Recognizing and Reducing Anxiety and Stress in The Teenage Brain

By Christine Rubin, School Counselor

Today’s teens are under a lot of pressure. What do teens do with all of this stress and anxiety and how can we help?

It is no secret that today’s adolescents are under a lot of stress. They are trying to maintain high expectations, handle social pressure from friends, navigate social media and grow up and develop a sense of identity during a global pandemic, to name a few. You might say that the teenage brain is almost hard wired for anxiety due to the rapid development of the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in emotional expression compared to the slower development of the  parts of the brain responsible for decision-making and reasoning. When students are under chronic anxiety or stress, their “survival brain” responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze response to threatening situations is activated, causing adolescents to retreat or to feel on edge and unable to focus in class or at home. 

What do teens do with all of this stress and anxiety? Well, of course, they try to manage it the best way they can. This can lead to the development of unhealthy coping mechanisms such as increased screen time, lack of sleep, avoidance of responsibilities, and even drug and alcohol use. One of the most important things I coach my students on is the importance of finding healthy coping mechanisms to manage anxieties and stressors. We work to name the feeling and recognize that some amount of stress is actually a good thing and can even serve as a motivator to turn in assignments or perform to the best of our ability. However, there are signs to be aware of when stress becomes too much to handle. Likely, your teen may not communicate outright that they are stressed or unsure of how to handle things. Below are some signs to watch for that I often notice with students.

  1. New headaches or stomach aches (medical diagnosis ruled out)
  2. Trouble falling/staying asleep or sleeping much more than usual
  3. Change in academic performance 
  4. More irritable than usual
  5. Changes in social life (not wanting to be around peers as much and isolating oneself)
  6. Changes in behavior (avoiding class/school) 

As supportive adults, what can we do to help teens foster resilience and encourage healthier ways to cope with stress? Listed here some healthy coping skills that any adolescent can use during times of increased stress or anxiety:
  1. Breathing deeply and visualizing a calm place
  2. Journaling
  3. Exercise, like taking a walk outside
  4. Talking to a friend
  5. Watching a funny video
  6. Listening to music
  7. Limiting screen time
  8. Meditation
  9. Drinking enough water
  10. Getting enough sleep

This list does not encompass all coping strategies, and I encourage you to talk to your students about the best ways they can care for themselves. These coping skills can help during periods of  increased stress, but are even more critical during times when they are not feeling stressed so that they can practice these strategies. 

It is important to remember that we can be the source of strength and light for someone who may be struggling, as we all need that one steady and safe person in which to confide. If your student’s stress seems to interfere with their daily life and you suspect they may need a bit more support, please reach out to your pediatrician to rule out any physical health issues and discuss potential treatment options or counseling. 

For additional information on this topic, please visit the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.