.

Encourage mindfulness practices. Research shows that teens who use mindfulness practices experience less mental distress than teens who do not. Mindfulness develops full awareness in the present moment and encourages us to observe our own thoughts and feelings without judgment. There are lots of ways to practice mindfulness, but the primary idea is to pay attention to the here and now. You might notice how your body feels, what noises you hear, the comfort of your environment, or what smells are present. Whenever your teen recognizes a judgmental or wandering thought, encourage them to notice and label it, and then return to the present moment.

Identify what can be controlled. We tend to feel more stressed when we are trying to control everything around us, but so much of our lives is not under our own control. Teach your teen to evaluate what circumstances are in their control. For example, if they are stressed about a competition, they can’t control what a judge will like or how well their peers will perform. Your teen can only control their own effort. If your teen can let go of the things that are out of their control, they will feel less stressed and more able to focus on the elements they can control.

Develop problem-solving skills. Move your teen from complaining about a stressful situation to positive action! Spending time whining or repeatedly wishing something didn’t happen is a waste of time and energy. Instead, ask your teen how they are planning to deal with the problem they perceive. Encourage them to brainstorm how they could improve the situation or overcome the challenge. If you’re not sure how to help your teen with this step, please read our previous blog Teaching Problem Solving Skills.

Learn to say no. Being overcommitted is a major source of stress, even if the activity is fun (such as spending time with friends). Although fun activities can be a way to relax, they can also become a source of stress when time management is not used. All aspects of your teen’s life – school work, family life, social life, structured activities (such as sports) – must be in balance to minimize stress. It’s sometimes hard to say no – especially if you’re concerned about disappointing or offending people – but learning to diplomatically refuse requests is essential to taming stress.

Learn stress-management techniques. Once you know how your teen experiences stress, you can better suggest relaxation exercises that will work best for them. For example, if your teen gets hyped up when stressed, then you can recommend soothing activities. If they withdraw or become sad when stressed, they might need a more energizing activity. Here are some relaxation techniques that might help your teen manage stress:

  • Get outside. Spending time in nature is an effective way to relieve stress and improve overall well-being. Taking a walk or riding a bike are great stress relievers. Both the fresh air and moving our bodies makes us feel better.
  • Breathe. This might sound silly, but the way we breathe can significantly impact how we feel. When we are anxious, we tend to take shallow, rapid breaths. Therefore, teach your teen to take deep, slow breaths when they feel stressed for an instant calming effect. Breathing exercises are a great way to relieve stress anytime and anywhere. They’re simple to learn, easy to use, and can be done on the spot when you feel tension, immediately helping you to feel better. One effective exercise is to ‘inhale peace’ and ‘exhale stress.’
  • Meditation. Meditation is about calming the mind by slowing down and focusing on the present. The idea is to relax by stopping our tendencies to worry or be “busy.” Some people use yoga in this way.
  • Imagine. If your teen is a visual person, you might want to encourage them to envision a “happy place” or a really good memory. Sometimes imagining a happier place or time when we are stressed can give our brains a “vacation” from our stress. The key here is to have lots of details – how it looks, feels, smells, and sounds – to help imagine the scene.
  • Relax. If your teen is one of those people who holds tension in their muscles whenever stressed, teach them the art of muscle relaxation. Encourage your teen to start tensing and relaxing each muscle group—moving from the toes all the way up to the head.
  • Do a favorite activity. Sometimes the best way to reduce stress is to take a break from life, and do something you absolutely love. Your teen could read a book, create art, journal, dance, play music, or any other enjoyable activity. Help your teen identify an activity that really makes them feel happy, and remind them to take a break and enjoy their activity when they need a little stress relief.

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