Anxiety, sleeplessness, binge eating, acne – prolonged stress can create a litany of problems, and it is hitting teenagers harder than adults.
Teens across the nation report feeling more stressed than adults, and their stress level far exceeds what they believe is healthy, the American Psychological Association reported in a recent study.
Excessive stress is leading to sleeping less, skipping meals and neglecting exercise among many teens, researchers found.
Locally, many students are feeling overwhelmed by homework, band, theater, sports, part-time jobs, romance and family stress, said Jennifer Stucka, behavioral health provider at Durango High School.
“The pressures are just unbelievable,” Stucka said.
Sherrod Beall, a nurse practitioner, works with teens at several local high schools.
“I saw a lot of kids with so much anxiety they could barely function,” Beall said.
So, she started teaching classes to help them cope. This winter, she conducted a class outside of school.
A group of students gathered on red mats around Beall, as she asked them to put aside their day and focus on breathing deeply and quieting their mind.
“We have to be fully present to ourselves and others,” she said, during the class.
For Keifer Goodtrask-Alires, 17, learning to be more mindful helped him with test anxiety.
In math class at Bayfield High School, his thoughts would flood with questions: “Am I going to have a hard time solving this equation? Are they going to do a lot better than me? Have I gone over everything that is going to be on this test?”
For his twin, Keiston Goodtrask-Alires, focusing on his breathing helped him control his reaction to pain when he hurt himself in a basketball game.
While Bealls’ students are putting good habits into practice, many other teens are falling into habits that can exacerbate stress.
None of the students Stucka sees at the DHS clinic is getting enough sleep, and nationally, teens are sleeping on average an hour or two less than experts recommend, according to the APA.
Poor nutrition and caffeine late in the day also can contribute to a negative cycle. It’s common for stressed and sleepy DHS students to skip meals or pick up junk food at the gas station.
This leaves the body and brain undernourished, making it less prepared to handle other forms of stress, Stucka said.
A late-night energy drink can lead to another late night and another sleepy morning.
Negative thinking, or “freaking out,” can be a self-fulfilling prophecy as well.
Animas High School student, Raven Fallon, 17, used to freak out about a heavy load of homework, and she would avoid it entirely.
Beall teaches her students to be more objective about their thoughts.
“We can stand back and watch. We don’t have to analyze every thought as if the world depended on it,” she said.
Excessive time in front of a digital screen also can subtly increase stress by forcing the brain to constantly multitask.
Sucka advises her students to cut back on screen time, which none of them is happy about. But it can give the brain a break, she tells them.
While local experts agree stress is a hallmark American problem that will haunt everyone sometimes, teens can be better prepared for it.
Coping mechanisms help prevent stress turning into depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease and ulcers among many health consequences.
Breathing, exercise, positive thinking and healthy eating will combat stress in the moment and future, Stucka said.