Friday, November 20, 2009

Stress and How to Lower It: A Health Guide for Teens

You know when you’re stressed out – your body feels bad and your thoughts are spinning. But it can also help to know why your body reacts that way, and what can you do about it. Our bodies are designed to handle calm situations, and also exciting or dangerous ones. When you’re in the middle of something scary or challenging, your body gets into a mode that’s better for handling the situation. This is a state of high energy and sharp senses, like the way you feel when you’re playing a fun sport or doing really well on a test. But when the situation turns into more than you can handle, that’s when you start to feel stress. It’s as if your body is shouting "Do something!" and your brain is shouting back "I don’t know what to do!"

What is stress?
When you’re stressed, you feel changes in your body and your mind. Your heart beats faster, your blood pressure goes up, and your face may get flushed. Your muscles might tighten up, or you may feel anxious. You may feel rushed and confused, or forget things. You may feel sick to your stomach. You might be crabby, and get into arguments with your family and friends.

What causes stress in our lives?
We live in an interesting, but also hectic and challenging world. Teens can have lots of sources of stress, including:
  • Lots of homework and projects at school
  • Family tension as you try to be more independent from your parents
  • Pressure from friends to do risky things
  • Tension with your boyfriend or girlfriend
  • Difficult people in your life
  • Upsetting news about disasters, war, or personal tragedy
  • Media messages that lower your self-esteem
  • Not getting enough sleep
What are the effects of stress?
A certain amount of stress is OK, if it helps you have the energy to deal with a short term problem. For example, if you’re stressed about writing a paper for school, and your stress causes you to ask your teacher for advice, and you finish the paper, then your stress has done its job.

In the short term, stress can:
  • Help you focus on a situation or solve a problem
  • Tire you out
  • Make you nervous or irritable
If, on the other hand, you’re experiencing a lot of stress day after day, your body may start sending you some warning signs that something’s really wrong. This kind of chronic stress can take a toll physically and mentally.
Long term stress can contribute to such health problems as:
  • Substance abuse
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Self-Injury
  • Obesity
  • Digestive problems
  • Lower immunity to colds and other illnesses
These chronic problems are really your body’s way of telling you "Hey! I’m under way to much stress over here – something’s got to give!"

If you find yourself getting noticeably stressed every day, you should take some steps to (1) lessen the number of stressors in your life, and (2) treat your body and mind to some stress-reduction techniques.

How can I lower my stress level?
Here are some ideas for different activities you can do to lower your stress. Just pick a couple that look interesting to you, and try them out. If these ideas help you de-stress, you can include them in your daily or weekly routine. If not, you can try others on the list, or come up with a list of your own. Talk to your parents or another trusted adult about how they de-stress. They might have some good ideas you can try out.

Helpful Hint: Make a list of your favorite stress-reduction activities, and tape it where you'll see it often, like the fridge or your notebook or computer screen. When you're over-stressed, stop what you're doing, pick one thing off the list, and do it!

Stress Reduction Activities
  • Simplify your life. You may feel like you’re not in control of everything that’s expected of you. But really it’s up to you to decide what you can do, and what you cannot do. Sit down, and make a list of everything you feel you should do. Now separate all the items on the list into three sections like this:

    These can wait These are pressing Do these TODAY

    If you see that there’s just too much to do TODAY, you’ll have to cut down on some activities to make your schedule more manageable.
  • Exercise is a great way to lower your stress. During exercise, you can focus on what you’re doing with your body, which helps free your mind from other worries. Vigorous exercise also triggers the release of chemicals in your body called endorphins, which make you feel happier and more relaxed. You don’t have to be a super-athlete to exercise. Even something as basic as walking for half an hour can help you relax and improve your mood. Or you can sign up for a class at your local YWCA or YMCA – choose something fun and friendly, like dancing, volleyball, or swimming.
  • Female in Cross-Legged Yoga PoseYoga, Tai Chi, & Qigong. These types of movement from India and China use stretches and poses for flexibility, strength, concentration, and relaxation. Yoga emphasizes flexibility and strength, while Tai Chi and Qigong help with concentration, balance, and patience. You can do any of these exercises in a class at your local YWCA, YMCA, or dance center, or at home on a towel or mat. If you’re shy about taking a class, you can check a video out of the library and try the movements at home.
  • Take a Break. Sometimes your tired brain is just craving a little time off from your busy day. Stop what you’re doing, and find a quiet spot where you can put your feet up. Drink some tea (without caffeine!), or take a bath. Read a book or magazine, or even watch TV, if it’s a non-stressful show. These things sounds so basic, you might think, “why bother?” But when your feet are up, your stress level drops.
  • Meditation and Prayer offer you ways to calm and focus your thoughts and feel more positive. There are many styles of meditation which have grown out of spiritual practices around the world. Meditation includes sitting still in a quiet place, focusing your thoughts on your breath or on a slow chant, and trying to be aware of what is going on in the present moment, instead of stressing about the past or freaking out about the future. With prayer you focus on feeling connected to a higher spiritual power, and on wishes and hopes you may have for yourself or people you care about. Get in touch with your local church, temple, Yoga center, or Buddhist center about a prayer or meditation group. If you’re shy about attending a group, you can check videos out from the library about different meditation and prayer techniques.
  • Massage can work wonders on a stressed-out body. A gentle massage can untie knotted muscles, and make you feel relaxed all over. A professional massage can be expensive, but even a simple foot-rub or shoulder-rub from a good friend can take the edge off your stress.
  • Journaling. If you enjoy writing, this can be a good way to de-stress. Write down what’s been happening with you on a daily basis. If you’re facing a scary situation, imagine the best-case and worst-case scenarios. Write about the worst thing that could happen if everything goes wrong. Then write about the wonderful things that would happen if everything goes right. By letting your mind explore all the possibilities you’ll feel less stressed. Another thing you can do in your journal is write a letter to someone you’re really mad at. Later on you can edit it and actually mail it, but sometimes it helps just to write it down.
  • Have a good cry. You may know that little kids get upset easily, cry and make a fuss, then get over it pretty quickly. This approach can work for you too. At the end of a particularly hard day, if you find yourself crying to a supportive friend, family member, or to your pillow, this can help you de-stress. In our culture we often try to convince people not to cry, as if it were a sign of weakness, but it really is no such thing. If your crying helps you communicate your frustration, vent your stress, and get some support, than there’s nothing wrong with a good cry every now and then.
  • Sleep. Even just a few nights in a row of not-enough-sleep can make you feel crabby and nervous. And teens in our culture are notoriously sleep-deprived on a daily basis. You actually need more sleep at this time in your life – about 9 hours per night – than you will as an adult. Although your school schedule and social life make it difficult, try to put sleep at the top of your priority list, right up there with eating good food and watching your favorite TV shows. If you can squeeze in an additional hour or two of sleep per night, you’ll feel a lot better, and your overall stress level will drop.
Special Note: a really harmful way to try to de-stress is with street drugs, alcohol, or binge eating. These may seem to make you feel better in the very short term, by numbing your senses, or making you silly or forgetful. But they have destructive effects on your life and your health in so many other ways, that they are not worth the temporary quick fix they may seem to provide. If you find yourself turning repeatedly to these harmful activities, it’s time to seek counseling to help you deal more positively with your stress and with your substance abuse.

What should I do if I’m dealing with extreme stress?
Sometimes the stressors in a person’s life become very serious. Some examples of an extreme stressor are: being in a serious accident; being the victim of a crime or of sexual abuse; experiencing violence in your family life, including daily fighting, yelling, and hitting. These serious stressors can have lasting effects on the way your body and mind handle stress, and this can set you up for mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Here are some resources for coping with more extreme stress:
  • Parents or other Trusted Adults. If you feel that your stress is more than you can manage on our own, you should definitely seek help. Have an in-depth talk with one of your parents, or another trusted adult in your life. Be has honest as you can about the stress you’re dealing with, and the effect it’s having on you. Confiding in a caring adult can help you feel less alone, and that person can help you find ways to manage your stress.
  • Counseling & Medication. In addition to help from family members, counseling can be a great resource. It involves meeting with a professionally-trained person, a therapist, doctor, nurse or religious leader. This person can help you figure out the cause of your stress, how to minimize it, and how to learn techniques for handling stress better in the future. Sometimes your healthcare provider will prescribe medication to help you manage your stress symptoms, as they work with you to re-structure your life so that it’s less stressful.
Throughout your life it’s important to notice and respect the signals coming from your body and your mind. If you realize that you’re getting stressed out, keep in mind that you can do something about it. Stress-reduction activities can really help you keep your stress at a manageable, low level. And if you start to develop good stress-reduction habits now, you’ll be able to use them in the future.