How to Help Teens Reduce Stress in High-Anxiety Times and Always

It's college application season, and millions of high school seniors across the nation are coping with the stress of writing application essays, filling out scholarship and financial aid forms and worrying if they will be admitted to the school of their choice.
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It's college application season, and millions of high school seniors across the nation are coping with the stress of writing application essays, filling out scholarship and financial aid forms and worrying if they will be admitted to the school of their choice.

For some teens, these demands are added to the ongoing challenges of maintaining grades, keeping active in outside sports and activities, working for pay, and navigating relationships with friends, romantic partners, and family.

For generations, experts have called adolescence "a time of storm and stress," which leads many to believe that the experience of high stress levels during the teen years is normal or "just a stage" we all go through on the journey to adulthood.

There is however a dark side to this dismissive stereotype. If stress is seen as an inevitable part of adolescence, we are less likely to intervene to reduce teen stress or protect our youth from its negative impacts.

We need to take adolescent stress seriously. Decades of research has found stress to be connected to immediate and long-term effects, including substance use, conduct problems, increased risk for depression, and, most tragically, self-harm and suicide.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 11 percent of adolescents will suffer from major depressive disorder by age 18, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report suicide to be the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24.

Adolescent stress affects more than emotions and behavior; it is linked with changes in stress hormones such as cortisol, and alterations in immune functioning. Once into adulthood, the effects continue. High stress experienced during adolescence is associated with worse mental and physical health in adulthood.

The good news is the most common stresses parents and teens encounter during the college application season is typically not the type of stress that research finds to be most noxious to adolescent health.

Stress that is social or interpersonal in nature has the greatest impact on stress hormones. This social type of stress most strongly predicts adolescent and young adult depression and has been most clearly linked to adult health outcomes.

Lack of emotional support from parents, exposure to conflict with parents or peers, the loss of a loved one, exposure to violence or abuse, and social rejection, isolation or loneliness -- these are the types of stressors that cause the adolescent body and brain to react the most strongly.

Not all adolescents are equally affected by stress. Genetic and personality risk factors make some adolescents more vulnerable than others to stress and its negative consequences.

However, all youth can benefit from measures that can help to reduce and contain stress. There is much to gain, and little to lose from taking measures to try to keep adolescent stress in check.

Getting regular (but not excessive) exercise, limiting caffeine, eliminating nicotine consumption, getting nine hours of sleep with sleep schedules as regular as possible, taking time out for safe, fun activities, and practicing meditation, yoga or other mindfulness-based techniques are all positive ways for teens to cope with stress.

Parents or guardians can play an important role also. Although teens may not always seem immediately receptive to parental efforts, expressions of warmth, support, and love from parents remain key stress-buffering measures throughout the adolescent years.

Talking with your adolescent about the sources of stress in their lives can also be a helpful step in identifying and helping to control their stress. Keeping expectations in check is another important strategy for both parents and teens.

Even as students eye the future and apply to colleges, hoping to stand out with high grade point averages, school activities, sports and other extracurricular activities, there is a limit to what any one teen can handle.

Stress reduction strategies may work well for typical stress levels, but for teens (or parents) experiencing extreme stress and showing symptoms of depression and anxiety, seeking professional medical help is an important, and potentially life-saving measure.

You should report immediate thoughts of suicide to a hospital emergency room or call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

We need to engage in a broader conversation on how to protect our youth from exposure to stress, particularly the types of stressors that are most harmful for the body and brain.

In the meantime, helping adolescents get in the habit of practicing stress reduction measures will help to limit the negative consequences of stress no matter when the stress occurs.

Yes, college application season is stressful. But treating this and other serious forms of social stress will benefit the health of young people now and in the many seasons of life to follow.

Emma Adam is Professor of Human Development and Social Policy at the School of Education of Social Policy and Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University and a Public Voices fellow through The OpEd Project.


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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