Teens face many challenges. With exam season approaching on top of other challenges, such as friendships, relationships and extra-curricular commitments, the increase in pressure can cause them to feel overwhelmed. Teens are particularly vulnerable to stress because adolescence is a transitional period characterised by intense physiological, biological, cognitive, social and emotional changes and fraught with risks and opportunities.
On the positive side, however, adolescence is an effective time for learning life-long techniques to manage such feelings and to develop coping strategies for present and future challenging situations. The key to helping your teens to develop effective stress-management strategies is to firstly understand the function and science of stress.
What is stress?
Stress is an emotion that is experienced in response to external challenges. It occurs when we perceive a mismatch between the challenges we think we are facing and our ability to cope, causing us to feel overwhelmed and out of control. We all experience stress, albeit in different ways and degrees, depending on our individual vulnerability and resilience.
A healthy level of stress can be positive as it can motivate us to be more focused and productive. However, when stress levels become too high our performance decreases. Prolonged or frequent stress can be damaging to our bodies, so daily stress management is essential for our well-being.
What have cavemen got to do with stress?
Stress serves a function in that it alerts our body to threats or challenges. This dates back to prehistoric caveman times; the automatic stress-response is ideally adapted to mobilising our body to deal with short-term physical threats in order to survive, i.e., a caveman being threatened by a dangerous animal. This is known as the “fight, flight or freeze” response.
Science of stress
When we feel threatened or challenged, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. Put very simply, this chain reaction results in physical responses designed to enable us to fight, flee or freeze.
Our brain detects the threat or challenge in the amygdala but the bodily stress-response systems are activated by the hypothalamus – the control coordinating centre. Its function is to keep the body in a stable state, called homeostasis, by influencing the autonomic nervous system and by managing hormones.
The adrenal glands respond by releasing adrenaline and cortisol for continued alertness and to signal to other parts of the body to get ready to respond to the threat. In simple terms, our muscles are energised, our brain and senses are focused on responding to the physical threat and longer-term processes are put on hold until the threat has passed. Once the threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous systems return the body back to balance.
Stress-response protected cavemen – what about us?
In our modern world, our stress-response can be activated on a more regular basis than in pre-historic times and our bodies can remain on high alert for longer periods for the following reasons:
• Psychological challenges
The stress-response can be activated when we think we are facing any type of threat, not just physical. Threats to emotional and social well-being, such as exam pressure, presenting in class, bullying and friendship issues can all activate the stress-response.
• Imaginary challenges
The brain does not differentiate between real and imaginary threats; even when a situation is merely perceived as challenging, the body can generate the stress-response.
• False alarms
The brain operates on a cautious “better safe than sorry” principle so false alarms are set off to ensure that a real threat is not missed.
• Prolonged reaction
Following a physical threat, the stress-response usually ends as soon as the threat has passed and balance is restored in the body. However, a psychological threat can cause a longer lasting emotional response prolonging the stress.
How can we reverse the stress-reaction?
Intentionally slowing our breathing rate will activate the parasympathetic nervous systems and bring the body back to a relaxed state. This is useful because, whilst the physiological response is helpful when dealing with physical challenges, it can be counter-productive for emotional and social challenges. Encouraging your teens to intentionally slow their breath by using a deep breathing technique will calm their body and restore balance, enabling them to concentrate and think more rationally about their situation.
How do I know if my teen is suffering from too much stress?
Look out for the following symptoms which may be a sign that your teen is suffering from prolonged or frequent stress:
Impatience, irritability, anger, fear, loss of confidence
Difficulty concentrating or making decisions, confusion, repetitive or circular thoughts
Tiredness, muscle tension, dizziness, head and stomach aches
Loss of appetite or excessive eating, inability to sleep, losing temper, neglecting responsibilities, maladaptive coping e.g., drinking alcohol.
Prolonged or frequent activation of the stress-response from psychological stressors or failure to turn off the stress-response can be damaging to our bodies in the longer term. Chronic stress can lead to physical health problems, such as inhibited growth, cardiovascular issues and increased risk of disease. Mental health issues include a greater risk of anxiety and depression.
Living like cavemen – helping your teen to manage stress
We know that stress occurs when a mismatch is perceived between our ability to cope with the challenges we think we are facing. For teens, this can often involve underestimating their coping resources and overestimating their challenges. Helping your teen to narrow this gap will therefore help them to manage their stress better.
In pre-historic times, cavemen managed their stress by living in tribes where they could support one another, being physically active, spending time in nature and giving their brains some downtime by sitting around the campfire in the evenings and looking up at the stars. Helping your teens to build similar strategies into their lives will increase their ability to cope with their challenges and thereby reduce stress.
Some practical strategies to help your teen to maximise their external and internal resources to manage their challenges are as follows:
• External resources
These include a network of supportive friends and family and letting your teen know that it is acceptable to ask for help or to share responsibilities. Time is often a factor; reviewing your teens’ schedule could free up more time, particularly if they are overloaded with extra-curricular activities and a heavy academic schedule.
• Internal resources
Encouraging your teen to develop greater resilience to stress will help them to cope better. This can include various strategies, such as:
- Self-care: Pleasurable activities often get dropped when teens feel overwhelmed so do encourage them to take some time out each week to relax and enjoy themselves.
- Physical and mental fitness: Adopting a healthy lifestyle can raise your teens’ energy levels. This includes, (1) a regular sleep routine that allows for wind down time, (2) a healthy diet – the release of the hormone, cortisol, during stressful times can cause sugar and fat cravings but a diet full of a variety of nutrients is required to provide energy to deal with challenges, (3) exercise as part of their weekly routine, (4) spending time in nature has therapeutic benefits as it calms the mind and improves mood, and (5) mindfulness activities, such as mindful meditation, can reduce psychological stress, even if practised for just a short time each day.
- Boundaries: Remind your teen that their needs are as important as others’ needs and that it is fine to prioritise themselves and to say “no” to certain tasks or events.
- Self-esteem: Low self-esteem can cause teens to underestimate their ability to cope with challenges. Help them to focus on their personal strengths, positive experiences and achievements to build self-esteem and regain control of their situation.
• Efficient and effective use of resources
Your teen may have resources but may not be using them effectively because they are affected by time management, distractibility or procrastination issues. A few practical strategies to help them use their resources more effectively include:
- Listing tasks and prioritising
- Breaking down tasks into manageable chunks (it is easier to start small)
- Setting attainable goals
- Planning ahead and setting deadlines
- Setting timers for starting and finishing tasks
- Limiting distractions – teens are very easily distracted by social media and used to multi-tasking. Encourage your teen to put all distractions out of the room during study time (e.g., phone, turn emails off) and then catch up on these during break time.
As discussed, our “caveman” brains are wired to respond to challenges but you can help your teen to choose how they respond to psychological challenges. Few of these challenges are “real” in the sense that the caveman would understand, so we have the potential to reduce their stressful hold to ensure that they do not dominate our lives.
The way teens think about emotional or social challenges will influence how they feel about them; often, the thoughts that lead to the stress-response are exaggerated or irrational – but teens respond to them as though they are true. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), an evidenced-based intervention, can help teens identify and change these exaggerated or irrational thoughts through a process called cognitive restructuring. Changing their thinking styles, by becoming more realistic, and reframing their psychological challenges will make them seem less overwhelming and will reduce subjective stress. A clinician trained in CBT will be able to assist with this process, which can lead to longer-term stress reduction.
Stress naturally occurs when a mismatch is perceived between our ability to cope with the challenges we think we are facing. There are many effective forms of stress management that can help your teen to bridge this gap so that they do not experience higher levels of prolonged stress, which can be damaging. However, a certain amount of stress is positive in that it pushes us to focus on getting things done, so explore with your teen in what ways stress can be helpful to them.
Different strategies can work better in different circumstances so encouraging cognitive flexibility in your teen is also useful. For example, there are different ways to cope with exam stress, such as studying or reframing the outcome i.e., there’s more to life than grades. However, in the run up to the exam, studying should be the focus of stress reduction and reframing should be left until after the exam.
Stress management strategies are more effective when they are practised daily and become a natural part of our lives. Encourage your teen to take some time each day to build strategies that work for them into their lives for longer-term stress management.
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