Stress.  The mere word itself can evoke a rapid heartbeat and sweaty palms.  After all, as adults, there are a number of stress-inducing situations we encounter every day.  The idea of stress is pervasive in our society, in media, in self-help books that promise to alleviate you of this inevitable adult burden.  But how is this incessant societal stress-saturation affecting adolescents and what can we do to counter it?

Let’s begin by specifically defining the word stress:  “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.”  Although it seems that stress and its defining characteristics carry negative connotations, is it necessarily true that all stress is a negative thing and should be avoided?  Absolutely not. When properly utilized, stress can be an intrinsic motivator that equips us to be efficient problem solvers.

How does the body react to stress?

When the human body is faced with stress, specific hormones are activated within the nervous system.  At a signal from the hypothalamus, the adrenal glands release cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream.  These hormones cause an increase in heart and respiration rate, blood pressure, and metabolism. Because the body is preparing a potential flight from danger, the blood vessels widen to allow for better blood flow to muscle groups, pupils dilate, and the liver discharges a large amount of glucose to be used as energy.  

While this physical response is biochemically similar in both adults and adolescents, it occurs more quickly and is longer-lasting in adolescents.  This is due in large part to the fact that the pre-frontal cortex is not yet fully developed in adolescents. The pre-frontal cortex is the portion of the brain responsible for calmly assessing danger and halting the resulting stress response.  In short, the adolescent will feel stressed more easily and remain stressed longer than his adult counterpart.

How can stress be useful to humans?

Stress and anxiety are normal, healthy functions when in balance with the rest of life and are not inherently problematic.  Humans naturally experience stress when faced with new experiences. However, when we conquer those experiences, we develop confidence that when we next encounter a similar situation, we can handle it with less stress, a sense of accomplishment, and more capability.  (This is true both in general and biochemically speaking.) Conquering a task after a struggle can lead an adolescent to feel so exhilarated that he will be encouraged to take the next (healthy) risk, and the next, resulting in a series of accomplishments. Those accomplishments give the adolescent a feeling of pride and increased self-esteem.  

Stress can be an intrinsic motivator, leading to increased focus and productivity.  This heightened focus can expand our capabilities, allowing individuals to learn and do more than ever before.  Is your adolescent worried that he won’t be able to pass his math test? For self-motivated students, stress will lead to studying with intense focus in order to master the material.

It can lead to an increased sense of urgency.  That looming work deadline or project that has been procrastinated suddenly becomes necessary to complete immediately.   In conjunction with increased focus, a heightened sense of urgency can ensure the completion of necessary tasks.

Of course, individuals should not exist in a perpetual state of stress.

How can I help my stressed adolescent?

While stress should not be avoided completely, it should be kept within the context of a normally functioning outlook.  And while we cannot naturally alter the biochemical reactions in the adolescent brain, there are a number of ways in which we can help adolescents work through stressful situations in a healthy manner.

Teach effective coping methodologies

There are a number of useful strategies to dealing with stress.  The key is to provide kids with the proper tools to efficiently manage stressful situations.  Have your child try out a few next time he is feeling overwhelmed, such as:

  • Set smaller, manageable goals.  Your child has procrastinated, and suddenly has a 10-page paper due in a week.  If he breaks the writing down into 2 pages per day, suddenly the task does not seem so daunting.  (And you, as the parent, know some progress is being made toward the end goal.)
  • Learn from mistakes.  We should allow natural consequences, as they are the longest-lasting teachers.
  • Vocalize issues.  For some people, talking through their issues is extremely effective.  The key is for your child to find a supportive sounding board. Allow the child to talk through an issue without necessarily trying to solve the problem for him.
  • Eat, sleep, and exercise regularly.  When your child’s internal reserves are running low because he is not properly rested, his problem-solving skills will be less effective.  Stressors can seem like a much bigger deal when we do not have the energy to solve them. It is imperative that kids have the opportunity to rest and recuperate; once restored, stress can be used in a productive manner, as opposed to the student being a slave to the stress.
  • Focus on what you can control; let go of what you cannot.  

As with all things in life, adolescents look to the adults in their lives to see how they should respond to situations.  In the case of stress, they will observe how adults handle stressful situations and respond similarly. If you freak out, so will your child.  It’s important to reassure adolescents that humans contain automatic, self-regulating systems, and that even though they feel extremely upset, those feelings will pass and life will go on.

Don’t be stressed about being stressed

It is common in today’s society for individuals to become stressed about being stressed.  If they experience the least bit of discomfort, they feel it is something that should be avoided.  But, stress is crucial because it means individuals are out of their comfort zone. True personal growth does not occur unless people are pushed beyond their normal limits.  When they are comfortable, they are not evolving as a person. In fact, I would argue that it should worry people to NOT feel pushed to the limits of their capabilities; otherwise, they aren’t learning.  Let’s make a conscious effort to show adolescents that moments of stress can be moments of learning and self-evolution.

In short, stress is not something that should be avoided by adolescents (nor can it); but rather, something that should be embraced and used as a motivational tool for personal growth to become a life-long learner.  

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