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4 Ideas to Help Students Navigate Their Anxiety

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STUDENT STRESSED OUT
Daniel Grill via Getty Images

One of my greatest concerns is the poor mental health our teens and young adults experience today. Teenagers in the U.S. endure higher levels of stress than many adults, according to a report by the American Psychological Association. And college students are definitely more "stressed" than students in past generations.

While levels of "extreme stress" among teens vary during the year, 34 percent of teens surveyed said they experience it and expect their stress levels to increase over the next year due to a variety of stressors (school, work, family and friends). In my book, Generation iY, I relay that 44 percent of university students say they are so overwhelmed that it's almost difficult to function. It seems that angst is everywhere.

High school and college students reported realities like:

  • "I feel like we have to be perfect for colleges and we have a big workload. Most of the time... we just talk about how stressed we are."
  • "When we feel this stressed out, that's when so many of us start doing stupid things. It's a coping strategy we don't even think about."
  • "I feel tons of fatigue and I'm tired most of the time. I sometimes skip meals because I am so stressed out."

Approximately 23 percent of teens report skipping a meal in the past month due to stress, and 39 percent say they do this weekly or more. "This study gives us a window in looking at how early these patterns might begin," clinical psychologist Norman Anderson, the APA's CEO, told USA Today. "The patterns of stress we see in adults seem to be occurring as early as the adolescent years--stress-related behaviors such as lack of sleep, lack of exercise, poor eating habits... all in response to stress."

The survey also revealed that many teens are using unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with their stress: more than 40 percent said they play video games or went online to relax, compared to 37 percent who said they exercised for stress relief. Furthermore, 27 percent said they eat to manage stress, and 34 percent reported over-eating or eating junk foods. When it comes to sleep, about one in five teens reported they didn't believe they got enough sleep. In reality, this is a huge reason for stress in youth. The bottom line: according to the report, today's adolescents may be at risk for a variety of unhealthy effects, including shorter life-spans, due to high stress levels.

All of this begs the question: do teens today really experience a more challenging life than teens did a hundred years ago?

In some ways, yes they do. In other ways, not even close. And I believe we (adults) must equip them to navigate the pressures of life so they can reduce their "distress."

Four Ideas We Can Practice

1.Don't think BINGE, think BALANCE.
We live in a world of extremes -- even the 2014 Olympics included former "X-treme" sports. To excel at anything, it seems we push kids to become consumed with a recital or performance; even hobbies like video games become obsessions. This isn't healthy. Kids need equations that offer benefits and consequences. In our home, our kids balanced screen time and face time. For every two hours in front of a video screen, they had two hours with real people, face to face. If they spent time in self-absorbed activities, they knew they must spend equal time in service projects. Time with peers was balanced with adult-interaction time. While kids should develop their strengths, moderation is a lost idea we must recover.

2. Don't think PUSH, think PULL.
When a student lacks ambition and wilts under pressure, reduce the outside pressure you apply. Pushing kids can eventually backfire. It makes them want to dig their heels in and refuse to cooperate. What if you offered chances for them to experience something compelling? Try exposing them to opportunities they'd not want to miss out on, thereby pulling them toward a positive goal. Anxiety lessens when the drive comes from within instead of from the outside. For me, my job is seldom a source of stress because I so love what I do. This should be the story for every young person. It becomes inward motivation, not outward compulsion.

3. Don't think PRESSURE, think PERSPECTIVE.
Instead of viewing all their tasks as barriers in the way, foes to conquer, or stressors to be endured, why not see them as opportunities to experience? It may seem like semantics, but students often fail to see themselves as capable until an adult comes alongside of them and imparts vision into them. I remember a coach and a teacher saying to me as a teen, "You are capable of pulling this off. You have it in you." When they said this, it was empowering. It cured me of thinking, "This is too hard for me. I can't do this. I'm too young." It removed the situation from being too challenging for me. Like the phrase, "I used to stress over having no shoes until I met a man who had no feet," life is a matter of perspective.

4. Don't think TODAY, think TOMORROW.
One of the greatest cures for the common "angst attack" is to consider it in light of the long-term future. Remember Suzy Welch's 10-10-10 Questions: Will this matter ten days from now? How about ten months from now? Ten years from now? If a student feels angst over getting a poor grade, sometimes it's helpful to remind them that you got a few of them yourself and managed to live through them all. In fact, let them know how getting a bad grade was a wake up call for improvement, and hence became a gift. This idea is not only about seeing the big picture, but also seeing the future impact of their stressors clearly. The further out they can see into the future, the better their choices will be, and the more stability they'll display handling the pressures of today.

Do any other strategies come to mind?