Is life really more stressful for American teens today than it was for their parents and grandparents? Most experts say yes, it is. Compared to teenagers of 20 or 30 years ago, today’s teens are more likely to: be poor (14 million U.S. children and teens–about one in four–live in a household where income is below poverty level) … live with only one parent … be homeless or in foster care … face pressure to participate in sex, drinking, drugs, criminal activity, etc…feel “in danger” on the streets or at school…know somebody who has died violently.
We’re not saying all teens will be touched by these “stress-makers.” But chances are you recognized your life in at least one or two of them … and maybe the lives of friends in a few others, right?
In short, there’s no getting around stress. It’s coming at you from the outside world … and from inside your own head. But how well you cope with stress can make all the difference. So let’s take a look at what stress is, what stresses you, and what you can do to avoid some kinds of stress–and “handle” the stress you can’t avoid!
Did you know your body has the same reaction to “good” stress as it does to “bad” stress? Whether you’re being mugged or winning the Miss America crown, here’s what’s going on:
* First, you’re in “shock”: Your heartbeat is irregular, blood pressure falls, muscle tone is lost, and body temperature drops. You get that “sinking” feeling in your stomach.
* Then you go into “countershock” mode; your body’s reactions are reversed, and you prepare to handle the situation (whether that means defending your life … or walking down the ramp in Atlantic City!). Your body reacts to stress with an extra supply of adrenaline in the bloodstream, which speeds up your body processes. Your heart beats faster, your breath quickens, blood flows to the major muscles of your arms and legs. You’re ready for action.
The body’s response to stress is sometimes called our “fight or flight” reaction. Why? Because, psychologists say, these are the same feelings early humans experienced when they had to decide whether to “fight” or “flee” a saber-toothed tiger or other dangers. The trouble is, this kind of stress reaction doesn’t fit many modern situations, in which we may feel like fighting or fleeing but can’t really do either one.
Since we can’t fight or flee, we develop other physical responses to stress. Headaches, neck and backaches, stomach upsets, and other ailments have been linked to the stress response. And medical researchers are now saying that the negative feelings produced by some stress can eventually weaken the body’s immune system and make us more vulnerable to more serious diseases, including heart ailments and high blood pressure.
But being “under stress” isn’t always bad for us. It can push us to focus on problems, consider a variety of solutions, and take effective action–something we might not get around to doing if we weren’t under pressure.
Life in the ’90s: What, Me Worry?
No matter what you’ve seen in old movies or heard from your parents and grandparents, life for teenagers wasn’t just bobby socks and homecoming dances back in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. People had troubles then, too. But the stresses of teenage life have taken a quantum leap in recent years. Here’s just a partial list of what some of today’s teens worry about. As you read through it, circle the issues/problems that you worry about.
* Family Problems: quarrels, abuse, divorce, a parent’s remarriage, custody battles, the death of a parent or close family member, a parent drinking or using drugs, too little time with parents (On average, kids spend 40 percent less time than in 1960. …comparing your family to the mythical happy family of TV shows … money problems that involve: parents “downsized” out of jobs or working longer for lower wages…lack of extended family, support networks in the neighborhood, church, etc.
* Risky Business: the threat of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases…substance abuse, from smoking to alcohol to drugs … safety on the streets, in cars with your friends, and at school (Teenage boys are more likely to die of gunshot wounds than all natural causes combined.)…the TV view of life (focus on violence, danger, racism, extreme behavior), which adds to feelings of stress…a major personal illness or injury.
* Me, Me, Me: Personal appearance, hair, zits, weight, height, muscle tone, eye color … clothes and other stuff (from the “right” purse to the “right” car)…too much “scheduled” stuff to do (music lessons, sports, etc., and too little time to just `be’; … or too much free time with nothing much to do except zone out on TV or music… grades, school/work load, conflicts with teachers, tests, getting into college, paying for college, finding a decent job… “relationships” and sexual pressure, teen pregnancy, sexual abuse or harassment…finding a way to make a good life.
* Other Stuff That Stresses You Out: (Fill in what we’ve left out.)
Are there circles all over the list now? If so, you’re beginning to get a visual “reading” of the stress in your life.
Every morning, most of us look in the mirror and sigh: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the busiest and most hassled of all?” And we get the answer we expect: “You are!”
In fact, when you dig down deep, lots of us are sort of proud of our too-busy, beatthe-clock lives. We complain about being under “too much stress”–but we don’t think very seriously about doing something about it. In fact, most of us aren’t really sure we can do anything to reduce or avoid the negative stress in our life.
But in fact, there’s plenty we can do–starting with learning to recognize the warning signs of a stress “overload”-and learning to “re-think” our reactions to stressful situations and events.
Jenny’s after-school work with a teen drama group left he little time to catch up on home work or talk to school friends but she loved being in the plays Jenny’s mother, though, began to notice that Jenny was continually complaining of headache and a queasy stomach–and that she seemed to have more than her share of minor accidents: falling over a chair on stage and burning her hand while helping to make dinner. She decided to talk to Jenny about cutting down on her teen drama hours. “It’s just too much, trying to keep up with school, chores at home, your friends, and your drama group. You’re getting tired, and you’re under too much stress.” Jenny agreed she wouldn’t mind reducing the hours she spent with the drama group, as long as she could keep doing it.
Are you experiencing some of these warning signs? headaches, quick tears, upset stomach, muscle tightness (especially neck and back), sleeping too much/too little, irritability, constant fatigue, feelings of depression or fear, nightmares, confusion, more frequent accidents and errors, decreased ability to work or concentrate, skin problems, fingernail biting, and other nervous habits (hair pulling or twirling, leg wagging, mouth noises)…overeating/undereating, talking too much/too fast, inability to talk, a sudden turn toward reckless behavior of any kind (sex, substance abuse, driving, pranks, etc.).
If you recognize some of these symptoms, don’t just let it go. Talk to trusted friends and to adults who might be able to help: parents, grandparents, a teacher, counselor, youth minister. If life is getting to be too much for you, it’s time to make some changes.
Changing How You Think About Stress
Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, says, “How people respond to setbacks–optimistically or pessimistically–is a fairly accurate indicator of how well they will succeed in school, in sports, and in certain kinds of work.”
In his best-selling book The Optimistic Child, Seligman says that, while stressful situations are a very real part of our life, it’s our thoughts about those situations that matter most. Why? Because how we think about what’s happening creates a whole set of feelings–mainly about ourselves and whether we’re “good” or “bad,” “in control” or “hopeless,” “a winner” or a loser.”
Amber and Justin are both new students at Nolan High School. It’s only a few weeks into the school year. One afternoon after school, they each have the same experience–of walking out of the school, passing six or seven kids who are in their classes, and having nobody nod, smile, or say “Hi.” Here’s how each one reacts….
Inside Justin’s head: “No one will ever want to be friends with me here. Why would they, anyway? I’m such a loser–and I’ll always be a loser.” (He stares at his reflection in the school bus window.) “Look at that zit–and my hair’s standing up like I’m a maniac!”
Inside Amber’s head: “Great, they all think I’m a geek. Oh, not really–they’re probably just shy, too. It takes time to make new friends. I remember at my old school, new kids would come in and nobody knew what they were like or where they’d `fit in’ at first. I was on the yearbook staff at my old school–maybe getting into that here would help me make friends.”
You get the idea. Justin is a pessimist. He tends to believe that bad or unpleasant things always happen to him, that this is a permanent thing (bad stuff will just keep on happening forever)–and that it’s his fault (stuff happens because he, personally, is a loser, ugly, stupid.
In contrast, Amber sounds like a natural-born optimist. Seligman says we all have “automatic thoughts” that pop into our heads right after something stressful happens (good or bad). But we don’t necessarily have to believe those thoughts. Too often, what we say to ourselves is negative and self-hating: “I’m so stupid.” “I can’t do anything right.” “Everybody hates me.” What’s the result? You feel sad, or angry, or helpless. Pessimism, says Seligman, is a “habit of mind” that can make you miserable and make all the bad things you say to yourself come true.
Seligman and his teaching team, who work with groups of pre-teen and teenage students around the country, believe that kids can be “immunized” against pessimism by learning and using some very practical mental patterns:
ONE: Listen to your “automatic thoughts”–what you say to yourself, especially when something bad happens. Are they negative, insulting, hurtful? Being aware of all the “negative chatter” in your head is the first step toward getting rid of it!
TWO: Learn to argue with negative thinking. Instead of accepting that he hasn’t made friends because he’s a “loser,” Justin might instead make a list of evidence that supports the idea that he’s a loser–and then a list of evidence that says, “No, I’m NOT!” (“I had some good friends at my old school … Tom still calls me to come over…I’m good at thinking up fun things to do…Some guy in my geometry class asked me last week about getting together–I forgot about it, but maybe I could call him up.”) “Be like Sherlock Holmes,” says Seligman–and work to collect evidence that gives a more optimistic view of yourself and your life.
THREE: Learn to de-catastrophize your thoughts, says Seligman. Too often, we tend to let our pessimistic thoughts run away with us. If you get a Cminus on an English test, you might decide that means you’ll: never get an A in English, never make the honor roll, never get into the college you want–and by then, you can almost see yourself lying in the gutter, broke and homeless, at age 35.
When you start thinking like that, Seligman says, learn to slow down your runaway thoughts (GLOOM! DOOM! TOTAL WIPEOUT!) and learn to run through a series of questions:
1. What is the evidence for my [negative] thoughts about why this is happening?
2. What is the evidence against those “automatic” negative thoughts?
3. What are some other ways of seeing this situation? –What is the worst thing that might happen from this –What is the best thing that might happen? –What is the most likely thing to happen?
Once you’ve answered those questions, work on an “action plan” for each possibility and answer these questions:
* What one thing can I do to help stop the worst thing from happening?
* What one thing can I do to help make the best thing happen?
* What actions can I take if the most likely thing happens–actions that could improve the outcome for me and anyone else involved?
It’s not just a matter of finding a more positive way to see a situation. Seligman and many other researchers who study stress say feeling in control (feeling that you can make a difference in what happens to you) can make a huge difference in whether stress has a positive or a negative impact on your life.
Can more optimistic teenagers really change their life? Optimism doesn’t mean you have to pretend there aren’t real problems and real troubles in your own life–and in the world around you. But it means you understand that most problems have lots of causes (not just you)…that having a bad month doesn’t mean you’ll have a bad life…and that you are not helpless. You can change your thoughts and feelings about a situation, you can make choices, solve problems, make changes in your life–and you can ask for help from other people when you can’t do it alone.
Creating Community: The `Friends’ Solution
So no one told you life was gonna be this way/ Your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s D. 0. A./ It seems you’re always stuck in second gear/ When it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year, but/ I’ll be there for you….
This is part of the theme song for the hit TV series “Friends.” It’s about stress–and about the friends who can help you get past it and have fun anyway. Even if life isn’t going all that well for you, experts say that belonging to a warm, supportive community is one of the best ways to combat the negative effects of stress.
Americans are too isolated today. Long ago, people lived in close contact with pretty much the same array of several dozen friends and relatives. People knew you well. You could count on help with work, child-rearing, and other tasks. You were in constant contact with friends–instead of having only carefully scheduled lunches with them, as many adults do today.
Some groups of families are trying to get back to the village community–by sharing houses or buying homes close together. Some urban designers are building modern “villages” that put houses closer together, feature common green areas and sidewalks, and common dining, hobby, laundry, and meeting areas that make casual contacts a natural part of daily life. Well, most of us don’t live in those new villages. And chances are you don’t have a lot of control right now over whether your family moves into a close community. But the idea of a community is something you can think about–and work toward when you can. Develop close friends at school, at your church or synagogue, in the neighborhood. Talk to people who interest you. Get involved in causes and community volunteer projects. Even having one good friend–someone you’re completely “at home” with–is a start.
Is having friends a cure for too much stress? No, not a cure. But knowing you’re not alone is a major step forward in being able to take the stress life is going to hand you.
Would any of us want a life without stress? We humans “live long and prosper” when we are given challenges, goals, problems to solve. And stress? It’s part of the deal.