5 Things that Scare Me Most About Stress

My son sums up the recent findings about teens from the American Psychological Association’s Stress in American study quite succinctly:

A hot mess.

And he couldn’t be more right. It’s bad enough that the level of stress in teens is creeping up to the levels we’ve seen in adults for years. The APA cites that teens report that their stress levels during the school year “far exceeds what they believe to be healthy (a 5.8 vs. 3.9 on a 10-pt scale) and tops adults’ average reported stress level in the past month.” Thirty-one percent of teens say that their stress has increased in the past year alone, and many believe it will only get worse.

The teenage years may not be easy for anyone, but they should be at least a little fun. And yet this survey is enough to make you feel like you need a nap. Because if it’s becoming this severe this early for the next generation of adults, well, that doesn’t bode well for their future.

I shared the findings recently on, of all places, Leiberman Live, a daily news show on Howard 101 on Sirius XM (which you can listen to on this podcast). I was interviewed by veteran reporter Jon Leiberman, along with a few esteemed members of the Stern Show Wack Pack: Riley Martin, an author and radio personality who claims to have had contact with aliens, and Jeff the Drunk (his name says all you need to know). Ok, so it wasn’t Meet the Press, but it was, shall we say, colorful.

Bottom line, the APA Stress in America study puts us in what I call a code orange—stronger than yellow, and leaning toward red. Here are my biggest concerns:

Stress is habit-forming. And as with any negative habit, it starts young and sticks. Our children are under higher levels of stress than ever before, and that stress isn’t going anywhere. If you start smoking as a kid, your lungs don’t get tougher or more resilient. If we allow our kids to fall prey to not just rising stress but poor ways of coping with it, they won’t get better at it; they’ll see their energy levels, productivity, focus, and general health suffer as a result.

It’s not about Facebook. Sure, it’s easy to point fingers at social media sites like Facebook and Twitter for sapping our attention and making them (and us) miserable. And while these sites have been associated with declining levels of life satisfaction (which we wrote about here), we have to look beyond the handheld device to see other obstacles to healthier, less-stressed living; namely, sedentary behaviors. Poor eating habits. Financial stress. It’s a perfect storm, and it’s gaining momentum.

Unhealthy habits are a chicken-and-egg game. Leiberman asked me what I would say if my son said he was so stressed he needed to smoke weed just to chill out? I’d smack him right over the head. (Ok, so I’d never strike my son. But you get the jist of my response to that idea.) Poor coping methods, meaning, ones that temporarily numb us or provide an escape do nothing to make us more resilient. (Obviously, Jeff the Drunk disagreed, as I suspected he would.)

Stress will do more than make us sick. Leiberman asked what kind of effect this epidemic of stress can have on the economy. My answer? Huge. Unchecked and unaddressed stress will cost us in terms of productivity, unplanned (and frequent) absences. We won’t be as strong at work, and that means fewer people able to remain focused, attentive, and productive during the day. But don’t forget that in an attempt to spend our way out of stress, we’ll end up burning the financial candle at both ends, spiking our personal debt, and unable to keep up. Not to mention the cost of health care spending. Hot mess is right.

Stress alone doesn’t make you “tougher.” This came in response to Leiberman’s question, Don’t we all need a little stress to build character? It’s an interesting question. However, in light of the APA stats, it’s hard to say, “well, buck up little camper.” I’ve said that how we frame (and not fear) stress does have an effect on how we live it and experience it. I don’t think we learn anything if we take this information and then run away scared. All that will do is cause us to seek out cheap, counterproductive ways of coping.

Stress alone doesn’t makes you a better, stronger person. What makes you resilient is the way in which you shift and strengthen your response to the stress around you. Care for yourself. Take breaks (and not just once a year). Connect to others and feed those connections. Laugh. Eat food that energizes you. It’s in all of our control to become stronger in the face of stress.

Do you want a population of people who can rise up to the challenges, or a nation of them who, when the going gets tough, finds a bag of chips and retreats? Of course not. So don’t just do all this for yourself, but for the world you want to live in.