Everyone experiences stress and anxiety. The unfortunate reality is that both seem to be on the rise, especially for youth. But the fortunate news is that there are proven ways to help address both to maximize success and well-being! Here, we share some tips that apply to both adults and youth to help better handle their stress and anxiety.
Can you relate?
In a 2021 study, about 3 in 4 American parents sampled reported an increase in stress from last year1. We believe this corresponds to our own survey of over 4,000 people in 2022 which found 86% of parents reported their children or teens need help managing stress. And according to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 1 in 3 Americans experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetimes2. If you’re reading this as a parent, this means either you, your spouse/partner, or your child may experience an anxiety disorder, statistically speaking. It’s safe to say, no matter what levels of stress or anxiety you or your children experience, you’re all far from alone.
What is the difference?
Right about now, you might be wondering – what exactly is stress and anxietya – and what is the difference? The U.S. National Institutes of Mental Health4 says:
Stress is “the physical or mental response to an external cause… [that] may be a one-time or short-term occurrence, or it can happen repeatedly over a long time.”
Anxiety is “your body’s reaction to stress and can occur even if there is no current threat.”
Especially when it comes to how stress and anxiety affect our bodies, they are interconnected. Stress generally tends to result from external sources, last briefly, and can cause anxiety in the body. Anxiety can be an internal response to stress, which tends to last for a longer period of time.
Importantly, chronic stress and anxiety can both lead to “wear and tear” on our bodies – known as allostatic load, coined by the late stress researcher, Dr. Bruce McEwen. Allostatic load has been linked to many conditions, including depression, anxiety, heart disease, and even shortened lifespan3. This highlights the importance of addressing prolonged stress and anxiety over the long run, as they continually have effects on our overall health.
The silver lining to all of this is that stress and anxiety are natural parts of life for everyone; and while excessive or prolonged levels can put us at risk for mental health conditions, such as anxiety and other stress-related disorders (e.g., panic disorder, PTSD)b, there are evidence-based, promising ways to deal with stress and anxiety to improve overall well-being.
So what can you do?
There are a number of scientifically proven ways to manage stress and anxiety4 – which are easily adopted by both adults and youth.
1. The #1 thing we can do is exercise.
The late Dr. Bruce McEwen, who devoted his life to studying stress, has said numerous times that one of the top recommendations to combating the harmful effects of stress was a simple and familiar suggestion: exercise5.
Encouraging yourself and your children to engage in physical activity that is fun, like a sport or martial art, is a great way to ensure that a stress-regulating habit is incorporated into your routines.
2. Befriend stress.
Stress can be positive or negative, as seen above. Stanford professor, Dr. Alia Crum6 has coined the term stress-is-enhancing mindset (or “stress mindset” for short) to describe how stress can be harnessed to help us. Encourage yourself and your children to see stress not just as debilitating, but often enhancing. Notice what situations or circumstances make you or your children feel safely outside of your comfort zone. Often learning something new is a great context to activate a stress mindset!
3. Rid your brain of waste.
Scientists used to ask what sleep is for, and how it relates to stress. We now know sleep rids toxins, or waste, in our brain7 and when we don’t get enough sleep, we tend to be more easily stressed. To prioritize sleep, encourage yourself and your children to avoid screens 2-3 hours before bed! Screens have been shown to emit a certain type of light (blue light), which can throw off your body’s internal clock8.
4. Train your mind as you would your body.
Unhelpful thinking amplifies when we’re stressed, which can then lead to anxiety. Unhelpful thoughts are so prevalent, scientists have coined an entire area of study on these10. The good news is, when you or your children experience unhelpful thoughts, you can train your mind to combat them. For instance, you can build an attitude of gratitude (that is, asking yourself what am I thankful for in my life, or what is going well?)10. These positive thoughts can help counteract the unhelpful thoughts we tend to fixate on.
5. Lean on your friends and family.
A helping ear goes a long way to manage stress and anxiety, and too many of us neglect leaning on those we love or trust for support – especially when we need to do so the most. Encourage yourself and your children to use stress as a cue to be around or contact a loved one to redirect the mind from something unwanted to something that helps them feel better or cast off worries.
These suggestions will have compounding effects on not just your stress and anxiety levelsb, but in many other areas of life. You and your children will feel better equipped to take on the day and begin to turn stress and anxiety cues into signals to improve self-care or rise up to meet challenges, to deepen close connections, and shift negative thoughts into positive ones.
¹ Adams, E. L., Smith, D., Caccavale, L. J., & Bean, M. K. (2021). Parents are stressed! Patterns of parent stress across COVID-19. Frontiers in psychiatry, 12, 626456.
³ Juster, R. P., McEwen, B. S., & Lupien, S. J. (2010). Allostatic load biomarkers of chronic stress and impact on health and cognition. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(1), 2-16.
⁶ Crum, A. J., Akinola, M., Martin, A., & Fath, S. (2017). The role of stress mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to challenging and threatening stress. Anxiety, stress, & coping, 30(4), 379-395.
A. Stress and anxiety are complicated constructs, but we’ve tried to simplify them. Naturally, we didn’t have enough space to cover all the relevant information. Please consult a health or mental health professional if you’d like to learn more about these topics.
B. As an important side note, there are many types of stress, and what is presented here refers mostly to common stressors (for example, forgetting your phone at home, an argument with a friend, or taking an exam). However, other types of stressors, such as exposure to violence, death of a loved one, and other types of stress that occur when experiencing “strong, frequent and/or prolonged adversity” can be toxic. Those experiencing difficulties with stress and anxiety that feels overwhelming or persistent should seek help from a medical professional.