Stress management for beginners – and the rest of us!

Image: Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho
By Charlotte Villemoes, LMFT
On-Campus Counseling Program Site Director, Woodside High School

Every day, all of us experience some sort of stress. Most of the teens I meet in my private and professional life will at some point talk about how stressed they are; they talk about feeling overwhelmed by school demands, worried about their family, concerned about their friendships, their failures, and their future. Not surprisingly, I hear very similar stories from adults. Life brings a lot of stress in various shapes and forms and if we don’t learn to manage it in healthy ways it can take a serious toll on us.

The mind and body are closely connected and as a result many people – teens and adults alike – will experience a combination of mental, emotional, and physical symptoms when they are stressed. Some of the more common symptoms include feeling irritable or angry, nervous or anxious, depressed, overwhelmed, or tired. Stress can make it hard to concentrate and difficult to sleep. Colds, flu, high blood pressure, infections, migraines, aches, pains, and skin problems are also linked to stress.

Research shows that we develop our stress related behaviors when we are adolescents. That means it is not too late for your teen to learn to cope in healthy ways instead of going down the more typical path of not getting enough sleep and exercise, while getting too much junk food, drugs or alcohol. Below is a list of some of the techniques that have proven to decrease stress. Since everybody has their own unique ways of reaching a relaxed state, please encourage your teen to explore various options – and consider being a wonderful role model by trying some of them yourself.

Move your body. Physical activity is one of the most effective ways of decreasing stress because it helps release all the tension that stress will produce. Find activities you truly enjoy and build them into your weekly routine. Anything like dancing, hiking, biking, skateboarding, or walking your dog will do. The best types of physical activities are those that have a social component, like team sports or simply shooting hoops with a friend. You are more likely to have fun — and keep at it — if you are being physically active with friends.

Decrease stress at its source. Stop for a moment to think about what is the main source of stress in your life. If relationships are causing you stress, work on setting boundaries or be more assertive. If the main source of stress is too many demands on your time, make clear priorities and give yourself permission to cut back.

Strike a balance. Avoid the trap of over-scheduling by prioritizing tasks and remembering to put free time into your schedule. When you plan your week, schedule time to get work done, but also time to have some fun. When it is time to enjoy yourself, try telling yourself not to worry about school or work. Simply focus on enjoying the moment.

Stop procrastinating. Procrastination can add to your stress – when things are put off, you are always working under pressure, which is very stressful in itself. Managing your time effectively can significantly decrease stress. Try making a schedule and stick to it. Plan to treat yourself after completing a task. Rewards can be simple, like taking a small break, eating a healthy snack, texting a friend, or listening to your favorite song.

Get enough sleep. Make sure you are getting enough sleep. Even a few hours of missed sleep affects your mood, memory and concentration significantly. To maximize your chance of getting solid sleep, cut back on screen time in the late evening hours. Don’t drink caffeine late in the day and try not to do stimulating activities too close to bedtime.

Have some fun. Laughter is a great cure for stress. Besides physical activities, find other hobbies or activities that you enjoy. That might be listening to music, going to the movies, journaling or drawing. Hobbies and creative outlets can be excellent stress relievers. Make a point to keep doing these things even when you are stressed and busy

Let yourself shine. Spend some time thinking about the things you are good at, and find ways to do more of those things. If you are a math ace, you might tutor a younger neighbor who is having trouble with the subject. If you are a spiritual person, you might volunteer at your church. Focusing on your strengths – and on other people – will also help you keep your own problems in perspective.

Use relaxation techniques. There are many effective techniques to calm your mind and relax your body but just like any other skill it takes practice before you know what works best for you and before it works fully. You can try techniques like deep belly breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, and guided meditation. Many free sites online can guide you through this, like Keep trying until you find something that works for you.

Reach out for help. If you or your teen’s stress level becomes unmanageable, it is time to reach out for help and talk it through with somebody else. Life changing events, good or bad, happen to all of us. We cannot control that. But we can learn to control how we respond to stress in healthy ways and counselors can help you or your teen do just that.