Lately I’ve found myself needing to step back from newsfeeds and social media sites. Even though it’s part of my job as a writer for Psychology today to keep up with these things, reading article after article about the world’s problems can become overwhelming and affect my mental health.
If the stresses of daily life can affect an adult with a higher-than-average understanding of mental health, how is it affecting young people? The APA’s Stress in America survey found teens and children as young as ten reported an even higher level of stress than adults. Perhaps even more concerning than the dangerous levels of stress reported, is that teenagers were more likely than adults to underestimate the impact this stress is having on their physical and mental health.
Adolescents are asked to navigate a world of ever-increasing expectations, while simultaneously managing their identity exploration, with limited autonomy. Seventy-five percent of teens report being more stressed than adults about gun violence, mass shootings, and school shootings. They also reported feeling more stress than adults about issues like rising suicide rates, immigration separation and deportation issues, climate change, and sexual harassment and assault. They reported stress about work and money, as well as more age-specific issues like gender identity, bullying, and peer conflict.
With so much to navigate while undergoing serious development in the brain and endocrine system, is it any surprise that we see such alarming rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide? Our society is at a serious crossroads where we must take swift action to better support our adolescents. As developmental scientist Urie Bronfenbrenner said, “There is no more critical indicator of the future of a society than the character, competence, and integrity of its youth (p. 248).”
While reducing stress is certainly going to need to be tailored to each struggling teen, here are five helpful stress management tools suggested by the APA:
- Exercise. The research on the benefits of aerobic exercise, as well as relaxation and meditation techniques, could fill libraries. As stated in the textbook Psychology, “Frequent exercise is like a drug that prevents and treats disease, increases energy, calms anxiety, and boosts mood—a drug we would all take, if available. Yet few people (only 1 in 4 in the United States) take advantage of it (p. 471).”
- Get adequate sleep. The amount of sleep teenagers are getting has been declining. Sleep is necessary for consolidating memories and cognition and benefits many areas of physical and mental health. Teenagers experience a shift in their circadian rhythm, making them tired later than adults and younger children. Parents and teens can encourage schools to reflect this shift and prioritize their students’ health. As one report stated, “When schools adopt later start times to accommodate teens’ unique sleep needs, the benefits are vast—better mood regulation; improved academic performance; and fewer incidents of conflicts, aggression, bullying, and accidents.” Teens should strive to optimize their sleep environment, stick to a media curfew, and never view going to bed early as a punishment.
- Strike a balance. With so many competing pressures, teens can take time to reflect on the things they can control, and things they cannot. They can prioritize what they can and allow unnecessary stressors to fall away when needed. Many teens cope with stress using social media but they need to be wary of how much time is going toward any one thing. Some research suggests that social media is sought out by those who are depressed, not that it necessarily causes depression. However, differences can be seen in how social media is used. When teens do use social media, they should engage with content that is uplifting, inspiring, and fosters connections.
- Do things purely for enjoyment. Self-care has become a popular topic in recent years, and for good reason. Our bodies need downtime. We need engagement in things that are done purely for their own enjoyment. If teens find themselves feeling guilty at not being productive 100% of their waking hours, encourage them to take a deep breath. Their efficiency will come as their mental and physical health are prioritized. There is also no need to prove one’s own value by reaching a certain level of productivity.
- Focus on strengths. Consistently working on areas of growth can be mentally and physically taxing. Teens need to find time to engage in activities they already excel at and use it to energize them in other areas.The methods teens used to improve themselves in areas of strength can be applied in areas of weakness. Each time teens feel themselves falling short, they can reflect on their strengths.
- Talk through it. Discussing what is weighing one down can help ease a heavy load. Regardless of any advice or actions taken, simply labeling and expressing negative emotions can lessen the power they have. While having an empathetic listener can help, keeping a diary can also be effective. One study found that participants who wrote down their worries about an upcoming exam did better on the exam than those who were not randomly assigned to write down concerns.
Teens may feel as if they’ll never measure up to what is expected. They can take heart that much of what the world deems necessary for success often misses the mark. Psychologist Robert Sternberg advocates against rigid academic standards and teaches that success often comes from creativity, wisdom, and practical intelligence. Each teen is unique in their own way with strengths to build upon. Stress can be a powerful tool toward self-improvement when managed and channeled sufficiently. As Frederick Douglass said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
Finally, stress may be a normal part of life, but sometimes stress becomes unhealthy and needs to be addressed by a professional. Just as we wouldn’t hesitate to visit the doctor for a cold that turns into pneumonia, we shouldn’t hesitate to seek help for teens when stress gets to be too much.
Understanding the stressors facing young people, helping them manage daily stress through healthy stress management techniques, and not being afraid to reach out for help when needed, today’s teenagers can have the best possible chance to face and cope with the stress they face.