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.I’m stressed, but I pretend I’m not. I want my parents and teachers to think I’ve got everything under control, but I lie awake at night, and my mind is a mess. I stare at the ceiling. I think about what I need to do over and over. I become obsessed with my school assignments. That doesn’t mean I do them. I always wait until the last minute. Can you help me be less stressed?

16-year-old

Mary Jo’s response: I hear you. It takes a great deal of energy to pretend to be OK. I’d like to help you feel less stressed.

My first thoughts are for the adults in your life. Please share this column with a trusted adult:

  • Too often we adults think our young people are “just teens” or worse, “just kids” without real stress. Young people feel incredible pressure. One type of pressure might be their intense desire to please us. Everyone feels stress. Please be aware of signs of stress, like anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, withdrawn affect, eating less or eating more, and failing grades.
  • Each encounter with a young person is a cross-cultural experience. Please try to see life through a young person’s lens. Empathic awareness of their stress can be eased by your acknowledgment and validation of the pressure they face.
  • Help your young person make schedules to pace assignments. Many of us need to-do lists – I know I do. Help with study habits by creating quiet time for work.
  • Set house rules for study/work time. Communicate with and make the rules acceptable to your young person. Ideally, your young person will initiate the rules – you need only provide guidance. Our Common Ground Teen Center is teen-run and led. I help with guidelines, but the young people own them.
  • Support. Support. Support. Support.

You are ultimately responsible for your own life. Adult guidance is extremely helpful, but there are ways you can lower stress on your own:

  • Check you attitude. It may sound sappy, but life is very short. Mortality became real to me when I cared for young people your age with terminal illnesses. Each day is a gift, even the ones when you feel lousy. Start with this: Seek joy, every day. Give joy to others.
  • Laugh. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
  • Make a study/work schedule. Be kind to yourself if/when you deviate from it. You’re human. Failure gives us a chance to get back up and do it again.
  • Find friends whom you can study. Hang out with peers who want to achieve. Create a study group. Urge friends to keep you on track.
  • Take stock of your life. Are you overbooked? There are so many wonderful ways to participate in high school life. Sports, clubs, jobs – wow, your life may be too busy. It takes courage to realize you have too little time and then do something about it. Change what you can. If nothing is changeable, look at your screen time.
  • Get enough sleep. Most teens are nocturnal – they spend a lot of time awake at night. Sleep not only helps you grow and learn, it also eases anxiety. Talk with a trusted adult if you’re having trouble sleeping.
  • Learn relaxation or mindfulness. Mindfulness can be as simple as learning to think about your breathing. Breathe in, thinking I am breathing in. Breathe out, thinking I am breathing out. Your breathing is your center. Slow it down. Concentrate on it. There are numerous website and videos on mindful breathing. Here’s a simple one-minute example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_N98E5-7jo.
  • This article from the American Academy of Pediatrics may help: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/teen/school/Pages/When-the-Pressure-to-Excel-Gets-Out-of-Hand.aspx.
  • Share your feelings and stress with a trusted adult.
  • If you feel anxious or depressed, a counselor can help. Speak with a trusted adult at home or school to arrange time with someone.

Good luck. Please stay in touch. Try our Common Ground Teen Center for study time: Monday through Friday, 3 to 7 p.m., 92. N. Main St., Washington.

Peer Educator response: Many of us relate to your situation. Here are our thoughts:

  • Find an outlet to release stress. It can be anything from coloring to playing with animals – whatever makes you feel better.
  • Do little bits of work at a time. Don’t sit down to do all your notes/studying in one big session. Do a part, take a break, review that part, take a break, etc.
  • Make the work you do fun and personal. Reward yourself for accomplishments.
  • Don’t be afraid to tell someone you don’t have it all together. Ask for help, ask for ideas, even ask for extensions and tutoring if you need it.
  • Especially, let your teachers know your stress is real. They should reassure you that you can handle it.
  • Take time for yourself. Stress is always going to be there. How you handle it makes a difference.
  • Try not to go to bed stressed.
  • Don’t expect to do everything. School is important, but it isn’t everything. Your mental health is most important.
  • Enjoy being a teen. Sixteen is an age when a lot starts to change. It can get stressful, but stress can be managed. Remember to breathe.

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email at podmj@healthyteens.com.

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