Stress & How to Lower It

Young women's version of this guide

You know when you’re stressed out – your body feels tired and your thoughts are spinning. It can also help to know why your body reacts that way, and what you can do about it. Our bodies are designed to handle calm situations, and also exciting or dangerous ones. When you’re in the middle of something scary or challenging, your body gets into a mode that’s better for handling the situation. This is a state of high energy and sharp senses, such as the way you feel when you’re playing a fun sport or doing really well on a test. However, when the situation turns into more than you can handle, that’s when you start to feel the effects of stress. It’s as if your body is shouting “Do something!”, and your brain is shouting back “I don’t know what to do!”

What is stress?

When you’re stressed, you feel changes in your body and your mind. Your heart beats faster, your blood pressure may go up, and your face may get flushed. Your muscles may tighten up, or you might feel anxious. You may feel rushed and confused, or forget things and you may feel sick to your stomach. You might also be irritable, and get into arguments with your family and friends.

What causes stress in our lives?

We live in an interesting, but also fast-paced world. There are lots of sources of stress, including:

  • Homework and projects at school
  • Family tension as you try to be more independent from your parents
  • Pressure from friends to do risky things
  • Tension with your boyfriend or girlfriend
  • Difficult people in your life
  • Upsetting news about disasters, war, or personal tragedy
  • Media messages that lower your self-esteem
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Chronic illness

What are the effects of stress?

A certain amount of stress is okay if it helps to motivate you to deal with a short term problem. For example; if you’re stressed about writing a paper for school, and your stress causes you to ask your teacher for advice, and you finish the paper, then your stress has done its job.

In the short term, stress can:

  • Help you focus on a situation or solve a problem
  • Tire you out
  • Make you nervous or irritable

On the other hand, if you’re experiencing a lot of stress day after day, your body may start sending you warning signs that something’s really wrong. This kind of chronic stress can take a physical and mental toll on your body and mind.

Long term stress can put you at risk for health problems such as:

  • Substance abuse
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Self-Injury
  • Obesity and other eating problems
  • Digestive problems
  • Lower immunity to colds and other illnesses

These chronic problems are really your body’s way of telling you “Hey! I’m under way too much stress – something’s got to change!”

If you notice that you feel stressed just about every day, you should take some steps to (1) lessen the number of stressors in your life, and (2) try some techniques that will help you de-stress.

How can I lower my stress level?

Here are some ideas for different activities you can do to lower your stress. Pick a couple that look interesting to you, and try them out. If these ideas help you de-stress, you can include them in your daily or weekly routine. If not, you can try others on the list, or come up with a list of your own. Talk to your parents or another trusted adult about how they de-stress. They might have some good ideas you can try out.

Helpful Hint: Make a list of your favorite stress-reduction activities, and tape it where you’ll see it often, such as on the fridge, in your notebook, or on your computer screen. When you’re over-stressed, stop what you’re doing, pick one thing off the list, and do it!

Stress Reduction Activities

Simplify. You may feel like you’re not in control of everything that’s expected of you. It’s up to you to decide what you can do, and what you can’t. To help simplify your life, sit down and make a list of everything you feel you need to do. Then separate all the items on the list into these three sections:

  • These can wait
  • These should get done soon
  • Do these TODAY

If you see that there’s just too much to do TODAY, you’ll have to cut down on some activities to make your schedule more manageable.

Exercise is a great way to lower your stress. While exercising, you can focus on what you’re doing with your body, which helps free your mind from other worries. Vigorous exercise also triggers the release of chemicals in your body called endorphins, which make you feel happier and more relaxed. You don’t have to be a super-athlete to exercise. Even something as basic as walking for half an hour can help you relax and improve your mood. Or, you can sign up for a class at your local YWCA or YMCA, such as dancing, volleyball, or swimming.

Yoga, Tai Chi, & Qigong. These types of movement use stretches and poses for flexibility, strength, concentration, and relaxation. Yoga emphasizes flexibility and strength, while Tai Chi and Qigong help with concentration, balance, and patience. You can do any of these exercises in a class at your local YWCA, dance center, or at home on a towel or mat. If you’re shy about taking a class, you can borrow a DVD out of the library, or find one on YouTube and try the movements at home.

Take a Break. Sometimes your tired brain is just craving a little time off from your busy day. Stop what you’re doing, and find a quiet spot where you can put your feet up. Drink some tea (without caffeine), or take a bath. Read a book or magazine, or even watch TV. These things sound so basic, you might think, “why bother?”, but when your body is relaxed, your stress level drops.

Meditation and Prayer offer you ways to calm, focus your thoughts, and feel more positive. Meditation involves sitting still in a quiet place, focusing your thoughts on your breath or on a slow chant, and trying to be aware of what is going on in the present moment, instead of stressing about the past or freaking out about the future. With prayer you focus on feeling connected to a higher spiritual power, and on wishes and hopes you may have for yourself or people you care about. You might like to contact your local church, temple, yoga center, or Buddhist center about a prayer or meditation group. If you’re shy about attending a group, you can borrow DVDs from the library or find instructions on YouTube about different meditation and prayer techniques.

Massage can work wonders on a stressed-out body. A gentle massage can untie knotted muscles, and make you feel relaxed all over. A professional massage can be expensive, but even a simple foot-rub or shoulder-rub from a good friend can take the edge off your stress – you can check out local massage schools to see if they offer discounted services.

Journaling. If you enjoy writing, this can be a good way to de-stress. Write down what’s been happening with you on a daily basis and how you feel. By writing your thoughts and feelings down on paper, you’ll likely feel less stressed.

Have a good cry. You may know that little kids get upset easily, cry and make a fuss, and then get over it quickly. This approach can work for you too. At the end of a stressful day, if you find yourself crying to a supportive friend, family member, or to your pillow, this can help you de-stress. In our culture we often try to convince people not to cry, as if it were a sign of weakness, but that’s really not true. If crying helps you communicate your frustration, vent your stress, and get some support, then there’s nothing wrong with a good cry every now and then.

Sleep. Teens in our culture are often sleep-deprived on a daily basis, and even just a few nights in a row of not-enough-sleep can make you feel irritable and nervous. You actually need more sleep at this time in your life (about 9 hours per night) than you will as an adult. Although your school schedule and social life make it difficult, try to put sleep at the top of your priority list, right up there with eating healthy foods.

Special note: Drugs, alcohol, or binge eating are extremely harmful ways to try to de-stress. These activities may seem to make you feel better in the very short term by numbing your senses, or making you feel silly or forgetful. However, they have destructive effects on your life and your health and are not worth the temporary quick fix they might seem to provide. If you find yourself turning repeatedly to these harmful activities, it’s time to seek counseling to help you deal more positively with your stress.

What should I do if I’m dealing with extreme stress?

Sometimes the stressors in your life are very serious. Some examples of extremely stressful situations are: being in a serious accident; being the victim of a crime or sexual abuse, or experiencing violence in your family life, including daily fighting, yelling, and hitting. These serious stressors can have lasting effects on the way your body and mind handle stress, and this can set you up for mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Here are some resources for coping with extreme stress:

  • Parents or other trusted adults. If you feel that your stress is more than you can manage on your own, you should definitely seek help. Have an honest talk with a parent(s), guardian, or another trusted adult in your life. Be truthful about the stress you’re dealing with and the effect it’s having on you. Opening up to a caring adult can help you feel less alone, and that person can help you find ways to manage your stress.
  • Counseling and medication.In addition to help from family members, counseling can be a great resource. It involves meeting with a professionally-trained person; a therapist, social worker, health care provider, or religious leader. This person can help you figure out the cause of your stress, how to minimize it, and how to learn techniques for handling stress in the future. Sometimes your health care provider will prescribe medicine to help you manage the symptoms of your stress, as they work with you on ways you can make your life less stressful.

Throughout your life it’s important to be aware of the signals coming from your body and your mind. If you realize that you’re getting stressed out, remember that you can do something about it now and in the future. However, if you feel that you just can’t manage your stress or that you’re having a hard time coping with something (and it lasts for up to two weeks or more) it’s important to talk with your health care provider.

If you’re concerned about stress, here’s a tip on how to bring it up with your provider: “I’ve been feeling really stressed out lately, what can help?”.