Stress: How to Shake it Off

Shake Off Teen StressStress. Stress has propelled me through all-night cramming sessions, helped me to create 20-page midterm papers out of nowhere, caused me to miss the game winning goal, made me actually puke when speaking in front of a crowd of people, and propelled me to get off the couch and start taking control of my life. Stress is powerful. It has helped me to do some of my greatest work and yet it is something that at times has made me feel powerless, scared, and incapable of action. Stress is something that I have spent the last 20 years trying to manage and maintain in its most healthy and balanced form. So, I thought I would blog a little about stress: what it is, why we have it, how to best manage it without letting it get the best of you, and how to shake it off.

What stress is

Stress is the uncomfortable feeling you get when you’re worried, scared, angry, frustrated, or overwhelmed. It is caused by reactions and emotions, but it affects your overall mood and whole body.

Stress can come from many different places.

  • From your parents. “Hurry up, finish this, do your homework, go out for the team, practice your music, do your best, stay out of trouble, make more friends, don’t ever try drugs, what are you doing, I think you can do better, If I were you I’d do it this way.”
  • From your friends. “Try this, don’t hang out with them, why are you different.”
  • From yourself. “I need to lose weight, I hate the way I look, wear the right clothes, get better grades, score more goals, show my parents I’m not a baby, be a better friend, do better at work, I need to do something to make a difference in the world.”

It’s important to know that stress can come from external sources (like having a deadline for an assignment that you’re struggling with) or internal sources (like being critical of yourself for missing a question on a test, even if your overall grade is OK), and your body often reacts the same way no matter where that stress is coming from.

How the body creates that stressful feeling

There are 2 main players in this game:

  1. Stress hormones (such as cortisol and adrenaline): these are chemical messengers that are made in one part of the body and travel to the rest of the body, causing it to respond.
  2. The nervous system: this is your brain, your spinal cord, and the nerves that all work in circuit to send messages from your brain to the rest of your body.

Within the nervous system, the body has 2 different sets of nerves. One (called the parasympathetic system) works while we’re relaxed, and the other (called the sympathetic system) works in response to stress or an emergency.  In most cases, these 2 systems cannot work together at the same time. It’s important to know this because often we can shut off the emergency system by turning on the relaxed system.

Why do we have stress?

The reason for stress at its very most basic and prehistoric level is actually survival. Way back when humans lived in a world where we were the prey of other animals, we relied on our bodies to be able to turn on its automatic “survival mode” when faced with a life threatening situation: to run farther and faster, see better, and to be able to escape to safety.  Because of this, when our brain told us that we were in danger, our bodies turned on our emergency (sympathetic) set of nerves and got a large release of hormones that delivered messages to all parts of our body. In response to these messages, our body responded by diverting energy to parts of the body that could help us get away (by increasing our heart rate to move blood around our body more quickly and increasing blood flow to the muscles, for example) and making changes to optimize our ability to respond (dilating our pupils, for example, to improve vision in low light).  This stress response put our body into “fight or flight” mode to give us the best chance of fighting or escaping danger.

Now, we no longer face the same life and death situations on a daily basis, but our bodies are still wired to react this way. This is because the brain controls both emotions and stress hormones. If your brain thinks something terrible is happening, your body will react as if it really is. Even a little bit of stress that never seems to go away can confuse the body. It makes the body work harder to prepare for an emergency that may not really be there.

Even though stress makes us feel uncomfortable, it’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes stress can really help us deal with tough situations.  When athletes are nervous about a competition, for example, that stress response ensures that the body is sending as much blood to the muscles as possible, instead of focusing on digesting lunch or something else that can wait until after the competition is over.  A lot of stress changes our bodies quickly and helps us react to an emergency. A little stress keeps us alert and helps us work harder. The trick is allowing yourself to have some stress when you need it to rise above and accomplish your goals, but to make sure it is not taking over. If you are sitting in English class and your body goes into full emergency mode (with a racing heart and fast breathing) as if preparing to run from that tiger, you can’t focus on what’s in front of you enough to accomplish anything.

What to do with your stress

Nobody can avoid all stress, but you can learn ways to deal with it.  Here are a few general tips:

  • Exercise and eat regularly
  • Avoid excess caffeine intake which can increase feelings of anxiety and agitation
  • Avoid drugs, alcohol and tobacco: They may help to avoid your feelings in the immediate future, but create many more issues in the long term.
  • Rehearse and practice situations which cause stress. One example is rehearsing a speech in front of family or friends or taking a speech class if talking in front of a class makes you anxious.
  • Learn practical coping skills. For example, break a large task into smaller, more attainable tasks and give yourself credit for checking boxes at each step.
  • Decrease negative self talk: challenge negative thoughts about yourself with alternative neutral or positive thoughts. “My life will never get better” can be transformed into “I may feel hopeless now, but my life will probably get better if I work at it and get some help.”
  • Learn to feel good about doing a competent or “good enough” job rather than demanding perfection from yourself and others
  • Take a break from stressful situations. Activities like listening to music, talking to a friend, drawing, writing, or spending time with a pet can reduce stress.  You can use these “stress time outs” in lots of situations. They can be particularly helpful when you are stressed about homework: sometimes taking a limited, 5- or 10-minute break can rejuvenate you and help you focus.
  • Build a network of support through family and friends, surrounding yourself with people who help you cope in a positive way.
  • Learn relaxation techniques such as deep abdominal breathing, focusing on calming mental images, or muscle relaxation.  Here’s one you can try to help your muscles relax:
    1. Scrunch your face tightly for fifteen seconds, then release.
    2. Repeat several times. This repetitive contraction and relaxation helps release tension you’re holding above the neck.
  • Make time to laugh, play, and relax. This will help turn that emergency nervous system off and allow your relaxation one to kick in.

Looking for more information?  Some of the tips and tricks in this blog came from the American Academy of Pediatrics website on stress and resiliency, and they have a lot more information to explore, including a tool for teens to make their own personalized stress management plans tailored to their particular needs and strengths.