A Teens Guide to Managing Stress
An Overview of Stress - Its Causes and Effects
What Causes Stress?
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.”
From your friends. “Be cool, try this, show us you aren’t a loser, don’t hang out with those dorks.”
Even from yourself. “I need to lose weight, wear the right clothes, get better grades, score more goals, show my parents I’m not a baby.”
How Does the Body Handle Stress?
First, here are 2 short definitions.
The body is a finely tuned machine that can change quickly to do what we need it to do, like react to stress. The body actually has 2 different sets of nerves. One works while we’re relaxed, and the other works when there’s an emergency. These 2 systems cannot work together at the same time. It’s important to know this because we can shut off the emergency system by turning on the relaxed system. That helps us feel better!
Is Stress Always Bad?
Ages ago, when people had to survive in the jungle, the emergency nervous system was a great thing to have. Imagine your great, great, great ancestors, Sam and Zelda, eating some berries and soaking up the sun. Suddenly they saw a tiger and they knew they had to run! Hormones gave them the huge burst of energy that they needed to escape.
How did their bodies react? First, Sam and Zelda got a sinking feeling in their stomachs as the blood in their bellies quickly went to their legs so they could run fast. Then, when they jumped to their feet, their hearts beat faster to pump more blood. As they ran from the tiger, they breathed faster to get more air. Their sweat cooled them as they ran. Their pupils became bigger so they could see in the dark, in case they needed to jump over a log while running away. They didn’t think about anything but running because they weren’t supposed to stop and figure out a friendly way to talk to the tiger.
Sam and Zelda would never have survived without the stress reaction, but stress helps us do more than run from tigers. It keeps us alert and prepared. (You can be sure that the next time Sam and Zelda sat down to munch on berries, they listened for the sounds of a tiger.)
Few of us need to outrun tigers today, but we all have worries that turn on some of those same stress responses. That panicky feeling you sometimes get when you’re studying for a big test comes from your body’s reaction to stress. Your heart beats almost as fast as it would if you were running from a tiger. Your breathing becomes heavier and you sweat, just as if you were getting ready to run.
If Stress Is a Survival Tool, Why Does It Make Us Feel Awful?
In the modern world, our biggest worries are not usually about life or death. We don’t really have to run away from our problems. But those same stress hormones stay in our bodies because unlike Sam and Zelda, we don’t use them up by running. Instead, those hormones continue to hang around, unused and confused. They seem to be asking, “Why did my body stand still when that ‘tiger’ attacked?”
Even when there are no real emergencies, our emotions can make our bodies act like there is a huge emergency. 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.
A tiger running at you is a real crisis. If you believe a mild stress (like a math test) is an emergency, you will not be able to study. Your body will be preparing to deal with a real tiger. You won’t be able to concentrate on anything but escaping. The trick is to figure out when something really is an emergency and when your emotions are only acting as if it is one.
How Do People Deal With Stress?
These harmful choices might feel good for a couple of minutes, but they can be dangerous. They end up messing up your life, and then you end up a lot more stressed. They’re especially dangerous if they are the only way you manage stress. This is one of the ways addictions start.
Start here to buiild your Personalized Stress Plan: Begin Part 1