"You're a teenager - you don't have stress! You've got parties! Dates! Sports! OK, maybe the occasional zit . . . but definitely not stress. Adults have stress!"
Sound a little bit like an adult you know? Some people have the idea that stress is something that only affects people once they hit a certain age - and that until you reach that age, life is always fun and easy. But when you've got a huge test to study for, a scrimmage, someone hounding you to clean up your room, a part-time job, changes in your body, and worries about the fight you had with your mom or dad, it can add up to stress - no matter what your age. Teenagers all over the world feel stress, sometimes even more than adults do.
Luckily, stress doesn't have to be something that takes over your life. In fact, it's good to have some stress, believe it or not! Keep reading to learn more about stress, the best ways to handle it, special coping techniques, and where to turn if life becomes just too stressful.
Stress: A Natural Necessity
It may sound pretty unbelievable, but some stress is necessary in every person's life. When we don't have to deal with everyday things that make us think and respond to problems, life can get pretty boring. A good example of this in action is summer vacation. If you've ever sat around in late August, almost looking forward to school starting again, then you've felt the effects of too little stress. You became bored because there was not enough mental stimulation - nothing to make you think or take action. Too little stress can be as bad as too much stress, since being bored can make a person feel sad or depressed.
We can't control some kinds of stress. If you've ever felt really nervous or suddenly panicked before you play in a big game or make your stage debut in a play, you've felt your body's inner alarm at work - otherwise known as the "fight-or-flight" reaction. This reaction occurs when your brain and body secrete hormones in response to something perceived as dangerous. These hormones make your heart beat faster, your muscles tense up, and your blood pressure rise. You breathe faster and you start to sweat. You might feel nauseated.
Sound familiar? If you've ever had a fight-or-flight reaction, not only are you not alone, you are the product of millions of years of evolution! Even though human beings can drive cars, talk on cell phones, cook, and order stuff from TV they still have this involuntary way to prepare for a major emergency. So even though it is pretty unusual for a person to have to run away from a huge animal in today's world, the ability to have the reaction is still present in people. When your body undergoes these changes, it is literally getting ready to fight an animal or run away from it. Or, in today's terms, to play in the game (or go onstage), or to run away.
It's Called Chronic Stress
Fight-or-flight reactions can be scary and make you uncomfortable, but they usually don't last all that long. Chronic stress is usually what people talk about when they say they're stressed out, and it is a bit different for a few reasons. First, it's much less intense than a fight-or-flight reaction. Second, it lasts longer, setting off an alarm in your body that's not as loud initially, but that can be felt for days, weeks, or even longer. Chronic stress is associated with long-term problems, some of which can be totally out of a teenager's control. Your parents' divorce can trigger chronic stress, as can a really hard class that lasts all marking period or your first semester of college. Having a serious illness also can result in chronic stress, and so can a schedule that's too busy. There are many things that can trigger chronic stress - it often depends on the person and the situation.
Sometimes it can be hard to recognize the signs of chronic stress because stress often affects the body, leading some teens to think they're sick instead of stressed out. For example, stress often causes stomachaches, so a teen might think there's something wrong with his stomach first.
Some of the symptoms of chronic stress can include:
- upset stomach, diarrhea, or indigestion
- headache, backache
- insomnia (inability to fall asleep)
- eating too much or too little
- feeling hostile, angry, or irritable
- feeling anxious
- avoiding other people
- feeling frustrated with things that normally only bother you a little
If you have two or more symptoms on this list, you may have chronic stress. Fortunately, there are many ways that you can manage chronic stress successfully.
Super Stress-buster #1
A great way for teenagers (or anyone!) to deal with chronic stress is by exercising. This may sound strange - you might not think that exercise would be the cure for headaches or stomachaches. But when it comes to stress, physical activity not only gets your body in shape - it also helps your mind. Thanks to endorphins (naturally produced chemicals that affect your brain chemistry) exercise provides you with a feeling of calmness and well being. These chemicals are released in your body during and after a workout and they go a long way in helping to control stress. Aerobic exercise is also a good stress-buster: it requires deep breathing, which can also help when you feel upset or tense. If you aren't on a sports team and aren't used to doing a lot of exercise otherwise, don't worry. You can start small just by walking or riding your bike a little bit. Any exercise is helpful in controlling stress - don't feel like you need to add a huge exercise program to your stressful schedule.
Many people who have chronic stress also like yoga or other kinds of meditation - it helps them become flexible and teaches them how to relax at the same time. If yoga isn't your thing, you can try martial arts: these can also help you learn how to focus your mind and relieve stress. Simple stretching can even help you relax.
Super Stress-buster #2
Another effective way to deal with stress is to hang out with friends. Doing something you enjoy with people you like is a sure-fire way to help you refocus. You may also be surprised to get some support from other friends who are stressed out! Together, you can come up with other ways to beat stress, such as combining friends and going out to have fun and hang out. Shopping together at the mall, taking in a movie, or going out to eat together can make you feel more relaxed and in control of your stress.
And if you're stressed out because of your friends? It's true that during your teen years, friendships might sometimes be a source of stress. The best thing to do is figure out how to work through your problems with friends, (talking it out with friends or a parent may be helpful) or to focus on new activities that will help you meet new people.
Super Stress-buster #3
Hobbies, extracurricular activities, after-school clubs: whatever you want to call them, they can all serve as excellent stress-busters. When you have an activity that keeps you busy and provides you with a sense of accomplishment, you're on the way to managing stress. This activity can be with a big group of people, a small group, or even by yourself; the goal is to become involved in something that will help you release tension. In addition, you might meet some new people and make new friends, which can help relieve stress even further.
Looking for some ideas for what to do? Check out your school's after-school clubs, and see if anything interests you. Your church or synagogue may also have activities. Or how about volunteering? You'll be reducing stress and helping the world! You can also pick a hobby - from learning the trombone to making tie-dyed T-shirts. As long as it makes you happy and relaxed, it's your call.
Super Stress-buster #4
Have you ever heard anyone recommend taking a deep breath and counting to 10? Breathing exercises expand on that same idea: that breathing deeply and getting more oxygen into your body can make you feel calmer. These exercises are especially good for those fight-or-flight stress reactions - they help fight the kind of anxiety that precedes getting on a stage or taking a test. Check out the different kinds of deep breathing and relaxation techniques, and choose a few to try out. (Keep in mind that it might feel funny to do these exercises at first, but you'll get used to them!)
Super Stress-buster #5
Keeping things in perspective is an important part of relieving stress in your life because it forces you to recognize that not everything is under your control and that not everything is as important as you may have believed it to be. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't worry about things anymore - if you didn't worry a little bit, you wouldn't be human. But when you are faced with a very stressful time or situation, it helps to remove yourself from it mentally and think about it as an outsider.
For example, if you are very stressed out about a test you're taking, make yourself step back from it for a minute. Is the test really as hard as you thought it might be? And if you don't do well, what is the worst that will happen? Will the test really ruin your life? Finally, if one of your friends was really stressed out about a test, what would you say to her or suggest that she do? Sometimes imagining you are talking to a friend can really help; again, it forces you to look at things from another perspective. Chances are that at least some of the things you feel stressed about have a solution - and that in the overall plan of your whole life, they are important, but not as important as they can seem when you're really upset about them.
Don't Say Yes to Adding More Stress
When people feel stressed, they often search for something to make it go away - even if that thing is unhealthy. Many teenagers (and a lot of adults, maybe even one in your family) cope with stress by smoking, drinking, or taking drugs. And while some of these things may give you the feeling that your stress has gone away, be assured that it really isn't the case. Using drugs or alcohol can (among other things) make you feel depressed and out of control - definitely not the recipe for becoming less stressed out! And drugs, alcohol, and smoking all have one thing in common: you can become addicted to them. If you were already stressed out before, having an addiction to cope with will only complicate your life more.
What to Do if Stress Is Too Much for You
Even though stress is a normal part of life, sometimes it can feel too difficult to handle by yourself. If you've had some big changes recently and are finding it really hard to deal with stress, or if you are having a difficult time doing normal things like going to school, you may need to talk to an adult about it. A parent may be helpful; if you don't feel like you can talk to a parent, speak with a teacher, a trusted neighbor, a school counselor, or a priest or rabbi. All of these people can help put you on the right path to speaking with someone who can help you cope with stress. Many schools have school psychologists or counselors who are specially trained in helping teenagers deal with stress.
It's especially useful to enlist the help of an adult if you feel a lot of fight-or-flight stress for no reason at all. It's not uncommon for teenagers to have an anxiety problem that causes them to have a fight-or-flight reaction even when there is nothing to fear. Luckily, this problem is very treatable. And teenagers who have chronic stress can be helped quite a bit as well, from learning and practicing more stress-busting skills to learning to think about their fears differently.
If you feel stressed and have only half a minute:
- Inhale deeply through your nose and hold it for a few seconds. Exhale very slowly through your mouth. Repeat these steps a few times.
- Inhale as much air as you can through your mouth, then let it out slowly, as if you were sighing. Don't lift up or tense your shoulders. Do this a few times.
If you feel stressed and have a minute:
- Close your eyes and picture yourself in a calm place that you love (for example, the beach or your bed). Inhale deeply through your nose and keep focusing on the picture in your mind. Exhale very slowly through your mouth. Keep picturing the calm place in your mind. After 1 minute, open your eyes.
- Use the shape of your mouth to make various sounds as you breathe in and out. Don't use your voice; instead, move your lips. For example, put your lips together like you're sucking on a straw to make an "ooh" sound as you inhale, then open your mouth to make an "aah" sound as you exhale. Do this several times, breathing deeply and concentrating on the sounds you make with your breath.
If you feel stressed and have 5 or 10 minutes:
- Lie down on your bed or sit in a chair. Start by focusing on your feet, and tighten the muscles in one part of your body while you count to five. Then relax them and move on to the next part, all the way up to your face. Breathe slowly and deeply as you contract and relax each set of muscles. When you are finished, lie or sit still for a few minutes and concentrate on your breathing.
- Take a bath or shower.
- Listen to a song you like.
- Take a walk outside - if you are in a place where you can do so. It will clear your mind and relax you.
Updated and Reviewed by: Kim Rutherford, MD
Date reviewed: June 2001
Source: KidsHealth www.KidsHealth.com is a project of The Nemours Foundation which is dedicated to improving the health and spirit of children. Today, as part of its continuing mission, the Foundation supports the operation of a number of renowned children's health facilities throughout the nation, including the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware, and the Nemours Children's Clinics throughout Florida. Visit The Nemours Foundation to find out more about them and its health facilities for children http://www.nemours.org/no/