Stop Stressing About It!

It’s Probably not Worth It

The last few years I’ve noticed a trend. My students are increasingly hotmesses. By this I mean you guys are stressed out in ways that simply were not true for previous generations. The consequences of this is clear in the mental health research. Teens today have higher rates of mental illness, including depression. They are also more likely to contemplate, attempt and successfully complete suicide at higher rates than we’ve seen in about thirty years.

You may be saying, ‘so what? I’m don’t have depression and I’m not contemplating suicide.’ Well, here’s the thing. Stress also impacts your ability to learn. It impacts your relationships. It decreases the overall satisfaction that you may have in life. Stress is a very destructive human phenomenon.

Let’s put it this way. What is stress for?

Being under stress

activates immediate processes in your brain. Specifically, the hypothalamus. When the hypothalamus registers something as stressful it does two things. It sends a signal to the pituitary gland, which produces a hormone called cortisol into the body. Cortisol sends signals to the liver to release stored sugars, and signals the immune system to slow down in order to keep inflammation from possible injuries down.

Secondly, the hypothalamus sends a signal to your adrenal medulla to release more adrenaline. Adrenaline increases your blood pressure and heart rate while it slows down your digestion. So what’s happening is, your body is preparing for fight or flight by shutting down bodily processes that are not immediately necessary, like digestion, or possibly disabling, like immune response (imagine swelling up when you are trying to fight for your life or run away from something) as well as accelerating those things are needed, like heart rate, quick energy and heightened senses.

This system works pretty well when the goal is to deal with a saber toothed tiger. You see the tiger, the hypothalamus does its thing. You either have the energy to run away, in which case the stressor is short term. Perhaps you fight and manage to kill the tiger, but you’ll have to do that quick, hence a short term stressor. Final option, you die, and you and your hypothalamus are lunch for a saber toothed tiger. No matter what, the stressor is short term. One the hypothalamus figures out that the tiger is dealt with, it sends the necessary signals to stop producing cortisol and adrenaline. Your immune system kicks back in. You get hungry and your sugar levels return to normal.

However, think about what happens when you are constantly stressed. Your body responds as if you are always around a saber toothed tiger. So you have reduced immune responses–you are more likely to get sick, and when you do get sick you are more likely to stay sick for a longer period. Your diet is screwed up. You crave sugar and other stimulants, but your digestive system has slowed down, which means weight gain. Also, all of this energy is dedicated to reactive responses rather than to thinking. Your brain literally slows down, with decreased sugars for brain function and increased myelin, you increase the possibility of mental illness, fatigue, reduced memory and reasoning function. You don’t want to think too much when dealing with a saber toothed tiger, but for everything else, thinking is pretty important.

But I can’t help it, Mr. Andoscia. There’s just so much to stress about.

Here’s the thing. No there isn’t.

Look, no matter what’s going on, you’re not going to get eaten.

Here’s little exercise that I like to do when I’m feeling stressed. Yes, I feel stressed, but I’ve learned some coping mechanisms.

I use what I call the Temporal Doesitmatter Scale.

I ask myself, is this thing that I’m stressed about going to matter in a year? If not, I ask, is it going to matter in 6 months? If not, I ask is it going to matter in one month? In one week? In one day? I find that ninety percent of the things that I’m stressing about are immediate stressors that are important for no more than a week, maybe as much as a month, but rarely. Well, heck. I can wait anything out a week or a month. No big deal.

If it’s something that is going to matter a year from now, I may want to put some energy into it, but only so much. I ask, what can I do about it. If the answer is “nothing” then that’s how much energy I put into it. Most of the things we stress about are things we have no control over–that’s why we stress. The hypothalamus considers everything we have no control over a saber toothed tiger. But it’s not. It’s just annoying. Forget about it and let it play out.

If there is something I can do, I identify what that something is, and I do it. Sometimes this is really hard. Sometimes I really don’t want to do whatever it is that I need to do. When I do it, however, it’s over and I don’t have to think about it. Sometimes just doing something is good enough to help me deal with the stress.

Here are some other things you can do to reduce your stress.

Sign off of social media. I know, I know. It seems impossible. I’m not saying never go on social media again. I am saying take control of social media by signing off of it when you can be doing other stuff, and sign on for only a given amount of time when you have a moment to spare. You don’t need the immediate gratification of notifications for likes, shares or retweets or whatever. Understand that social media is specifically designed to grab and to keep your attention. The owners of the social media business are making money off of you staring at your screen, so they’ve designed the medium to be as attention grabbing as possible. Take control by deciding when you will use social media and for how long. This will help.

You can further take control of your social media use by setting time aside that is free of social media. Choose a time in your day when social media will never, ever be allowed to intrude on your consciousness. I would suggest doing this in the evening before going to bed for reasons I will elaborate in a minute. During this time, you can dedicate yourself to…oh, I don’t know…yourself, or to actual face to face interactions.

Finally, be selective about who you are “friends” with on social media. Use the same rule with the friends you have off of social media. Do the people you associate with build you up, or break you down. If they break you down, ditch ’em. They are not saber toothed tigers. Get away!

Eat well, especially avoiding sugars. Remember, sugar is released during times of stress. Sugar is a stress chemical. When you have free sugar floating around your body, your body thinks its saber toothed tiger time. I’m not saying “no more sugar for the rest of your life”. I am saying be healthy about your sugar intake. Men should have no more than 36 grams of sugar in a day. That’s a little over eight teaspoons. Women should have no more than 25 grams, that’s just under six teaspoons. To put this in perspective, a can of soda is about forty grams of sugar. A chocolate chip cookie is about six grams.

Oh, and don’t try to cheat with artificial sweeteners. Sweetness sensors in your tongue are very specific. It requires a particular molecular shape to stimulate the sweet buds in your tongue. If it’s sweet, that means it’s chemically close enough to sugar that your body will treat it as sugar. Period. No escape. Sorry. Sweet equals sugar.

Get plenty of exercise, especially if you are stressed. It’s like tricking your body into thinking its running from or fighting a saber toothed tiger. Your body does with the adrenalin and the cortisol what it is intended to do, then calms down.

Also, get plenty of sleep. Teenagers need about nine hours of sleep a night. And no, getting by on six hours of sleep all week and then crashing on the weekend doesn’t do it. You need sleep. This is related to the social media advice above. Put the phone and computer screens away at least an hour before going to bed. The light emitted from the screens trick your brain into thinking it’s awake time, making it more difficult to get to sleep when you lay your head down. And, absolutely under no circumstances should you bring your phone to bed with you.

The truth is, much of what we stress about is stuff that doesn’t really matter. Yes, you should try to get good grades and work hard to do so, but in the end, it’s about what you learned and the relationships you made. If you do your work, you will be okay. You will get into college. You will graduate. You will have a good life. Start developing healthy work/leisure balances now–and yes you do need leisure. Doing so will set you up for future happiness.

If you are feeling stress over your classwork, talk to your teachers and counselors. Believe it or not, we really don’t want you to be stressed–at least most of us don’t. Come and talk to us and maybe we can help you organize some strategies through which you can get the work done and manage to get some sleep in the bargain.

Teachers are not saber toothed tigers.

Relax. 

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