By Beth Proudfoot, LMFT
One helpful way to look at stress is to think of it as a buildup in your body of the chemicals your brain puts out every time you have to make a decision or have any kind of emotion (but especially the negative ones like fear, anger, jealousy, sadness). Even answering a text puts out a little jolt of these "stress hormones." Problems arise when the level of these chemicals in your body reach high levels. So, most strategies for managing stress are all about lowering the level of stress hormones in your body. Here are a few:
1. Exercise. Stress hormones build up in your muscles, and exercise lets them go. To keep your general stress level low, exercise in a repetitive way (like jogging, hiking, or swimming) at the same time every day. If you just need to be able to relax so you can focus on your homework, a little bit of exercise can do the trick. Jog around the block with the dog, shoot baskets in the driveway, or walk up and down the stairs 5 or 6 times before you sit down with the books. A small amount of exercise is good for insomnia, too. Try 10 windmills, 10 situps, 10 leg-raises and then lay down to sleep. Don't do too much, though! Exercise can also wake you up.
2. Relax. Meditation is an amazing antidote for stress. I recommend the yoga breath meditation you can learn from the Art of Living Foundation (www.artofliving.org). They have classes specifically for teens and young adults. To deeply relax, you can also take a hot bath, or sit in nature and just listen to the birds. For lowering your stress in general, finding some way to deeply relax for about 20 minutes at the same time every day works best. To increase your focus, or calm anxiety on a stressful day, try sitting in a quiet place and bringing your attention to your breath. You don't have to change your breathing, just notice it as it goes in and out for a few minutes.
Many teens use video games, texting or other "screen time" to relax...unfortunately, these activities actually add to the level of stress hormones in your body. Sorry! Music can be helpful, but not if you're trying to do two things at once. So, lay down and listen to quiet music, then turn it off before you try to focus on something else.
3. Laugh. A big belly laugh is one of the best things you can do for stress. Laughter makes your immune system more efficient, lights up your whole brain, helps you to learn more, even improves your heart and lungs. So, if you can't help going to your computer before you hit the books, make your last stop U-Tube for some funny videos.
One of the cool things that all of the mind-body research has shown is that having a sense of humor is an essential life skill for both reducing stress and making friends. So, if you're worried about something, or something bad has happened to you, try to take a step back and see if you can tell a funny story about it.
4. Stay in gratitude. Gratitude is the positive emotion which can't live in the same space as anger, grief, or fear. So, if your negative emotions are triggering negative thoughts...which trigger your stress hormone response and make things even worse...try interjecting some gratitude. Think of what you're really grateful for. Picture it in your mind and try to bring in all of your senses. You'll find the negative emotion can't compete. One great exercise to reduce your general stress level is to write down 5 things you're grateful for every night before you go to sleep. There have been many studies on this, and it turns out that it's one of the best things you can do for your stress, your relationships, and your life in general!