The Consequences of Teenage Stress

Date

This month is Stress Awareness Month, raising awareness of the adverse effects that stress can have. Although stress is normal for teenagers and young adults, experiencing excessive levels can impact their mental health. Young adults must learn how to manage stress to avoid the long-term, unhealthy effects it can cause. 

Sources of Teenage Stress

As children get older and enter their teenage years, their sources of stress expand. They might worry about the following:

  • School or work demands
  • Bullying
  • The death of a loved one
  • High expectations of themselves
  • Social issues such as climate change, sexual harassment, and violence
  • Low self-esteem
  • Struggles with peer pressure, friendships, and romantic relationships
  • Family issues, such as divorce and family discord
  • Local or regional catastrophes, such as school shootings and natural disasters

Signs of Teen Stress

Young adults can exhibit stress in many ways:

  • Irritability and anger – teenagers may be snappy or argumentative because of stress
  • Aches and pains – young adults struggling with stress may complain of increased aches and pains, such as headaches, muscle pains, and fatigue
  • Increased anxiety – stress can cause young adults to be more anxious than usual
  • Eating changes – stress can cause appetite changes in young people. They may eat more or much less than usual
  • Neglecting chores or hobbies – teenagers may neglect their set chores, hobbies, or responsibilities as a reaction to stress
  • Difficulty concentrating – stressed teenagers may be distracted in their day-to-day life as they worry about the source of their stress
  • Loss of interest in education – when teens experience significant stress at school, it becomes tough for them to stay interested or engaged with their education. In extreme cases, they may start thinking that they “can’t” and begin to picture leaving school
  • Substance abuse and alcohol – teens may start to experiment with alcohol and other substances as a way to manage their stress by “self-medicating.” Study drugs can begin to appeal at this age as a mode of coping with school pressures, while others may seem to help them feel
  • Self-harm – teens who feel stress that they can’t cope with for an extended period may start to take more extreme measures to manage it. Burnt, cut, or bruised skin, unexplained hair loss or unsafe behaviours around food, sex, or digital presence, are all signs of self-harm.

Everyday Stress Overwhelm

When feeling overwhelmed, teenagers also procrastinate their tasks in response to stress. They may have perfectionist tendencies that prevent them from starting tasks if they think they will fail, making stress worse as the tasks, homework, or chores pile up.

While losing track of everyday things may be frustrating for friends, teachers, and family, remember it is often an overlooked sign of significant stress levels in teen years. Before jumping into a strictly punitive approach, parents and guardians should look more closely to see if there’s an area of life in which their child could use more support.

Good and Bad Stress

Although it may sound unlikely, there is such a thing as good stress. Also referred to as eustress, this stress type helps people feel excited and energised. It is the stress people feel when they go on a first date or ride a roller coaster, and it fades after a while.

Acute stress is what we think of as bad stress. It comes from surprises that require a quick response, and the feelings it brings are often not exciting. Chronic stress is another form of bad stress in which people face repeated stressors and cannot fully relax.

Too much bad stress can adversely affect young adults’ mental and physical health. Some may turn to unhealthy behaviours to try and cope with excessive stress, such as drinking, smoking, or using drugs.

Teen Stress Levels and Mental Health

Stress is a potential trigger for many mental health issues in teenagers and young adults. Many researchers and scientists agree that adolescent stress can cause significant brain changes, especially because the teenage brain is still developing and growing.

The Stress Hormone

When something triggers the fight or flight response, our body releases several key stress hormones that help us regulate our emotional well-being. The most common is cortisol – a hormone responsible for regulating blood pressure and ensuring the immune system is functioning well. In the short term, cortisol helps teens manage the physiological effects of too much stress by:

  • Changing how the body metabolises macronutrients
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Boosting energy
  • Regulating cardiac function
  • Raises blood sugar (immediate energy availability)
  • Altering sleep cycles

Cortisol Overload

However, when stressed, this hormone sits in our bodies in high long-term concentrations, leading to cortisol resistance. Too much cortisol can impair cognitive performance and lead to high blood pressure, lowered immunity, weight changes, lethargy, and insomnia. The prefrontal cortex, which regulates the stress response, is less developed in teens and young adults, and they may experience stress for long periods.

Chronic Consequences

Although experiencing stress in one’s teenage years is not a mental health issue, it can cause clinical problems. Developmental science finds that young adults who face repeated or chronic stress are at a higher risk of manifesting conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders. At the same time, experiencing a traumatic period of stress could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Pre-existing mental health problems can also contribute to stress. Young adults may find symptoms of their condition challenging to deal with, and they may feel stressed about managing appointments and medication. Undiagnosed mental illness can also be a significant source of stress for young adults. If they are not receiving the proper treatment, their mental and emotional health can deteriorate further and impact many more areas of their lives.

Stress Management for Young Adults

Facing stress is a part of life, but it can be hard to know where to start. Young adults must understand that they do not have to deal with teen stress alone and that there are healthy ways of coping, such as:

  • Exercise –the post-workout relaxation response is well known, and physical activity is a great stress buster for people of all ages. To make it even more stress-relieving, try going for a walk or a run outside – research has found that those in green spaces experience less depression, stress, and anxiety.
  • Sleeping well – as a group, adolescents rarely get enough sleep. Many people have no idea that teenagers need around eight to ten hours of sleep per night, and rest is great at keeping stress in check. Avoid spending time with screens at night and have a set bedtime to aim for every night to optimise your sleep.
  • Making time for fun – everyone needs time to unwind, so always make time for something fun. This could be anything from an exciting sport to a quiet night in with a book – whatever helps you unwind and lets your mind and body relax.
  • Trying mindfulness – mindfulness is a great way to relieve stress. Mindful breathing and self-compassion can effectively reduce stress, and one study showed that teenagers who practised mindfulness were significantly less stressed than those who did not.
  • Talking it out – sit down and talk about why you are stressed with friends or a trusted family member. This can help put stressful situations into perspective, and people can come together and brainstorm ideas about how to help.

Parent’s Roles

Parents are perfectly positioned to help the young people in their lives cope with stressful situations. If your child is experiencing a harmful degree of stress, you can intervene from the home front by making more time for fun activities and encouraging your child’s hobbies that promote well-being and stress relief.

You can emulate healthy stress-management skills by challenging negative self-talk patterns, prioritising physical self-care, reducing mindless screen time, and maintaining supportive social circles.

Most teens worry about opening up about pressures with their families, so we recommend broaching conversations about stress and anxiety at a relaxing time, such as on a walk or over a meal. When talking about taking possible actions, remember that enabling behaviours such as helping your child drop responsibilities out of fear or isolating themselves from social relationships may not help. For example, if they’re feeling unprepared and overwhelmed by their role in a school activity, you can help them identify the real sources of stress they’re feeling. This might involve challenging the negative thoughts and anxiety affecting their ability to feel safe.

Instead, you can help them prioritise and actively approach stressful areas of their lives. Consider supporting them in accessing external counselling or psychological support. Destigmatise working with a mental health professional, as many teens stand to benefit from therapy while in school but put it off until their adult years.

Conclusion

Stress can affect teenagers just as it can affect adults, and its effects can be equally severe. However, learning healthy coping methods and stress management techniques can set teenagers up for success in later life. After all, everyone has to deal with stress at some point!

For some young adults, their stress can be compounded by chronic struggles with mental and emotional health. That is where The Wave steps in. We can help young adults combat their mental health issues through therapy that focuses on healing the whole body, not just the brain.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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