Teens & Stress
Stress is how you respond to “stressors.” And stressors are most of the things in your life: parents, grades, personal appearance, falling in love, friends, prom, teachers, jobs, clubs, college applications, break-ups, mid-terms. It can seem like stress is just a natural part of teen life.
People have different thresholds for stress. You probably know people who are quite happily busy for 18 hours a day. You also know folks who seem overwhelmed with just the idea of a to-do list. If you’re like most teens, you’re somewhere in the middle: working to balance the parts of your life, effectively. You are probably doing the best you can. And, still, you’re feeling stressed out.
Stress is a mean relative of anxiety. Anxiety has lots of relatives, and not all of them are bad. Many people who achieve at high levels have a drive to do well that can cause anxiety. So, goal-achievement is a nicer relative of anxiety. Conscientiousness—how aware we are of ourselves and others—is also related to normal anxiety: another nice relative. But, stress…he’s a mean one.
Stress is the unwanted, vague, suffocating, terrorizing relative that tends to overstay his welcome. When stress stays too long, it is bad for you. You’ve probably heard: chronic stress is associated with poor sleep, lowered immune deficiency, inflammation that damages your body’s cells, acne, high blood pressure, aches, weight gain, and gastrointestinal problems. Stress makes you feel inept. In a world of problems, it blocks every potential solution from your view. Like I said: mean.
So how do you manage stress effectively? Dialectal Behavior Therapy (DBT) would tell us to try reducing our emotional vulnerability. Use the P.L.E.A.S.E. skill. Stress really is in your body, not just in your mind. So, the first step in countering stress is to take care of your body. The P.L.E.A.S.E. skill is a guide for this. When your body is healthy, it’s better prepared to manage the daily stressors that are part of life. And, should a big stressor present itself (finals!), you’ll be ready to take them on, too.
P: Physical and L: HeaLth. (L fits, see?)Take care of your body. If you’re sick, treat the illness, first and foremost. Your body is telling you something: “take care of me.” So, rest. Take medications as prescribed by your doctor. These may be your vitamins, antibiotics, psychotropics, blood thinners, inhalers…whatever your doctor and parents both agree is right for you, take those medications as prescribed.
E: Eating. Balance your eating. Don’t eat too much. Don’t eat too little. Both can make you feel ridiculously tired. Over-and under-eating can cause clinically significant levels of inattention. They lead to moodiness, including especially irritability. Both over-eating and under-eating can become all-consuming, where the thing you think about most is food. That makes it hard to be effective in life.
Eat good foods. They really make a difference. Whole grains. Fruit and vegetables. Lots of water. If you love carbohydrates, try to move those into the evening hours. Your best concentration/energy foods are the proteins, and it’s a worthwhile goal to include a protein at every meal. Good protein sources are almonds, soybeans, cheese, milk, chicken, and energy bars. Sugars and fats aren’t just hanging out at the top of the food pyramid, they are wreaking havoc on your concentration and mood. So, avoid those. They taste good, but the cost on your effectiveness is just too high.
A: Altering. Avoid non-prescribed mood altering substances and behaviors. You got it—that means drugs. People who habitually and regularly use illegal substances have higher rates of depression, lower academic performance, lower relationship satisfaction, lower self-esteem, and fewer reasonable future goals. Mood-altering behaviors are usually dangerous, and unnecessarily so. Cutting yourself or otherwise harming yourself can be mood-altering. It can be mood-altering to drive 100mph down a country road. Such unsafe and impulsive behaviors do not reduce stress in the long-term. In fact, 9 times out of 10, they just end up making things worse for you.
S: Sleep. Sleep is like food for your brain. It is the time when today’s learning experiences consolidate and go into long-term storage (you may experience this as dreaming). That’s why people advise you to get a good night’s sleep before a test. Sleep is also when important neurochemicals and hormones are released to support your growth and brain functioning. Poor sleep leads to impaired concentration, zits, impulsivity, irritability, weight gain, and vulnerability to illness.
If you’re like many teens, sleep is the first thing you de-prioritize in your schedule. You may cut into sleep hours without a second thought. Like, staying up late to study, work, or (electronically) socialize. Some set early alarms to finish up a paper or get in a workout. If you take nothing else away from this article, take this: PROTECT YOUR SLEEP. Defend it. Honor it. You need it.
Teens need between 8-11 hours of sleep a night. If you can’t fit your obligations comfortably into the other 13-16 hours a day, then you’re doing too much. Barriers to sleep are more prevalent than you may know. Barrier #1 and #2: your cell phone and IPAD. Scientists have found that the LED screens in hand-held devices interfere with your brain functioning in ways that delay sleep onset. Barriers #2, #3, and #4: your TV, video games, and personal computer. While TV and video games do not have the LED component, they can be pretty tough to turn off when you’re tired at night. Take-home message is this: put your electronics to bed at least one hour before you’d like to be asleep.
E: Exercise. Just do it. Aim for a minimum of 3 workouts a week. Workouts should last at least 30 minutes, and they should get your heart really pumping. Working out with a friend is a fun way to stick to a regimen. With exercise, remember: the cart usually comes before the horse. Not many people “feel like” working out until they are well into their workout. If you wait around until you feel like exercising, it may never happen. But you’ll notice that, once you get started, the motivation to workout follows. If you’re having a lot of trouble with exercise, research shows that just taking a few minutes to visualize your workout can increase your motivation and readiness.
Stress is a normal part of life. But it can be really difficult to manage. If your struggles with stress are more intense, these are your warning signs:
• feeling sad/irritable more days than not, and for most of each day
• worrying about almost everything, like your mind can’t stop going
• needing more than one hour to fall asleep, or waking up a lot at night
• gaining/losing 10+ pounds in one month
• thoughts of death, suicide, or self-harm
• thoughts or plans to hurt others
• feeling hopeless, or like nothing matters
• changing your life goals drastically within the past month (e.g., “I don’t care if I graduate.”)
• headaches, stomachaches, or indigestion
• isolating yourself from friends
• feeling ineffective (pushed over) in relationships
• wondering, “what’s the point?” of taking care of yourself
If you have any of these signs, then the P.L.E.A.S.E . skill alone may not help much. You should talk to a mental health professional. Seek out your school support staff to see if therapy may be helpful for you.