The American Psychological Association recently released the results of Stress in America™ 2013, which for the first time focused on teens. The survey “portrays a picture of high stress and ineffective coping mechanisms that appear to be ingrained in our culture, perpetuating lifestyles and behaviors for future generations.”
Specifically, the survey indicates that teens report stress levels during the school year that exceed what they believe to be healthy. Teens are more likely than adults to report a slight impact on their physical or mental health or none at all. However, teens described emotional and physical symptoms of stress that mimic those of adults, including anger and irritability, anxiety, nervousness and fatigue.
High stress levels are also impacting sleep habits. Thirty-five percent of teens report that stress caused sleeplessness in the month prior to the survey. For those who sleep fewer than eight hours per night, 42 percent indicate their stress level has increased during the past year.
Exercise habits have also been affected by stress with 20 percent of teens reporting no workouts or less than one per week. Twenty-six percent of teens report overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress; 33 percent note that these eating practices help distract them from their stressors.
Furthermore, even though teens fail to recognize the potential harmful impacts of stress on their physical and mental health, they struggle to cope. The survey finds that only 50 percent of teens feel confident about their ability to handle personal problems. Forty-two percent say they are not doing enough to manage their stress or are not sure they are doing enough to manage it.
Katherine Nordal, Ph.D., APA’s executive director for professional practice, notes that the survey results are startling. “We were surprised to learn that during the school year, teens reported higher stress levels than adults (5.8 vs. 5.1 on a 10-point scale). It was also concerning to see that teens report many of the same physical symptoms of stress as adults,” she says.
Nordal also says that school emerged as the most commonly reported source of stress for teens. “Getting into a good college and deciding what to do after high school were significant stressors for about 69 percent of teens,” she notes. “Also financial concerns for the family is a factor, which reflects our consistent findings year after year that money is a significant source of stress for adults.”
Victoria Shaw, Ph.D., LPC, who has a private practice in Fairfield County, Conn., cites an increase in pressure on teens as a major contributing factor to higher stress levels. “Teens are asked to do more these days. There is more schoolwork and more high stakes testing. Academics is the biggest stressor,” she says. On average, teens are also involved in sports and social activities and get insufficient sleep, factors that contribute to increased stress.
Shaw cites a “trickle down” effect from stressed parents as having an impact on teens. “Parents have to look at their own stress levels. They also have to temper their expectations for their teens and communicate with them,” she says. “By the time I see kids, they’re overwhelmed and need to find a calm place in the eye of the storm.”
Elevated stress levels that begin in the teen years may have significant negative effects in the years ahead, according to Nordal. “We know that high levels of stress are risk factors for disorders such as depression in the near term and chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes and other illnesses in the long term.”