Almost 1/3 of all teens report feeling stressed and overwhelmed, especially in regards to their schoolwork. While stress and anxiety are certainly real and need to be addressed, one way to improve the situation is to change the way we view stressful situations.
Why do we need stress?
We all need a small amount of stress in our lives to act as motivation. Without it we would be apathetic, too lazy to do much at all, and certainly we wouldn’t do anything in a hurry or under time restrictions. While this might sound great, it would actually become very frustrating.
Parkinson’s law states that work expands to fit the time allowed. Think about it, if you have to do a task for which there is no set time limit, it can often take a ridiculously long time to complete. It hangs over your head, niggling away to remind you it still needs to be completed, without giving you the satisfaction of completing the task. With the addition of a time line, we gain an incentive to get in and get the task done. Imagine if you never had time lines at school – you would have so much work hanging over you all year.
Whether we are experiencing stress or excitement, our body responds the same way physiologically. We have all experienced nervous ‘butterflies’ in the stomach, an increase in heartrate and maybe even a shortness of breath. The thing is that our brain can’t tell whether we are scared or excited. If it interprets the reaction as fear, it will respond by sending us into fight or flight response, preparing us to defend ourselves against a potentially fatal attack. This will not be conducive to thinking straight and getting work done.
The benefits of stress
We usually talk about stress only in negative terms, but in fact, in small doses it is actually very beneficial.
Small amounts of stress, know on as eustress have a positive effect on our bodies. It helps to raise our immune systems to ensure that we don’t get sick, thereby preventing us from achieving our goals. You may have noticed that when you are busy you tend to be healthier. It’s not until you stop and relax that your body succumbs to illness. You also feel more alert and energised when you are under pressure. Stress helps to increase our cognitive function, making it easier to memorise and retain information. The sense of accomplishment we feel after completing the work helps to make us positive and motivated.
Stress helps to make us more resilient, as we need to find coping mechanisms to work through it. It can also help with social bonding, bringing us closer to others who help us, or who experience the same levels of stress. Resilience is a vital life skill that everyone needs to learn. Coping with small levels of stress is a great way to build your strength in this area.
The key is to think of stress differently. Think of your feelings not so much as stress, as much as a motivating force. Many students admit that they struggle to work consistently during the term until the deadline is looming as they need the time pressure as an incentive. If this applies to your own work habits, use this to set yourself personal deadlines to provide a slight amount of pressure. Not only will this ensure that you make good use of your time, the constant achievement of smaller goals will help motivate you by producing small hits of dopamine and a sense of satisfaction. This will keep you positive and determined to complete the task.
If you are feeling stressed, try to look at it as a challenge that can be solved. Think about what it is that is stressing you and address this problem directly. If it’s time management, then put systems in place to ensure that you are constantly achieving small tasks. If it’s lack of understanding of the work, ask your teacher, a tutor or your peers for clarification. If it’s resentment then remind yourself that studying is your main task and the best way to get it out of your life is to get in and complete the tasks that are weighing you down.
When you’re feeling stressed or anxious, put some strategies in place that will help calm you down. Breathe deeply to help you centre yourself. Slowly count backwards from 5 to 1 to give yourself time to focus. Listen to meditation tracks. Talk to people about your feelings.
Practising mindfulness is a great antidote to stress. Often when we feel stressed or anxious we are focusing on past or future events. We fear we’re going to fail this Maths exam because we failed the last one. Or we fear we might not make the deadline. There is nothing we can do about past events other than learn from them. But what we do in the present can control our future. Calm your mind and focus on the here and now. Bring your attention totally into the moment. Focus on what you can see, feel, hear and smell. Look for things for which you are grateful. Steering your mind to seek out the positives will improve your mood and your outlook.
Remember to concentrate on only one task at a time. Multitasking might seem like a good way to save time, but in actual fact it just stops us from doing anything properly. It can also make us feel overwhelmed and chaotic rather than calm and in control. Work through each task systematically and as calmly as possible. This will also add to your sense of accomplishment and success as you finish each task.
Remember to accept the fact that stress is a necessary and beneficial part of life. Changing the way you view it will help change the way your body reacts to it, making it easier to deal with and even allowing you to use it to your advantage.