Everyone’s familiar with adult stress: among other sources, adults can face family stress, work stress, financial stress, and health stress. But adults aren’t the only ones suffering from this pervasive mental health problem: teenagers are also reporting increasing levels of stress.
“Teens are stressed for the same reasons grown-ups are stressed,” explained MindSpace Clinic psychologist Dr. Robin Moszkowski. “There are a lot of academic expectations, with tons of homework, as well as projects and tests to study for. Plus, teens have tons of extracurricular activities and responsibilities, with little down-time.” “Stress in teenagers is a growing concern,” added MindSpace Clinic director Dr. Joe Flanders, who also works with teens.
In a recent study, Dr. Nancy Heath and her research team in the McGill Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology asked over 900 grade seven students to identify the causes of stress in their lives. The two primary culprits were academic difficulties (33%) and conflict with parents/family (31%), followed by conflict with peers (21%) and conflict between parents (14%). Flanders added “Teens’ constant connectivity via social media and cell phones doesn’t help. Constant texting, Facebook use, etc. increases overall arousal, adding to the feeling of stress.”
Alarmingly, when asked how they cope with stressors, some students reported adaptive strategies like listening to music, playing sports, or seeking someone to talk to, but others reported maladaptive coping strategies such as substance use, non-suicidal self-injury (e.g., cutting), risky sexual behaviours, and excessive video game use. According to Flanders, many stressed teens also develop issues surrounding eating and body image.
Armed with these statistics, Heath and PhD student Amy Shapiro developed the StressOFF Strategies program, a brief one-time stress management intervention for teens. StressOFF was offered to grade nine students at fifteen Montreal schools. The goals were to increase teens’ awareness of stress and stress management, and to teach teens adaptive long-term strategies for decreasing stress.
In addition to relaxation training and psychoeducation about lifestyle choices (e.g., diet, sleep) and support-seeking, StressOFF focused on cognitive-behavioural and mindfulness interventions. Shapiro explained why the research team drew from both styles of intervention. “While CBT endorses engaging with negative thoughts to change them to more helpful thoughts, mindfulness encourages teens to distance themselves from negative thoughts and feelings.” She added, “Teens learn to recognize and accept painful thoughts and emotions for what they are: little bits and pieces of language/sensations.”
In the CBT component of the program, teens were taught to challenge negative thoughts like “I’m a complete failure” by taking a deep breath and considering how they would respond to a friend who articulated that thought (e.g., “You failed one exam, it’s exaggerating to call yourself a complete failure.”) In the mindfulness component, students were taught to observe the present moment without judging. They practiced tuning into their five senses (the feeling of the chair beneath them, sounds in the environment) and practiced focusing on their breath without trying to change or control it.
Why include both mindfulness and CBT? Shapiro explained: “Mindfulness is a technique that students can use in a stressful situation where they don’t have time to challenge the negative thought (e.g., during an exam) or when the thought can’t be challenged because it’s true (e.g., I wasn’t invited to the party).”
The StressOFF program was well received by students: 86% of participants reported that they learned “medium” to “a lot” about stress and stress management. Of participants who had reported needing stress management strategies prior to the intervention, most reported that they would use the CBT and mindfulness strategies taught in the StressOFF program.
The emergence of this type of intervention for teenagers in encouraging and timely. Two thirds of the teenagers who participated in the StressOFF program reported minimal knowledge about stress and stress management, and under 20% reported having received formal instruction in stress management by parents, teachers, or mental health professionals.
The results of the StressOFF program demonstrate that you don’t have to be an adult to experience considerable stress. And fortunately, you don’t have to be an adult to benefit from group or individual stress management training. MindSpace Clinic psychologist Moszkowski added: “Working with teens, I help them to become aware of the causes of their stress, and the thoughts and feelings they have surrounding their stress. Then, I help them to develop the right tools to cope with stress, such as relaxation training or mindfulness.”