Family upheaval, exams, broken friendships, new school, money worries. They’re all different situations, but they have one thing in common – they bring mental or emotional strains or tension, otherwise known as stress. Most people will experience this at some point in their lives and a certain amount can be healthy, but there can be times when it seems like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. The important thing to remember is that you’re not alone – according to a 2016 survey by YouGov, six in every 10 students say they experience levels of stress that interfere with everyday life – and there’s no reason to be embarrassed. But how do you recognise stress, and what can you do if it feels like it’s just too much? Teen Breathe asked Renée van der Vloodt, who regularly helps young adults to manage life’s trials, and the first thing we learned – it’s good to talk.
1 What is stress?
Sometimes everything feels too much. Your parents want you to do things. Your school puts pressure on you. You want to keep up with friends.
You’re being pulled from different angles and the pressure mounts. Life feels out of control and situations are overwhelming. You feel… stressed.
2 Is feeling stressed quite common?
Feeling stressed often comes when things change – right now, it might seem that everything is changing as you drift between childhood and adulthood. Sometimes you wish you were small (and maybe safe) again, sometimes you feel strong and grown up.
Your body is changing. People start asking more of you. Your feelings get more intense and can be difficult to express or control. You start discovering who you are – and who you’d like to become.
None of this is easy. So, no wonder you’re encountering new levels of stress in your life. You’re not alone.
3 Does that mean that some stress is natural then?
It’s very natural to experience some stress when you face new challenges – as you stretch yourself to take on more responsibility or try new things. Feeling stressed for a short period of time can even help by making you feel more alert and propelling you to take action. Remember, the brain actually likes solving problems.
Everyone has different thresholds for stress. You may be able to cope with more than a friend, for example, but less than someone older than you. The good news is that no matter your current level, you can learn how to handle stress better.
Learning to face stress and deal with it will make you more flexible and less frightened. You’ll discover an innate strength and courage to be proud of.
4 How do I recognise if I am stressed?
Stress changes shape and it manifests in different ways – both emotionally and physically. Here are some signs that you might be feeling stressed:
-lack of focus
-disturbed sleep, constantly tired
-lots of worrying
-snappier or more tearful than usual
-feeling lonely and alone (with no one to talk to)
-feeling down on yourself
-eating more or less than usual
-not able to disconnect from social media
-panicky or having panic attacks
-more controlling or obsessive
-disconnecting from feelings, numbness
Now, some of these things can also be a natural part of being a teenager so, check it out – use your gut instinct. It’s also worth noting that more serious symptoms of stress include dangerous risk-taking and some people might even hurt themselves.
5 What do I do if I feel stressed?
The first thing to do is to tune into, and then voice, how you feel. Take a moment now if you’re feeling stressed. Do you feel a physical sensation – or are you snappy with those around you? Are you feeling lonely and withdrawn, or are you acting out?
When people come for help, it is important to explore what is troubling them and to focus on aspects of health such as getting good-quality sleep, regular exercise and cutting down on sugar.
Simple breathing exercises like counting in for three seconds, and out for five seconds, can really help to calm you down if you are feeling stressed.
There are other, less obvious, things you can do to cultivate skills that will help you cope with stress, including The Powerful 3 Cs – Connection, Compassion and Contribution.
This first C is about connecting – firstly, with yourself. Try to enjoy drifting in time where you have nothing specific to do, without your phone or being in front of a screen. Perhaps write in a journal or simply look out of the window and daydream. This time will help you relax and rekindle your imagination.
Some young adults find that they feel much more interesting and less needy when they are no longer always contactable or answering messages immediately. They report that they have a life beyond their phones – and that is inspiring to their friends.
Take time to connect with others in person. Spend time with people you care for, find people you can really talk to and make friends outside of school, too.
Learn to be kind to yourself and others. Become your own best friend and practise the art of self-care. Ask yourself now: ‘How can I be kind to myself?’. Perhaps you need a word of encouragement – or do something that makes you laugh or feel cosy, like curling up with a hot drink and a blanket.
As you’re going through your day, try to see the world through other people’s eyes and practise being kind to others. By getting out of your own head, you’ll see life – and your problems – with a new sense of perspective.
Do things for other people in your life. You’ll become happier when you put yourself aside from time to time and help friends and family members. You could offer to do the dishes, read to a yonger sibling or ring a grandparent for a chat.
It will make a real difference to them and it will lift your spirits as well. Everyone experiences times of stress and you’ll discover how even with small acts of contribution, we can help each other.
6 What if my stress doesn’t ease?
If you feel your stress is long-lasting or serious, speak to a responsible adult, whether that be a relative or teacher. Listen carefully to the advice they give, even if you don’t like what they have to say at first. Test their ideas out as an experiment – and come up with your own ideas.
They may encourage you to see a GP who may in turn suggest seeking professional advice to help you reduce your symptoms and get to the root cause of your stress. Try to make sure you’re involved with any decision-making and are comfortable with the options offered.
7 And what about the future?
Your teenage years are a period of amazing growth and change. It’s likely to be stressful at times, but with help this can be managed and it will pass. Above all, remember that this is all part of becoming you.