Halstrom Blog Post

Stress in Today’s World: Implications for Students and Families

Stress in Today’s World: Implications for Students and Families

By: Dr. Brentar

In today’s fast-paced, achievement-oriented world, many researchers have focused on the deleterious effects of stress. Whether we like to admit it or not, stress is a part of all of our daily lives and we have grown to understand the direct relationship between stress and emotional/physical health. However, not all stress is bad. In some situations, stress can be a powerful motivator that allows us to function efficiently. For example, we frequently hear from students that looming deadlines suddenly cure their time management problems. In the research literature, this type of stress (i.e., moderate or normal psychological stress interpreted as being beneficial for the experiencer) is commonly referred to as “eustress”. In contrast, bad stress or “distress” is the term used to describe stress levels that challenge our ability to cope. Dr. Suniya Luthar at Yale University describes the two major causes of “distress” in youth today: first, the pressure to excel at multiple academic and extracurricular pursuits, and second, feeling isolated from parents and family. Other researchers report that school alone has become the greatest source of stress in younger populations.

Stress is defined as a function of the demands placed on us and our ability to meet them from either external (environmental) factors or internal (cognitive) factors. In other words, stress can be driven by external factors such as your work place, living situation, etc. and internal factors such as perfectionism and procrastination. In a study published in 2014 by the American Psychological Association, the investigators found that many teens reporting being overwhelmed or depressed because of their high stress levels and that their stress levels were impacting their performance in school, at work, and their life at home. Indeed, the stress level they reported were higher than what the adults in the same survey. Eighty-three percent of teens said that school was “a somewhat or significant source of stress”; 27% percent reported “extreme stress” during the school year (but falling to 13 percent during the summer); and 10% felt that stress had had a negative impact on their grades. Additional findings include that just under 60% of teens said managing too many activities was a “somewhat or very significant” stressor; 40% of teens reported feeling irritable or angry during the previous month; and 36% reported feeling nervous or anxious. More than a third of the teens reported that their sleep was affected by stress. They also tended to report a high rate of physical symptoms, including headaches, upset stomach, or heart palpitations.

Although regular exercise is known to reduce stress, many of the stressed teens in the study reported that they engaged in sedentary activities to reduce stress: playing video games (46 percent), surfing the Internet or going online (43 percent) and watching television or movies (36 percent). Only 20% of the respondents reported that they exercised at most once a week. These teens (who exercised at least once a week) reported lower stress than their peers. The results of the survey also indicated that girls were more likely to feel more stressed than boys and that girls were more likely to feel depressed, sad and irritable due to stress and less able to manage it. This trend of gender differences continues to adulthood. Among adults, the most commonly reported sources of stress were financial (71 percent) and work (69 percent). In college students, their sense of emotional well-being is at the lowest point since it was first being monitored in 1985, according to the UCLA Education Research Institute. Another study by American College Health Association, college students reported stress, anxiety, work and sleep difficulties were the top factors affecting their academic performance.

Stress can manifest in students in a variety of ways. For some, emotional distress manifests as physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, sleep problems, bed-wetting. Others may show it as a change in behavior, such as school avoidance, defiant behaviors at home, changes in social life, onset of bad habits (e.g., nail biting, skin picking), transient tics, or moodiness. Additionally, negative self-statements (“I’m stupid”), expressing worries, or developing a negative attitude toward school are commonly seen in stressed students.

Despite the potential stress overload that students experience, there is a cohort of students who manage stress well. Researchers identify the following resiliency factors in students who function well in stressful situations:

  • • Good time management
  • • Good sense of humor
  • • Structure and boundaries at home
  • • Open communication between parents and children
  • • Good self-esteem
  • • Internal locus of control (i.e., feeling in control over life events and decisions)
  • • Good network of friends
  • • Extracurricular interests/regular exercise

This information leads to the inevitable question of how to help stressed family members. First, for parents it’s important to model good stress management and coping strategies. It is also important to be supportive despite the moodiness, irritability, or angry outbursts by empathizing or help them articulate what they are feeling or identify the source of their upset. Demonstrate the use of cognitive strategies to help manage their catastrophic or negative thinking (“It’s not as bad as you think”). Also help them promote a healthy lifestyle that includes a good diet, adequate sleep, exercise, recreational outlets – sports, clubs, play dates. Finally, encourage good executive functioning skills. As noted above, good time management is a significant buffer to stress. Help the stressed student with developing good planning, organizational, and time management strategies by working with teachers, tutors, or parents. Furthermore, promote good problem solving by brainstorming several possible courses of action, weigh the pros and cons of the options by thinking flexibly, and evaluate after the fact the effectiveness of the solution (e.g., “If I had to do this again, would I do anything differently?”).

The following are good resources to learn more about the effects of stress:

Dr. Brentar is a licensed psychologist who received his undergraduate degree at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio and his M.S. and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at Ohio University. He completed his predoctoral internship at the Albany Medical College in New York. Following his internship, Dr. Brentar was a postdoctoral fellow at the Children's Health Council. He remained at the Children's Health Council for 13 years, serving as a staff psychologist, Clinical Director, and Clinical Training Director. In 1991, he joined the staff of Morrissey-Compton Educational Center on a part-time basis, and in 2006, Morrissey-Compton was excited to welcome him as its Executive Director. In addition to his role as Director, Dr. Brentar continues to conduct evaluations and provide therapy to children and adults. He also consults with the Behavioral Pediatrics Department at the Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford. In addition, he is an Adjunct Clinical Instructor at the Stanford University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences where he teaches seminars of psychological assessments of children and adolescents. Dr. Brentar's professional interests focus on learning disabilities, executive functioning, Attention/Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder, Anxiety, Depression, Asperger's Disorder, and other developmental disorders.