Helping High Schoolers Manage and Understand Stress

The week my daughter was scheduled to take the SAT, she called me up to her room to help her fall asleep two nights in a row. On the second night, my high school junior said, “I think I’m stressed.”

“Yes, this is what stress looks like sometimes: Not being able to fall asleep,” I replied. We talked about how normal it is to be nervous before taking a test like the SAT. Then we listened to a guided meditation until she fell asleep.

Not all Stress is Bad Stress

While I was worried about my daughter’s pre-test nerves, clinical psychologist Lisa Damour says it’s good that I didn’t transfer this worry to my teenager.

“I think our job as grownups is to make sure that kids don’t feel stressed about being stressed or anxious about being anxious. These are normal and healthy parts of being human. It’s neither accurate nor helpful to talk about stress or anxiety by saying ‘you are not supposed to have those feelings,’” says Damour.

While it’s true that data shows that reports of anxiety and stress are on the rise for teenagers, it’s also true that feeling anxious is often a normal and healthy function of being human, says Damour.

“Anxiety alerts us when something is not right. That includes outside threats like when we are driving and there is a swerving car nearby, and inside threats like when we have been procrastinating too long and we need to get on with our work. Anxiety helps us manage meaningful opportunities like tests, recitals and big games,” says Damour, who adds that feeling a moderate degree of anxiety or excitement improves performance. “I like to tell the kids I work with that Beyoncé said, ‘I get nervous when I’m not nervous because if I’m not nervous it won’t be a good performance.’”

When Stress Gets the Upper Hand

It’s when the anxiety is out of proportion to the threat or when a teen is anxious for no reason that parents need to worry.

“If your teenager has a panic attack when they have a minor quiz, that’s worrisome,” says Damour.

When anxiety interferes with daily life, it’s time to seek help from a mental health professional.

“I like the 24-hour rule: If they’re okay 24 hours later, it’s okay not to worry,” says Damour.

Damour provides a short list of anxiety symptoms that may indicate intervention is needed:

  • Feeling emotionally overwhelmed
  • Feeling physically sick or uncomfortable (shaking, intense sweating, upset stomach)
  • Having one’s mind go blank
  • Feeling a powerful urge to flee

Helping Teens Cope with Anxiety

Damour suggests teaching teens that when you address the threat, then the anxiety will dissipate.

“When you study for the test, you’ll feel better. If you’re nervous for a social gathering because a kid will be there who is often unkind to you, that anxiety is there to help you prepare,” says Damour. “Ask your teen, ‘How are you going to handle that when it’s headed your way?’”

Damour also recommends explaining the science behind anxiety and stress.

“Anxiety sets off a physiological reaction that was programmed into us eons ago. However, kids can learn to override their own system,” says Damour.

Slowing one’s breathing down can effectively short circuit anxiety’s alarm system. Damour teaches teens a system of “square breathing:”Breathe in for 3 seconds, hold for 3, exhale on a count of 3 and wait for 3 seconds before the next inhale.

“There are receptors all over the lungs that communicate to the brain. When we deepen and slow down our breathing, those receptors send messages to the brain that everything is all right,” says Damour. “Once kids know facts like this, they can use deep breathing techniques to ease anxiety.”

Seattleite Nancy Schatz Alton is an author, teacher, poet and frequent contributor to Your Teen Magazine at www.YourTeenMag.com.

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