A recent study suggests that increased levels of stress among teenagers is not only similar to that of adults but has also led to modification of behavior, including impacts on their physical and mental health.
According to a 2013 American Psychological Association survey, 30 percent of teenagers report feeling depressed or sad due to stress.
CHS student support counselor Lauren Capano explains what defines the point at which normal stress becomes unhealthy.
“Any time [stress] interferes with normal functioning is when it’s an issue,” Capano clarifies.
In the same APA study, stress levels of students were higher than those of adults during the school year, and the study suggests that the behaviors of teenagers and adults alike are affected by high stress levels.
APA CEO and executive vice president Norman B. Anderson, Ph.D., states in a press release, “It is alarming that the teen stress experience is so similar to that of adults.” Effects of stress include mental and physical responses such as changes in biological functions like eating and sleeping habits as well as triggering mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.
One CHS senior who suffers from chronic depression notes that though she experiences depression all year, while school is in session, her symptoms are considerably worse in part due to the stress under which she is put.
“It is like an ever-present pressure,” she says of her stress-aggravated depression.
Because of that pressure, she has also suffers from anxiety and physical symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches and erratic sleep patterns, or having difficulty getting to sleep and then waking up early.
During her most trying times, the only thing that pushed her to continue despite the pressure were her plans for the future.
“I am putting myself through this hell now, so I can do what I love when I am older,” she remarks.
Within CUSD the percentage of students who report experiencing “sad or hopeless feelings” within the past 12 months increase between 9th and 11th grade, as reported in the 2014-2015 Healthy Kids Survey; however, there is no specified cause.
Though the percent of students who report such feelings jump from 18 percent to 32 percent between 9th and 11th grade—an unsurprising rise considering the workload—the breakdown of gender exhibits a great disparity.
Female students report experiencing sad and hopeless feelings twice as often as male students, as seen in the graph, which leads not to the idea that females experience sadness and hopelessness more often but that males tend not to report having such feelings.
“In general, females are more willing to come in and talk and share emotions, while men still have this idea that they have to be tough,” Capano adds.
However, it is not just gender stereotypes that make stress-related symptoms difficult to speak about. AIM for Mental Health founder Susan Stilwell remarks that one in five of the nation’s youth suffers from some type of mental disorder, yet it is a silent epidemic because of the social stigma surrounding it.
“People with mental challenges and their families usually suffer in silence,” Stilwell comments.
Health teacher Matt Borek echoes Stilwell by reflecting that the brain is perhaps the most complex thing in the world, but because it is not visible, people tend not to focus on the mind’s health as much as they might the body.
Looking at the origins of stress, Borek explains that hormones like norepinephrine and adrenaline trigger the fight or flight response, which is used as a survival mechanism. When there is a threat, our bodies respond by recognizing that it is a stressful situation. Yet now, the mechanism that is meant to save us is putting our health in danger.
“What happens in school or a job or whatever it is that gives you stressful episodes on a daily basis is that you are releasing a chemical that increases heart rate, blood pressure,” Borek describes. “All those are physiological symptoms that over the long-run cause serious health issues.”
The intensity of stress varies for every student from having a minimal amount that might cause little to no disruption in their typical behavior to having an abundant amount that can trigger mental disorders or changes in biological functions, but many students hold their workloads responsible for any school-related stress.
Students indicate that the amount of homework, and the quality expected, coupled with extracurricular activities can lead to increased levels of stress. Senior Kent Burns, who is actively involved in extracurricular activities like dance and drama productions, repines that CHS does not grasp how much time those activities can take.
Attempting to balance his school work with his non-academic passions leads to increased stress levels and unhealthy responses.
“My health is always on the backburner,” Burns continues. “I am being honest when I say that, and that is terribly sad.”
However, homework is not the only source of stress. For senior Marie Rogers it was from the college application process that she occasionally experienced symptoms associated with anxiety, describing it as “your whole chest [feeling] like it’s being compressed.”
According to a psychiatric RN from a local community hospital, many of their patients suffering from stress-related mental disorders are young college-age adults living away from home for the first time, away from their support system, revealing that high school is not the epicenter of stress for young persons, but simply the first in a long line of stressful environments to come.
Though the college application process is over for Rogers, for juniors the stress is just beginning. Junior Sara Phillips admits that a major source of her stress comes from just thinking about college, knowing that part of her future will be affected by her current choices.
Yet the pressure of school that typically affects others in the negative is a positive outlet for Phillips.
“As someone who has dealt with depression and anxiety in the past,” Phillips relates, “I think that sometimes school stress, for me, counteracts the problems that I already have…. It is a different type of stress that I can handle better.”
How can students reduce their mounting stress? Everyone is different, but common methods include exercise, time management, eating right, keeping situations in perspective and breathing exercises, but perhaps the best way is to speak to someone.
The senior who suffers from depression urges, “Even if it’s just a friend, you feel better when you talk about it.”