Teen Stress: Symptoms and Causes
American teens are way too stressed. In 2015, the Emotion Revolution Survey, a study of 22,000 high school students, asked teenagers how they felt in school. Three-quarters of the kids had negative responses. The three most common adjectives they used were “stressed,” “tired,” and “bored.”
A certain amount of stress is normal. It’s a common emotional, psychological, and physical reaction to the ups and downs of daily life. Teenagers often feel stress due to the myriad of changes. These are both internal and external that come with growing up. And today’s fast-paced, technology-saturated climate doesn’t help.
In small doses, stress can help us get things done. However, if stress goes on long enough or gets bad enough, it can lead to health conditions that require professional treatment. That’s why it’s essential for teens to learn how to manage their stress.
First, let’s look at exactly how stress works.
Stress and the Fight-or-Flight Response
Stress is an automatic response in the face of a perceived danger. It triggers a surge of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Consequently, these hormones temporarily activate and heighten the part of the nervous system known as the sympathetic nervous system. This is called the acute stress response, or the “fight-or-flight” response.
The fight-or-flight response is an evolutionary mechanism. It prepared people to react quickly in dangerous situations. Furthermore, this happens by either escaping from or fighting off the threat. It made sense for our ancestors to have this biological reaction. They often faced life-threatening events, such as animal attacks. However, modern humans experience the fight-or-flight response when dealing with non-lethal situations. In addition, we feel stress at situations such as deadlines, traffic, public speaking, and other circumstances that cause fear or anxiety. For teenagers, a challenging social situation, an important exam, or a big game might trigger the stress response.
Here’s what happens in the body when the stress response is triggered:
- The heart starts beating faster than normal
- Pulse rate and blood pressure go up
- Breath becomes more rapid and the chest feels tight
- Muscles tense
- Mouth gets dry
- You may feel flushed and sweaty
- Vision may narrow
- Hearing may become more sensitive.
Clearly, these physiological changes aren’t helpful when it comes to everyday events that don’t endanger our lives. But humans are hardwired for the stress response. Moreover, the more the stress response is activated, the easier it becomes to trigger and the harder it becomes to shut off. Hence, many are in a constant state of stress.
That’s why teens need a toolkit to help them avoid chronic stress. More on that later!
Statistics on Teen Stress
The numbers prove that there is truly a stress epidemic in 21st-century America. The following statistics come from surveys held by the American Psychological Association.
- Teens report that their stress level during the school year exceeds what they believe to be healthy. 5.8 on a 10-point scale. More than a quarter of teens experience extreme stress during the school year.
- Between August 2016 and January 2017, adults’ average stress level rose from 4.8 to 5.1 on the 10-point scale.
- Twenty percent of Americans rate their stress level as 8 or more on a 10-point scale.
- Younger Americans (Millennials and Gen Xers) report higher average stress levels.
- Teen stress results in feeling overwhelmed (31 percent of teenagers surveyed). They also report feeling depressed or sad (30 percent); getting headaches (32 percent); feeling tired (36 percent); snapping at classmates (26 percent); and skipping meals (23 percent).
- Teens are more likely than adults to believe that their stress level has a slight or no impact on their physical health (54 percent of teens vs. 39 percent of adults) or their mental health (52 percent of teens vs. 43 percent of adults).
- Nearly half of teens (42 percent) report they are not doing enough or are not sure if they are doing enough to manage their stress.
The Truth About Teen Stress
“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
Causes of Stress
Teen stress can be caused by both internal and external circumstances. Below are some common stressors.
- Major life changes, such as divorce or death in the family
- Parents’ marital discord
- Financial problems at home
- Struggling with schoolwork or college applications
- Bullying or other issues with peers
- Starting to date or have sexual relationships
- Having way too much on their plate
- Being pessimistic
- Doubting one’s abilities
- Low self-esteem
- Rigid thinking
- Perfectionism and fear of failure
The Impact of Teen Stress
The positive side of stress is that it can help us perform under pressure. Therefore, occasional stress can serve as a healthy coping mechanism. But ongoing or frequent stress can have multiple negative effects.
Symptoms of Stress
- Feeling nervous or anxious
- Frequently feeling tired
- Stomachaches and chest pain
- Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Having negative thoughts
- Withdrawing from other people
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
- Problems remembering, focusing, and concentrating
- Using alcohol, drugs, or other substances as way to relax
- Eating too much or too little.
When stress continues over a long period of time, it’s known as chronic stress. Chronic stress can cause long-term health effects, such as heart disease, obesity, digestive issues, decreased immunity, and high blood pressure. Stress also increases the likelihood of anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems. Therefore, it’s important for teens to start managing their stress early, to avoid these issues.
Traumatic Stress and PTSD
Most teens experience 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 post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Such an event might be an accident, natural disaster, school shooting, fire, violent crime, or childhood abuse. The traumatic experiences are typically accompanied by feelings of fear, horror, and/or helplessness.
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. PTSD affects 7.7 million American adults each year. It is most commonly associated with military veterans who have been exposed to combat. However, PTSD also occurs in children and teens.
Symptoms of Traumatic Stress and PTSD
- Panic attacks
- Confusion and inability to make decisions
- Difficulty sleeping
- Finding it hard to enjoy activities that were once pleasurable
- Irritable or aggressive behavior
- Emotional numbness
- Constantly feeling on edge
- Avoiding people, places, or situations that trigger memories of the traumatic event
- Difficulty focusing
- Suicidal thoughts
Furthermore, the US Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that depression is between three to five times more likely to occur in trauma victims who develop PTSD than in the general population. Substance abuse is also more common among people with PTSD.
Effective treatment approaches for PTSD include trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Processing Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Additionally, play therapy is sometimes used to treat young children with PTSD who are not able to deal with the trauma directly.
A new approach known as the Comprehensive Resource Model treats PTSD using elements of psychology, spirituality, neurobiology, and body-based (somatic) techniques.
Turning on the “Rest and Digest” Response
The sympathetic nervous system activates the stress (fight-or-flight) response. The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, the heart rate drops, blood pressure falls, and the breath becomes slower and deeper. Therefore, this is also known as the “rest-and-digest” or relaxation response.
Only one of the two systems (rest-and-digest or fight-or-flight) can be activated at any given time. Thus, learning how to activate the rest-and-digest system is the key to de-stressing.
Furthermore, the parasympathetic nervous system counteracts all the negative effects of the sympathetic nervous system. Consequently, it improves energy, helps you sleep better, increase immunity, lowers blood pressure, and stabilizes blood sugar.
Types of Stressors
When we use the word stress, we’re usually referring to negative feelings or situations. But not all stress is bad stress. In addition, there are different types of stress, both positive and negative. Distress is a term for negative stress, like the types of stress we have been discussing thus far. Eustress is a term for positive stress. The term was created by the Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye.
Examples of eustress include happy life events like getting a promotion, getting married, buying a home, or having a baby. All of these are reasons to celebrate, but can also be causes of stress. Other eustress examples include moving, taking a vacation, retiring, and learning a new skill or taking a new class. Short-term eustress examples include exercising, watching a scary movie, performing on stage, competing in a contest, or going on a carnival ride.
Eustress is characterized by feeling motivated, energized, and excited. We feel able to cope with the new situation. At work or school, our performance improves. Eustress enhances our health and well-being, as well as our feelings of life satisfaction. It helps balance the negative impact of distress.
10 Tools to Help Teens Get Less Stressed
Research shows that breath awareness is among the most effective and accessible tools for self-regulation and calming the nervous system. You can activate the rest-and-digest system yourself. Simply slow down your exhalations, or count each inhale and exhale for 10 breaths. Here’s an easy breath practice to reduce stress.
- Sit comfortably, with feet on the floor, eyes closed and hands relaxed and resting on your thighs.
- 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.”
- 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.”
- If you get distracted, bring your mind back to focusing on the breath.
- Repeat for several minutes.
- Notice how you feel. Is your body more relaxed than before you started? Is your mind calmer?
Meditate and do yoga.
An increasing number of studies show that mindfulness meditation can help ease stress. Meditation encourages us to witness our emotions from a distance rather than getting caught up in them. Furthermore, researchers theorize that yoga might activate 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.
Physical activity increases the body’s production of endorphins. These are 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 you enjoy can increase feelings of mastery and self-confidence. Therefore, choose something you like to do so that exercise won’t feel like a chore.
It’s possible to change the way we think about stress. We don’t need to see it as such a bad thing. In other words, we can distress into eustress. Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, conducted several studies involving karaoke singing, public speaking, and math performance. Surprisingly, the results showed that people who reframed their anxiety as excitement performed better than those who told themselves to stay calm when feeling stressed. According to Brooks, simply telling themselves that they were excited helped them feel more confident and competent. Furthermore, others perceived them that way as well. Think of stressful situations as opportunities to learn and improve.
Whether or not you 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. Scientists found that sleep-deprived teens found stressful situations much more threatening than the older study participants. To improve sleep, make sure your room is dark and cool at night. Turn off your phone and other devices a half hour or more before bed. You might try introducing a relaxing bedtime routine that includes reading, writing in a journal, and/or listening to quiet music.
There are relaxation techniques that can help teens manage stress. Here are two to try.
- Lie on a comfortable surface.
- Start by tensing the muscles in your toes.
- Keep them tensed for about five seconds, and then consciously relax those muscles.
- Relax the entire body for 30 seconds.
- Next, tense your foot, hold for about five seconds, and release. Relax for 30 seconds.
- Continue working your way upward, tensing each area of the body for a few seconds, releasing, and then letting your whole body relax.
- Picture a place that you find particularly relaxing, such as a beach, a house you feel especially comfortable in, or a beautiful garden.
- Visualize how this place looks, sounds, and smells. Imagine the temperature and how the air feels on your skin. Is there a soft breeze blowing? Do you hear seagulls calling?
- Breathe slowly and deeply as you focus on the sensations and the positive feelings that the image conjures up.
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. Find people you trust who will listen to you and make an effort to understand what you’re going through. Your support network can include family, peers, guidance counselors, and mentors. A mental health professional can also provide support.
For some people, getting the facts and making plans can help counteract stress. If you have a big project looming, create a schedule that will keep you on track. If you’re facing an unknown situation, do some research so you know what to expect. Arming yourself with information and planning ahead can prepare you to face challenges head on, with more confidence.
Build Your 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, we can build optimism by learning to pay more attention to positive events. Instead of focusing on the one thing that went wrong today, try appreciating three things that went right.
Learn How to Cope With Emotions
Pay attention to your breath and consciously make it slower and deeper.
- Relax your body, letting the muscles release from head to toes.
- Tune in to the feelings you are experiencing in your body and your mind.
- Observe what you are feeling with compassion and without judging yourself.
- Continue to let the feelings be there without pushing them away, as the wave recedes.
In conclusion, teens and their parents don’t have to accept stress as a given. The more often teens can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the more benefits they will feel, in both mind and body.
Photos courtesy of Unsplash
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