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Teen Stress: 10 Stress-Management Skills for Teenagers

Reading Time: 9 minutes

A certain amount of teen stress is normal. It’s a natural emotional, psychological, and physical reaction to the big and small challenges of daily life. Teenagers often feel stress due to the myriad of changes, both internal and external, that come with growing up.

But the last few years have vastly multiplied the number of teenage stressors and, as a result, increased how many teens are affected by stress. In addition to coping with the turbulence of adolescence, teens are also facing the grief, loss, and anxiety catalyzed by the pandemic. Moreover, research continues to show the negative effects of social media on teen stress levels. Add to that the social, political and environmental crises that this generation will inherit, and it’s no wonder teens are more stressed out than ever.

These stressors aren’t going away anytime soon. And if acute or chronic stress goes on long enough or gets bad enough, it can not only reduce quality of life but also lead to serious mental and physical health conditions. That’s why it’s essential for teens to learn how to manage their stress.

How Does Stress Affect the Teenage Brain?

First, let’s look at exactly how stress works. Stress is a nervous system response in the face of a perceived danger. In response to the threat, the body and brain trigger a surge of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones activate the part of the nervous system known as the sympathetic nervous system, also called the stress response or “fight-or-flight” reaction.

This evolutionary mind-body mechanism developed in order to prepare humans to react quickly in dangerous situations, to either escape from or fight off the threat. As the stress response kicks in, the heart rate increases, pushing blood out to the arms and legs for running or fighting. Our muscles tense and we start breathing more quickly.

Our ancestors depended on this biological reaction when facing life-threatening events, such as animal attacks. It makes sense that a pandemic would also elicit this response. However, modern humans experience the fight-or-flight response when dealing with everyday, non-lethal situations, like traffic or a deadline. And the more the stress response is activated, the easier it becomes to trigger and the harder it becomes to shut off.

“We’re not made to sustain the stress response for more than short periods of time, and as a society we’ve now been there for two full years. We don’t have many resources left to fend off stress the way we usually do, so things that used to be little now feel much bigger. The volume has been intensified on everything.”

— Jennifer Dragonette, PsyD, Newport Clinical Services Instructor 

What Causes Stress in Teens?

Why might adolescence be a stressful time for many teenagers? For one, the teen brain is not yet fully developed. The parts of the brain that handle executive functioning and emotional regulation are still immature. That means that stress management for teens is a work in progress.

Moreover, adolescence is a time of intense change, inside and out, which creates lots of stressful situations for teens. An awkward social situation, an important exam, or a big game are all examples of stressors for a teenager. Other teenage stressors include bullying and problems at home.

Even positive experiences, like exploring romantic relationships or applying to college, can require stress-management skills for teenagers. And internal experiences and emotions such as self-doubt, perfectionism, and negative thinking can heighten the stress response.

Causes of stress in teens

Statistics on Teen Stress

How many teens are affected by stress? Not surprisingly, stress in children and teens has been steadily increasing in recent years. The American Psychological Association reports that 81 percent of Gen Z teens (ages 13–17) experienced more intense stress during the pandemic. And, according to the 2022 Stress in America report, more than two-thirds of parents of teens said they felt their children would have benefited from mental health treatment since the pandemic started.

Self-harm and suicidal thoughts are two of the most dangerous ways that stress can manifest when healthy coping skills for teens are lacking. A 2022 poll on teen stress by Navigate 360 and John Zogby Strategies found that almost 50 percent of the teenagers surveyed personally know someone who had considered self-harm or suicide. This represented a nine-point percentage increase from a previous survey conducted in August 2021.

Moreover, the poll found that 58 percent of teens are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about their own mental and emotional health. The survey found another interesting statistic on stress management and teens: 57 percent of adolescents would like to take short courses at school on stress management skills for teenagers.

“It is alarming that the teen stress experience is so similar to that of adults. It is even more concerning that they seem to underestimate the potential impact that stress has on their physical and mental health. In order to break this cycle of stress and unhealthy behaviors as a nation, we need to provide teens with better support and health education at school and home, at the community level and in their interactions with health care professionals.”

— Norman B. Anderson, PhD, former CEO and Executive Vice President of the American Psychological Association

Symptoms of Teen Stress

Teenage stressors can cause a variety of physical and emotional symptoms. Red flags of teen stress include the following:

  • Feeling nervous or anxious
  • Frequently feeling tired
  • Stomachaches and chest pain
  • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Moodiness
  • Having negative thoughts
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Problems remembering, focusing, and concentrating
  • Using alcohol, drugs, or other substances as way to self-medicate
  • Unexplained physical symptoms, such as tics.

When stress continues over a long period of time, it’s known as chronic stress. Chronic stress can increase the likelihood of anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems. That’s why learning how to manage stress as a teenager can actually prevent the need to develop coping strategies for teenage depression or anxiety later on.

Traumatic Stress and PTSD

Most teens experience some level of everyday stress. But there is another type of stress that can be more severe: stress caused by trauma. Experiencing or witnessing an event that resulted in or threatened death or injury can cause traumatic stress or PTSD.

The COVID pandemic is an example of a long-term stressor that has caused both acute and chronic stress and PTSD over the past two years. One study found that close to one in every three teens has experienced PTSD symptoms as a result of the pandemic and its associated stress and trauma. Accidents, natural disasters, school shootings, violent crimes, or abuse are other examples of stressors for a teenager that can result in trauma and potentially PTSD.

Traumatic stress can last days, weeks, or months following the event. For stress to be considered PTSD, symptoms must last more than a month and be severe enough to interfere with daily functioning.

coping strategies for teenage depression

Stress Relief for Teens: Turning on the “Rest and Digest” Response

As we’ve learned, stress activates the fight-or-flight response. In order to turn off that response, an equal and opposite reaction is required: the action of the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the relaxation response. When the relaxation response is activated, the heart rate drops, the blood pressure falls, and the breath becomes slower and deeper. This response is also known as the “rest-and-digest” response.

Furthermore, the parasympathetic nervous system counteracts all the negative effects of the sympathetic nervous system: It boosts energy, increases well-being, helps teens sleep better, and improves their physical health and immune system. Hence, learning how to activate the rest-and-digest system is the key to stress relief for teens.

How to Help Teens Manage Stress: 10 Tools for Coping with Teenage Stressors

Teenage stress management includes learning how to deal with stress at school, at home, and in social situations. Tools for stress relief for teens should provide easy ways to activate the relaxation response. Here are 10 evidence-based approaches to stress management for teens.

Breathe deeply.

Research shows that slowing down the breath may be one of the most effective coping skills for teens, because it activates the rest-and-digest system. Here’s an easy breath practice that can assist with teenage stress management in any situation.

  1. Sit comfortably, with feet on the floor, eyes closed and hands relaxed and resting on your thighs.
  2. Breathe in slowly through your nose. As your lungs fill, let your chest and belly expand. You might try counting up to five, seven, or whatever feels comfortable. Or focus on a phrase, such as “Breathing in calm” or simply “Breathing in.”
  3. Breathe out slowly through either nose or mouth, whichever feels more natural. You can count during the exhalation. Make sure the exhale is as long or longer than the inhale. Or use a phrase, such as “Breathing out calm” or simply “Breathing out.”
  4. If you get distracted, bring your mind back to focusing on the breath.
  5. Repeat for several minutes.
  6. Notice how you feel. Is your body more relaxed than before you started? Is your mind calmer?

Practice mindfulness.

An increasing number of studies show that mindfulness meditation can help ease stress. Meditation encourages teens to witness their emotions from a slight distance rather than getting caught up in them.

Furthermore, researchers theorize that the mindful practice of yoga activates the relaxation response via the vagus nerve. This is the nerve that helps control the parasympathetic nervous system. This theory suggests that yoga’s combination of slow movement and conscious breathing initiates a calming response in the nervous system.

Move your body.

Physical activity increases the body’s production of endorphins, the brain’s “feel good” chemicals. According to the American Psychological Association, exercise forces the body’s physiological systems to communicate much more closely than usual. Therefore, this creates greater efficiency in responding to stress.

Moreover, doing a physical activity they enjoy can increase a teen’s feelings of mastery and self-confidence. Help them choose something they like to do so that exercise won’t feel like a chore.

Reframe stress.

Another approach for how to relieve stress as a teenager is by thinking about it in a different ways. Teens don’t need to see stress as a bad thing in every case. Stressful situations for teens can be opportunities to learn and to challenge themselves in healthy ways.

Studies involving karaoke singing, public speaking, and math performance showed that people who reframed their anxiety as excitement performed better than those who told themselves to stay calm when feeling stressed. Telling themselves that they were excited helped them feel more confident and competent. And others saw them that way as well.

Get the right amount of sleep.

Whether or not teens get enough Zs can have a big impact on stress. One study examined how teenagers reacted during the day when they didn’t get enough sleep at night, as compared to how older adolescents and adults behaved. The results showed that sleep-deprived teens found stressful situations much more threatening than older study participants.

To improve sleep, teens should make sure their room is dark and cool at night, and turn off their phone and other devices a half hour or more before bed. They might try introducing a relaxing bedtime routine that includes reading, writing in a journal, and/or listening to quiet music.

Try this relaxation exercise.

Relaxation techniques that can help teens manage stress, like this progressive relaxation exercise for stress management.

  1. Lie on a comfortable surface.
  2. Start by tensing the muscles in your toes.
  3. Keep them tensed for about five seconds, and then consciously relax those muscles.
  4. Relax the entire body for 30 seconds.
  5. Next, tense your foot, hold for about five seconds, and release. Relax for 30 seconds.
  6. Continue working your way upward, tensing each area of the body for a few seconds, releasing, and then letting your whole body relax.

Create a support network.

Multiple studies have shown that social relationships improve mental and physical health. The more support we have, the more resilient we are against stress.

Young people can build a support network to guard against teen stress, made up of people they trust who will listen closely to them and empathize with what they’re going through. A teen’s support network can include family, peers, guidance counselors, and mentors. A mental health professional can also provide support.

Take control of what can be controlled.

For some teens, getting the facts and making plans can help counteract stress. If they have a big project looming, they can create a schedule that will keep them on track. If a teen is facing an unknown situation, they can do some research so they know what to expect.

Being prepared with information and planning ahead can prepare teens to face challenges head on, with more confidence.

Build optimism.

People who are more optimistic are less stressed. A study at Concordia University found that optimistic people had a better biological response to stress. In other words, they had more stable levels of the stress hormone cortisol than people who describe themselves as pessimists.

Fortunately, teens can build optimism by learning to pay more attention to positive events instead of the negative ones. Instead of focusing on the things that went wrong in their day, teens can try building positivity. Writing in a gratitude journal helps teens focus on the positive. The family can also work together to encourage optimism. For example, go around the dinner table each night and have every family member talk about three things that went well that day. These can include little things, like eating pizza for lunch, and bigger things, like acing a test or having a great conversation with a friend.

Use this practice to help regulate intense emotions.

When teens are feeling overwhelmed by stress, anxiety, or fear, they can try this tool. This practice is used for acknowledging and releasing emotions. It’s called “riding the wave.”

  1. Pay attention to your breath and consciously make it slower and deeper.
  2. Relax your body, letting the muscles release from head to toes.
  3. Tune in to the feelings you are experiencing in your body and your mind.
  4. Observe what you are feeling with compassion and without judging yourself.
  5. Continue to let the feelings be there without pushing them away, as the wave recedes.

Treatment for Teen Stress and Trauma

In conclusion, while some stress is inevitable in life, teens can work toward activating the relaxation response in order to reduce the negative effects. The goal is not to eliminate all stress (that’s impossible!) but rather to learn how to manage stress as a teenager. Learning how to reduce stress in adolescence will benefit them throughout their lives.

However, stress management for teens is not sufficient to address mental health issues such as trauma, PTSD, self-harm, depression, and anxiety disorders. In these cases, professional support is essential. Contact us today to learn more about Newport Academy’s approach to treating the underlying stressors and trauma that catalyze mental health and co-occurring disorders.

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JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(3):357-368.