What is Stress?
All people—adults, teens, and even children—feel stress at times. Stress can be useful by helping people build the skills they need to cope with unsure times throughout life. But, the useful aspects of stress lessen when it is bad enough to impact a person's ability to take care of themselves and their family. Using healthy ways to cope and getting support can help lower stressful feelings.
Stress is a health issue that is often described by traits in the body or feeling tension. It happens when a person feels threatened or nervous. Stress can be normal (e.g., planning for a wedding) or harmful (like dealing with a disaster).
Feeling stressed can happen after a painful event that is very scary to the person, such as living through a disaster or being threatened with violence. Strong feelings, nerves, sadness or depression may all be part of this normal reaction to the stress.
Common reactions to a stressful event are:
- Doubt, shock and numbness
- Feeling sad, upset and helpless
- Fear and worry about the future
- Feeling guilty
- Anger and tension
- Problems focusing and getting results
- Less interest in normal events
- Wanting to be alone
- Loss of hunger
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Nightmares or bad thoughts
- Reoccurring thoughts of the event
- Headaches, back pains and stomach problems
- Raised heart rate
- Trouble breathing
- Smoking, using drugs or drinking
Healthy Ways to Cope with Stress
Having strong feelings, being nervous or having trouble sleeping and eating can all be normal reactions to stress. Taking part in healthy events and getting the right care can help lower stressful feelings in a few days or weeks.
Some tips for starting to feel better are:
Take care of yourself
- Eat healthy, well-balanced meals
- Workout on a normal basis
- Get plenty of sleep
- Give yourself a break if you feel stressed out
- Talk to others: share your problems and how you are feeling and coping with a parent, friend, mental health worker, doctor or pastor
- Skip drugs and drinking: they may seem to help with the stress, but in the long run, they make extra problems and add to the stress you are now feeling
- If your stress is caused by a public or local event, take breaks from listening to the news stories, which can raise your stress
Know when you need more help. If problems stay on or you are thinking about suicide, talk to a psychologist, social worker, or trained mental health worker.
If you or someone you know needs urgent help, please call the one of these crisis hotlines:
- Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-888-628-9454 for Spanish-speaking callers)
- Youth Mental Health Line: 1-888-568-1112
- Child-Help USA: 1-800-422-4453 (24 hour toll free)
Helping Youth Cope with Stress
Because of their level of growth, children and adolescents often struggle with how to cope well with stress. Youth can be overwhelmed when their stress is linked to a painful and scary events—like earthquakes, tornados, wildfires, family loss, school shootings, or violence. Parents and educators can take steps to offer support that help young people feel better.
Tips for Parents
It is normal for children to worry when scary or stressful events happen in their lives. Talking with children about these stressful events and checking what they watch about the events can help put scary news into a more balanced context. Some ways to help children cope are:
- Keep a normal routine. Helping children wake up, go to sleep, and eat meals at routine times gives them a sense of support. Going to school and taking part in normal after-school events also give extra support.
- Talk, listen, and support expression. Make time to have your children talk, but do not force them. Listen to your child’s thoughts and feelings and share some of yours. After a painful event, it is of great value for children to share their feelings and to know that their fears and worries are normal. Keep these talks going by asking them how they feel in a week, then in a month, and so on.
- Watch and listen. Be alert for any change in actions. Are children sleeping more or less? Are they withdrawing from friends or family? Are they behaving in any way not normal? Any changes in actions, even small changes, may be signs that the child is having trouble coming to terms with the event and may need support.
- Comfort. Stressful events can test a child's sense of well- being and safety. Take time to comfort your child about his or her safety and well-being. Talk about ways that you, the school, and neighbors are taking steps to keep them safe.
- Talk with others. Make an on-going effort to talk to other parents and your child’s teachers about issues and ways to help your child cope. You do not have to deal with problems alone. It is often helpful for parents, schools, and health experts to work together to support the well-being of all children in stressful times.