Stress vs. Distress: How Do You Help Your Teen Navigate a Stressful World?

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    The teen years are full of pressure, from getting good grades to excelling at sports to fitting in socially. The pandemic has brought additional challenges, including isolation, readjusting to life in the classroom, and grieving the loss of loved ones. It’s no wonder teens are experiencing negative stress-related reactions like stomachaches, headaches, and anxiety.

    With the significant stress today’s teens are facing, how do we help them cope and instill healthy approaches to stress management that will follow them into adulthood?

    What Is Good Stress and Unhealthy Stress?

    Endocrinologist Hans Selye divided stressors into two types: eustress (good) and distress (bad).

    Good stress feels manageable and makes life exciting and interesting. For teens, some examples of good stress include:

    • Working through an interesting but challenging assignment at school.
    • Going on a vacation.
    • Performing in a play or playing on a sports team.
    • Learning a new skill and taking on new responsibilities.
    • Getting involved in a new romantic relationship.

    Bad (unhealthy) stress, aka distress, is the result of perceived unmanageable pressure and can result from difficult experiences, such as:

    • Poor sleep and diet.
    • Strains in the family because of finances, conflict, or big changes.
    • Loss of a loved one.
    • Changes in school structure or activities — like a COVID shutdown.
    • Problems with friends and peer pressure.
    • Academic struggles and schoolwork load.

    Your teen may have difficulty telling the difference between good stress and unhealthy stress because both types of stress can be physically tiring, according to Steve Sawyer, senior clinical consultant at Embark Behavioral Health’s New Vision Wilderness in Wisconsin, Deschutes Wilderness Therapy in Oregon, and First Light Wilderness in Georgia. Sawyer is also a therapeutic development staff member with HeartMath Institute, a company that provides cutting-edge technology, education, and techniques for managing stress. 

    Unhealthy stress can do damage, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

    When you perceive a situation as overwhelming, it triggers the “fight, flight, or freeze response” — called sympathetic reaction — because it signals danger to the more primitive and nonrational thinking parts of the brain. Your body releases hormones like cortisol and epinephrine that increase your heart rate and blood flow because you might have to run or fight from perceived threats. You might also feel a sense of dread or an upset stomach as part of the fight, flight, or freeze response. 

    According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), high levels of stress early in life can take their toll on mental and physical health, so how do you help your teen navigate a stressful world, especially if they already seem to be struggling?

    Teach Your Teen To Be Aware of and Manage Their Stress

    “Teens need to be able to sense their emotions. And when I say sense,” Sawyer said, “they need to be able to sense those emotions in their bodies.

    “Everyone is different in their individualized needs for stress management. Some move, some rest. Some socialize and some isolate. That’s why there’s no specific equation, because everybody has different early childhood programming for individualized stress responses. Some people’s shoulders will roll forward, while some people will sit stiff and upright.”

    Chances are, you know your teen’s individual signs of stress — whether they furrow their brow or avoid eye contact. You’ve read them for years. But they may not be aware of how their body expresses their stress, both long term and in the moment. If you help them become aware of how they feel in their bodies when they’re stressed, they learn to recognize that they are, in fact, stressed, whether it’s good stress or unhealthy stress. 

    By learning how to sense their emotions in their bodies, teens can then learn to regulate their stress response. They realize their shoulders are tight and work on relaxing their muscles. Then they can challenge the thoughts that caused them to internalize their stress. This helps teens learn to filter their stress so more of it remains external, which helps them deal with it more effectively and easily.

    Regulation techniques for high-stress times

    Stress regulation is a broad topic, mostly because each teen is unique. Every temperament is different, and so are each teen’s families and life experiences. 

    How introversion and extroversion play a part in de-stressing

    According to a study, introverts and extroverts differ in how they recover from stress, with extroverts coping more actively as stress increases.

    Introverts, Sawyer said, are “internalizers.” They restore by going “within.” Part of their coping strategy is to rest or do something that gives them alone time that refills their bucket.

    With both personality types, movement helps because it connects to the lower parts of the brain and autonomic nervous system, which Sawyer noted regulates heart rate, stress, and the fight or flight response. An introvert might respond well to a quiet walk or a workout alone or with someone they’re close to, while an extrovert might appreciate something more physically and socially engaging. 

    Don’t underestimate your role in helping your teen manage stress

    When it comes to managing stress, Sawyer said it’s important to consider how many physically and emotionally healthy, reliable, and supportive adult figures teens have in their lives. Adults can have a significant impact on reducing youths’ stress and provide an important level of supervision in their lives.

    “Oftentimes, where things start to go off track for teens is they go to their friends to manage their stress, and that takes them in an unhealthy direction,” Sawyer said. “Supportive and healthy caregivers and other adults who walk through that journey side by side with them and help them unload and unpack their distress are a key variable to how they manage their stress in a healthy way.”

    Encourage your teen to use breathing techniques to regulate stress

    To help teens struggling with unhealthy stress, Sawyer likes HeartMath Institute techniques because they’re simple and based on research, with a focus on the body’s reaction to stress.

    For example, teens can use the institute’s Quick Coherence Technique to help them release stress and balance their emotions. It consists of three steps:

    • Heart focus: Shift your attention to the area of the heart or the center of your chest.
    • Heart breathing: Breathe slowly and deeply. Imagine the air entering and leaving through the heart area or the center of your chest.
    • Heart feeling: Remember a time when you felt good inside, and try to reexperience that feeling. Focus on this good feeling as you continue to breathe through the area of your heart or center of your chest.

    Maintenance techniques for when your teen isn’t stressed

    Once teens have become aware of their emotions and learned to regulate their stress response, yoga, exercise, deep breathing, and journaling are effective maintenance tools. They help your teen manage stress levels throughout their daily lives so they’re better able to manage a stressful situation when it does arise. Maintenance tools also help your child better recognize when they’re feeling good vs. unhealthy stress.

    A nutritious diet, exercise, and enough hours of sleep are all healthy ways to help teens make big changes in their physical and mental health. For example:

    • A nutritious diet should include whole, plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables, healthy proteins like fish and seafood, legumes like beans and lentils, healthy oils like olive oil, and whole grains like quinoa. Cut back on red meats, white bread, sugary sweets, and soft drinks.
    • According to from the American Academy of Pediatrics, teens should engage in aerobic exercise, which can include brisk walking, basketball, biking, swimming, in-line skating, soccer, and jogging — anything that gets their blood pumping and oxygenated. Weight training, also known as strength training or resistance training, can help teens increase their muscle strength and muscle endurance.
    • Teens ages 13-18 should get between 8-10 hours of sleep per night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Help them establish a healthy presleep routine so they are ready to sleep at a reasonable bedtime that helps them meet their sleep needs.

    Final Thoughts: Create a Safe Place Through Your Own Stress Management

    “Teaching your kid how to self-manage stress is only half the equation. Environment is the other,” Sawyer said. “Is your household a place of safety? Does the atmosphere support emotional regulation and stability?”

    Sawyer noted that one factor that pushes teens away from adults is when adults are already at their “red line” of stress. “A teen senses this, and so they’re not going to bring in more stress or talk to you about their own struggles,” he said.

    Be sure to prioritize your own self-care and well-being so you can make the home a safe place that supports everyone’s growth and health.

    About the Author

    Embark Behavioral Health

    Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit