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The Effects of Long-term Stress on Adolescents

Take a look into the scientific and physical causes for stressors and their effects in adolescents' lives.

Photo By: Smithsonian Magazine

Let's start off by stating what is stress. Stress is a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stress is your body's way of responding to any kind of demand. It can be caused by both good and bad experiences. When people feel stressed by something going on around them, their bodies react by releasing chemicals into the blood. 

Now that we have that down, let's move onto what causes stress. There are several factors of stress for adolescents. There are four main categories: physiological, cognitive, behavioral, and environmental. All these factors can affect your mind and body either positively or negatively. These are the basics you need to know about stress and how it is triggered. For adolescents there are many triggers surrounding them every day, which are technically called "stressors." Here is a list of a few of the many stressors that can be potentially affecting any adolescent at any time: Hormones are changing, stresses of relationships (family and friends), academic responsibility, roles and responsibilities, financial (money for needs and wants), and many more. With these stressors being "activated" so to speak, they have an effect on how the adolescent acts. 

Effects of Stressors on Adolescent Lives

Effects on cognitive function: The area of the brain that is the most affected is the prefrontal cortex. The grey matter includes regions of the brain involved in muscle control, and sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control. When attacked with waves of stress, the grey matter volume in the brain reduces. Grey matter is a major component of the central nervous system, consisting of neuronal cell bodies, neuropil, glial cells, synapses, and capillaries. It is present in the brain, brainstem and cerebellum, and present throughout the spinal cord. With a reduction on its volume, the muscle control and sensory perception can weaken or numb. 

Effects on risk-taking: Multiple studies have shown that adolescents with a higher rate of stress were more likely to chose an option that was more risky. The judgement and decision making sectors apart of the cerebral cortex were found to be impaired. At the cellular and circuit level, the cerebral cortex is characterized by two primary features: across its surface it is divided into functional areas that serve various sensory, motor, and cognitive functions, and it is subdivided into several layers that organize the input and output connectivity of resident neurons. When effected with high levels of stress, adolescents tend to make riskier decisions compared to their normal way of reasoning and judging. 

Effects on emotional processing: When hit with stress, the brain's amygdala was found to be more activated, making teens more sensitive to negative expressions than positive ones. I know what you're thinking, what is an amy-do-what? Well, the amygdala is an almond-shaped section of nervous tissue located in the temporal lobe of the brain. There are two amygdalae per person normally, with one amygdala on each side of the brain. They are thought to be a part of the limbic system within the brain, which is responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory. But, there have been many strong debates on the subject, in which many believe the amygdala functions independently of the limbic system. 

Effects on substance abuse/reliance: When an adolescent has high amounts of stress they can turn to drugs and other substances to ease and numb the pains of stress. If chronic stress occurs, addiction could become a serious factor that inhibits the adolescents life. There is also an elevated substance abuse rate for those who suffer from depression and other mental illnesses. Unless prescribed medically by a doctor or psychiatrist, drugs and other substances should not be taken by adolescents. Alcohol, opiates, and benzodiazepines can all be characterized as depressants, which can make stress worsen or can further into a mental illness. It is recommended that you seek help or turn to positive coping mechanisms to help reduce the effects of stress.

The Stress Effect

Photo By: Streamline Meditation

Here is a chart based on the stress effect. This can be a summary for the above paragraphs along with more insight on the topic. 

Chronic Stress

Long term stress, also known as chronic stress, can lead to the risk of obtaining:

  • Depressive, mood, anxiety disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Bodily diseases
  • Weaker immune system
  • Adrenal burnout
  • Fatigue (less or more sleep)

Now you might be wondering how someone can have chronic stress. According to the American Psychological Association: 

Chronic stress can occur in response to everyday stressors that are ignored or poorly managed, as well as to exposure to traumatic events. The consequences of chronic stress are serious, particularly as it contributes to anxiety and depression ... Additionally, research has shown that there is an association between both acute and chronic stress and a person's abuse of addictive substances.

Managing/Coping with Stress

Managing and utilizing coping mechanisms are an essential step to take to help reduce stress on a daily basis. The following are a few ways to help manage stress on any level: 

  • Exercise: 30-60 minutes of activity a few days a week
  • Proper diet: Greens, meats, carbohydrates, hydration
  • Relaxation: An hour a few days a week of relaxation
  • Realistic Goals: Knowing one’s abilities
  • Empathy: loved ones must be supportive and boost self-esteem
  • Proper Sleep: about 8-10 hours 

Never let stress get the best of you! Hopefully some of these managing/coping strategies can help with your stress, or recommend one of the above ways to a friend or loved one dealing with stress. The best way to manage stress if it reaches an intolerable level is to seek help! Doctors and psychiatrists are equipped to help you deal with your everyday struggles.

How Stress Affects Your Body and Mind

If your interest is peaked on the stress topic, here's a short 2:32 minute video of the effects of stress on the brain and body. This video goes into detail stress and how it is not something to frown upon. Take a look into this animated sketch production by Braive on Youtube!

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