The Effects of Stress on High School Students
High school, under the best of circumstances, is stressful. For high school-aged teens, there is a lot to process and a hectic schedule to juggle. These are the years when academics suddenly become a focus. Other things, such as high school sports, extracurricular activities, college applications, the SATs, and new (exciting) romantic relationships, all add to the stress felt by most teens through the entirety of their academic careers.
In addition to the everyday stressors felt by most teenagers as they try to maintain the ideal school-life balance, statistics show that as many as one in five (or twenty percent) of teens in the United States will show signs of a mental health disorder at some time during their high school years. Although some of these mental health issues may show up early, it is more common for them to become more noticeable during the teen years and exacerbate the stressors teens face each day.
What is Stress on High School Students?
Stress is most commonly a response to an external event (or cause), such as arguing with a significant other or a deadline at work or school. These emotions typically subside once the situation has been resolved. Stressors are a demand put on your brain or your physical body due to an external factor. Because an external event or stimulus causes stress, confronting these situations head-on can help alleviate them. On the other hand, if you find you are experiencing prolonged or chronic stress, it may be beneficial to seek an alternate way to help alleviate your symptoms.
High School Student Stress Statistics
We all know adults experience stress. There are many events and situations in the lives of many adults that cause emotional challenges. What many do not realize is that teens experience significant and sometimes overwhelming stress as well. Today’s teens face higher levels of stress than generations past. Studies on teen stress and the harmful effects of chronic untreated stress on teen health suggest that many of today’s teens face higher stress levels than adults.
Recent data from the American Psychological Association shows teens in high school statistically experience more daily stressors than many of the adults in their lives. This is especially true during the school year. Data from the survey of teens indicated high school students report stress levels of 6 on a 10-point scale during the academic (school) year. Sadly, stress levels do not decline at the rate most would expect during the summer or vacation months. Throughout these times, when academic stressors are reduced, high school students struggle with different but equally complex stressors. During the summer, teens report stress levels of 4.6 on the same 10-point scale.
Many high school teens surveyed report stress profoundly and negatively influenced their physical and emotional health. The same survey from the American Psychological Association suggested high school teens reported feeling depressed (30%) or overwhelmed (31%) due to day-to-day life stressors. More than 1/3 of teens report feeling tired and excessive fatigue, and nearly 25% report skipping meals due to stress. For many reasons, including stigma and fear of how adults will react, teens are more likely to underreport the impact stress has on their physical and emotional health, meaning many of the above statistics underrepresent the true impact of unmanaged stress on high school students.
When to Consider Seeking Help?
It is essential for parents and guardians to understand the difference between standard, everyday teen stress and the kind of stress you need to be worried about. If you notice (or your teen vocalizes) a change in their typical behavior or feelings, it may be time to consider a conversation with a mental health provider at Beachside. Changes in behavior can vary from minor to significant and include mood or behavior changes. Typical examples may consist of sleeplessness or excessive sleep, appetite or weight changes, declining interest in social activities, reduced energy, failing grades, or periods of extreme anger or sadness.
Understanding and being aware of changes in your teen’s behavior may help to reduce the chances of more significant adverse emotional or physical side effects of their mental health disorder. If mental health concerns are allowed to go unchecked for too long, it can result in debilitating physical and emotional symptoms, further impacting your high schooler. Also, they could experience medical side effects that require medical intervention or hospitalization. The earlier treatment is sought, the more effective therapeutic interventions will be. In addition, early treatment will likely reduce the time required in treatment or therapy, limiting the disruption to your teen’s academic and social activities.
Teen Stress Psychotherapy
As a parent, it is challenging to watch your high school-aged teen (or child of any age) struggle with the daily stressors they face. However, in most cases, parents understand this is part of the required “growing pains” that all adolescents and teens must experience on the road to becoming the best versions of themselves. Unfortunately, chronic stressors are a much more significant bump in the road for some teens that require additional help and intervention to get over.
The first (and best) thing a parent can do is support their teen by actively listening to their challenges and concerns. Your teen may not always express their needs audibly. Sometimes, listening means watching and noticing changes in your teen’s behavior. If your teen is generally outgoing and social but has recently become withdrawn and seems to be avoiding those things that once provided pleasure, it may be time to talk to a medical professional.
It is also essential to accept and validate your teen’s feelings. Although you may feel their perceived stressors are mild, they may not be so for them. It is unhealthy (and counterproductive) for parents to try to talk their teens out of their feelings or explain why they are not accurate or are “nothing to stress about.” Not only will this likely end the current conversation, but it will also limit future productive conversations about other (potentially life-changing) topics.
Reassure your teen that emotions are ok to feel and offer to be there to talk if they want to. Also, understand they may not feel comfortable opening up to a parental figure. Under these circumstances, provide them a different outlet for their concerns, such as a teacher, medical provider, or mental health practitioner. Regardless of who they talk to, it is vital they feel safe, supported, and as though they can trust the person.
If your high school student experiences overwhelming stress on a regular or chronic basis, it may be time to consider seeking treatment. Without relief or reprieve, long-term stress can result in significant physical and emotional challenges for your teen. There are many treatment alternatives and levels of care available at a teen-focused treatment center like Beachside. Depending on your teen’s needs, possible care options range from outpatient therapy to residential or inpatient care programs.
If you are worried about stress and your teen, reach out to their primary care provider to discuss their symptoms. Their provider may provide a referral to a mental health treatment program where your teen can learn more about safely managing stressors. During therapy sessions, whether outpatient or residential, their provider may use a psychotherapy technique known as talk therapy to support your teen as they work through stressful emotions.
Two popular forms of psychotherapy used in programs that address stress and stress management are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a popular and effective therapeutic technique used for managing stress (and the underlying symptoms of many mental health conditions). This type of treatment teaches your teen to recognize anxious thoughts and behaviors that result in harmful or unhelpful reactions. Cognitive-behavioral therapy aims to help your teen examine and then exchange harmful or destructive thoughts for beneficial or positive ones that are less likely to produce the symptoms of stress-related disorders. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can be used in individual therapy sessions or in a residential program here at Beachside.
Exposure therapy and systematic desensitization can help treat phobias and excessive fears that can lead to chronic stress conditions or traumatic stress disorders. These evidence-based, proven effective therapy models involve gradually exposing your teen to triggering stimuli (such as those people, events, or situations that are known to produce stress) in slow, incremental steps. Eventually, the goal of exposure therapy is to expose the participant to the feared stimuli enough, so the fear resolves, and the situation is no longer viewed as stressful.
Depending on the severity of your teen’s symptoms and how they impact their treatment journey, their provider may also recommend medications to help reduce symptoms related to stress, such as anxiety and depression. There are several FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approved medications on the market used for this purpose. These may include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as sertraline (Zoloft) or paroxetine (Paxil). Sometimes their provider may prescribe anti-anxiety medications (benzodiazepines) such as diazepam (Ativan) or lorazepam (Valium). Due to the addictive nature of benzodiazepine drugs, these medications are generally used on a short-term basis to reduce the risk of addiction.
Stress and anxiety are interrelated.
If you find your high school student struggles to cope with stress symptoms, it may be time to consider a treatment program like ours at Beachside. Long-term, untreated stress can lead to harmful physical effects on your teen’s body systems and overall emotional health. At Beachside, we will design a treatment plan centered around your teen’s health and specific needs. We can help them learn more about the root causes of stress and learn how to manage both stressful situations and associated symptoms. Contact your support team at Beachside today for more information about our teen-focused treatment center and to learn more about how our programs can help your teen and family.