Analysis: it's important to hear from teenagers when it comes to understanding teen health and development

Stress in teens is considered a negative experience, as stress can be associated with undesirable consequences and unpleasant symptoms, overshadowing the protective role of stress. Despite this, stress serves a purpose – it helps us understand what we're comfortable and uncomfortable doing, and when we may need to change the situation we are in. During stress, our body starts a biological response cascade, including the release of stress-related hormones (cortisol). 

In the short-term, this cascade is adaptive, and actions the biological systems to respond and recover from the stress, a process known as allostasis. If the stress response occurs often, because the situation repeats itself or because the person doesn’t have the social and psychological resources to manage the demands, these systems can become dysregulated or simply worn-out. This dysregulation places a toll on our bodies, a cost known as "allostatic load", which describes the cumulative psychobiological cost, affecting weight, sleep, and cardiovascular disease risk. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Roisín O'Donovan from the USI on a new survey which highlights students' stress and anxiety

Stress can have value in building resilience. We should also consider how stress is a typical, normal and expected experience. This may be particularly important to consider during adolescence. Research on adolescent stress aims to identify and promote adaptive ways for young people to respond to challenges which they face in their day-to-day lives. The teens' voice is important to consider, as we move towards a more inclusionary approach to understanding teen health and development. Exams are a common source of stress - what would a teen say about exam stress? I spoke with an 18 year-old, following his Leaving Certificate to gain insight how teens respond to stress, to inform and support more adaptive responses.

What aspect of your life is most affected during periods of stress? 

''Social life…’You miss out on social events when you have to prioritise studying, and it stops you from doing the things you really want to do with your friends.’’

Managing our responses is essential to prevent the biological costs of stress

Social relationships are particularly important during adolescence. Spending time with friends can alleviate stress for adolescents. When this social time is compromised, the stress response can remain activated for longer periods.

Do you notice a change in your sleeping habits during periods of stress?

‘’It takes me longer to get to sleep when I have a lot on my mind, then I can wake during the night and really early in the morning and can’t get back to sleep.’’

Sleep allows our body time to rest and replenish to face each new day and stress is linked to poorer quality sleep. Research indicates that due to developmental changes, adolescents are more likely to experience sleep problems, which can contribute to levels of stress, and in turn allostatic load. Sleep can heighten stress, but it can also alleviate stress. This can be achieved by maintaining a certain sleep-wake time to support positive health.

A RTÉ Brainstorm podcast on the A to Zzzzz of sleep with Samantha Dockery from UCC, and Giles Warrington from UL

Do you take any steps to try and manage your stress? 

''Having a hobby is good for taking your mind off things – in my case it’s music. Playing guitar is a good breather for me and I think it’s good to do what comes easy to you and is comfortable. Talking to family members is good too because sometimes when you’re talking with friends they don’t really get it or they just want to talk about their own problems.’’

We can’t prevent stress, but we can manage how we respond, and managing our responses is essential to prevent the biological costs of stress. Focusing attention on a more enjoyable activity reduces our stress response and occupies our time with a task which induces positive emotions. Spending time with friends can induce positive emotions and these positive emotions are associated with biological processes that are beneficial to health.  

Which part of your life would you like to improve to help you tackle stress?

''Sports, so I can use up my energy exercising instead of letting it build up inside.’’

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, authors Emily and Amelia Nagoski on how stress, burnout and  emotional exhaustion affects women differently than men

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

How do your friends and peers manage their stress?

‘’I don’t think they manage it well. I never really hear people saying they do healthy things to make them feel better, well not people my age anyway. They look for ways to escape whatever’s stressing them out like they’ll look forward to the weekends so they can go out and drink or whatever..’’

Individuals can look for immediate ways to escape their symptoms of stress. Smoking and alcohol consumption can act as avoidance mechanisms from experiencing symptoms of stress. As adolescence is a time when young people are first exposed to these behaviours, the novelty of new experiences, coupled with social pressures, means that adolescents are particularly vulnerable to developing ways unhealthful ways of managing stress that may increase their health risk. These behaviours have negative effects on individuals’ physical and mental health, contributing to their stress response, rather than reducing it.

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