Coping with stress

This resource is for young people, and looks at what stress is, how it feels, what causes it, what you can do about it and where to get further support if you need it.

Disclaimer

This is information, not advice. Please read our disclaimer.

Stress is often experienced as a mixture of feeling under pressure, worried, tense, upset, sad or angry.

Experiencing stress is very common, and everyone feels this emotion from time-to-time. People of all ages feel stress, and even very small babies show signs of distress. We all learn how to deal with stress in different ways. How well we manage our levels of stress depends on our circumstances - where we are, who’s with us or even the stage of life we are in.

Often stress is an entirely normal feeling, and a response to common challenges in daily life. But sometimes it can become too much and in some people it might be linked to mental illnesses.

We all have different responses to stress, and the starting point of when someone begins to feel stress is also different.

Stress can have both good and bad effects. A little bit of stress is usually good and can sometimes help us prepare or perform better.

However, when you have too much stress or feel stressed for too long, this can be damaging. Below are some negative effects of stress on our body, mind and behaviour.

Effects stress can have on your body (physically)

  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Finding it difficult to eat, or eating too much
  • Getting aches in your body, e.g. stomach aches, headaches/migraines and pain in your neck and shoulders
  • Impacting on your physical health:
    • causing flare ups of existing conditions like acne, eczema, asthma, ulcers, cold sores
    • reducing your immune system which makes it easier to fall sick
    • stress is even associated with certain conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, seizures, high blood pressure, heart problems and cancer
  • If you have started having periods, these can also be affected by stress.

Effects stress can have on your mind (psychologically)

  • Feeling burnt-out or overwhelmed
  • Feeling tired or exhausted
  • Feeling angry or irritable, losing your temper easily
  • Difficulties with concentration and memory
  • Changes in your mood
  • Feeling restless
  • Feeling sad

Effects stress can have on your actions (behaviour)

  • Finding it hard to learn or keeping on top of your school work
  • Constantly checking your phone or other smart devices
  • Withdrawing from friends or family
  • Picking your skin or biting your nails
  • Doing things to hurt yourself like scratching yourself or hitting your head
  • Eating too much or not enough
  • Smoking and using drugs or alcohol
  • Overspending or gambling

The stress response (also known as the ‘Fight, Flight or Freeze response’) is triggered when a person feels threatened either by a situation or by too many unhelpful thoughts. The stress response is usually triggered by what is perceived by the person as a threat, and it doesn’t necessarily matter how big or small the threat actually is.

Sometimes even events that are considered positive can be stressful. For example: graduating, starting a new school or job, meeting new people or having a new sibling. Other possible reasons you might feel stressed include:

School-related stress

  • School work piling up
  • Preparing for exams
  • Being teased or feeling that you’ve been treated unfairly

Issues with relationships

  • Arguing with parents or siblings
  • Falling out with friends
  • Changes in friendship dynamics
  • Relationship breakups
  • Parental separation, parents remarrying or family feuds
  • A death in the family

Experiencing uncertainty

  • Moving homes or changing schools
  • Worrying about a loved one who is unwell
  • Making life decisions e.g. which college or university to apply to
  • Coming out about your sexuality or gender identity
  • Worries about the future
  • Hearing bad news about the environment, war or diseases

Thinking negatively about yourself

  • Thoughts that you are not good enough
  • Comparing yourself with others
  • Worrying about the way you look or what others may think of you
  • Overthinking, stressing about stressing
  • Worries about your health

Being made to feel unsafe

  • Being bullied in school or online
  • Experiencing discrimination because of your sexuality, gender identity, disability, race or religion
  • Problems with accessing money, housing, food or care
  • Being a young carer or members of your family experiencing physical or mental illness
  • Physical, sexual or emotional abuse, or neglect (a persistent lack of love, care, and attention)

If you are experiencing (or have experienced) abuse of any kind and feel in current danger, call the police immediately.

If you feel unable to do that, we encourage you to reach out to an adult you trust (like a teacher, family member or doctor) or contact a support service, such as Childline to get further advice and support. You can find out more about services available at the end of this resource.

There are helpful and unhelpful ways to manage stress. You might have already tried a few things to help cope with your stress. Often we use strategies that have previously worked for us and sometimes we pick up coping styles from our family and friends.

There are some helpful ways to manage stress, and some unhelpful ways to manage stress that might cause more harm than good.

Helpful ways to manage stress

Have a think about what calms you down or makes you happy. Usually the basic things, like looking after yourself, are overlooked when it comes to managing stress. This could mean:

  • taking a break from what is stressing you out
  • doing something relaxing like listening to your favourite music, playing with your pet, hanging out with friends, taking a bath, or watching movies or television shows
  • trying out new hobbies or returning to the ones you used to enjoy. This could mean making art or music, dancing, singing or gaming
  • dressing up or wearing make-up
  • writing blogs or making vlogs
  • exercising can help to reduce stress, as it releases ‘endorphins’, the body’s natural ‘feel-good’ painkiller.

If possible, try to figure out what is causing your stress. This might be one big thing that’s happened or is yet to happen or perhaps a combination of a few small things. Some are easier to spot than others.

Talking to someone you trust can be very effective in helping you manage stress. Some young people find hugs to be a very good stress reliever, though they aren’t for everyone! Problems often feel too big to handle on your own, but having another person on your side can help you to share the burden. You might be able to even work out a way to tackle the stressful situation together.

Unhelpful ways to manage stress

Sometimes it can feel a lot easier to use unhelpful coping mechanisms than helpful ones. Some unhelpful ways to manage stress include:

  • smoking cigarettes, taking illegal drugs or drinking alcohol
  • excessive caffeine use (through energy drinks, soft drinks or coffee/tea
  • gambling
  • getting into fights
  • self-harming behaviours, like hurting yourself or using food to manage distressing feelings.

These things might reduce stress in the short term but often do more harm than good in the long run. Cigarettes, alcohol and drugs are addictive, which might end up causing you and your loved ones additional stress in the future.

Finally, remember that you are still a young person and the adults around you have a responsibility to help you through stressful times. They can help you learn how to manage your time better, think more positively and perhaps use self-help books or online resources with you to help manage stress. Some of these resources have a focus on breathing techniques and challenging negative thoughts.

Experiencing stress is normal but when you feel the stressful situation is severe or has been going on for a long time, it’s time to ask for help. Signs that stress is getting too much include:

  • losing your appetite
  • finding it difficult to sleep
  • being unable to do what is usually expected of you, e.g. missing school or plans with friends
  • feeling so desperate that you have made plans to stop school, run away or harm yourself
  • feeling low, sad, tearful, or that life is not worth living
  • constantly thinking about the problem and being unable to get any peace in your mind
  • feeling that stress is affecting your health
  • using drugs or alcohol to block out stress
  • hearing voices that tell you what to do, or make you behave strangely
  • physically or verbally hurting those around you
  • having worries, feelings and thoughts that are hard to talk about because you feel people won’t understand you or you find it hard to trust people.

If you feel trapped, as if there is no way out and no solution to your problems, it is important to get help.

Stress is a common emotion experienced by everyone from time to time. However, if you have a mental health problem, your ability to deal with stress might be less than other people.

Experiencing stress does not mean you have a mental health problem or that you need specialist mental health services. However, if you have concerns about your mental health, a doctor can review your symptoms to assess if you have a specific mental health condition.

Conditions like anxiety disorders, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may require specific treatment. Nothing can get rid of stress completely. However, there are many ways in which you can manage stress better and avoid becoming overwhelmed.

It is important that you talk to someone you trust or go to a responsible adult who might be able to help you access support. This could be:

  • a close friend, either from school, a club or a religious group
  • parents or siblings
  • extended family members (grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins)
  • family friends
  • guidance or pastoral care teachers
  • school nurses
  • school counsellors or youth workers
  • support workers or social workers
  • religious leaders.

Some people may find it easier to talk to somebody on the phone. See below for details of confidential advice lines that can support you with the particular issues you’re facing.

If you are concerned about stress impacting on your health, you can see your GP or a school nurse. They will be able to refer you on to your local child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) for extra help.

“It started a few months ago, during year 11. I had a lot of work to do because it was my GCSE year but I was off for two weeks in April because I had tonsillitis and I needed an operation.

“When I went back to school, I had missed tonnes of work and I was given extra homework to do to catch up. I tried really hard to get this done on top of my coursework but I just got more and more behind. I started to think I’d never be able to catch up and I thought I’d fail all my GCSEs.

“It got to the point where I couldn’t sleep because I was worrying too much and although I was spending more and more time doing homework, I couldn’t actually concentrate on it because I just kept thinking about how much I had to do. I was really snappy and horrible to my family, and I stopped seeing my friends.

“I didn’t want to get any help because I thought I’d look stupid, but my mum dragged me to see my head of year, Mrs Young. I’m glad she did because Mrs Young was really understanding about the mess I had got in and she helped me to sort it out.

“She spoke to my class teachers, and they agreed that I didn’t need to do all of the outstanding work, just the most important bits. Two of my teachers spent some time with me after school, going through some bits of my courses­­ I hadn’t understood properly. I was given some time out of lessons to catch up on my coursework.

“Within a couple of weeks I was fully caught-up and I was feeling much better because I was sleeping properly and seeing friends again. I got good grades in my GCSEs and I’m going to college in September.”

  • Childline – A source of information and support for any concerns a young person may be experiencing. You can phone for free and confidential advice on 0800 1111 or contact them by email/message board.
  • Young Minds – Provides information and advice for young people and their parents about young people’s mental health.
  • Mind – Provides advice and support on mental health, how to get advice and support and how to support others.
  • Samaritans – Provides a 24-hour service offering confidential emotional support to anyone who is in crisis. Free helpline from any UK mobile 116 123, email: jo@samaritans.org
  • Stress Management Society – A non-profit organisation dedicated to helping individuals and companies recognise and reduce stress.
  • NHS – 10 stress busters tips to reduce stress.
  • Talk to Frank – An organisation that gives confidential advice on drugs, including their effects and how to get help if drugs are a problem in your life. You can speak to an adviser by calling 0300 123 6600, or text 82111, or you can email an adviser via their website.

Resources

  • CAMHS Resources – Pooled mental health resources for young people, parents, carers and professionals.
  • HappyMaps – Pooled mental health resources for parents, carers and young people developed by healthcare professionals.
  • KeepCool – Videos and information on coping with strong emotions, co-developed with young people.

This information was produced by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Child and Family Public Engagement Editorial Board (CAFPEB). It reflects the best available evidence at the time of writing.

Expert authors: Dr Tze Hui Phang and Professor Andrea Danese

Special thanks to the young people who provided feedback on the contents of this resource.

Full references for this resource are available on request.

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© August 2022 Royal College of Psychiatrists