Two students from a local high school recently worked on a project about teen stress. Their teachers directed them to Dr. Roca as an expert in helping teens deal with stress. Below is a transcript of the interview.
Question: What are the effects that stress has on teens?
Dr. Roca: Stress causes the same chemical changes in teens as it does in adults. Stress stimulates the excitation part of the nervous system (epinephrine release) and increases the secretion of stress related hormones (cortisol). However, because the brains of teenagers are not completely developed yet, stress can affect them more significantly. In teens, the part of the brain that responds to stress first (amygdala) is fully developed but the portion of the brain that allows an adult to reframe and redefine the stress (prefrontal cortex) is not completely developed. In addition, the surges of estrogen and testosterone affect the brain of boys and girls differently. In girls, the estrogen increases the likelihood that stress will be internalized, which will lead to eating behavior disorders, depression, anxiety, loss of concentration, withdrawal, and obsessive compulsive disorder. In boys, the testosterone increases the likelihood of risk-taking behaviors, aggression, and drug use as well as isolation, loss of concentration and sexual acting out.
That being said, the general effects of stress remain the same in adolescents and adults and can range from physical symptoms (palpitations, abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, increased allergy, joint and muscle pain, headaches, shoulder pain, frequent illness, decreased sleep), to mental symptoms (loss of concentration, poor memory, excessive worry, poor time management, poor planning, decreased ability to reframe and redefine the triggers), to emotional symptoms (depression, anxiety, decreased self worth, changes in eating behavior, tendency to rage, isolation, decreased communication), to spiritual symptoms (loss of faith, decreased sense of connection, loss of things that give pleasure or meaning in life).
Question: Has there been an increase in the past few years on adolescent stress?
Dr. Roca: There seems to be an increase in adolescent stress. We think this is due to a combination of increasing stressors and decreased coping skills. The increased triggers include overscheduling, increased pressure to perfectionism, increased expectation regarding the amount of information that needs to be learned, increased focus on testing, increased requirements and competition for college admission, increased bullying, and depersonalization through internet communication. Decreased coping skills are due to decreased family time, decreased communication with respected elders, poor nutrition, decreased exercise, decreased sleep, increased exposure to television and the Internet.
Our stress responsiveness is most often predicted by the responses to stress that our parents show. We adopt our parents’ view of the world and their way of coping with things that don’t fit their world view.
Keep in mind that just because a person is busy doesn’t mean they will have the bad kind of stress. Sometimes stress can encourage a person to discover previously unknown capacity and skills. Stress can actually make us better at coping with life. However this doesn’t always happen and it’s very easy to develop the negative symptoms of stress.
I often say that a perfectionist is a workaholic in training.
Question: What are some methods of coping with stress?
Dr. Roca: There are three components to coping with stress:
- Redefining the circumstance so that it is no longer stressful. For example, changing your self-expectation from getting an A+ to doing the best you can, or from expecting to go to Harvard to applying to schools that are the best match for your personality and your career goals. By the way, it’s okay to not have your entire life planned out at this stage. The only way we grow is through trial and error. Perfectionists rarely grow because they rarely allow themselves to fail. Very often when they fail, they fall apart because they have no way of coping with anything less than perfection.
- Once stress gets into the body exercise is the best way to get it out of the body. Aerobic exercise usually works well. Yoga is an excellent stress management tool.
- In order to reduce the likelihood that stress even arises, it is imperative to create stress management skills. These skills increase our overall relaxation capacity. Imagine living in the zone just as an athlete reaches “the zone” during times of peak performance. Some relaxation techniques include yoga, deep abdominal breathing, prayer, meditation, journaling, guided imagery, walking in nature, listening to relaxing music, biofeedback, acupuncture and hypnotherapy.
Question: Do you think that stress can be avoided?
Dr. Roca: Absolutely. No one and nothing can make you feel stressed. Stress is our natural response to our interpretation of the world. We are hard wired to avoid what we think will kill us. Now we spend a lot of time defining harmless things as things that will threaten our existence. Changing how we think is our best protection from stress. The best second option is to enhance the ability to be relaxed.
Question: How can you reduce your risks of being affected by stress?
Dr. Roca: In addition to what we have been discussing, perhaps try these suggestions:
- Have dinner every night with your family
- Spend more time with friends in person and talk about things that mean something important to you (NOT gossip)
- Participate in activities that are meaningful to you (Stress arises not from overscheduling overall, but rather from overscheduling things that are perceived as something you should do rather than things you want to do.)
- Get a good 7 hours of sleep a night
- Eat nutritious food
- Exercise every day
- Begin a relaxation practice
- Begin each day with a list of things and people you are grateful for
- Spread kindness and consideration every day
- Don’t stand by when bullying occurs (electronic or in-person). Do something.