Stress! You feel it when you are at the starting line of the biggest race of your life and your stomach is about to explode. You see it when kids' hearts start to race and palms become drenched in sweat as they clear their desks for a pop quiz. You hear how stressful war is for soldiers and their families. Everyone goes through stress, but what exactly is it?
According to The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, stress was first studied in the 1950s. Today we know a lot more about it, but scientists still cannot come up with, or agree on, an exact definition. Some think it is the result of stressors (Feldman). The Pikes Peak Mental Health website's definition is that stress is "our natural response to the changes we face in life." High-school psychology text books, meanwhile, teach that stress is a "particular pattern of disturbing psychological and physiological reactions that occur when an event threatens important motives and taxes one's ability to cope."
There are, however, some facts about stress that everyone can agree on. For one, scientists know that stress can be good and bad. It helps us learn new things and about our behavior ("Teens & Stress" - library.thinkquest.org/13561). Although people get stressed over different things, stress is actually necessary (Feldman and "T&S"). It's only bad when it is excessive, at which point it can be damaging physically and mentally. Stress can lead to other problems, but there are many ways to deal with it.
Despite the fact that everyone experiences it, teenagers today go through a lot more stress and pressure than our parents did (Pikes Peak Mental Health). One obvious source of stress is school (lifepositive.com). Some experts believe that schools assign too much homework to fit our schedules. We have so many things we have to do, with basically no time to do them. Studies also show that 40 hours or more of schoolwork per week can be very stressful ("T&S").
We may all go to school every day, but actual schoolwork is not our only source of stress. Everyone wants to fit in; we like to talk and hang out with friends. But some things we do to fit in can cause stress: peer pressure, dating, bad grades, tests and sports (PPMH).
Another source of stress are our families. Some may have money or other family problems. This makes it difficult to go home and relax. Although not all of us have actual family issues, we still experience stress at home. Many parents have high expectations, and although we know they just want us to be happy, sometimes they push too hard.
There are many signs to tell if a person is stressed. Some are: headaches, backaches, muscle cramps, stomach trouble, tenseness, paleness, increased heart rate, pain in the chest, sweating, moodiness, and being worried (PPMH and "T&S").
Too much stress is a problem. In the brain, there are "messages" that move from one cell to another by neurotransmitters. These messages are either happy or sad feelings. When the "happy messages" begin to disappear, that is the one of the first signs a person is becoming overstressed. The happy messages are serotonin, noradrenalin, and dopamine. Serotonin is the "body clock" and helps you fall asleep and get up in the morning; it is usually the first happy message to disappear. This results in problems with sleep and is the first sign of being stressed out. Most teens do not get nearly the amount of sleep they need and being overstressed can not only hurt us physically, but could hurt performances in school and other activities ("T&S") as well.
The next happy message to go is noradrenalin, which gives us energy. Without it, people feel so tired that they can't do things ("T&S"). Now you've got a kid who's sleep deprived and feeling extra tired.
The last happy message to disappear is dopamine, which is produced right next to where endorphin is produced. Endorphin controls your pain level, so when your dopamine level drops, so does endorphin ("T&S"). With decreased endorphin, a person can feel a lot of pain, which leads to good or bad decisions about relieving it.
So how much stress can a person take? That depends on their tolerance, which is inherited. Ten percent of our population has inherited low stress tolerance.
People can begin to tell if they have a low stress tolerance when they are adolescents, and it's suggested that those with this condition should get help early, otherwise they may have long-term problems ("T&S"). People can choose to relieve stress by making good or bad decisions.
Although some people make good decisions to relieve stress, others do not. Sugar, caffeine, alcohol, drugs and tobacco are what many teens turn to when stressed because these make them feel better for a short time ("T&S"). In truth, these escapes make stress worse and create mood swings. Additionally, alcohol, tobacco and other drugs can hurt your organs, make you violent, and cause cancer. And the more you repeat a bad choice, the more stress is produced when the effect wears off ("T&S").
There are several helpful steps you can take individually or with someone to relieve stress: exercise, take deep breaths and relax, take time off, avoid places that cause stress, do something for someone else, eat healthier, and go to bed at the same time each night.
Sometimes just being with others can make you feel better: hang out with friends, play sports or talk with someone about your problems. All these are excellent ways to relieve stress. If you are still feeling really stressed and none of these are working, then you should see a doctor. You could have a stress-related illness ("T&S").
Stress exists in everyone, and every day you'll have at least one stressful moment. It is important to remember that not all stress is bad, but when it becomes excessive, it's time to make some choices. We need to learn to deal with stress positively. Negative choices, could leave us with even bigger problems.
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This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.