Teen stress and anxiety is a growing epidemic. One-third of adolescents report feeling anxious to a significant degree, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and 62 percent of college students said that they feel “overwhelming anxiety.”
What is stress?
Stress is the body’s reaction to a challenge, which could be anything from outright physical danger to asking someone on a date or trying out for a sports team. The human body responds to stressors by activating the nervous system and specific hormones.
The hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland which signals the adrenal glands to produce more of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol and release them into the bloodstream. The hormones speed up heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and metabolism.
This physical response to stress kicks in much more quickly in teens than adults, partly because the part of the brain that can calmly assess and react to danger, the pre-frontal cortex, is not yet fully developed in adolescence.
What causes teen stress?
Causes of teen stress can range from normal social and emotional challenges unique to puberty, to family or friendship problems, to social media, or to gun violence and other environmental stressors—but it typically starts in school. And there’s more to school-related stress than just classwork.
Teens are dealing with anxiety around their relationships and social pressures, which are often exacerbated by social media. They are thinking about how they fit in, peer pressure, bullying, and their attachment to their phones—missing a call or text translates to a real or imagined fear that if they don’t respond immediately, the person may move on to someone else.
We don’t give as much attention to stress because all of us experience both “good stress” and “bad stress.” Good stress is that optimal amount of stress that results in our feeling energized and motivated to do our best work. It can help teens be on their toes and rise to a challenge. But when it rises to a level where it interferes with daily functioning, it becomes a problem. Bad stress occurs when our coping mechanisms are overwhelmed by the stress and we do not function at our best.
Feeling stressed is a natural part of life at any age. For teens, parents are the best teachers and guides. They will learn from your behaviors and may adopt them when they experience their own stress.
Teaching your teens the tools they need to develop resilience and appropriately manage their own emotions is life-changing. Here are seven tips on how to help your teen thrive when they feel overwhelmed and stressed during challenging situations.
1. Manage your mind.
Your mindset is one of the most critical factors in determining our reaction to life stressors. Your thoughts create your reality; meaning, your thoughts create your feelings which lead to behaviors that ultimately create consequences. Automatic thoughts create additional—optional—suffering.
Shifting automatic thoughts will create new possibilities. For instance, if your teen has academic challenges, begin helping them manage this stress by asking how they would like to feel. Maybe they say hopeful? Confident? Ask them what they need to think or believe those feelings instead. Perhaps they realize, “I know I can ask my teacher for extra help which would increase my understanding of the topic.” When your teen sees they can use their resources to help themselves, they will gain confidence which leads to actions, therefore decreasing the stress they feel about their challenge.
This can be applied to emotional stress as well. If your teen has the automatic thought of “someone doesn’t like me,” ask them how they would rather feel when rejected. (It’s important to note we will all be rejected at some point in life. As such, we should control the controllables and only manage our own thoughts, or what we actually can control.) Your teen will obviously not want to be excluded, but perhaps you can help them feel more neutral when they experience exclusion. Remind your teen that they don't like everyone and not everyone will like them. That’s okay. They are enough just as they are.
Teens need to feel seen and understood in order to create a foundation for a solid connection. Be curious, open, accepting, and loving when your teen expresses feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
Many of our teens feel a pervasive sense of being “less than” and not good enough. Let them know their self-worth does not depend solely on their accomplishments. They should know they are loved for who they are rather than what they do.
Validate their emotions and experience by saying, “I get it”; “I hear you”; “Tell me more.” When they have finished, ask them if they just need a safe space to share their emotions or if they want your help with problem-solving without first jumping in for the rescue.
3. Practice yoga.
Encourage your teen to try yoga. Many studies are showing that the practice of yoga (both physical movements and mindful breathing) help reduce teenage anxiety. Yoga helps people relax and provides a space away from both social and school pressures. It creates awareness, allowing your teen to accept and appreciate their body, helping to form a more positive body image and increase confidence. Stretching and deep breathing helps your body de-stress and provides an overall sense of calmness. Your teen can try a class in a studio or look at YouTube videos to get started.
In conjunction with yoga and mind management, strengthening the awareness of your teen’s mind will help them build the ability to notice and interrupt negative thinking and to manage stress. Meditation improves focus and concentration so teens can focus on homework and perform better on exams. It also helps with self-esteem and memory, reduces blood pressure and heart rate, and helps balance the immune system.
Teaching our teens to witness their thoughts without getting attached to them can be life-changing. Our thoughts are simply stories that we make up in our minds. There are several guided meditations online specifically for teens. Look for apps like Calm or Headspace to introduce your teen to the practice.
If your teen has added yoga, meditation, and mind management techniques into place, getting more sleep may become a natural by-product. Yoga massively helps improve sleep because the stretches and deep breathing stimulates the parasynthetic nervous system, helping you sleep more easily and deeply. Studies have shown that a calmer mind sleeps better, enhancing productivity the next day.
6. Limit screen time.
Research finds that more hours of screen time are associated with lower well-being in those aged 2 to 17, with the association being larger for adolescents. Adolescents who spend more than seven hours a day on screens were twice as likely as those spending one hour to have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression. Talk about how to limit phone and screen time together.
7. Find help.
Your teen should have at least one trusted adult, in addition to you, in their life they can turn to for guidance and support. Discuss possible resources—a school counselor, a life coach, or a therapist.
While we cannot protect our teens from experiencing stress, nor would we want to, we can learn how to help them shift their paradigm from all stress being bad and unhealthy to learning the tools that will enable them to manage whatever challenges they face in life. And remember, we can’t tell our teens that we love them enough. They’re listening, even when we think that they’re not.