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How High School Students Can Feel Less Stressed

Anxiety is rising to epidemic levels among teens. These strategies can help.

Key points

  • When teenagers feel anxious, angry, or distressed, they often have trouble recognizing specific triggers or figuring out how to feel better.
  • Making concrete plans to tackle anxiety-producing problems can help teens regain a sense of control.
  • Additional strategies include journaling, cognitive restructuring, or relaxation techniques.
Stress, distress, anxiety, and pressure plague too many teenagers.
Source: tommaso79/Fotosearch

I am concerned about today's high school students' stress and anxiety levels. Fortunately, there is much that students can do to reduce their anxieties and enjoy their teenage years more fully.

What Causes Anxiety?

Anxiety arises in response to a situation ahead that looks dangerous. Your amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for sending out emotions to signal where there are potential problems, is there to alert you to possible danger.

If the initial alert does not yield effective problem-solving, the anxious, fearful feelings that it created will likely persist. When someone gets stuck in "what if," worst-case scenario thinking—without following each concern with a plan of action for how to address it—the anxiety remains.

Catastrophizing—that is, thinking about how awful the situation is—will further increase the anxiety's intensity. So will over-generalizing ("I always find myself in these kinds of situations"). These kinds of responses may even cause the anxiety to get stronger and persist over time.

What Are the Most Common Anxiety Triggers for Teenagers?

Teens' stresses typically revolve around three areas:

  • Relationships with peers, sometimes exacerbated by social media comparisons
  • Family issues, such as relationships with overprotective parents
  • Schoolwork and concerns about getting into college

What Are Potential Remedies?

From my clinical experience with adolescents plus discussion with Simone Karani, the insightful teenage author of the app for stressed teenagers called My School Journal, I suggest that stressed teens consider taking the following potentially helpful actions.

1. Create clear and realistic goals.

Replacing a swirl of concerns with a concrete plan of action directed to very specific goals can have a powerful anxiety-easing impact. The more specifics in the plan, the better. Written goals and lists can offer surprisingly helpful anxiety reduction.

2. Build your self-esteem.

Positive thoughts help. One option is to make a list of positive thoughts about yourself; another is to read daily uplifting quotes.

3. Keep a diary.

Jot down your feelings, whether in a journal or on your phone. It turns out that writing down concerns takes them out of your mental swirl. Each concern can then become a helpful stimulant to problem-solving. Make a plan for what you will do about each specific issue that is triggering a negative feeling.

4. Be prepared.

For many teens, the looming challenge of writing college applications can feel especially daunting. Start early on to keep lists of your school records, extracurricular activities, research projects, and other information you might want to add to your college application. With your materials all in one place, you will have the list ready when you need it.

5. Include fun in your schedule.

Be sure to include in your schedule time with friends, family members, and/or doing activities you genuinely enjoy. Stress is less of a problem when it alternates with relaxation, social connecting, and fun.

6. Address parent-teenager troubles.

Sometimes, and especially with their eldest child, parents hold on too long to the parenting style that seemed to work when their kids were younger. Too much "helping" by telling them what to do—instead of asking questions that guide them through their own problem-solving—undermines teens' ability to think for themselves.

Punishing teens when they do something the parents do not approve of can similarly backfire. Teens need their parents to give them, for the most part, the freedom to make mistakes. Mistakes are for learning.

Even when the mistake is one with potentially serious consequences, like drug use or unsafe sex, calmly talking and problem-solving together can be a far better approach than complaints, demands, and punishments. If the unsafe behaviors then continue, be sure to seek out professional help.

7. Access self-help resources.

Search the internet for tools that help to reduce negative emotions. My book Prescriptions Without Pills explains a number of self-help techniques for lifting anxiety and other negative feelings.

What Else Helps to Reduce Anxiety?

Deep breathing, meditating, and the like can help the anxiety wave to pass. So can cognitive therapy responses, like identifying and rewriting thoughts that involve catastrophizing or generalizing.

When anxiety is related to a specific concern, creating a plan of action for dealing with the problem can help reduce or even eliminate the anxiety. It has often been said that the best solution to anxiety is information. I go a step further: The ultimate best antidote to anxiety is to find solutions to the problems triggering the anxiety and stress.

Solve the triggering problem and your amygdala will cease sending out its messages of danger ahead. In place of anxiety, positive feelings like interest, calm, enjoyment, friendliness, and playfulness can reign again.

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