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How Today's Teens Manage Good Stress and Bad Stress

A new study finds some kinds of stress actually benefit the brain as we grow.

Key points

  • Low to moderate levels of stress can actually help people grow resilience and cope with future stressful encounters.
  • Low to moderate levels of stress can actually reduce young people's risk of later developing mental health disorders.
  • There is a fine line between good stress, which is beneficial, and bad stress, which can be toxic.
  • Cognitive functioning is a potential intermediating mechanism in the link between perceived stress and externalizing behaviors.
Mohamed_Hassan/Pixabay, used with permission
Mohamed Hassan Photo
Source: Mohamed_Hassan/Pixabay, used with permission

A new study from the Youth Development Institute at the University of Georgia uncovered the fact that some stress can actually be beneficial as we grow. The study by Assaf Oshri and team appears in the August 2022 issue of Psychiatry Research.

Rather than merely recount the study’s findings, I decided to bounce them off a teen who is navigating multiple stresses at the moment, in order to collect feedback related to the findings to lend a youth’s voice to the data. That teen is Abram Jimenez, Jr., an incoming senior at Otay Ranch High School in San Diego. As parents, educators, and students prepare for the coming year, we can keep this study in mind to expose students to only appropriate levels and types of stress. Jimenez’s responses follow each study finding below.

The University of Georgia study found that low to moderate levels of stress can actually help people grow resilience, and this can reduce their risk of developing mental health disorders (e.g., depression) later on as they grow older. What low to moderate stress inducers can educators consider as they welcome students back to campus this fall?

We have to recognize that students have had different experiences because of COVID. There are students on our campus who have lost loved ones or have been financially impacted, while others have not. Educators need to take into account the variation and ensure the campus is safe, welcoming, and positioned to meet the needs of all of our students and teachers.

The researchers found that low to moderate stress can also help people cope with future stressful encounters. But some stresses students have these days supersede those levels. As the new school year begins, what is an overly-taxing cause of stress that you and other students are facing?

We never had to think about gun violence in schools in the past, but now my peers and I do. I go through the day thinking about doing well in class, but there are times when I see a gate open or a class with its windows open and I wonder if we are susceptible to a shooter. I have confidence that our school and district leaders are doing everything possible to address an active shooter, but we can never be complacent.

The study used responses from more than 1,200 young participants to find the fine line between good stress, which is beneficial, and bad stress, which can be toxic. How do you and other teens balance stressful demands so that you stay within the “good stress” boundary?

I have to be especially cognizant of that line when balancing the demands of school with preparing for a successful wrestling season, as I know other scholar-athletes do, too.

To balance that, school always comes first. I understand that my education is a long-term investment in my career and personal well-being. However, I also want to enjoy wrestling, which is something I really care about.

Balancing the two and having a personal life can be challenging. To be successful, I have to be organized, prioritize and make decisions that are best for my education—to balance athletics and friends. I need a life, too. My family and friends mean a lot to me.

Study data showed cognitive functioning to be a potential intermediating mechanism in the link between perceived stress and externalizing behaviors (in other words, mental abilities can help stave off things like aggression, bullying, and defiance). That link can be subconscious, whereas teens are actively learning to consciously manage pressures while resisting unhealthy behaviors. How do you and your peers do this—how do you manage stress while keeping positive?

It takes a lot of discipline and it is not easy to manage the pressures of being a student (e.g., Advanced Placement courses, student leadership, etc.). The coursework is hard and I have a lot of homework. I also feel a huge responsibility as Assistant to Dean to ensure our school is welcoming for all students, while making school fun.

When I am not in class, I feel the time I spend at school with friends should be enjoyable. When students are not connected to school, the high school experience can be less than enjoyable, when it should not be. I want to also make sure every student has a person they know and can turn to. When students are connected to others, they look forward to being at school and are likely to do well in class. Education is an amazing gift. We need to make sure all students take advantage of that gift.