From Gah! To Ahh… How To Deal With Stress

If you recognize what stress feels like for you, you can turn the switch to “off” before it causes a complete system shutdown.

Juan Silva/Photodisc/Getty Images

Feeling in over your head? Here’s what’s happening to your mind and body when you’re stressed.

It’s 11:30 the night before a big final, and you still have four more chapters to study. You’re exhausted, but you won’t be able to sleep—you’re too amped up. Your fingers tap the desk, and your mind races about what will happen if you fail. But it’s not just the test. You can’t stop thinking about that fight with your mom, the latest drama with your BFF, and a new Facebook photo of your crush with someone else. GAH!

What’s going on here? In scientific terms, being stressed out like this is an actual physical reaction called the “fight-or-flight response.” When an exam or other stressor triggers it, your brain activates an “alarm” that releases stress hormones throughout the body. These hormones make you hyperalert, which can lead to trouble sleeping or concentrating, and you can even get physical symptoms, like stomachaches.

But it’s not always bad: Our ancestors wouldn’t have survived without the fight-or-flight response to help them do exactly that (fight or run away!) as predators approached. That same response gets you revved up before a big test or game. “Stress is a survival mode—it’s all natural,” says stress expert Dr. Kathleen Hall.

The problem is that your stress response wasn’t meant to be stuck in the “on” position. When you’re constantly worked up, stress can take a toll on your mind and body.

But you don’t have to let your stress levels go haywire. If you recognize what stress feels like for you, you can turn the switch to “off” before it causes a complete system shutdown. Here are five high-stress situations—and five ways to find that sense of ahhh . . .

This is Your Brain on Stress!

Research has found that teenagers experience stress more intensely than adults because of the way their brains react to a stressful event. There’s more activation in the prefrontal cortex, a region that’s responsible for “executive” functions like decision-making. This could lead to difficulty focusing or making good decisions (like choosing studying over Facebook!) when you’re frazzled. Don’t worry, though: Relaxing can actually change your brain’s stress response. Use the tactics in this article to reset your brain and refocus!

1. The GAH!

“It’s the night before a test, and I can’t sleep!”

Stress can make it hard to fall asleep—but that’s also when your body needs sleep the most.

The Ahhh…

This surprisingly simple trick can put your mind and body into a restful state: listening to the sound of your own breathing. “Gently cup your hands over your ears, close your eyes, and listen to the sound of your breath as it flows in and out of your body,” advises Carla Ardito, creator of the Breathing Lessons app. “Be sure that the inhalations and exhalations are calm and slow; breathing through the nose is ideal. The sound of your own breathing relaxes you and lulls you to sleep.”

2. The GAH!

“I have way too much on my plate right now.”

Tough classes, demanding clubs, friend drama, and family obligations can make it feel like life is caving in on you.

The Ahhh…

The best thing to do is to write down everything that’s causing you stress. Then go through the list and ask, “What do I have control over?” Focus on the things you can actually fix. “Stress tends to magnify everything, but it doesn’t need to,” says Raychelle Lohmann, author of The Anger Workbook for Teens. “There are usually a couple of things you can cross off your list.” This stops the freakout cycle and puts the power back in your hands.

3. The GAH!

“I’m so frustrated that I can’t focus on anything else!”

Ever have trouble concentrating on homework after a fight with mom or dad? Powerful emotions like anger can throw you totally off balance. It’s almost like they’re holding your brain hostage.

The Ahhh…

Find an outlet for those negative feelings, whether it’s your favorite sport, art, music, or writing— basically, you need something that allows you to work out your emotions of stress and anger in a physical or creative way. “For me, it’s reading, writing, and listening to my favorite songs,” says Marsha Pinto, 18. “It’s about being alone and having that alone time.”

4. The GAH!

“I’m about to take a big final that I’m going to flunk.”

It’s common for negative thoughts to flood your mind when you’re feeling nervous. All of a sudden, you’re so convinced you’ll fail that you forget you studied hard!

The Ahhh .. .

Right before a big test, when your nerves are going crazy, and you’re doubting yourself, positive self-talk is the way to go. It might feel a little silly at first, but it really works! “Tell yourself, ‘Hey, I can do this, I’m ready for this,’ and try to combat the negative thoughts that are coming into your mind,” says Lohmann. “Recognize that the negative thoughts aren’t truths—they’re just thoughts.”

5. The GAH!

“I just feel totally overwhelmed.”

Once you get worked up about one thing, everything makes you anxious. Sometimes it’s hard to identify why you’re even stressed!

The Ahhh…

When we’re stressed, we take shallow breaths from our chest rather than deep breaths from our belly. So force yourself to breathe from the abdomen: Lie down, close your eyes, put your hands on your stomach, and make sure your belly rises as you take 10 deep breaths. Blow each one out slowly. You’ll feel way more zen!

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