Taking down the stress monster: Professionals offer advice on dealing with stress

January 26, 2011 — by Jennifer Jin and Evaline Ju

The star basketball player was in a scoring slump and despite studying for hours each night, her grades had dipped. Her parents noticed the changes and told her to see a therapist. She thought it was a crazy idea, but after a few appointments, she felt like she had more control over her life again.

This star basketball player is far from the only teen to see her life spiraling out of control. At an academically intense school such as Saratoga, students have become accustomed to living with constant pressure. As a result, stress has become a common problem among students.

“[Junior year] is really stressful because you have all these tests, SATs, SAT IIs, and you have to keep your grades up,” junior Sarika Srivastava said.

Dr. Chris Polizzi, a clinical psychologist in Los Gatos, sees many high school students “who are high-performing both academically and athletically,” but become stressed by their activities.

“A certain amount of stress is inevitable in life, even if a person could have everything the way [he wants],” he said. “In fact, low levels of stress are actually helpful to motivate us and push us to perform at our best.”

However, if this stress is left to build up, there can be disastrous results. By changing the way bodies normally function, stress disrupts the natural balance essential for well-being. Over time, it can take a toll on both the mind and body.

According to Polizzi, long-term stress without breaks can result in a range of problems, such as making more mistakes, forgetfulness or sleeping problems.

Chronic stress can damage the immune response system, according to Stanford University’s Center on Stress and Health’s website. With added exposure to stress, a body’s ability to fight disease decreases.

A body produces stress hormones when necessary, increasing blood pressure. However, with constant stress, organs can begin to fail and cause the body to suffer anything from weight loss to strokes and heart attacks. In addition, it can adversely affect mental growth and health.

Psychologically, it can cause lack of concentration, quick temper, anxiety and irritability.

“[Long-term stress can cause] a failure to maintain basic healthy relationships with peers,” Jason Esswein, a San Jose marriage and family therapist, said.

Even when a person mentally recovers from stress, the physical harm his or her body may remain until further treatment. While some simply cope with stress by sharing their thoughts or finding different focuses, other teenagers feel the need to turn to stronger alternatives that may result in drug abuse and eating disorders that could take longer to heal from.

To alleviate stress, Polizzi advises using techniques to relax, like breathing deeply or altering negative thoughts, which turns off the fight-or-flight response of the body.

He tries to adjust his patients’ schedules by adding in more free time or fun activities and changing diet and exercise regimens to aid in treatment.

According to Los Gatos marriage and family therapist Dr. Beth Proudfoot, stress hormones build up in muscles, and exercise releases them.

“Music can be helpful, but not if you’re trying to do two things at once,” Proudfoot said. “So, lay down and listen to quiet music, then turn it off before you try to focus on something else.”

On the bright side, a healthy diet, exercising and communicating with friends or family members can prevent stress in the first place.

“[One has] to learn to express feelings and be aware of surroundings,” Esswein said. “Setting [one’s own] boundaries is also huge.”

When feeling anxious, some people experience an increase in heart beat, difficulty breathing or irritability. Some also choose to increase their consumption of substances like alcohol or drugs, often leading to worse problems than the stress they were originally feeling. Awareness of the signs of stress can help a person to take steps to combat it.

“To avoid excessive stress, it is important to know what types of situations trigger stress for you individually,” Polizzi said. “Planning ahead to avoid crises can also help keep your stress at manageable levels. Most importantly, ask for help!”

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