Resilience and Adaptability: Finding Meaning for Teens Dealing with Stress

Teenagers have an egocentric and fatalistic perspective of stress, in believing that “no one understand the world is against them and that they just can’t deal with it.” They may not be exaggerating. Teenagers are more likely to perceive stress as stressful than adults. Their fight-or-flight responses are triggered more easily, and they lack the skills to communicate what they’re feeling and to self-regulate. The neural connections between areas of their brain responsible for stress appraisal and decision making are not fully developed. When they get overwhelmed, they are more likely to shut down or try to numb their experience. As a result, teens are more likely to deal with stress in unhealthy ways, which in the long run, only contributes to more stress.

How Stress Can be Adaptive

While teenagers may think that the only way to avoid stress is to avoid stressful situations, like taking on responsibility, going to school, and meeting new people, it is impossible to avoid some of these challenges. Stressful situations are also opportunities for growth, if you know how to enter them intentionally, skillfully, and with equanimity. Resilience come from dealing with stress in healthy ways.

Stress refers to our physiological response to situations rather than the situations we face ourselves. Anxiety often manifests similarly to excitement, surprise, and euphoria. There is eustress that helps us step up to challenges, perform optimally on physical or social activities, and motivates our actions throughout the day. Examples include excitement of winning a race, accomplishing a task, riding a roller coaster, or getting butterflies in your stomach around loved ones.

How Stress presents Challenges

Then we have distress that is debilitating or harmful. This type of stress exceeds our coping abilities. In some circumstances, it can be traumatic and influence memories and emotions after the fact. Teenagers often have difficulty differentiating between the two types of stress as it feels the same way in their body. While our bodies react to danger to protect us from harm, we also assign danger to abstract things like uncertainty, hopelessness, and rumination. While some social anxiety encourages adults to set boundaries and build trust, overwhelming social anxiety leads teens to feel socially isolated. While some school anxiety sets expectations for high achievement, overwhelming school anxiety leads to procrastination and school refusal.

Manifestations of Stress

Stress is a multi-dimensional problem that affects individuals in multiple ways.

Emotional changes: Increased agitation, anxiety, and depression; low self-esteem.

Physical changes: stress weakens immune responses. Teens are vulnerable to illness and are more likely to experience headaches and stomach pain. When Sympathetic Nervous System is activated, heartbeat, blood flow, and oxygen intake increase to protect the body from stressors. Over time, with chronic stress, the body becomes fatigued and can lead to problems with blood pressure, bowels, indigestion, and insulin.

Behavioral changes: changes in eating and sleep habits, loss of interest in activities

Cognitive changes: decreased concentration, increased forgetfulness, carelessness, and negative self-talk.

Managing realistic levels of Stress

Identify triggers and describe your experience of stress. Think about what outside situations are contributing to internal stress. Consider whether these scenarios might be adaptive or destructive. Pay attention to physical symptoms.

Focus on physical health. People are more vulnerable to distress when lacking adequate sleep and proper nutrition.

Practice mindfulness. Meditating for even a few minutes increases alpha wave brain activity that reduce stress levels and increase creativity.

Exercise is a useful outlet for intense emotions and for releasing tension in the body. Group activities encourage teamwork and communication, while individual activities, such as yoga or running encourage self-care and personal reflection.

Get creative. Learn your favorite way to express yourself. Artistic expression does not mean artistic ability. Write, draw, paint, dance, listen.

Stay organized. Skills including time management, daily routines, and planning help teens stay on top of potentially stressful events or deadlines.

Focus on internal locus of control. Accept what you cannot change and identify things that you can. In understanding how stress affects you, you can begin to learn what works for you in helping to reduce it. Increasing personal control builds resilience and adaptability.

Elevations RTC Can Help

Elevations RTC is an all gender residential treatment center for adolescents 13-18 designed to help teens dealing with stress acquire the skills and proactive mindset they need to regain their self-confidence, happiness, and reconnect with their life. We help students learn to manage challenges presented by distress stemming from mental health problems, emotional disorders, learning disorders, substance use, and other underlying issues.

Elevations Quick Facts

Leading RTC Accreditations


Ages 13 – 18

Comprehensive Medical / Psych

Community-based Approach

Fun, Experiential

Accredited Academics

Real-World Setting

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