This article was co-written by former CPTC research assistants Nora Laberee, Shannon Traurig, and Amber Williams.
Stress Management for Teens: Identify and Tackle the Problem
As tweens, teens, and young adults, we hope to be able to manage stress in our lives. It doesn’t matter whether it comes in the form of new tasks to be mastered or serious obstacles to overcome. But we could all use a little help. The CPTC offers a stress management plan that includes specific strategies to problem-solve on your own or with friends and family. It’s designed to help you learn how to:
- Identify and then tackle challenges (including breaking bigger problems into manageable steps)
- Avoid obstacles whenever wise and possible
- Save energy to more efficiently tackle challenges.
This section of the stress management plan focuses on the first point listed above. These strategies prepare us to manage problems effectively. They are key to success throughout our lives.
Learn from Challenges
The challenges we face offer lifelong lessons. This is one reason we must never view the struggles we experience as unimportant.
Let’s consider two common things that often stress tweens and teens out: school and friendships. Neither are true threats to safety (generally), but both feel really important. Both offer us ways we can learn how to manage issues we’ll face as adults. What we learn from managing school prepares us for the workplace. And what we learn from friendships prepares us to be family and community members, employees, and leaders.
Identify and Assess the Problem
Take an attack-the-problem-first approach. Start by identifying the problem. It helps you think more clearly. But this can be hard to do when you’re most stressed.
In times of highest stress, it’s crucial to take some initial steps to collect your thoughts and calm yourself. It takes a focused mind to name the problem. Once the issue is identified, you can begin to problem solve.
Being overwhelmed feeds on itself. Sometimes, when we become overwhelmed by having to solve a large problem that has no easy solution, anxiety takes over. When that happens it is hard to think clearly. For example, you may be stressed for an upcoming exam. You can begin to panic because you become afraid you might fail. Then, you might spend the entire night worrying instead of getting a good night’s sleep. As a result, you enter the exam exhausted and do poorly. Your thoughts and your fears, not your actual knowledge or preparation got in your way.
Sometimes a fear of failure can become reality. Nobody can handle a situation or problem-solve when they can’t think clearly. It is critical to learn how to avoid imagining the worst — sometimes referred to as catastrophic thinking.
Catastrophic thinking exaggerates what’s stressing us out. To solve a problem, first, start by figuring out what really needs to be tackled. Then, use strategies to regain a clear mind and steady nerves — because both are needed to realistically assess a situation. Once you can focus again, you can tackle the problem.
Three Questions to Help Put Things in Perspective
There are three key questions that can put things into perspective. These questions can help you control your thinking. They give you the ability to prevent your mind from racing to the worst case scenario. They let you view the situation through a more realistic lens. The questions are, is this:
- A real threat or not?
- Problem temporary?
- Good situation permanent?
Is this a real threat or not?
The ability to handle stress begins with the ability to realize what’s really a threat. If we can’t tell the difference between a real threat and a challenge that can be overcome, our fight or flight system revs up. This prevents us from using our best resources – our ability to think, feel, and problem-solve.
The problem is that we sometimes use this amazingly efficient escape system in situations that stress us out, but that aren’t actual threats to our survival. When we do this, we lose our ability to think practically despite the fact that thinking offers the best chance of solving the problem.
For example, if you think a B+ on a test is a real, harmful threat, you’ll never focus on the test. You can question, “Is this a real threat, or not?” Asking this question helps you see that the test grade is not a real threat. It’s a temporary obstacle causing you stress. Then with restored calm, you can focus your attention on studying.
One phrase many young people use is “Is this a real tiger attacking me, or does it only feel like one?”
Is this problem temporary?
Sometimes when a problem strikes, we imagine it may lead to bigger problems or that the consequences will be long-lasting. Asking, “How will I feel about this in a week? In a month?” can give needed perspective. If the answer is, “I won’t be upset about this,” you can reassure yourself, “This too shall pass,” or “I’m going to get through this.”
Is this good thing permanent?
Sometimes even when good things happen, they can trigger anxiety. We might believe our luck will run out. We may be overcome by a fear of failure. Because something good has happened, we become anxious that it may not remain so — that we’ll lose our good fortune. In an attempt to protect ourselves, we may choose self-sabotage rather than take a chance we’ll be hurt later.
Instead, you want to remind yourself that good things can be permanent. You are deserving and earned the good circumstances you find yourself in. Your challenge is to continue creating situations where good things come to you. And not to assume they will be taken away.
Break Mountains Into Hills
Once we’ve answered these three key questions, we can begin to take control over the things that are really stressing us out. We take charge of our lives when we learn to break large problems into smaller manageable pieces.
Sometimes stress feels like a “mountain” that you must somehow overcome. You cannot imagine climbing it to the top or even getting around it. Instead, learn to visualize hills resting next to each other. As you focus on one hill at a time, the “summit” appears more reachable. Your sense of being overwhelmed lessens. As you approach each hill, learn to focus your energies only on the hill in front of you. When that hill is conquered, then look towards the next one. All of a sudden, the mountain is now within reach. Small victories, gained by conquering each hill, can restore your sense of control. This will boost your confidence and lessen your anxiety.
Below are a few strategies to turn mountains into hills:
Solve Problems With One Powerful Word
Self-defeating thoughts often begin with words like “I never,” or “I can’t.” These words undermine hope. When we add the powerful word “yet” to our thoughts, we are reminded we just need more time and effort. “I can’t solve this problem,” becomes “I can’t solve this problem YET.” Now you can make an action plan. Try to see limitations as challenges you’ve not yet learned to overcome or work around.
Climb the Easy Hill First
When we look at a mountain, it appears immovable. While you should keep the whole picture somewhere in your plans, attack a piece of the problem that is solvable first. Getting something accomplished is often all it takes to gain confidence. That’s not the easy way out . . . it’s the smart way to get started.
Change Up the View of the Problem
Let’s consider a few problems tweens and teens might encounter. Problems that would seem more manageable if we were able to view them from a different perspective.
Well-designed school assignments do more than just give knowledge about a specific topic. They also give us practical life skills by teaching us time management and organization. Although we may not realize it, there are several life lessons we can learn from school assignments. Here are just a few.
- When we maintain a calendar or to-do list with due dates it not only gives us an idea of upcoming assignments and how much time each assignment requires. It also helps us learn time management, which we will need throughout our lives as we balance competing demands.
- Sometimes when we study hard we hit a block and need a break. When we learn to recognize that we need to step away to regain focus, we are more efficient in the long run. These are skills that will help us be successful in the work world.
- School keeps us busy. But we mustn’t forget to schedule in time to enjoy ourselves, eat well, exercise, and sleep well. When we learn to balance school with all the things we do outside of it, we learn to manage competing demands while still taking care of our health and well-being.
We all want to fit in with our friends. Conflict with friends can be overwhelming. When our friends reject us it may feel like we will never have another friend again. It is important to remember to look at the larger social picture. We will likely find a path back to our social group, or we may have other solid friendships. “I have no friends!” becomes, “I’m glad Dana always has my back. I’ll go to her house, and hang out there.” Or, “I am so glad I have my soccer team.”
In times of stress, we can feel “full.” It’s like we have no room for any more feelings. This can lead to an explosion of emotions — we can no longer contain all that we feel. Perhaps worse is if we choose to ignore our feelings.
A critical strategy is to learn to release emotions in a managed way. We restore some calm when we thoughtfully name some of the feelings swirling in our heads — anger, frustration, hurt, disappointment, fear, sadness, confusion. Once identified, we can express our thoughts and leave less bottled up inside.
Conflict with our parents can create stress. In many cases, the conflict is driven by “wrestling” over limits they’ve set and consequences they’ve given when rules have been broken. We should not feel as though we have permanently lost the trust of our parents. Rather, we should believe we can always work to earn back that trust. Instead of giving up hope, we take control of the situation and find ways to get back on track.
The Mindset of Resilience
Some stressful events require strong and immediate reactions. Natural disasters. Dangerous people. Threats to our safety. There are other stressors that we must take time to think and feel deeply about in order to heal. A death in the family. A fight with a good friend. A serious mistake made. These demand energy. The good news is our stress response system is designed to get us through these tough times.
But most crises are not life-threatening. Playing in the big game. An upcoming test. A job interview. If we let our bodies go into a full-stress mode in these non-threatening situations, we undermine our ability to get through them. In these cases, we must maintain our ability to focus, problem solve, and empathize in order to get past the challenge.
When we see a threat as bigger than it actually is (catastrophic thinking) it can lead to feeling anxious and mistrustful. We may lose the focus, concentration, and social skills needed to resolve the issue. It is important to avoid this kind of thinking. Yes, there are real threats we may encounter. But let’s save catastrophic thinking for true catastrophes.
Resilient people conserve energy. They control how deeply they let stress get under their skin. Using every bit of energy when they must, they work hard to prevent everyday stresses from being blown out of proportion. They can focus when they need to, and run when they should. Their strength comes from figuring out what they can best deal with at any given moment. This is all about understanding the true importance of the problem. About gaining a realistic perspective about the stress we face. When we see stress for what it really is, we can manage the problem at hand while also building our ability to bounce back and face challenges in the future.