The growing teen epidemic: Stress
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Why are teens so stressed?

Teens routinely say that their school-year stress levels are far higher than they think is healthy and their average reported stress exceeds that of adults, per an annual survey published by the American Psychological Association. On average, teens reported their stress level was 5.8 on 10-point scale, compared with 5.1 for adults.

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The most common reported sources of stress were school (83 percent), getting into a good college or deciding what to do after high school (69 percent), and financial concerns for their family (65 percent). In another survey on youth stress, the sources were school work (78 percent), parents (68 percent), romantic relationships (64 percent), friend problems (64 percent) and younger siblings (64 percent).

How is stress affecting them?

The APA’s Stress in America survey found that 30 percent of teens reported feeling sad or depressed because of stress and 31 percent felt overwhelmed. Another 35 percent of teens reported that stress caused them to lie awake at night and 26 percent said that they are overeating or eating unhealthy foods in the past month.

The pressures of schoolwork, family life, social life, sports or other activities, combined with a relentless media culture, result in young people being more stressed than ever before. As indicated, stress is also impacting teen’s sleep. They reported sleeping on average 7.4 on school nights and 8.1 hours on non-school nights, less than the 8 to 10 hours recommended by The National Sleep Foundation.

Teens who sleep fewer than eight hours on a school night are more likely to report experiencing symptoms of stress such as irritability, nervousness, sadness and/or feeling overwhelmed. Stress and lack of sleep increases teens’ appetite, makes them hold onto fat and interferes with their decision making regarding food. With stress, the body releases adrenaline, CRH, and cortisol.

This launches their bodies into a stress response called the “fight or flight” response. Once the adrenaline wears off, cortisol signals the body to replenish the food supply. Typically, teens don’t work off the energy it requires to deal with the stressor and they have intense urges to automatically reach for calorie dense foods to make sure that they have enough energy to cope with the next bout of stress. Overtime, this slows down their metabolism, making them prone to carry an extra layer of fat in their abdomen, which puts them at a higher risk of future heart disease and diabetes.

What can we do to help?

It’s important for teens to build adaptive coping skills, rather than maladaptive coping skills such as emotional eating or alcohol or drug use, as a means to manage their stress on a continual basis. Mechanisms to accomplish this is through exercise, engaging in mindfulness, learning social, problem-solving, and conflict resolution skills, implementing healthful eating and sleep habits, and receiving emotional support.

Securing drug policies to inhibit teens from using drugs as a means of maladaptively coping with their stress is critical. The US Health and Human Services has screening tools and a prevention campaign discouraging adolescents and teens from using and abusing drugs. National Drug Control Strategy Goals reported by the executive offices of government reported on the prevalence of drug use among 12- to 17-year-olds. Prevention is a foundational pillar of the National Drug Control Strategy and one of the Administration’s highest drug policy priorities.

The 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that an estimated 22.6 million Americans age 12 and over were current illicit drug users, including 2.5 million young people between the ages of 12-17.

Federally-supported efforts in 2012 helped to build a foundation for delivering and sustaining effective prevention services through such programs as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant, the Strategic Prevention Framework-State Incentive Grant, and the Partnerships for Success programs. Additionally, ONDCP’s Drug Free Communities (DFC) Support Program provides direct funding and technical assistance to community-based coalitions that organize to prevent youth substance use.

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), children ages six to seventeen should do an hour or more of physical activity each day.

Exercise is an effective way to manage stress, manage weight, as well as affords teens with many other health and mental health benefits, but their schedules and many other factors currently prohibit their engagement in it. Besides improving mood, decreasing anxiety, and increasing self-confidence, exercise stimulates serotonin and endorphins that leave teens feeling more positive and energetic. It also positively affects body image, the belief in one’s ability to successfully complete tasks and accomplish goals, and coping skills.

Getting teens in touch with mindfulness, meditation and stress management resources is also extremely helpful. Mindfulness and meditative practices have been proven as effective methods with kids and teens and assist with focusing and attention, executive functioning, sleep, emotional regulation, stress reduction, aggressive behavior, anxiety, and social skills/behaviors. I highly recommend Transcendental Meditation (TM), the apps “Insight Timer,” “Take a Chill,” and “Stop, Breathe, and Think,” these 10 teen meditations, and the book “The Mindful Teen” by Dr. Dzung X. Vo.

To manage sleep, parents should consider their child’s early school start time, their exorbitant amount of homework, whether they are being over scheduled, and their screen time. A stream of text messages, tweets, snapchats, Instagram messages, etc. keep many teens awake. Another factor is the light from a screen which can suppress melatonin, the hormone in the brain that signals sleep.

Teens can also work with a therapist or coach to help them identify adaptive coping strategies to manage their stress, learn social, problem-solving, and conflict resolution skills, and work on specific and manageable goals where they can readily note progress. My book Free Your Child from Overeating: A Handbook for Helping Kids and Teens. 53 Mind-Body Strategies for Lifelong Health can assist with overeating and lifelong health management.

Our teens are stressed. It’s negatively impacting them in many fundamental ways. We can’t just idly stand by as witnesses but must be proactive at creating impactful sustaining changes. We are powerful conduits in making the lives of our teens more manageable and significantly less stressful.

Dr. Michelle Maideberg is the president and clinical director of Westchester Group Works and cofounder and clinical director of Thru My Eyes Foundation. She teaches at New York University and has been quoted in The New York Times, Fitness, Glamour and Parenting. She is a regularly contributing blogger to The Huffington Post.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.