How to Help Teens Embrace Stress

By Lisa Damour
Excerpts from her article @ The New York Times – Published Sept 19, 2018

Now that the school year is in full swing, many young people are feeling the weight of academic demands. But how much strain students experience may depend less on their workloads and more on how they think about the very nature of stress.

Stress doesn’t deserve its bad rap. Psychologists agree that while chronic or traumatic stress can be toxic, garden-variety stress — such as the kind that comes with taking a big test — is typically a normal and healthy part of life. The human stress response, in and of itself, can put the brain and body in an optimal position to perform.

But the conventional wisdom is that stress does harm and so, accordingly, we should aim to reduce, prevent or avoid it. Not surprisingly, this negative slant on stress can shape parenting and also leave teenagers feeling stressed about being stressed. We’ve seen a rise in the number of parents who feel that it’s their job to rescue their child from situations that are stressful.

To reframe how we think about a phenomenon that has been roundly, and wrongly, pathologized, we should appreciate that healthy stress is inevitable when we operate at the edge of our abilities. Stretching beyond familiar limits doesn’t always feel good, but growing and learning — the keys to school and much of life — can’t happen any other way.

According to Jeremy P. Jamieson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester who studies how stress impacts emotions and performance, “Avoiding stress doesn’t work and is often not possible. To achieve and grow, we have to get outside our comfort zones and approach challenges.”

Stress is also known to have an inoculating effect. Research shows that people who overcome difficult life circumstances go on to enjoy higher-than-average levels of resilience. In short, achieving mastery in trying situations builds emotional strength and psychological durability.

How students themselves regard stress — whether they see it as positive or negative — has powerful downstream effects. Studies find that when faced with steep intellectual tasks, individuals with a stress-is-enhancing outlook outperform those with a stress-is-debilitating one.

Further, appreciating that stress is a useful human reaction actually changes how the body operates under pressure.

It is not hard to convert people to the stress-is-enhancing perspective. To do this it is useful to compare the demands of school to a strength-training program. Everyone understands that lifting weights to the point of discomfort is the only way to build muscle; the process of developing intellectual ability, including the ability to manage the stress that comes with it, works just the same way.

Parents may feel more confident promoting a positive view of stress if they recall times in their own lives when strenuous new demands — such as welcoming a baby, moving to an unfamiliar city or starting a new job — came to seem increasingly manageable. New demands call for growth, and growth is invariably stressful. And schools, by design, are in the business of cultivating growth.

But what if taking a positive view of stress isn’t enough to offer students the relief they need? Indeed, plenty of students now suffer from too much of what should be a good thing. Those carrying punishing course loads cannot lighten their burdens simply by appreciating the benefits of stress. Yet the problem for students with outsized academic demands is rarely that they can’t do the work. It’s that they never have time to recover.

Instead of trying to vanquish academic pressure, we should turn our attention to making sure students can rebound between bouts of intense intellectual activity, just as athletes rest between hard workouts.

It’s not a problem for teenagers to feel stretched by all that we ask of them, and even better if they can view stress as a healthy, if often uncomfortable, sign of growth.