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Why teens are so stressed today

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By Tara Karanik

Senior Dana Steinwall said watching marathons of Modern Family and learning new languages are his favorite ways to de-stress.

“Before I was accepted to Cornell, my biggest fear and stressor was not getting accepted to any of the colleges I applied to because they are all very selective and very competitive,” he said.

Both Steinwall’s parents attended Cornell, and he said he felt pressure applying there: “This was their alma mater, and [I] had to do well.”

Steinwall’s situation is not unique. In an American Psychological Association survey, 83 percent of teens declared academics as a major source of stress.

Everyone, especially students, feels stress and pressure at some point or another because stress is a normal response for the body when it feels threatened or upset, according to the Healthguide.org article “Stress Symptoms, Signs and Causes.” However, it adds that the responses and causes to stress are unique to each person.

Some stress can be good for the body, and some stress can be bad. When stress and pressure motivate people to complete their goals, stress is good, the article said. Small amounts of stress keep the body alert and ready to defend and fight for itself.

However, constant stress leads to negative effects. It leads to an overproduction of stress hormones, which can cause the brain to slowly break down, leading to behavioral changes, such as moodiness and irritability, in adolescents and teenagers, according to HelpGuide.org’s “Stress Symptoms, Signs and Causes.” Negative effects include memory problems, dizziness, moodiness, nausea and nervous habits.

Junior Connor Terhaar said that stress puts him in a bad mood and causes him to isolate himself. “When I’m stressed, I go home and hide in my room. My parents and friends don’t want to be around me because I get in such bad moods,” he said.

“There are two main categories of stress: internal and external,” said French teacher Kathleen Bradley. “Internal stress is where students put pressure on themselves, whereas external stress is where an outside source puts pressure on teens.”

If the body senses a threat, it sends hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, to the body that increase the heart rate, speed and stamina and prepare the body for fight or flight.

Many different causes, or stressors, can overwhelm a teen—and teens say that one major stressor is academics. Here is an in-depth look at this and other three other common stressors–expectations, social media and poor time management–as well as ways to cope with stress.


The American Psychological Association has conducted an annual stress survey since 2007. In the 2013 APA survey, published by CBS News, teens’ answers were compared to the answers of adults. The results showed how “the vast majority of teens said school was a major source of their stress.”

Not only are teens feeling the weight from academics, so are parents. In a separate study published by National Public Radio, 40 percent of parents reported that high school academics is a major cause of stress for teens. One of the main problems parents cited was  the amount of homework assigned. According to Stanford University’s School of Education lecturer Denise Pope, more than 3 ½ hours of homework a night puts students at risk for health problems.

Sophomore Allison Abbot said she spends an average of 2 ½ hours a night doing her homework.

Abbott said academics is her biggest source of stress.  “Especially once the basketball season starts, it gets really hard to keep up with the basketball schedule, all my other schoolwork and work outside of school,” she added. Not only is Abbott a member of girls’ basketball program, she also helps coach basketball at The Village and works as a hostess at the restaurant North in Arcadia.

Steinwall had a similar opinion to Abbott. He named academics as his biggest source of stress as well. “With two parents that have a combined total of three PhDs, academics has a high standard in my house. I’ve always been worried about academics because I hold myself to a really high standard. I want myself to do really well,” he said.

Family pressure and expectations

Besides academics, another cause of teenage stress is trying to meet high expectations. These expectations can come from parents and family members or from the teens themselves.

Abbott said some of her stress comes from her parents. Both of her parents are teachers; her mom teaches first grade at Archway Classical and her dad is the dean of students and teaches 11th grade literature and composition at Scottsdale Prep Academy. “As a result,” she said, “school is really important to them, and they expect me to do well and get good grades.”

“My sister has a learning disability, but she still gets straight As. My parents expect me to be better than her and get better grades than she does,” Abbott added.

Freshman Anneleissa Lugay plays volleyball, softball, basketball and sand volleyball. She said her pressure comes from her own expectations and wanting to prove herself to her parents and coaches.

“My parents put pressure on me in everything I do, which is good when it is not excessive. Pressure drives us to achieve our goals and gives us good work ethic,” she said.

Lugay said without pressure, teens would not be motivated to achieve their goals.

Time management

Failing to manage time is another source of stress for teens, according to NDP coach and teacher Shelley Dinges.

Dinges has been coaching teenagers for 20 years, 11 of them at NDP. She has taught health, currently coaches the NDP girls’ golf and tennis teams and previously coached the soccer and basketball teams.

“There are only so many hours in the day. Teens stay up until 2 a.m. studying because they spent five hours Netflixing, and now they’re so stressed because they wasted so much of their day,” she said.

However, Dinges also said she believes activities that have strict time schedules, such as athletics, help students better manage their time because “they’re forced to.”

Society and social media

According to NDP director of instrumental music Robert Powers, social media adds a whole new layer of stress.

“It causes added stress to create a whole other world and to recreate yourself to be validated,” he said. Now there’s this added pressure to maintain relationships with people we may have never met.”

Powers also said, “Especially with teens, social media can be confused as self-validation. Worth isn’t based off of the amount of likes or the amount of followers we have; none of that really matters.”

Rebecca Strolic, Fine Arts Department chair and a mother of a teenager, said she believes social media is a major source of stress for teens. “Kids turn to social media to relieve stress because you can create a whole new person and be what you want to be,” she said.

“There’s all of this pressure to be a certain type of person, to have the right clothes and have the right car, and social media helps people become that type of image they want to be by creating a whole new persona. Society has put so much pressure on kids nowadays that we forget to just let them be kids,” Strolic added.

Psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle explored the psychology of social media in an interview with Real Simple.

She said one appeal of smartphones and social media is they offer quick and constant stimulation, “an emotional buzz.”

Turkle said, “It’s the desire to find out who wants you, not necessarily the context of the text.”

Guidance counselor Carmen Riedel stated that she believes the pressure to fit in is the root cause of stress and pressure in teenagers’ lives. “I think people are looking for acceptance and to fit in, so they do things to help themselves fit in,” she said.

While Turkle stated social media is helpful to stay in touch with long-distance friends and relatives, she also stated how the ease and anonymity of social media and new technology can be “easily abused.”

BBC News published an article titled “Does social media impact body image?” that  discusses the negative effects social media can have on a teen’s life. It said social media has made it easier to attract negative attention, causing teens to be bullied and to struggle to embrace their body image.

“The biggest issue I see with social media is people overstepping their boundaries by saying or doing things they wouldn’t say in person because there’s a sense of bravado in not seeing the person face to face,” Riedel said.

“I also see how kids feel left out and excluded because they see things on Twitter or SnapChat that they weren’t invited to,” she added.

While Terhaar said his biggest source of stress was academics, he also said society puts way too much pressure on teenagers nowadays.

“Today, people are becoming so much smarter, and it’s becoming harder to get accepted to college and to get scholarships. Even if you get accepted, it doesn’t guarantee you a job,” he said.

Terhaar said he believes teens today want instant gratification and “quick fixes.”

“If we’re hungry, we just go to the nearest drive-thru and pick up some fast food because it’s fast and easy. For immediate stress relief, people turn to drugs and alcohol because it’s accessible and fast,” he said.


The lotus flower, similar to this one, symbolizes beauty and spiritual awakening in Buddhism. Trying to be “Zen” is one way students cope with stress. (Photo/Amanda Rief)

Ways to cope

While many people experience stress, the way they cope with it is unique to each person.

For instance, in addition to watching Modern Family, Steinwall said he loves learning new languages, such as Arabic, and playing baseball to relieve stress.

Some healthy ways to cope with stress include physical activity, spirituality and music and other art forms of personal expression, according to NDP faculty and students.

  • Athletics and exercise

While athletics can add stress because of added pressure and less time to do homework, Dinges said she believes athletics also keeps students involved and create healthy lifestyles as well as help create time management skills.

“If practice is at a scheduled time, you know what you have to get done before practice, so that later you’re not so stressed when you don’t have enough time to finish your work,” Dinges said.

She added, “If you love what you’re doing and you’re doing it for you, not for anyone else, even the awful drills are worth it.”

Abbott said she likes to relieve her stress through physical activity.  She said she likes to go for a run, play basketball or any other type of physical activity.


Allison Abbott gets ready to in-bound the ball during a basketball game. (Photo/Allison Abbott)

“Physical activity clears my mind and makes me feel relaxed,” Abbott said.

The Mayo Clinic staff’s article “Stress Management” outlines all of the positive effects exercise has on the body and the direct correlation it has to reducing stress. For instance, exercise releases endorphins, which help improve a person’s mood.

“It is meditation in motion,” meaning exercise helps people forget about their bad day or their problems because they are focusing on what they are doing in the moment, the article stated.

Dinges reiterates the “Stress Management” article in that “picking an exercise you love makes it easier to work out and helps decrease stress.”

  • Spirituality and service

Some recognize that NDP’s focus on spirituality and community service help take away stress.

The school offers its upperclassmen several Kairos retreats throughout the year. These retreats are designed for the students to better know themselves, others and the Lord, according to Theology Department chair Mary Lou Lachvayder.

Lachvayder has directed two retreats and has been an adult leader for another two. “The primary focus of the retreat is being comfortable with and accepting yourself as you are. It gives students a chance to evaluate which internal and external pressures are realistic and which ones are those you aren’t created to be,” she said.

“The retreat teaches them that they aren’t going through life alone. They can rely on God and the people He puts in their lives,” Lachvayder added.


Richie Guerra poses with his Kairos 10 Group 2 at the end of the retreat.  (Photo courtesy of Richie Guerra)

Senior Richie Guerra, who has participated in three Kairos retreats, described the retreat as a chance to better know oneself.

“It gives you a different mindset to help you realize what’s truly important and what really matters to you. You can’t have a spiritual relationship if you don’t know yourself, and Kairos helps you know yourself,” he said.

While students have the choice to go on retreat, they are required to complete a certain number of hours each year in order to graduate. Service gives students the opportunity to grow and to learn, according to Lachvayder.

“Service puts things in perspective for students. It shows them that a lot of the time people have it worse than they do,” she said.

Senior Morgan Morano said she agrees with Lachvayder and has really come to love doing service for others.

“Although it sounds counter-intuitive because it takes time away from studying or doing other things, volunteering helps me with my stress,” she said.

“It helps remind me how incredibly blessed I am. Some people are struggling to survive, fleeing for their lives and living without basic needs like food and water. Yet, we still manage to complain over the simplest of things. It just helps put everything in perspective,” Morano added.

  • Music and other arts

Music and other forms of self-expression offer a different type of release than does athletics, according to Powers.

“Music is an escape. It’s about personal goals. It is self-centered; you learn it because you want to, not because there is pressure to. Parents or fans aren’t yelling at you from the stands. There’s no judgment or pressure in music,” he added.

Freshman Eddie Eberle, a member of the band Analog Outlaws, has played guitar for six years and said music has helped him to not be a stressful person.

“I’m able to express myself through songwriting and playing music,” he said.

Not only does he play guitar, but Eberle also runs track. He said, “There’s more pressure to win in track, but there’s no real pressure in music. I don’t have to win in music; I can express myself in a way I can’t in athletics.”

“There’s music for every emotion. For me, blasting music or playing a gig really loud helps me block out everything going on and everything I’m feeling,” Eberle added.

Strolic, who teaches digital photography, digital video and yearbook, said she sees teens turning to photography and other forms of self-expression for stress relief.

“There’s freedom in art. Nobody tells you what you have to do; you know what you want to draw or paint, and everyone likes their own work to some degree,” Strolic said.

liam painting

Liam O’Donoghue shares the above painting he created. O’Donoghue said he paints in his backyard to help him reduce his stress level.

Senior Liam O’Donoghue said he likes to turn to art and expression to forget about the stress in his life:  “[Painting] keeps me levelheaded and helps me forget about things that are difficult or annoying.

“If I’m having a bad day, I just go out into my backyard with a canvas and a stencil and just paint whatever I want.”

  • Avoiding unhealthy outlets

Unhealthy outlets, such as drugs and alcohol, are powerful symptoms of teenage stress, according to both Dinges and Lachvayder, who said she sees teens turning to self-deprecation and self-harm.

“More than that though, I see teens turning to faking and pretending like they’re okay when they really aren’t. They shut down and quit trying because they’re just sad,” she added.

There are many different things that cause people stress, and there are many different outlets, both healthy and unhealthy, that people turn to to cope with their stress.

Powers said his biggest advice for teenagers of today’s generation is to “Be confident in who you are. Failure is where we really learn.”

He added, “The best lessons I’ve learned are through failure because it causes you to look internally on yourself and think about your strengths and weaknesses. It makes you reflect and think ‘What do I need to do better next time to succeed?’ Learning that is where you build your character.”

Dinges said, “You will always have stress. Everyone always has stress, but it is how you learn to manage it and deal with it that will help you go further in life.”

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Why teens are so stressed today