Columnist

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q.This is gonna sound weird. Is there such a thing as stress when things are going well? Like, my life is good. School’s good, grades are good, I’m playing sports I love, I have good friends, I’m getting ready to take the SATs and look at colleges. My family’s a little strange but pretty functional. I love my mom and dad and they love me. My sibs aren’t too horrible. If my life is good, why do I feel stressed? I don’t have panic attacks like one of my good friends, and I don’t need medicine for depression or anxiety. Still, sometimes I just lie awake at night thinking. I bounce back pretty fast from a sleepless night. My mom says I’m just growing and it’s normal to feel stress at my age. If you have time, I’d love your thoughts. Thanks.

– 16-year-old

Mary Jo’s response: Stress can be positive. We often think of stress as bad for us, springing from negative changes in our lives, but the reality is good aspects of life can also be stressful. You’re experiencing many changes. Even if these changes are positive, they can be stressful. Stress is the body’s response to change and new demands.

Mental health researchers label stress differently based on its positive or negative origins.

Positive stress is called eustress. Eustress usually:

  • Lasts a short while
  • Feels exciting
  • Motivates
  • Focuses energy
  • Is within our ability to easily cope
  • Can improve performance

Negative stress, referred to as distress, is what many think of when the word stress is used. Distress may:

  • Cause anxiety
  • Feel unpleasant
  • Decrease performance
  • Be outside our ability to easily cope
  • Be short or long term
  • Lead to mental or physical problems

Your feelings are common. The American Psychological Association conducts a Stress in America Survey that shows teen stress can be as high or higher than stress felt by adults. The most common teen stressors are school (83 percent), getting into college or deciding what to do after high school (69 percent) and financial worries in their families (65 percent).

Examples of distress, or negative stressors are: a death in the family, hospitalization, injury or illness, being abused or neglected, unemployment, sleep problems, money problems, relationship problems like breaking up, or trouble at school.

Examples of eustress, or positive stressors are: starting a new job, buying a home, receiving a promotion at work, moving, taking a vacation, learning a new hobby, holidays, or having a child.

Your body’s reactions to stress involve hormones – chemicals our bodies release. Let’s say you’re late for school because you slept in, your first-period class there’s a pop quiz you aren’t prepared to take, and your best friend and you disagree in between classes with no time to resolve your issue. Your body releases stress hormones to trigger your “fight or flight” response. This response is designed to protect you in an emergency by getting you ready to act quickly. Your breathing speeds up, your heart races, and your muscles tense, ready for action. Decreasing stress by developing coping skills can ease this response.

Learning coping skills will help with both positive and negative stress. Many people find exercise helpful. Learning to slow down your breathing while practicing mindfulness is an excellent way to cope. Sharing your feelings with people who support you, like your parents, teachers or friends, can put stress in perspective.

I’m glad life is good. May you continue to succeed.

Peer Educator response: Are you kidding? Of course good stress is normal. We don’t know anyone who doesn’t experience it at one time or another.

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