Our nation is filled with stressed out teenagers. Did you know that anxiety affects about 1 in 8 youth? According to the American Psychological Association's 2010 Stress in America survey, nearly 1/3 of children reported experiencing physical symptoms that are frequently associated with stress and anxiety. What's more concerning is that teens are experiencing anxiety levels that mirror or extend beyond the level adults report. It's true, during a school year, teens actually report stress levels higher than those reported by adults. What is contributing to such high levels of youth stress?
Take a look at what these teens have to go through in any given day and you'll begin to understand what's going on in their lives. From school to home, teens can’t seem to escape their chaotic schedules.
Ask any teen what their top five stressors are and you'll probably hear:
- School work
- Romantic relationships
Are teens resorting to substances to help self-medicate or take the edge off of their anxiety? If so, it is a dangerous decision that comes with long-term consequences.
With the go-go-go and race to the top mentality, it’s no wonder today’s teens are more stressed than their parents! Unfortunately, many teens (as well as adults) lack the coping skills to deal with the amount of stress they face. As a result, many may resort to substance use to help them cope. Could stress be a factor in the 23.9 million Americans aged 12 or older who report being illicit drug users? Are teens resorting to substances to help self-medicate or take the edge off of their anxiety? If so, it is a dangerous decision that comes with long-term consequences.
According to a survey 39 percent of high school seniors reported drinking alcohol, almost 23 percent reported using marijuana, and 16 percent reported smoking cigarettes. And let’s not forget the growing concern of non-medical prescription drugs. Teen use of non-medical prescription medication remains a major problem. In 2013, 15 percent of high school seniors reported using a non-medical prescription drug in the past year. It’s concerning that many of our youth may be turning to substances as a means to cope with life stressors.
Stimulants are another drug that a vast majority of teens are using; particularly caffeine. With caffeine consumption at an all time high, coffee houses and companies offering high energy supplements and beverages are cashing in the big bucks. The National Coffee Association reports that youth under the legal drinking age are one of the fastest-growing populations of coffee drinkers in the nation. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends teens consuming 100mg or less per day, but some of the high energy drinks on the market can contain up to double or triple that amount.
In 2013, 15 percent of high school seniors reported using a non-medical prescription drug in the past year.
How do we help our teens reduce their levels of stress and ward off potential substance use? Well, the answer doesn’t come from any academician nor scholarly source. The answer is as simple as going back to the basics.
3 Suggestions for De-stressing Your Teen:
- Basic #1 - Nutrition: The body needs fuel to survive. Our fuel comes in the form of nutrition. Bad fuel leads to poor performance. Research shows that when teens are stressed they often opt for ease and convenience which often translates to unhealthy foods. In looking at obesity statistics, our teens are unhealthier today than ever before. According to the Center for Disease Control, obesity affects approximately 17 percent (12.5 million) of all children and adolescents in the U.S. That's triple the rate from just one generation ago! Consequently, some foods and beverages can actually contribute to and exacerbate anxiety and stress levels i.e., caffeine, refined sugar, calcium, magnesium, and alcohol.On the flip side, no fuel is bad fuel. Some teens don’t eat at all when they’re stressed. According to APA approximately 23 percent of teens report skipping a meal in the past month because of stress. Equally concerning is that 39 percent admit to doing it weekly. These bad dietary habits can hurt a young and developing body.
- Basic #2 - Sleep: Sleep is another great way to counteract anxiety and stress. Sleep helps calm the nerves by putting the body in a meditative state all while relaxing and clearing the mind. Unfortunately, teens aren't getting enough sleep and report sleeping less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.25 hours (National Sleep Foundation). In reality they are snoozing an average 7.4 hours on school nights and 8.1 hours on non-school nights. About 18 percent of teens report that when they do not get enough sleep, they are more stressed and 36 percent say they feel tired because they are stressed. So bottom line, if you want to unwind, get some ZZZ time.It is concerning that teens are interrupting their sleep patterns in order to feel academically successful.
On a personal note, I have had overachieving, highly stressed teens share with me their sleep regimen. Many consisted of studying for a few hours, going to bed for a few hours, waking up and studying again. They said it was the only way they could meet their academic demands. It is concerning that teens are interrupting their sleep patterns in order to feel academically successful. What’s even more troubling is that these teens may be setting themselves up for a lifetime of unhealthy sleep habits.
- Basic #3 - Exercise: Exercise has so many great benefits, such as it improves your mood, gives you more energy, and helps decrease stress. With benefits like those, it’s a mystery why so many people report that they don’t do it regularly. In fact, a survey found that 1 in 5 teens (20 percent) report exercising less than once a week or not at all.What do stressed out teens do to calm their nerves? According to research, nothing physical, that’s for sure. When teens were polled about how they cope with stress, their response was that they listen to music, play electronic games, or watch TV. Teens who report high stress during the past school year say they spend an average of 3.2 hours online a day, compared with 2 hours among those reporting low stress levels during the past school year. According to the American Psychological Association, using sedentary behaviors to cope with life stress can lead to serious health problems.
So in summary, with all that teens have on their plates it’s not surprising that they are stressed to the max. In order to help this young population we have to go back-to-basics: Nutrition, Sleep and Exercise. Without these key elements we are fighting a losing battle in helping today's teens unwind and de-stress.
American Psychological Association; American Psychological Association; National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Coffee Association; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration; The National Sleep Foundation; The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
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