Illustration by Peter Strain

You’re coming of age at a time when being stressed is not an occasional feeling—say, like right before a test—it’s the new normal. Experts point to a toxic brew of everything from social media to divisive politics. On top of that, you have the usual stressors (homework, friend drama, and all-around pressure to succeed). But while everyone else in your life is telling you to “just relax,” we’re going to break stress down for you: what it is, how to deal, and why it’s not as terrifying as it may seem.

Stress is nothing new. As long as there have been deadlines and expectations—whether from a parent, teacher, or boss—people have dealt with the gut-punching feeling of being under pressure. What worries experts is that adolescents’ stress levels are higher than ever before. One recent study found that today’s teenagers are even more stressed out than adults. What’s going on?

Your parents may point a finger at late nights spent on your phone or peer pressure from classmates, but we know that you’re actually stressed out about the big stuff, like your future (hello, college!) and academics. In fact, when we polled Choices readers, almost all of you said that school is a major cause of your stress. 

“Although school can be rewarding at times, it can definitely be overwhelming,” says Claire Blose, a high school senior in Middletown, New Jersey. “Sometimes I feel like I don’t have enough time in the day to complete everything that I want to get done, which in turn stresses me out!” Yeah. We’re guessing you can relate. 

The Upside of Stress

Before you start freaking out about stressing out, here’s something to remember: Having some stress is totally normal. The sweaty palms, pounding head, and flip-flopping stomach you get right before a biology test or cross-country meet is a physiological response known as fight-or-flight, and it dates back to our caveman days. When the body senses a threat (say, a saber-toothed tiger), it unleashes a flow of hormones to help prepare for the challenge (sprinting away from the tiger).

You no longer need to flee fanged cats, but stress can still work to your advantage. That’s because it can make you sharper, stronger, and more energetic. “Your nervous system clicks on like a button, and boom! Your heart starts pumping faster and you get a burst of energy that helps you get things done,” says Diane Marti, a school psychologist in Lincoln, Nebraska. Suddenly, you have the strength to surge into first place in your cross-country race or the sharp focus to nail your biology exam.

The next time you feel stress creeping up on you, take a deep breath and remind yourself that it’s OK to feel this way. Recognizing that this is your body’s way of saying “I’m fired up and ready to go!” can transition your mind-set from panicked to pumped. 

That said, relentless stress isn’t good for your health. That’s why we talked to experts to identify four common stress styles. Figure out which one you relate to the most, then use the personalized chill-out advice to fend off your next freak-out.

Meet our four stressed-out teens:

1. Frozen by Fear

You are so overwhelmed by stress that it feels like your brain can’t function.

“Tests make me so anxious that when I try to study, I can’t absorb the material. That causes me to stress even more!” —Karli Waldrep

Your chill-out plan:

  • Start with just one step. What do you absolutely have to do today? Every morning, write down your top one to three goals for the day—no more!—and make those your priority. (Try to keep them small: Think “Get research books from library” not “Write research paper.”) Checked them all off? Congrats! Consider yourself officially unfrozen.  
  • Take a BFF study break. Friends can be great stress relievers, especially if they make you laugh. One study revealed that kids who had a negative experience while their best friend was present not only felt better about themselves afterward, they also had lower levels of cortisol, a hormone responsible for stress, than those who were alone.


2. The Tagalong

When everyone around you is stressing, it can seem like the only option is to join the can’t-keep-calm club.

“At my school, it’s seen as “cool” to have a lot on your plate, and a single bad grade is a reason to stress out.” —Chet Ellis

Your chill-out plan:

  • Give yourself a pep talk. What you tell yourself can help determine your emotional state. Instead of joining in when friends compare notes about who stayed up latest to study for the algebra test, step away from the convo. Tell yourself something like, “I studied hard, and I’m pretty good at math, so I’ve got this.” You’ll be able to think more clearly if you’re relaxed.
  • Get moving. Get off the couch and dance, take a walk, or ride your bike through the neighborhood. Exercise gives you energy and releases feel-good chemicals in the brain called endorphins that help fight back against stress.

3. The Perfectionist 

You have a million things to do and want each one of them to be just perfect, so you push and push yourself until you—or your body—shuts down.

“During stressful times, I often get colds, stomachaches, or migraines. I’ve even missed school because of it.” —Reagan Zuber

Your chill-out plan:

  • Practice a relaxation technique. Here’s the problem: Too much stress can lead to lost sleep, and when you’re exhausted from a lack of shut-eye, you can become even more stressed-out. Stress equals no sleep, no sleep equals stress. End the vicious cycle with a visualization technique that reduces anxiety and encourages sleep. Picture yourself in your favorite place (the beach! Grandma’s house!). Bring in all your senses: What colors do you see? What sounds do you hear? What scents do you smell? Running through the exercise each night before getting into bed may help you fall asleep faster.
  • Schedule some downtime. Take a look at your jam-packed calendar and talk with your parents about what you can drop. Maybe you can get out of your cousin’s birthday or skip your sister’s dance recital. Use that time to recharge, and get outdoors if you can (try taking a blanket and book to the park). Research shows that just 15 minutes of being in nature can help send stress packing.

4. “Me, stressed out? Nah!”

You act like you’re fine, but stress is building up beneath the surface.

“I hide stress so teachers don’t think less of me.” —Daniel Espinoza

Your chill-out plan:

  • Write it out. Jotting down your feelings forces you to face your worries and work through them. List a few things you’re grateful for too. Keeping a gratitude journal has been linked to having lower levels of stress.
  • Talk it out. Teachers and parents can give you support only if they know how you’re feeling. Plus, you may find you’re not the only one who’s overwhelmed, which can put things in perspective. 
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