Stress

Why Are Teens So Stressed and What Can Break the Cycle?

New research shows a startling increase in teen stress, a major risk for us all.

Posted Nov 01, 2017

The evidence for sharp increases in teen stress is everywhere. In a recent feature in The New York Times Magazine, UCLA researchers noted that the percent of the incoming class who reported feeling "overwhelmed" grew from 18 percent in 1985, to 29 percent in 2010, and to 41 percent in 2016. The American College Health Association reported even higher levels, from 50 percent in 2011 to 62 percent in 2016. A recent study in Psychological Medicine reported a national increase in clinical depression from 2005 to 2015 from 6.6 to 7.3 percent, but this trend was even more striking among teens (12- to 17-year-olds), growing from 8.7 to 12.7 percent. Depression, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed are not all the same thing, but they do share a common feature: experiencing a level of stress that is beyond an ability to cope, with a negative impact on health and on the ability to function well in many situations.

Some commentary on these trends has tended to dismiss them for a couple of reasons. When focused on clinical conditions that have been diagnosed or have resulted in hospitalization—severe depression and attempted suicide—a common observation is that it is the by-product of a positive trend in mental health: we are looking harder for signs of serious problems and attempting to intervene earlier and more often. But given the overall population trends in self-reported distress, it is extremely unlikely that diagnostic trends are the full story. A second line of commentary attributes the rise to a heightened sensitivity among today's youth, to an unhealthy level that leads to a search for "safe spaces" or special accommodations in the face of distress—the “snowflake” effect. Again, this dismissal fails to take account of the convergence between rising stress among teens and similar findings that focus on the biological indicators of stress.

Stress levels in the overall population have been rising in a similar fashion for several decades, leading to a gathering recognition that we are in the midst of a stress epidemic. In addition to self-reports of this rise in feelings of distress in the population, we have also seen a significant rise in a range of stress-related diseases and disorders from CDC data, and we have also experienced a similar rise in the physical precursors that lead to these conditions—a stress load index that has also been going up for several decades. So the claim that this is all attributable to kids being too sensitive, being "snowflakes," or being unwilling to face challenges, doesn't hold up well. 

What's fueling the rise, for all of us but especially among younger generations? We can look to the primary psychological drivers of excess stress: fear, uncertainty, and lack of control. These affect teens differently depending on their social standing, but some combination of them drives the stress trend. For teens with few prospects, having perhaps suffered early life adversity as well as continuing socioeconomic disadvantage, the impact of increasing inequality and decreasing social mobility is dramatic. They are more likely to be on a path to being socially disconnected, and this leads to higher risks for lifelong health. In addition, they are more likely to be carrying a burden of stress dysregulation from that early adversity, which can be triggered by epigenetic changes in early life (Keating, 2016). 

But why would kids with many advantages, who haven’t experienced the material adversity of dangerous neighborhoods, food insecurity, or potential homelessness, experience similar issues with distress and anxiety? Inequality, both social and economic, impacts them in a different way, by heightening the competition to achieve at ever-higher levels to have the best chance to succeed in a highly unequal society. The potential risks of sliding down the “social ladder” are much higher when an ever-smaller percentage at the top can gain access to social and economic success. 

Another teen group at perhaps the highest risk are those whose futures have clearly been thrown into great fear and uncertainty in the era of Trump. Undocumented immigrants, including the Dreamers, have realistic fears about their own futures and about families being broken apart. Fear and uncertainty about access to health care, for themselves if they already need treatment, or for family and friends, creates real stress. And they are susceptible to the rising general stress levels exacerbated by the uncertainty heightened in the current political climate through stress contagion, but without the skills to achieve perspective on topics like the actual risks of nuclear war or terrorism.   

Across all social strata, parents worry about their children’s futures, which can trigger further stress, directly through stress contagion and indirectly through early life stressors that alter their children’s ability to regulate stress in a healthy way (Keating, 2017).

This is no reason to despair, though. In international comparisons, we (Keating, Siddiqi, and Nguyen, 2013) found that societies that have much lower inequality in health and developmental outcomes have better overall population developmental health. At a societal level, the major factors that produced these desirable adolescent outcomes were lower levels of income inequality, higher levels of investment in human development programs and safety nets, and greater efforts to enhance youth involvement in society.

At an individual level, there are things we can do even as we work to solve the bigger societal picture. Three factors that promote resilience, the ability to overcome the effects of toxic stress, come up over and over again. The first is building strong social connections that not only provide support but also counteract excess stress at a physiological level, through the action of serotonin and oxytocin.

A second is acquiring the habit of mindfulness, promoting a focus on being present in the moment, and limiting non-productive fear of the future and rumination about the past—a particular risk for teens whose prefrontal executive functions that can redirect these preoccupations are still developing. 

A third major assist comes from taking care of the physical body, which includes regular physical exercise, sufficient sleep, and avoiding harmful stress-reducers like alcohol, drugs, or comfort food. None of these keys to resilience are easy or natural for teens (or for anyone), but schools can play a positive role by consciously focusing on creating a “culture of resilience” to support all of them. 

Without strong adult supports from parents and schools, chances are that toxic stress and its harm to health and development will continue to accelerate, creating a lifelong burden for youth and for the society at large.

References

Keating, D. P., (2016). The transformative role of epigenetics in child development research. Child Development, 87 (1), 135-142.

Keating, D. P. (2017). Born Anxious: The Lifelong Impact of Early Life Adversity – and How to Break the Cycle. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 

Keating, D. P., Siddiqi, A., & Nguyen, Q. (2013). Social resilience in the neoliberal era: National differences in population health and development. In P. Hall & M. Lamont (Eds.), Social Resilience in the Neo-Liberal Era. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press