by Abigail Hughes-Scalise, PhD, United Family Medicine Residency Program
“I’m so stressed out.” How many times a day do you hear this phrase? Stress is common and normal, and it is expressed in many different ways. Some feel stress physically: increased tension, nausea, jitteriness, and headaches are common. Others notice the emotional impact of stress. Stress can make people feel anxious and worried, as though their thoughts are moving too quickly and difficult to control. It can also make people more short-tempered, with others and with themselves.
Stress levels are on the rise for Americans, and particularly for teens. There are many stressors specific to teens in the current “Generation Z.” College is more expensive than ever before. School shootings are a tragic and frequent occurrence. Social media introduces new opportunities for peer connection, but also for cyber-bullying and more constant peer pressure. In this context, teens are also trying to cope with the physical changes associated with puberty, the pressure to pick a career path, entering the dating scene, gaining independence from their caregivers, and answering the question of “Who am I?”
Given what adolescents are facing, it is not surprising that teens are having a difficult time coping with stress. Approximately 12% of adolescents in America are clinically depressed at some point during their teenage years. Nearly one third of teens will meet criteria for an anxiety disorder. Stress and mental health issues also have a negative impact on physical health: teens are more likely to get sick, report sleep problems, and develop chronic health conditions if they feel habitually stressed.
Helping teens cope with stress can have enormous benefits for their emotional and physical wellbeing. A first step is to help teens set up a routine in which they get adequate sleep (9-10 hours for teens), drink plenty of water, and engage in regular, moderate exercise (a few times per week). These regular practices can help prevent normal stress from turning into clinical anxiety. Teens also need something in their life that allows them to relax. Yoga, reading, drawing, playing a musical instrument, taking walks in a park – these kinds of activities allow teens to slow down and release stress in a healthy way.
Making stress a topic teens can talk about is also important. The more normal it is to acknowledge stress, the more likely it is that teens will reach out for help when needed. It can be helpful to ask teens more specific questions about their lives when trying to talk about stress. Instead of “How was your day,” ask teens about their friends, an upcoming project, or an interest they pursue outside of school. Another way to make stress an acceptable topic is to verbalize your own coping when you are stressed (e.g., I’m so glad I went for a walk tonight after a really long day, I needed that time to re-set).
It is also important to notice when a teen may need more than a good night’s sleep to decrease stress. Teens at risk for anxiety and depression often isolate themselves from their friends and family. They may avoid schoolwork or shy away from activities they used to enjoy. Avoiding stressful things feels good in the moment. However, teens who make a habit of this often create more stress for themselves in the long run. Academic assignments may pile up, and it may feel impossible to turn them all in before the end of a school term. Their friends and family may become irritated and stop reaching out, making a chronically stressed teen feel even worse.
If you see these signs in a teenager in your life, there are people that can help. The first person that typically helps is someone in the teen’s day-to-day life. As a friend, family member, or educator of a teen, you have the ability to acknowledge the behaviors and stressors that you see in that teen’s life. It goes a long way to let a teen know that their stress makes sense, and that there are people that can help them cope differently with that stress.
Another person that can help is a teen’s physician. These professionals are trained to screen for problems with mood and anxiety, and can help the family and teen navigate next steps, which might include going to a counselor or therapist, or even starting a medication. All of these supports can help a teen better tolerate the stressors of their lives. With time and support, a teen may even acknowledge that these stressors allow them new opportunities as they move towards young adulthood.
Stress is an inescapable part of life, but it doesn’t have to be scary. If we can work with teens to teach them how to approach stress effectively, we can help the next generation move towards better physical and emotional health.