Stress and Strategies for Balance

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Originally published December 16, 2019

If all goes according to plan, high school will be a stressful time for you. 

Wait. What? I can count on stress?

Yep. Stress is a natural consequence of adjusting to new environments. In addition, stress is the result of operating at the edge of your capacity, whether physically, intellectually, or emotionally.

You know the place: it is where you may feel challenged or put on the spot. Ultimately, this is also the place where you test yourself and grow over time. Feeling no stress at all? That’s called boredom or stagnation, and, well, probably not where you would want to be living. The opposing reality, of course, is that experiencing TOO much stress is not good for you either.

So, if zero stress can result in a lack of progress, and too much stress can be overwhelming, what the heck is one to do?

Good news! I have an answer to this question. But, first, a short history lesson. Did you know that stress didn’t “exist” until 1936? True fact. This was the year that a Hungarian endocrinologist, Hans Seleye, coined the term. He defined stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”

Interesting. This brings my own thoughts back to high school. Unless high school has changed radically from the late 1980s (and, yes, I am old), I do remember that high school demands change. Does anyone really want to remain the same person as their 8th-grade self? Yeah, that is what I thought. So, oh yeah, bring on the change – after all, it is essential for movement and growth. 

So, again, how much stress is too much? Or, how much is too little? The response may be annoying, but the truth of the matter is this: it depends. The right amount of stress is determined by what a good balance is for you

One way to wrap your head around this concept is to think about input and output. What is the sum of the stress flowing into you and what is the sum of your outflow or healthy productivity? If the former exceeds the latter, then over time, you will experience a buildup of (incoming) stress, and this will become a problem. 

My advice to you is to give serious thought to the amount of stress that you experience and, if too much, increase the healthy ways that you can relieve the pressure. When people don’t have healthy ways to relieve stress, they will employ unhealthy ones. (Perhaps this is a topic I will discuss another day.) For now, the question is this: what does healthy stress look like? 

Stress can be determined by a body’s neurochemical level of the stress hormone, cortisol. Various measures of the hormone yield different effects, so, for example, healthy amounts of cortisol in the system help us get out of bed in the morning, feel excitement for a big game, or ask someone out on a date. Cortisol can also fuel the butterflies of public speaking or taking an exam, or the surge of fear we experience in a near-miss traffic accident, public embarrassment, or the jump scare of a horror movie. The cortisol level can also be high, and in that case, a person may experience anxiety, depression, or a fight-or-flight response.

The key to maintaining good health is determining how much stress is coming in and knowing how to use constructive practices (appropriate to the circumstances) to maintain your balance.Although some psycho-with-a-chainsaw in a movie can really get us going, and even seems worth the $15 for a movie, in reality, if that guy was your neighbor and you had to run past him every day, it would be a very different story. The key is to keep in mind that you can develop tools to manage stress. 

Simply put, some stress is good, as long as it is not traumatic or overwhelming, and it is important to have healthy, effective strategies for recovery after stressful times. Therefore, because you should want to work hard and push yourself (at least a little) in high school, you’ll also want to have effective ways to relieve all that good stress you will be creating. Like what, you might ask? Well, generally, there are short-term “emergency” fixes and longer-term methods that will bring your whole nervous system down a notch.

Let’s look at what routine methods help.

First, yes, you can use all sorts of methods to distract yourself: Netflix, your phone, music, whatever catches your immediate attention. All are good for a quick relief, but they don’t relieve stress as much as they turn your attention away (distract you) from the causes of your stress. Distraction can be helpful in a tense moment, but the important consideration is: what action can you take, at a more systemic and transformative level, to relieve or reduce stress. What practices can you employ to help you manage stress as a whole? 

To start, let’s look at sleep, exercise, meditation, and a healthy sense of control.

Sleep: Sleep insufficiency increases cortisol. A surefire recipe to develop anxiety would be to be too tired and too stressed for too long. So, as much as you can, plan for a regular 8-10 hours of sleep, as recommended by American Pediatricians Association. This is a terrific place to start. 

Exercise: Vigorous exercise purges cortisol and, in addition, releases endorphins and endocannabinoids. (Yeah, those naturally occurring chemicals are similar to what is found in cannabis.)

Meditation: Along with sleep and exercise, meditation actually strengthens the connections between your prefrontal cortex (the goal-setting, self-control, “put things in perspective” center of your brain) and the freeze-flight-or-fight stress-response amygdala. The stronger those connections, the easier it will be to bounce back from stress. The ability to regroup when we get bent out of shape is the very definition of resilience.

A sense of control: The stress researcher, Sonia Lupien, says that you can summarize what is stressful with the acronym, NUTS: Novelty, Unpredictability, Threat (perceived – whether to one’s ego or physical safety) and (a low) Sense of Control. And, it is the low sense of control that is the very worst. So, anything that fosters a healthy sense of control (both autonomy and the sense that #yougotthis!) will help.

(Note: Feeling in control of something you cannot control is a bit like fighting a losing battle; it is not healthy and can be harmful. An illness, accident, or other “act of God”; a college rejection, etc. Keep in mind that life presents situations that you cannot change and, therefore, you should not expect yourself to control all aspects of your life.) 

What else? Quality time with good friends increases serotonin, which in turns creates a sense of contentment and calm. Dr. Lupien suggests that short-term emergency stress relief methods can include laughing, singing, deep breathing, and vigorous exercise. Personally, I love the 7- minute workout

So, as you look to tackle life as a high school student, keep balanced by using healthy tools for stress relief. Accept that you are not going to have a stress-free high school, nor would you want an (uninspiring) one! But you do want to progress in your skills and abilities and emerge with greater comfort and confidence in having navigated this new environment with success. These are the same skills and abilities that you will continue to develop for future success in college, career, and life. 

Ned Johnson

President & Tutor-Geek

Ned Johnson is the president and founder of PrepMatters. A professional tutor-geek since 1993, Mr. Johnson has devoted in excess of 35,000 hours in one-on-one test prep for nearly the entire alphabet of tests. His experience includes work with all ages and abilities in preparation for SSAT and ISEE to ACT and SAT to GMAT, GRE and LSAT.

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