Managing stress: Teens have a lot on their minds

Four juniors studying in the Joel Barlow High School media center. — Carrie Twersky photo

High school is among the most stressful times of life, but is it the school that is to blame for these pressure-filled years? And what are the effects of all this stress?

If you ask almost any student at Joel Barlow High School, they will say that they are stressed. Yes, Barlow is a good school with high expectations and kids who work hard, but it cannot take the blame for all the anxiety.

“It’s school, it’s family, it’s friends, it’s everything,” said Dale Barcham, one of Barlow’s school psychologists.

Between school, college planning and the recent events in the world, it is impressive that these kids can go to school everyday and get their work done, she said. Teens have a lot on their mind, and while schoolwork should always be one of their top priorities, sometimes it takes a back seat.

“Right now with the way that the world is financially, a lot of the families are not doing as well as they used to, and kids are worried about that,” Ms. Barcham said.

While students have a lot of pressure they have to deal with, they realize that school is not the only source of it.

Sammy Riccio, a junior from Redding, feels that she can sometimes be the source of her stress.

“I start to make things more stressful than I have to,” she said. “I start to worry about college and my future, things that I don’t need to be thinking about at this moment, and it just adds more stress to my day.”

Alyssa Lyon agrees. “I would say most of the stress I have comes from myself. I put a lot of pressure on myself in terms of grades and schoolwork. I also took on a lot of things this year like a job and volunteer work and more tennis practices, so that adds to it.”

Alyssa is a junior from Easton, who, like a lot of Barlow juniors, is piling on the extra-curricular activities. And she is not alone. Students feel the need to increase their volunteering, leadership, sports, anything to impress the colleges.

And of course it all adds a lot of stress. Many juniors feel the pressure mounting as they begin to prepare for standardized tests and college tours. As students start to look at the standards for colleges, they see the level that they should be achieving.

A junior from Redding explained, “There is a lot of pressure to impress the colleges you may be interested in applying to.” Students are no longer working to impress themselves or their parents; now they have to compete with millions of other students around the country.

Early worrying

Though the college process does not really begin until junior year, some are getting a head start.

To Mrs. Barcham, it just does not make sense. “I have had kids come in here the summer before ninth grade worrying about where they are going to college,” she said. “That makes me, as a mental health professional, sad. Try to enjoy high school. You will go to the college that you are meant to go to.”

Students today are so fixated on the future it is hard for them to enjoy the present, or deal with the present, because while the future does have its pressures there are enough in the present.

“We have kids who come and fall apart in here everyday. The stress is just too much for them,” explains Mrs. Barcham, and she is not the only one who sees this. Jordan Pinksy, AP psychology teacher, is all too familiar with the emotional breakdown of students.

“I’ve never gone through a March or April in my teaching career where there weren’t students crying the hallways. … It’s a big buildup,” he said.

Mr. Pinsky is very familiar with the causes and effects of stress as he teaches a chapter on it to his classes. “It’s a sad unit in the sense that we identify problems and we identify solutions, but most people, for the most part, say, ‘I still can’t avoid it.’”

And maybe that’s the problem. While students have their little tricks for calming their nerves, when they are done taking a bath or chatting with friends, the pressure is still there.

“When I am stressed, I listen to music or I watch a movie, but when I am finished, the stress is still there,” explains Sammy. “The only real way to get rid of it is by finishing the assignment or addressing the issue.”

But even sometimes that does not help. If you get through high school and you make it into the college of your dreams, the stress does not end. In that way, high school helps to prepare for the real world, where the pressure can get even more intense.

Learning to manage stress

So maybe it is not so horrible to have some stress in high school, to prepare for later.

“Having some stress, learning how to deal with it, and learning how you can plan your life can be a good thing,” according to Mrs. Barcham. High school is the best time to prepare yourself because “you’re in a protective environment.”

Mr. Pinsky also finds that small doses of stress can, in fact, be beneficial.

“It is very stimulating and it gets [students] motivated. Not all stress is bad. It is chronic and repeated stress that can be harmful,” but just a little can prepare and prompt, he said.

Of course, you cannot have stress without consequences. Chronic stress can lead to many serious problems.

“It can change your neural networks, the way your brain is organized. It will impact potentially your diet. It can make you more susceptible to various physical ailments,” explains Mr. Pinksy. “Stress doesn’t directly cause particular things, but it makes you more susceptible to those things.” And the list is long. Chronic stress has been shown to lead to heart disease, ulcers, even reproductive problems.

So how are high schoolers supposed to deal with the stress? Henry DelAngelo, one of Barlow’s guidance counselors, believes it is important to prioritize.

“I think they have to take a second and step back and look at what is that going to yield. Is it a B+ over a B, and having all of that anxiety, was it really worth it? You have to look at the big picture.”

And there is always a good nap.

“Solution number 1 in the AP psychology class is consistent rest and sleep. … If you do a survey of seniors in high school and the amount of sleep they get, it is a very small percentage of people that get an appropriate amount of sleep,” explains Mr. Pinksy.  “Proper diet and regular exercise would be the big three and then it goes on from there.”

Students in high school have a lot of things to deal with, whether it is the whole college process, issues with their parents, or themselves. While stress can be dangerous if it gets excessive, it is important that students learn how to cope, both for their time in high school and for the future.

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