There’s no question that today’s young adults are feeling intense levels of stress.

  • 31% of all teens report feeling overwhelmed, depressed or sad as a result of stress
  • 36% of teens report fatigue or feeling tired
  • 23% report skipping a meal due to stress
  • 2x as many students report their stress is getting worse compared to declining
  • 42% report they are not doing enough to manage their stress
  • 13% say they never set aside time to manage stress

from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/02/teen-stress.aspx

I see it with my students. They brag about how little they sleep. They one-up each others’ tales of towers of homework. Their ironic generation jests stress into a cultural norm. We could lament the rise of social media, peer pressure, or the culture of competition. But let’s look in the mirror:

Maybe we are to blame for setting bad examples.

Similar surveys find that adults are just as stressed and just as unlikely to use healthy stress management strategies – 50% of adults only set a few moments aside (or less) each month to take care of themselves. The most popular (and often ineffective) strategy, used by 62% of adults? Screen time.

I’ve written before about how sparse our stress management strategies are – how most teens I talk to rely too heavily on “distraction.” But, what if how we frame our stress is making it worse.

We make “stressed” and “busy” a figure of our identity just like many young adults do.

How’s life?

Busy.

Are we “obstressed” – obsessed with stress?

Stress is our modern soap box. And it’s time to step off. Here are three ways I’m reframing stress to move forward and be a better model and teacher for young adults.

Step 1: Know thy control

My son had his first day of pre-school recently. All day I was anxious, wondering how it was going, how he was behaving. Was he asking for help? Was he throwing a tantrum? Was he eating rocks? I prepared for disaster, my stomach in coils, each time my phone alerted me to a text. Oh no, he’s getting kicked out already.

But he didn’t get kicked out. He loved it. And, his teachers loved him.

I spent hours exacerbating my stress, ruminating about ruin. To top it off, there was nothing I could have done any way. I was miles away from him and his school.

How many times have you made your stress worse by worrying about something beyond your control? One of our most powerful reframes is analyzing which elements of our stress can be controlled and which can’t.

If it can’t be controlled then recognize that. Remind yourself that your ancient brain isn’t rationally dealing with a modern problem.

If it can be controlled or influenced, then turn stress into action. Stress is fuel. Don’t sit there on idle. Drive forward.

Step 2: Un-bastardize stress

Stress has such a bad name that we forget it serves a critical purpose: helping us survive. A healthy amount of stress is called “eustress.” Athletes get a surge of eustress to make a great play. Eustress allows a singer to get into a flow state. Think of the healthy benefits of exercise, even though our bodies are under stress during our run. Even the adrenaline rush of avoiding a car accident is a sign of stress keeping us alive.

Some stress is good for us. How often do we conflate distress with eustress? How often do we feel the stress of a deadline and lament if for making us languish rather than thank our body for helping us flourish?

Stress is a signal that we care about survival. As psychologist Kelly McGonigal says, sometimes we need to remember that our stress is a signal that our heart is in the right place.

Step 3: Get specific

Another product of our stress-obsession is our overuse and abuse of the word. We use “stress” to cover all sorts of disparate emotions. Sadness. Frustration. Inadequacy. Worry. Our lack of emotional awareness leads us into a trap: I don’t analyze what I’m actually feeling so I don’t know how to appropriately deal with it.

After over-stressing about my son’s first day of school, I introspected: What was I actually feeling? You could plot my emotions and thoughts like this:

Dig deeper under the vagueness of stress.

– What is a more specific emotion (and can you keep going more specific)?

– Why are you feeling that deeper emotion?

– Reframe: In what way is your stress trying to help you?

Stress is real and it affects us, no doubt. We can’t always control whether we experience adversity. But we have to learn to be more stress resilient rather than stress resistant. We have to stop giving in and giving up. And, we have to stop wearing stress as a badge of honor.

Let’s step off the stress-box and move forward – for ourselves and for the young lives that look to us to live (and teach) the example.

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