Being Well: How to Manage Stress & Cultivate Mental Health in High School
High school is stressful, and college prep gets more competitive every year. There’s a lot to handle, which research shows can cause chronic stress for up to 50% of students, and that stress will continue (in modified form) once you get to college. Furthermore, up to one in five students in the U.S. will show signs of a mental disorder or issue in a given year, many of which show up in the teen years and are caused by or exacerbated by stress.
Even though this information might help normalize your own feelings, it’s not exactly encouraging. There’s also a shortage of mental health professionals for young people; on average in the U.S., a school counselor is responsible for 500 students, which won’t give them nearly enough time to provide individual attention to each person. Because of training requirements, there’s a shortage of youth psychiatrists and psychologists nationwide too.
So what do you do? There’s still plenty of resources for you to take care of yourself, and the skills will serve you well as you navigate the college process and beyond. Read on if you’re interested in learning more about coping with high school stress and anxiety, reaching out to others for help, and staying as healthy as you can no matter what school and life throw at you.
When to Take Action: How to Read the Signs
What’s the difference between your standard, run-of-the-mill stress and stress you need to be worried about? Anytime you notice a change in your behavior or feelings, it’s time to take note. This can vary according to the person: sleeplessness or sleeping too much, eating habits that feel unhealthy, lack of interest in social activities or energy, slipping grades, and periods of extreme anger or sadness are all common signs of stress in teenagers. When it begins to feel out of your control, it’s time to talk about it.
It’s also important to know the difference between anxiety and stress. Stress is actually an external stimulus that can create internal feelings like worry and fear; people handle stress differently, and it looks different for different people. Anxiety is internalized feelings of worry and fear that don’t necessarily come from outside sources. Stress might be an upcoming test; anxiety could be worries about getting into college long before applications even go out. Both are important to watch, but it’ll be helpful for you to know whether your feelings are coming from outside or in.
Luckily for students, there are a ton of resources online to provide some basic research. Stay away from diagnosing yourself; in the absence of a professional’s watchful eye, it’s easy to get carried away reading about various illnesses and applying your own symptoms. But an online quiz could get the ball rolling.
Who to Contact When You Need Help
The first line of defense will be your parents, teachers, and other administrators at your school. Your school may, like many, be short-staffed, but they can at least point you in the direction of resources. Schools around the U.S. recently have made the news for investing in stress relief initiatives like meditation classes, relaxation rooms, and pet therapy, which can help you quickly and easily manage stress.
Your parents are an obvious one, but it’s critically important that you involve them to get them on board as you work to take care of yourself. Your parents may be just as stressed as you, but that also may mean that they can potentially empathize with you and help with research. You’ll also probably need their help implementing solutions, whether it means taking some time off or speaking with a professional.
Mental health professionals are another important group. Just as there are different types of doctors, there are different kinds of therapists, counselors, and psychologists, and different specialties. Do your research and remember you can “shop around” to find a professional that you connect with.
There can still be a stigma around mental health—in essence, that seeking help means there’s something wrong with you or that you couldn’t handle it yourself—but that’s an old way of thinking. Sometimes, the only way to feel less overwhelmed and begin changing your habits is by working with a professional.
Finally, there’s the people around you. There could be local communities and affinity groups (LGBTQ communities are a good example) that can help you feel less alone and may provide you with good role models. The same idea applies for peers or near-peers: finding people you admire, and asking them how they manage their time and feelings, can help you emulate their strategies to see if they’re right for you.
How You Can Help Yourself
Even with others by your side, it’s up to you to do what you need to take care of yourself. These tips go beyond simple awareness of the problem and focus instead on actions that will help you tackle them head-on.
- Educate yourself. What does “mental wellness” even look like? What are some common struggles? What does going to a therapist look like? The more prepared you are, the less you’ll be scared to take action.
- Prioritize your health and fitness. School’s already exhausting enough, so this might sound like an extra burden, but even if it’s light (yoga) or low-impact (attending a gym), the endorphins and physical benefits will offset the time it takes. Plus, stress can come from feeling powerless, and you can feel physically powerful through exercise.
- Form a mental health group or awareness campaign. Remember those schools that prioritized mental wellbeing and stress relief? If your school doesn’t have activities like this, see if you can get one started, even if it’s just a club. Remember, up to 50% of students feel chronic, long-term stress; it’s essentially guaranteed you’re not the only one struggling. If your efforts really take off, you might even find your passion and a potential career.
- If you can’t do it in a group, find balance and calm on your own. Meditation, guided imagery, breathing exercises: there are free tutorials on the web, apps on your phone, and lots of options to pick what’s right for you. There may also be in-person classes in your community.
- Cultivate emotional readiness and autonomy. Resilience is essentially the ability to fail and experience hardship without letting it destroy you emotionally. Hardship is coming, so it’s best to be prepared for it. Plus, the sooner you can feel like an adult, the sooner you’ll feel prepared to meet adult challenges.
- Limit the social media time. Social can be powerful for fostering connection, but it’s also an easy way to begin measuring yourself against others and to feel that you don’t measure up. Fear of missing out isn’t just a buzzword—it’s an actual problem that stems from our culture’s preoccupation with always living the best life and “having it all.” This isn’t possible, to be all things to all people and to do everything at once. So stop watching what others are doing and focus instead on yourself and what’s in front of you.
- Change up your environment. Sometimes all you need is a change of pace and scenery to feel brand new. Staycations are terrific for this, and they can happen on a weekend or during some down time. Relaxation isn’t just for the summer months!
- Self-advocate. It’s ok to ask for a day off from time to time; adults in the working world take “mental health days.” The same goes for if you’re struggling in class or activities. Say something, particularly if you trust the person in charge. You don’t have to proclaim it to the world, especially if you don’t want to share how you’re feeling with those around you, but chances are that this isn’t the first time they’ve worked with a stressed student.
These tips and tricks don’t address academic stress, but there are plenty of articles on CollegeVine about how to handle academic stress if that’s a challenge for you.
Looking Ahead to College
If you know where to look, colleges can be a strong resource to help you manage stress. Depending on where you go, usually there will be free or discounted counseling, psychotherapy, and tutoring services for you to take advantage of in college. There may also be affinity groups, group counseling, and other peer resources to give you added connectedness and skills to handle the new challenges.
Ultimately, there’s no guarantee that stress will simply “get better.” Lots of important, demanding events are coming, and they don’t stop at college. External stress-causing stimuli can’t necessarily be avoided, but we can affect how they impact us and how we process those feelings. It’s what we do with the stress that matters.
If you’re interested in working with students who have mastered their stress and balanced their schedules, consider working with a CollegeVine mentor. Our mentors are current students at elite colleges that have found ways to thrive in high-stress environments. Their ideas and insights will provide a powerful model for you or your student to emulate, maximizing the chances of academic and social success.
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