Different people react to stress in different ways.
Some people feel it in their moods and emotions—they become irritable, cry easily, stop caring about things that used to matter to them, or get into arguments.
Other times, people feel stress in their body. In the short-term, you may realize you’re tense—sitting on the edge of your chair, gripping your pencil tightly, clenching your jaw. When you’re stressed over a period of time, this can show up as aches and pains in your body. The technical term for this is somatization.
Learning to recognize stress is important so you can deal with it head on, in a healthy way. Below are some of the most common physical complaints I hear from patients related to stress.
- Headaches: I see young people with headaches all the time. Often, they have tension headaches. These feel like a dull pain in a band around your forehead. Usually it’s not too intense, but it’s painful enough to keep you from concentrating in school or enjoying yourself. Sometimes, these can turn into migraines. Migraines are intense, throbbing headaches that can include nausea, weakness and/or sensitivity to light and sound.
- Abdominal pain: This can be that feeling you get when you’re nervous or you get in trouble. Your stomach feels gurgle-y, or like you might have diarrhea. A lot of young people I see who come in with belly complaints are actually being bullied at school.
- Get sick more: When you’re stressed, your body makes more cortisol. Cortisol creates inflammation, weakening your immune system. This means that you’re more likely to get sick. If you’ve ever gotten a cold right after finals are over, you know what I’m talking about.
Dealing with stress
Teens often ask me how they can prevent stress in the first place. But here’s the thing: some stress is actually a good thing! Stress is a motivator—it gives you the energy to work extra hard right before an exam, for example. And even if you wanted to, you couldn’t avoid stress altogether. It’s just a part of life. However, you can learn how to manage it in a healthy way. Here’s how:
- Time management: When you have your schedule and to-do list in one place, you don’t have to keep it all in your head. Keep a schedule in a notebook, set reminders on your phone for yourself, download an app, or figure out another system that works for you. Be sure to schedule time for yourself. This can be any activity you find relaxing or rejuvenating, like hanging out with friends, reading or going for a run. If you don’t schedule breaks, it’s easy to get stuck in a cycle: School is stressing you out, so you study more, so you don’t have any time for yourself, so you get more stressed.
- Sleep: Getting plenty of sleep is one of the best things you can do to fight stress. Not getting enough sleep makes it hard to function normally, to concentrate, to deal with your emotions, and so much more. Teens should be getting 8-10 hours of sleep, but most of the young people I talk to are getting 4-5. If you aren’t getting enough sleep, figure out a sleep routine that works for you. Put your phone on do not disturb when you go to bed.
- Physical activity: Exercise increases endorphins, a feel-good hormone that can help balance out all the stress hormones you’re dealing with. Moving your body also helps you process stress, take a mental break from what’s causing it, and is good for your body in a whole bunch of other ways.
- Community: This can be a friend, a therapist, a church, a sports team, a club, or something else. Community gives you a sense of support, someone to talk to, and somewhere to go to escape from the stress. Even just identifying one person you feel safe and comfortable talking to can make a huge difference. Be intentional in who you choose. Do they listen well? Are they kind? Do you trust them?
- Healthy eating: Skipping meals can make you feel even more stressed. This is another loop to watch out for: you’re busy and stressed, so you don’t eat, so you feel even more stressed. Avoid this by eating balanced meals at regular times. Go for whole grains, lean proteins, and lots of vegetables and fruit. You can check out healthy snack ideas here.
- Social media: Social media can be a positive way to connect with others, but it can sometimes leave you feeling drained and isolated. Pay attention to how social media makes you feel, and how much time you’re spending on it. Try taking a break or curating your feed so it’s full of body positivity, self-care illustrations, or something else that makes you feel good about yourself or helps you relax. Ask yourself these 7 questions to check in with yourself and use these social media self-care tips.
When stress is too much
Sometimes, stress can become overwhelming. You may feel like there’s no point trying, and “check out” mentally. You may call in sick to school, or have a hard time getting out of bed.
At this point, it’s important to talk to someone you trust, like a family member, teacher, counselor or doctor. You don’t have to deal with what you’re going through alone. If you’re 10-22 years old in NYC, you can call the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center at (212) 423-3000 to get confidential healthcare, including counseling, at no cost to you.
Dr. Nathalie Duroseau, DO, our first year fellow, completed her residency at Sidney Kimmel Thomas Jefferson University/ Nemours A.I. DuPont Children’s Hospital after receiving both her doctorate in Osteopathic Medicine and a master’s degree in Neuromuscular Sciences at NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine, Old Westbury, NY. She also received her bachelors in Sociology at New York University. Her particular areas of interest include reproductive health, improving health literacy in adolescents through the use of technology and social media tools, PCOS, and substance abuse among adolescents.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 12,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.