Stress Management for Students in High School (and Beyond!)

by Adam Muri-Rosenthal, Ph.D.

With the arrival of spring comes the honey-sweet smell of freshly budded cherry trees, the delight of extra daylight hours, and—for high school juniors—the stress of standardized tests, college application preparation, final exams, interviews… the list goes on! There simply is never a dull moment. And while preparing yourself for college may seem stressful, wait until you need to manage an even more rigorous workload in college without the same support structures you have relied on up till now! So, as the old adage goes, there is no time like the present to learn good stress management strategies. And although being intentional enough about them to turn them into habits is difficult, most stress management techniques are quite simple:

  1. Practice good sleep hygiene. Nothing could be more healthful and yet more gratuitously disregarded than protecting your rest. The effects of lack of sleep have been studied extensively: emotional disturbances, heightened anxiety, inability to cope, depression, and flights to anger. Taken to extremes, sleep deprivation can cause serious health disturbances. Indeed, sleep deprivation has even been used throughout history (sadly, even recent history) as a means of torture. Fortunately, practicing good sleep hygiene is easy:

    1. Get plenty of sleep every night. For teenagers aged 13-18, the CDC recommends 8-10 hours per night.
    2. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Sleep is cyclical, and the integrity of your sleep depends on regularity. People who go to sleep and wake up at the same time daily tend to have higher quality sleep.
    3. Cool down. Take 30-60 minutes before bed to do something that relaxes you. Reading is a great choice (and reading quality writing will even help you improve your test scores and your college essays!).
    4. Avoid screen time. Screen time before bed is a big no-no! Light in the blue spectrum awakens the brain and should be avoided at all costs before bedtime. If you absolutely cannot avoid screen time, take advantage of screen-reddening features (such as Apple’s Night Shift or F.lux) on your phone, computer, or tablet. 
    5. No caffeine. Or at least not after noon. The half-life of caffeine in the body can be as much as 9.5 hours—meaning that it takes nine and a half hours for your body to eliminate half of the caffeine you consume, and nine and a half more to eliminate half of what is left, and so on.

  2. Eat regular, healthy meals. The brain needs fuel to function, and just as concentration becomes difficult when you do not provide that fuel, so does emotional regulation. Ever heard someone say that they were “hangry?” Then you know exactly what I mean! Not sure what it means to eat healthy? Here are a few tips from the Harvard School of Public Health.

  3. Exercise regularly. Exercise releases endorphins, hormones that ease pain, help the body deal with stress, and heighten happiness. And the best part is that they are free and easily accessible to anyone! If you are an athlete, accessing the stress-reducing benefits of endorphins will not be hard for you. If you’re not an athlete, it’s as easy as going for a short run, or doing a short workout or yoga session at home. Workouts do not have to be long to be effective! For example, check out these great HIIT (high intensity interval training) workouts.

  4. Meditate. Meditation has been shown to have tremendous health benefits—reducing stress and anxiety chief among them. Don’t know how to meditate? Try a guided meditation. No time? Try the relaxation response, which can be achieved in only 10 minutes!

Finally, a word about balance. Following the above tips will position you extraordinarily well to live a life in which, while not devoid of stress (that would be impossible!), allows you to successfully manage your stress. Unfortunately society tends to praise throwing health to the wayside whenever our obligations stack up. Moments when our duties pile up, however, should be a cue to give greater—rather than lesser—attention to our health so that we can continue to function sustainably and, in turn, thrive.

NOTE: This article first appeared on the website of our colleagues at Distinctive College Consulting.