Dealing With Back to School Stress

I’m starting to see all the back-to-school commercials, ads and hear the din of all the activities firing up, like NASCAR engines. School can feel like a race. “Why can’t it be summer all year?”

Students and parents are trying to catch their breath before the gun goes off and all the frantic scampering begins.

“I’m freaking out about school starting! Last year I ended with a 4.4 GPA. I always study during lunch, I’m on the Varsity soccer team, attend youth group weekly and just went on a mission trip with my church this summer; but my dad looks at me and frowns, like I’m lazy and goofing off when I take thirty minutes to Facetime with my friends. He doesn’t understand that I’m not like him, and I have a life and I need a break,” exclaimed sixteen year-old Karissa. “The stress is upsetting my stomach.”


 A little stress can actually be good for students, but when they are overwhelmed, confused, anxious and freaking out, it turns toxic and can be dangerous. Learning skills to keep stress in check will produce many benefits.  Students will perform better with academics, athletics and in the arts if they have a calm, clear, rested mind.

I deal with stressed teens daily in my coaching practice, I often share with them, and their parents, four reasons to challenge toxic stress. and make changes in their schedule, lifestyle, thinking and family culture:

1. Toxic stress makes colds worse.

A study done by Carnegie Mellon University and reported in the National Academy of Sciences Proceedings, warns that chronic stress causes more inflammation and reduces immunity making colds worse and last longer.  Chronic stress causes the body to over produce cortisol, which weakens the body’s immune system.  During the cold and flu season, we need to help our students get plenty of rest even if it means sleeping in until eleven on a Saturday. Most teens are sleep-deprived.

For more on the study:

 2. Chronic Stress shrinks the brain.

Everyday academic stress like taking a quiz, reading literature, and writing a paper actually helps the brain expand, make connections and learning happens, but when the pressure becomes to severe, the ability to learn is greatly minimized.  Imagine someone chasing you with a weapon; you probably won’t be able to remember what you learned in chemistry that day. A lot of students feel so much toxic pressure that they do feel on the run in an adrenalin-induced haze.

A Yale University study reported in Biological Psychiatry reports that this on the run toxic stress shrinks the brain and reduces functioning (processing and memory) by reducing grey matter in regions tied to emotional and physiological functions.

Makes sense when you think of some of the random behavior we observe in teens when they get super-stressed. Clearly, their brains are not operating reasonably.For more on the Yale study, check out:

3. Chronic stress makes you age faster.

For a freshman, this sounds like a good thing, but it’s not.  Premature aging can occur with children and teens. When girls are under a lot of stress, their first menstruation could come eighteen to twenty-four months early.

A professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Duke University recently published a study on telomeres – the repetitive sequence of DNA that caps chromosomes at each end.  Toxic stress in teens actually shortens these caps. Telomeres are the clocks that regulate aging. With a lot of stress, the telomeres are shortened and the clock of aging starts clicking prematurely.

Let’s help our children and teens mature at a rate that is healthy and developmentally appropriate, not hurried due to stress. The study reports that tension at home and bullying at school often cause the premature aging in teens:


4. Increases the risk of depression.

Most stressed out teens that I see have anxiety or depression, or both. High levels of stress are cumulative and are a significant health risk – mentally and physiologically. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that high stress kills neurons and prevents neurogenesis – the birth of new brain cells (in the part of the brain called the hippocampus). When this happens, the teen becomes depressed or anxious and also becomes more likely to be at-risk for future stress. The cycle of stress-worry-anxiety-depression becomes an ingrained pattern.

Discuss with your child the benefits of reducing toxic stress and how you might help her/him. Contact me to schedule a coaching session face-to-face or video conference. I have an evidenced-based program for teens and children that has significantly reduced stress in their lives by building resilience with seven key skills.


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