As 18-year-old Zachary drove down the road one night, his chest began hurting, his pulse raced, and he had trouble catching his breath. I’m having a heart attack, he thought. He wisely pulled over and called 911. As it turned out, Zach was having a panic attack.
When he learned later that this isolated episode had been caused by an accumulation of stress in his life, he was surprised. Zach thought he was too young to be affected by stress. As a matter of fact, stress buildup like his is becoming more common among teenagers. According to a report from the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is leading today’s teens down the road toward illness and shorter life spans. If you feel you’re on this road, it’s time to change your direction and learn how to handle your stress!
Bumps in the Road: Stress Factors
“Society puts too much pressure on teenagers,” says 16-year-old Josh. “Everything involves a test….” Do you ever feel this way?
Not only do you have to prepare for tests in all of your school subjects, but you also must pass tests to obtain a driver’s permit and license, to be placed in a new school system, and to enter college. If you have a job, you may have been required to take a test or to attend an interview before you were hired. If you play on a sports team, you had to endure try-outs. And if you’ve ever joined a performance group, such as a band or the cast of a play, more than likely you’ve experienced the audition process.
Although each person has his or her own unique set of stress factors, certain stressors tend to prove particularly troublesome for teens. In addition to tests and evaluations, which of the following are creating stress in your life?
- Family conflict
- Divorce of parents
- Re-marriage of a parent
- Moving to a new community and/or school
- Dealing with violence, such as bullying
- A schedule that’s too full
- Getting into college
- Getting a job
- Finding a direction for your life
- Body changes
- Financial problems
- Adjusting to the college environment or to life away from home
- Balancing all your activities (school, extra-curricular, home, work)
- Waiting to hear results from auditions, tests, or other evaluations
- Peer pressure
Several stress factors certainly caused a bumpy road for Zach. How many can you identify in his situation? At the end of an unsuccessful first semester of college, Zach decided not to return to school the following term. He considered transferring the next year, but was unsure where he would go or what he would study. His relationship with his parents wasn’t the best, so instead of returning home, he stayed with a friend until he could figure out what he wanted to do. He had been looking for a job, but no one seemed to be hiring, and he couldn’t get an apartment without money. He was completely unsure about what he should do next.
Caution: Stress Overload
Perhaps you’ve been thinking that, since you are young, stress does not affect your mental and physical health. More than 50% of teens surveyed had the same idea, according to the APA’s report, so you are not alone.
The truth is that both your body and mind are affected greatly by stress. Did you know that too much stress can lower your immune system function, leaving you more susceptible to illness and disease? It can also cause digestive problems, headaches, high blood pressure and muscle tension. Sometimes it might trigger an allergic reaction. Stress even has the ability to affect your memory, emotions and moods.
If you want to avoid these negative effects, you need to look out for signs of stress overload. You might experience a panic attack like Zach did, but the signs may not always be so dramatic. Watch out for these more common warning signs of too much stress in your life:
- Feeling sad or depressed
- Feeling hurried or rushed
- Moodiness or irritability
- Having trouble sleeping
- A tendency to be angry
- Feeling nervous or anxious
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Neglecting your responsibilities at home, work or school
- An inability to focus on your work
Every person reacts differently to stress, and this list certainly doesn’t include all possible warning signals. Stress is capable of causing almost any symptom or reaction and, if left unaddressed, can lead to anxiety disorders, depression—even suicide. So pay attention to the signals your body and mind give you.
Road to Stress Relief
You certainly can’t eliminate all the things that cause stress in your life, nor would you want to. After all, some of the things that can create stress are actually things you want to do. For example, although working part-time adds stress to your life, you’re glad you have the job so you can make some money. And of course, many of your stressors, such as school work or family issues, you simply can’t avoid. But you can learn to relieve some of the stress and to manage the rest of it in positive, healthy ways.
So what do you normally do when you need to chill out and relieve some stress? Below, you will find some common, not-so-healthy ways teens relieve stress and some healthier alternative routes.
*Do you watch TV or plug in a movie for a couple of hours? Do you surf the web or kill some time watching You Tube videos? Maybe you lose yourself in your favorite video game.
A good alternative: Although screen time might make you forget your worries for a little while, some physical activity might actually relieve the stress more effectively. The experts at Mayo Clinic remind us that exercise increases energy, promotes optimism, and helps the brain produce more endorphins (natural chemicals that give you a sense of well-being and satisfaction).
*Do you eat when you’re nervous or stressed out? Is a bag of cookies and a cola your go-to comfort snack? Do you crave processed foods and sugary treats? Or maybe you tend to skip meals when you are stressed. Unhealthy eating habits never solve problems.
A good alternative: If you’re feeling stressed, try a boiled egg, a banana, or a handful of nuts. Or how about a bowl of blueberries, a kiwi or even a square of dark chocolate? All of these foods, explains Dr. Joseph Mercola on mercola.com, contain significant amounts of certain nutrients associated with a positive mood. A healthy diet that includes lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and high-quality protein will go a long way in allowing your body to combat the negative effects of stress.
Be sure to avoid lots of sugar. Not everyone agrees that sugar directly affects stress levels, but plenty of studies have shown a link between stress and sugar consumption. Dr. Mercola writes that sugar causes mood swings and delivers “toxic effects” to your mental health.
*Do you drink coffee or high-energy drinks to get more accomplished? Although a cup of coffee may help get you moving in the morning, it’s best to avoid large amounts of caffeine. Too much, experts agree, can aggravate feelings of irritation and anxiety. Also, caffeine consumed later in the day can keep you awake at night.
A good alternative: Try a glass of water. Even mild dehydration adds to stress levels by making you feel tired, tense, and anxious and by decreasing your ability to concentrate, according to studies reviewed on PsychCentral. If you don’t like plain water, add a squirt of lemon or lime juice.
*Do you sit up late every night to get your school work done? Good job on your determination and hard work! Once in awhile you may have to lose a little sleep to meet a deadline. After all, if you don’t get your work done, you’ll really be stressed out, right? But sitting up late to complete your work shouldn’t become a part of your regular schedule.
A good alternative: Getting plenty of sleep is important for handling stress on an ongoing basis. As a teen, you probably need between 8 ½ and 9 ¼ hours of sleep per night, according to The National Sleep Foundation. Sleep renews both your body and mind so that you’ll function at your best during the day. When you get plenty of sleep, you’ll be getting more work done in less time. Talk about stress reduction!
*Do you take drugs or drink alcohol to alleviate stress? Although an alcoholic drink or a couple of pills may relax you temporarily, they will only create more problems in the long run by keeping your body stressed, reports WebMD.
A good alternative: If you feel desperate enough to consider drugs or alcohol, you may be feeling out of control. Taking real control of your stress and your life won’t include either of these substances. Instead, discuss difficulties with parents and other trusted adults before they seem out of control. For example, if you’re having trouble with schoolwork, talk with teachers or counselors so that you can get help as soon as possible.
Here are some additional ideas for stress relief that have proven helpful for many teens:
- Don’t procrastinate. Start preparing for important events, like tests and college admission, in plenty of time so that you don’t feel rushed.
- So you’re approaching high school graduation and you still have no idea what you want to do? That’s okay. How about taking a “gap year” in between high school and college? Some teens take this year to work and make money or to travel while they explore various options.
- Seek counseling for any—or all—of your problems. Seeing a counselor doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you.
- The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry suggests practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing.
- A job interview. A doctor’s appointment. A formal introduction. An important phone call. The big game. The spring formal…. Do any of those events make your heart pound just to think about them? The next time you’re anticipating a similar stress-causing situation, try rehearsing it, say the experts. What will you say? How will you act? Be prepared and you won’t feel nearly so stressed about it.
- Realize that it’s okay not to have your life all figured out. You don’t have to know all the answers. Just make the best choices you can for today.
So, what happened to Zach? His panic attack served as a wake up call. Although the pressure to make decisions caused a lot of his stress, living in indecision and procrastination caused even more negative stress. Zach realized that he couldn’t figure everything out at once. But he knew he needed to make at least one step in the right direction. Soon after his attack, he met with a college and career counselor and then reapplied to college for the following year. In the meantime, he decided to stay with his parents while he continued looking for a job.
Zach paid attention to the warning signs and took positive steps to handle his stress.
So can you!
Written by Beth Prassel-Sieg
- OTHER PARTS IN THIS SERIES -Part 1:
STRESS THROUGH THE AGES
A Child's LifePart 3:
STRESS THROUGH THE AGES
An Adult's PressurePart 4:
STRESS THROUGH THE AGES
No More Excuses: Stress Control Is FundamentalPart 5:
STRESS THROUGH THE AGES
Craft Your Management Plan—and Follow Through
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