a mindful student’s guide to managing stress
Mid-term mania is sweeping through high school hallways like a mid-autumn tropical storm.
Research shows that the adolescent brain is not quite done ‘baking’ yet and is very much still in the developmental stage, so teens cope with stress much differently than adults. Add an over-commitment to activities in and out of the classroom, teacher and parental expectations for consistently self-regulated behaviour and the increasing pressure on teens to figure out their future plans and you’ve got the makings of the perfect storm.
Fear not, oh overwhelmed adolescent! Not only does it get better as you get older, there are strategies that can help you weather the high winds and choppy seas of high school life.
Name what is actually happening. Don’t rationalize, blame or give the power to change your situation over to anyone else. Stand up. It’s your choice.
Right now, I choose to procrastinate. Instead of taking even a tiny step forward, I am distracting myself from the discomfort of having too much to do with other things like friends, electronics, music or just zoning out to temporarily help me create the illusion that I have nothing to do. I choose a temporary fix over a long-term solution.
My expectations are much higher than is reasonable and is rooted in my need to please everyone, to be accepted and to prove my worth to those around me. I choose to keep thinking in this concrete way even though I know, at some level, my value is not connected to how well I perform.
I am attached to this heightened level of panic because it is what I know and I am only comfortable when there is some drama and chaos. Plus, it also gives me an excuse as to why my performance and achievement is well below my capability.
Naming it may not be pretty. But it is potent and is always your choice. By taking responsibility for what is really happening and not blaming others, you will become free and more empowered. Since you are responsible then you can not be a victim to an external source. Taking responsibility give you all the power to change things and make a difference.
On a scale of 1-10, rate your current stress level. We all know a little stress is okay and, for the most part, manageable. But how much is too much?
Level 10 would be the hyperventilating, off-the-charts panic mode when the sound of your heart beating wildly in your ears drowns out all other noises. Overwhelming anxiety, irrational fears and phobias showing up, and being mentally frozen or unable to act could be possible signs of this level of stress. Save Level 10 when your life is danger. In my experience, no one has died writing or even failing a math test.
Level 7 is not a bad place to be during times of evaluation like tests, exams or a performance of some kind but it is definitely not a desirable place to live, work and play every day. Staying at this level consistently could easily lead to emotional, mental and physical dis-ease. You need to go lower.
Level 4 is quite comfortable, bordering on relaxing, but with just enough energy to get things done. This is more like it.
Level 1 is like a quiet, restful slumber that seems to only come when you are on summer holidays and you know you have no tests or assignments due the next day so can sleep in as long as you want.
Notice your stress level throughout the day and become aware when it begins to crawl ever-upwards. Once you know where you tend to live, you can intentionally level out to a healthier, more functional place.
The best strategy to help you to quickly bring down your stress level to a healthier number is deep, belly breathing. You can also try other relaxation techniques that work well for you, exercise, yoga, meditation or calming music. The benefit of focused, deep breathing is that is accessible wherever and whenever you need it. It so simple to do and the results are powerful, predictable and grounding.
Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Take deep, smooth, belly breaths. Evenly inhale and exhale allowing your lower belly to expand like a balloon and contract with each breath. Do this slowly 3-5 times. Check in with your level. If you are still floating up to any number beyond 5, then repeat. Practicing this type of calming breathing regularly in non-stressful times will make it more automatic and have a greater impact during times of stress.
Visualize yourself stress-free and living large at a Level 4. What does it look like? How do you feel?
What is working in your life right now and already fits with that picture of what you want your life to look like?
Are the thoughts that you are having true and useful? Is your thinking distorted with over-generalizations, blaming or catastrophizing? And which thoughts are cleverly distorted to match the story you keep telling yourself where doom is the only outcome.
What steps have you tried already to change the situation from stressed and striving to calm and thriving? Did they work? Why or why not?
Where else could you go for support?
How can you break down your tasks to their smaller, bite-sized portions? Checking things off your to-do list is energizing and smaller tasks mean more chances to check! And how does doing this impact your level of stress?
What itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny tiny step could I do RIGHT NOW to start? Take three deep breaths? Make a list? Ask for help? Be grateful for what is going well? Name the situation courageously where you are responsible? Notice your level as you take one step.
Now that you can visualize what a stress-free ‘you’ looks like, recall a time when it was true. When was the last time you felt amazingly at ease, comfortable, relaxed and in charge of your own life? It could be as recent as the beginning of the school year when you vowed to stay on top of things. Or maybe you have to go back a few years when life seemed simpler.
After you have a mental picture of the way your life looked and how you felt back then, find some token to reflect that important memory. It could be a picture, an object, an action, some music or whatever else will remind you of the experience of being at peace. When you find your stress level inching higher, remember your grounding token. Hold it, look at it, listen to it do the action that reminds you to settle and breathe deeply.
Stress is unavoidable but managing it is a life-long skill that takes practice and is worth every moment you commit to doing just that.
Take a deep breath and choose to take that first step to managing your own mania!