Analysis: research shows that adolescents may benefit from supports to alleviate the negative effects of stress

Many of us experience stress in our day-to-day lives. Research supports the negative effects of chronic or repeated activation of the stress response on our biological and psychological health. Despite its reputation, though, stress can also play a protective role. When our body responds to stressful experiences in a helpful way, we reduce the risk of chronic or over-activation of the systems responsible for managing our stress response. This healthful response requires regulation of internal biological systems that activate our release of stress-related hormones (eg cortisol).

Due to changes in development that occur during adolescence, research shows that adolescents may find it more challenging to regulate their psychological and biological responses to stress in a manner that supports good health outcomes. These changes in development suggest that adolescents may benefit from additional supports to promote healthful responses to stress, and alleviate the negative effects of stress.

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In the past, adolescence has been viewed as a period of risk, where individuals are more susceptible to developing habits which pose immediate and long-term threats to their health. However, contemporary research describes adolescence as a period of opportunity, where teens are learning about themselves and new opportunities for good psychological and physical wellbeing can be realised. 

There is still much to be learned about how teens respond to stress, the kinds of stressors teens experience that may be different to adults, or different to teenagers in previous decades, and the kinds of emotional and behavioural responses today's teens have to stress. Recent research on adolescent health and development has identified some ways to support teens in managing their stress in both the short-term and long-term. 

(1) Study timetable

A helpful way to minimise the risk of missing out socially, is to organise a study timetable where certain hours of the day are blocked off for work. By doing so, students can identify which hours are designated to work, and then allocate breaks to allow time to interact with their peers. This time is particularly important to block off at the weekends, as it motivates students to meet their weekly goals, and then rewards them with something to look forward to.

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(2) Sleep

It is recommended that adolescents get between eight and 10 hours of sleep per night and practice the same sleeping habits over the weekend as they do during the week.

(3) Hobbies

Having a hobby, such as playing sport or a musical instrument, is a good way to focus attention on a task which is enjoyable for the individual, and which serves to put their mind and body at ease. By channelling our energy towards something more familiar to us, it reduces our evaluation and perception of environmental stressors, which ultimately minimises our stress response.

(4) A supportive friend or family member

Talking to a supportive friend or family member is a good way to re-evaluate sources of stress and rationalise expected outcomes. This can be someone who has shared in your experience, or someone whose opinions and advice you can trust. The reassurance of another person is a great way to put your mind at ease, particularly during adolescence when such a high value is placed on the social evaluation which others offer. Jigsaw, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health, have highlighted the positive effects of social support in the lives of young people, and have launched the One Good Adult programme.

"Social support is crucial, particularly during adolescence". Photo: Getty Images

(5) Physical activity

Rather than let stress build up inside, a healthier alternative, is to release this tension through physical activity. Physical activity has been shown to both, reduce levels of the body's stress hormones, as well as stimulate the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body's natural painkillers and mood lifters.  

(6) More social interaction

A secondary effect of physical activity is that it also creates opportunities for greater levels of social interaction and support. As previously mentioned, social support is crucial, particularly during adolescence. By engaging in group activities and being a member of a team, adolescents can develop access to a stronger network of peers, who share in their interests and encourage one another to practice regular exercise.  

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ