Exams. Choosing a college. Figuring out what to do with your life.
No doubt, high school can be a high-pressure time in life. And high school students, as a result, get stressed out.
In fact, according to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2020 survey, teens who are already under stress due to the normal pressures of high school have felt even more stress in recent years, thanks to the pandemic. About 43 percent of teens surveyed in 2020 said their stress levels had gone up, and 45 percent said they had a hard time concentrating on schoolwork. Many reported feeling less motivated.
Although life has mostly returned back to normal, that doesn’t mean the stress that high school students feel has disappeared.
The typical challenges that anyone faces in high school continue as they always have, and, in some cases, have grown more complicated. Consequently, surveys suggest, many teens continue to experience a decline in mental and physical health.
If you’re in high school and stressed, we get it. In this blog, we’ll talk about what stress is, what triggers it, and how you can manage it.
What is Stress?
“Stress” is a term we use constantly in conversation, but what does it really mean?
Stress can be defined as our physical and mental responses to some external event. The event might be considered “good” like preparing to go to the prom, or bad, like feeling tense after an illness, an argument with a friend, or while preparing for an upcoming test.
The good thing about most stress is that it usually goes away once the external event causing the stress is over.
Alternatively, there is a type of stress that results more from an internal dialogue than an external event. We call this “anxiety.” It involves persistent feelings of dread or apprehension that interfere with your daily life, even after the test, the argument, or prom, are just a distant memory.
Why Are Teens So Stressed?
Simply being a teenager can be hard. Your body is changing. You may be grappling with your sexuality or gender identity. Add to that the academic demands of high school and throw in the pressures of social media, and the tension mounts.
“Some of the common triggers of stress in teens might be anxiety to perform well in academics such as getting into a good college, peer pressure, interpersonal relationships, or body image issues,” says Sakshi Khurana, Research Fellow at Harvard’s Weisz Lab for Youth Mental Health. “Other larger issues that the world is going through — for example, climate change or war— might also act as stressors for teens as they are learning about the world.”
The most common source of stress for high school students, according to the 2017 APA Stress survey, is school itself, with about 83 percent of teens identifying school as a major stressor. The second biggest source of student stress, (according to 69 percent of students), was getting into a good college or deciding what to do after high school. The third biggest teen stress was financial concerns for the family (65 percent of students).
Here’s a quick breakdown of broad categories of factors that may stress you out:
- Academics. In high school, not only are you worried about next week’s English, History or Calculus exam, but you’re also worried about applying to college and taking the SAT tests, too. It can all feel overwhelming, and you may feel pressure to please your parents and teachers.
- Social Stress. Even without the pressures of academics, life in high school can be demanding. Dealing with friends and classmates, starting new romantic relationships, handling bullies and peer pressure both online and off, can be a lot to handle.
- Family Issues. If your parents are divorcing, if your family is experiencing financial problems, or even if you just have trouble getting along with siblings, your stress levels can go up.
- Trauma. Dramatic life events ranging from a death in the family, to an accident, to emotional and physical abuse, can cause stress. Also in this category, you can include the collective trauma of such global events such as school shootings, terrorism, and natural disasters.
- Big Life Changes. Changes like moving and starting a new school can be a major stress for teens.
What are Signs of Stress in High School Students?
If you’re a high school student feeling stressed, you may not even recognize the symptoms.
In fact, many symptoms of stress might be considered normal for teens who are also dealing with natural hormonal and physical changes. For that reason, it’s important to consider whether behavioral changes can be linked in time to an external event.
Signs of stress include:
- Feeling more agitated, anxious, short-tempered, or depressed
- Getting sick more often
- Having more headaches, stomachaches, or other aches and pains
- Feeling more tired than usual
- Not being able to sleep, or sleeping too much
- Skipping meals or overeating
- Neglecting chores or hobbies
- Trouble concentrating and forgetfulness
- High blood pressure
According to the APA 2017 survey, the most common symptoms of stress among teens were insomnia, overeating or eating unhealthy foods, skipping meals, feeling angry, nervous, or anxious, feeling fatigued, and snapping at friends and classmates.
Why is Stress so Problematic for Teens?
Let’s be clear, a little bit of stress is a normal part of life, and sometimes even desirable.
Stress can act as a motivator, getting us to do things we might not otherwise. Good stress is called “eustress” and can help get you excited and energized about that first date or taking the stage in your first musical.
But too much unrelieved stress can lead to mental and physical health issues.
Your body reacts to stress by releasing a hormone called cortisol which regulates blood pressure and immune function. If you’re stressed all the time and your body produces too much cortisol, it can lower your immunity, raise your blood pressure, and impair your cognitive performance.
In teens, the part of the brain regulating the stress response is less developed than in adults, meaning that if you’re a stressed-out teen, you may experience stress longer than an adult.
“In the teen years, due to hormonal changes, stress tends to influence the emotional functioning of the brain, which in turn impacts the cognitive and executive functioning,” says Khurana.
You might not be able to sleep, you may overeat, or develop digestive, cardiovascular, or immune problems. Stress can even put you at a higher risk for developing mental illnesses like anxiety or depression.
What are the Best Techniques to Help Students Manage Stress?
Since too much stress is not a good thing for your mind or body, you should think about incorporating a few stress management techniques into your daily life.
“A few techniques that might help teens manage stress are relaxation through deep breathing, meditation, or mindfulness, channeling energy into sports or creative pursuits such as music, art, theater, and forming meaningful relationships or friendships,” says Khurana. “Additionally, every culture has its own way of enabling young people to manage stress, so drawing from those traditions might be helpful as well.”
Here are few ideas of how high school students can learn how to deal with stress at school:
- Keeping a journal
- Getting plenty of exercise
- Eating healthy, regular meals
- Making sure you get enough sleep
- Downloading an app that provides relaxation exercises (such as deep breathing or visualization) or tips for practicing mindfulness
- Limiting excess caffeine in soft drinks or coffee
- Reaching out to friends or family members who help you cope in a positive way
- Making time to do fun things
- Learning to recognize and prepare for stressful periods by doing all of the above
With so many big life decisions ahead, getting through high school happy and whole can definitely feel challenging at times. It’s easy to see why so many high school students feel stressed. The good news is that there are solutions. Adopt the strategies above, take a deep breath, and remember, it’s not forever!