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Teen stress is an important health issue. The early teen years are marked by rapid changes — physical, cognitive, and emotional. Young people also face changing relationships with peers, new demands at school, family tensions, and safety issues in their communities. The ways in which teens cope with these stressors can have significant short-and long-term consequences on their physical and emotional health.
What is stress? It is the body’s reaction to a challenge, which could be anything from outright physical danger to asking someone for a date or trying out for a sports team. The human body responds to stressors by activating the nervous system and specific hormones. The hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands to produce more of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol and release them into the bloodstream. The hormones speed up heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and metabolism. Blood vessels open wider to let more blood flow to large muscle groups, pupils dilate to improve vision, and the liver releases stored glucose to increase the body’s energy. This physical response to stress kicks in much more quickly in teens than in adults because the part of the brain that can calmly assess danger and call off the stress response, the pre-frontal cortex, is not fully developed in adolescence.
The stress response prepares a person to react quickly and perform well under pressure. It can help teens be on their toes and ready to rise to a challenge. The stress response can cause problems, however, when it overreacts or goes on for too long. Long-term stressful situations, like coping with a parent’s divorce or being bullied at school, can produce a lasting, low-level stress that can wear out the body’s reserves, weaken the immune system, and make an adolescent feel depleted or beleaguered.
We all experience both “good stress” and “bad stress.” Good stress is that optimal amount of stress that results in our feeling energized and motivated to do our best work. Good stress encourages us to develop effective coping strategies to deal with our challenges, which ultimately contributes to our resilience. Bad stress occurs when our coping mechanisms are overwhelmed by the stress and we do not function at our best. The same event can affect children and adults in very individual ways—one person may see a carnival ride as thrilling and another may see it as a major stressor. Stress can become distress when we are unable to cope or when we believe that we do not have the ability to meet the challenge. The solution is to adapt, change, and find methods to turn that bad stress into good stress.
Sources: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Center for Adolescent Health; National Association of School Psychologists.
This article first appeared in the April 2014 Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter supplement.