Stressed-out Teen? Talk to Spot!

Want a good role model for stress management? Spend some time watching your family pet.

Dogs, in particular, are great models for how stress is supposed to operate in our lives.   Unless you pick a Chihuahua, your pooch will likely loll around most of the time, looking out the window, relaxing, sniffing, licking or chewing.  At rest, she breathes with the measured skill of a yogi.  But the second a threat arises—like mail poking through the mail slot or a squirrel invading the yard—your dog bursts into action, barking, chasing, snarling and otherwise exerting her prerogative to protect and to serve.

Then, once the squirrel’s gone or the mail’s been chewed to death, it’s back to her blankie to rest until the next emergency.

Stress is intended as a situational response to an immediate threat; its purpose is to rally all of the mental, emotional and physical resources at our disposal so that, like a dog when the mail arrives, we can immediately take care of business.  When we detect a threat it triggers a stress response almost immediately.  The hypothalamus hollers at the adrenal gland to pump out adrenaline and cortisol. Your heart rate, breathing and blood pressure spike; your metabolism goes into overdrive. Blood speeds to your muscles and your liver release glucose for energy. Your pupils dilate to improve vision. Beads of cooling sweat appear on your forehead.  You’re ready to chase, to fight, to conquer…or to run like heck.  All of these physical changes prepare a person (or dog) to react quickly and effectively handle the threat. Once the threat is gone, though, your stress should be gone too.  Like your canine mentor, you should be ready for a nap.

But where most dogs have just a few stress triggers that come and go with just enough frequency to make their day interesting, their unfortunate owners have created a world of constant stress.  For teens in particular—who are emotionally charged to begin with and haven’t yet learned to cope with adult stressors—there’s an almost never ending list of stress triggers constantly circling, threatening, taunting.  Tests, gossip, competitions, pimples, mean girls, family stress, a learning disability, an overscheduled life…teens have a lot to deal with.  While many of these stressors may seem as harmless as the mail is to your dog, they have the same effect—they trigger stress response.  That means that your teen’s hypothalamus is constantly hollering at her adrenal glands, keeping her body and brain in a sustained state of emergency. She’s always ready to fight.  She’s always ready to run away.

Unlike the family pet, however, there usually isn’t a nap on the horizon for your teen…at least not for a while.  It’s only after the constant flood of adrenaline and cortisone utterly exhaust her that your anxious teen is likely to fall asleep.  But her sleep is likely to be the fitful, fearful, unproductive sleep that accompanies depression.  She may be unable to sleep at night and unable to stay awake during the day.

If you suspect your teen is experiencing a high level of stress, here are some tips to identify and address the problem:

  • TALK ABOUT IT:  She may or may not be willing to share what’s really going on, but asking questions and expressing gentle concern communicates love and can help create a sense of safety.  If she’s willing to share, help her identify the triggers that seem to keep her stress level high.
  • SEEK COUNSEL:  With the help of a therapist (if she’s willing to engage that level of care), explore a combination of reducing exposure to stressors where practical (e.g. dropping a sport, avoiding gossipy social media) and practicing effective coping strategies when stressors can’t be eliminated (e.g. some level of academic pressure, social situations, etcetera).
  • SKILL BUILD:  Lifelong coping practices can include
    • DBT techniques,
    • yoga,
    • moderate daily exercise,
    • dietary adjustments (favoring whole, unprocessed foods including fruits and vegetables),
    • meditation,
    • time-management skills,
    • and—of course—getting a dog!