5 Stress Resilience Strategies for Students

Helping teens and college students get better at stress & build resilience

Posted Aug 24, 2015

It’s back to school time!  Parents are excited, teachers are wondering where the summer went, and students are busy re-connecting with friends and figuring out new schedules.  As the school year starts and the pressures build, teens and college students are particularly susceptible to stress.

A recent American Psychological Association Stress survey, reporting specifically on the stress levels of teens, found that during the school year many teens report stress levels higher than reported by adults.  Teens often underestimate the potential impact stress has on their physical and mental well-being.

Teens and college students can help to manage the effects of stress by building their stress resilience.  Stress resilience helps make you better at stress while building your resilience (the capacity for stress-related growth).      

These five strategies will help you build your resilience to stress:

Mind your stress mindset.  What is your “going in position” about stress?  That it’s harmful and should be avoided (“stress harms”), or that it’s helpful and should be embraced (“stress helps”)?  As it turns out, your answer to this simple question highly influences psychological, physiological and behavioral outcomes.  Researchers asked nearly 30,000 Americans to describe two things: the amount of stress they had experienced in the last 12 months and their perception of whether the stress was impacting their health.  What they found was that it wasn’t the amount of stress alone that was harmful.  The people who experienced the worst health outcomes had a lot of stress AND perceived that the stress was affecting their health.  People who adopted a “stress helps” mindset were more likely to seek out feedback and therefore grow as a result of experiencing stress and had more adaptive cortisol profiles under acute stress.

Action Step:  When you feel stressed, practice this three-step process from health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal, to develop more of a “stress helps” mindset:

STEP 1:  Acknowledge stress when you experience it – notice how and where it impacts you physically.

STEP 2:  Recognize that the stress response is linked to something you care about.  What is at stake in this situation, and why does it matter to you?

STEP 3:  Make use of the energy that stress gives you.  What can you do right now that reflects your goals and values (McGonigal, 2015)?

Turn your inner critic into your inner coach.  This version of a Mark Twain quote so accurately captures how our inner critic can get in the way:  “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”  Being a flexible, accurate, and thorough thinker under stress and pressure is a foundational skill set for resilience; however, thinking traps, your core beliefs about your life experiences, and runaway thinking, or catastrophizing, can sabotage even the best intentions.   

Action Step:  There is an easy, five-step process that can help you stop the downward spiral, catastrophic style of thinking.  Please send me an email to get a copy. 

Connect stress with meaning.  The stress paradox reveals that stress and meaning often go hand in hand.  Dr. McGonigal explains that high levels of stress are often associated with well-being and happy lives aren’t generally stress-free.  Higher levels of stress are typically found in tandem with things we want in life – health, love and meaning.       

Action Step:  Think about what brings meaning to your life.  Is it friends and family?  Feeling grateful for the ability to attend college?  The volunteer work you enjoy?  Your health?  Take a few minutes to list your most meaningful roles, relationships, goals and activities.  When you look at your list, would you also describe any of these things as stressful?  If something on that list is both a source of meaning and stress, write about why that thing is so important to you (McGonigal, 2015).   

Balance achievement and rest.  I started to get panic attacks around the age of 15, largely due to the overwhelming amount of schoolwork, advance placement classes, sports and volunteer activities I was juggling.  As I put my head down and powered through, I carried those high-achieving ways with me through college, law school, and into my career as a lawyer.  Eventually I burned out because I had created an unsustainable pace for myself – a pace that emphasized achievement to the exclusion of rest. 

Action Step:  Perform regular energy audits to understand how you’re spending your energy both at school and outside of school.  List your energy busters and energy builders for each area (at school and outside of school) and assign a percentage to each category.

Create better habits.  Are there pesky habits in your life that you wish you could change?  Maybe it’s eating too much fast food, procrastinating before a test, or biting your fingernails.  We now know that habits are formed in our brains using a three-step loop:  First, a cue triggers our brain to go into automatic mode; second, we follow a routine (which can be physical, mental or emotional); third, we experience a reward.  In order to change a habit, use the same cue and provide the same reward, but insert a new routine (Duhigg, 2012).  Here’s an example from my own life:

Habit I want to change:  Stop eating chocolate chip cookies in the evening.

Current habit loop:

Cue:  Feeling bored around 7:30pm

Routine:  Get off the couch, gather the cookie ingredients and make cookies

Reward:  A sense of accomplishment

New habit loop:

Cue (keep):  Feeling bored around 7:30pm

Routine (change):  Turn off the TV and read two book chapters

Reward (keep):  A sense of accomplishment

Action Step:  Identify one habit you want to change and go through this process.  Map out the cue, your current routine, and the reward.  Now, replace the routine with something different to break the cycle.

It’s easy for students to feel overwhelmed by stress.  Building your stress resilience will help you manage the stress you feel at school and outside of school in a much healthier way.

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References

Duhigg, C. (2012).  The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business.  New York: Random House.

McGonigal, K. (2015).  The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good At It.  New York: Avery.