Today’s youth face more stress than ever before. From academic stress including classes, homework, papers, grades and growing competition to family stress including parent expectations, conflicts, siblings and changes in structure, youth feel stress in numerous aspects of their life. Because youth are not equipped with effective relaxation techniques, they sometimes rely on unhealthy responses, like illegal drugs and alcohol use. Partnership for a Drug Free America states that 73% of teenagers reported school stress as the primary reason for drug use. Youth are often seeking psychological or physical pleasure, but are not aware of how dangerous drug use can be, especially prescription drugs not prescribed to the individual. In a recent study, young adults stated they use prescription drugs to study, deal with problems and feel better. To learn more about stress and it’s correlation to drug and alcohol use, The Medicine Abuse Project is a great resource.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, other common factors that cause stress in youth include the following:
- Negative thoughts and feelings about themselves
- School demands and frustrations
- Changes in their bodies
- Problems with friends and/or peers at school
- Unsafe living environment/neighborhood
- Separation or divorce of parents
- Chronic illness or severe problems in the family
- Meath of a loved one
- Moving or changing schools
- Taking on too many activities or having too high expectations
- Family financial problems
A lot of youth are not equipped with the stress management tools to effectively handle the large amounts of stress they face daily. If stress is not managed effectively, it can lead to negative self-talk, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, aggression, physical illness and illegal drug and alcohol use. When the human brain responds to stress, a physiological response occurs in both our brain and throughout our body. This is known as the “fight or flight” response that includes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and production of adrenaline. The response may also cause upset stomach and cold or clammy hands and feet.
The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital focuses copious amounts of research on Relaxation Response. There, Dr. Herbert Benson’s research indicates that the relaxation response is just as important for the body as the original stress response. Once the individual decides the stressful situation is no longer dangerous, the brain and body help us begin to relax. This includes a decrease in each response, especially a reduction in blood pressure. Youth who practice relaxation techniques have been shown to be healthier, happier and calmer. Just by learning to take a deep breath before a stressful situation, youth can be better prepared throughout their lives to handle any stress triggers they are facing.
Fortunately, parents and those working with youth can help aid in the reduction of stress. According to Stress Free Kids, adults can help youth in the following ways:
- Monitor if stress is affecting their teen’s health, behavior, thoughts, or feelings.
- Listen carefully to teens and watch for overloading.
- Learn and model stress management skills.
- Support involvement in sports and other pro-social activities.
Teens can help themselves by decreasing stress with the following behaviors and techniques:
- Avoid illegal drugs, alcohol, and tobacco.
- Exercise and eat regularly.
- Avoid excess caffeine intake, which can increase feelings of anxiety and agitation.
- Learn relaxation exercises (abdominal breathing and muscle relaxation techniques).
- Develop assertiveness training skills. For example, state feelings in polite and firm and not overly aggressive or passive ways such as “I feel angry when you yell at me,” and “Please stop yelling.”
- Rehearse and practice situations which cause stress. One example is 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.
- 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 “My life will 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.
- Learn to say “no.” It is important for youth to understand they do not have to participate in everything they are asked to do.
- Get enough sleep. Youth need as much sleep as small children, about 10 hours each night.
- Build a network of friends who help you cope in a positive way.
Learning relaxation exercises including abdominal breathing and muscle relaxation techniques are skills that all youth should be equipped with. They can practice them before a big test or during a stressful family situation. PTSD Online Coach provides online resources to help work on worry and anxiety. By utilizing the following techniques and practicing them often, youth will be one step closer to feeling less stress:
- Be in the present moment.
- Put your phone away.
- Sit with your feet flat on the floor and put your hand on your thighs.
- Keep your head straight ahead.
- Close your eyes.
- Focus on counting.
- Feel the inhale and exhale.
- Note your stray thoughts and release them.
- You are in a safe place.
- Ignore everything around you.
- Breathe in/out.
- Up to your nose, out to your diaphragm (3 min.) try to get to 10 minutes.
By utilizing these and other techniques that are effective for the individual person, youth can and will begin to properly manage stress. Working with them to identify what works best will set them up for a lifetime of success in handling stressful situations. With Red Ribbon Week around the corner, we hope you will adopt drug-free relaxation techniques, as well as share them with youth in your life and encourage the same positive, healthy behaviors.