Like other parents, Elena Selivan often wondered if her daughter Nikita, a junior at Lexington High School in Lexington, Mass., was really doing her homework or just twiddling her thumbs, listening to music and Snapchatting in her room after school. But an important realization struck one day when Nikita wanted to go out with friends, and Elena balked.
“When have I ever not done my work?” Nikita asked.
“I realized (high school kids) are working so hard, and we as parents don’t see it. We only see a selection of it: their grades,” says Selivan. “They’re dealing with sports, grades, relationships, activities. We see the results, but we’re often too busy with our own lives to see all the hard work they put in.”
Never are high school students busier than in junior year, with the weight of tests, college admissions and the future on their shoulders. What can they do to relieve all the stress that accompanies these challenges, especially if their efforts sometimes go unnoticed?
Selivan, a certified holistic health counselor based in Lexington, and Kate Mitcheom, a certified MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) facilitator, shared 10 tips to help students navigate through the stress and perils of pre-college life.
1. Have someone to talk to.
It’s important to have someone in your life who’s not judgmental and can be a sounding board for problems and/or a source of advice, says Selivan. That person can be a friend, an aunt or uncle or any other positive influence. Often this person can help boost self-esteem and be a filter if you’re not ready to talk to your parents about what’s bothering you.
Parents also need to be willing to accept help when they are struggling so they can better support and talk to their kids, says Selivan.
“If (parents) don’t have the tools, the skills, the knowledge, how can they teach their kids or even notice a problem, if not add to the problem with their own rotten negative attitude," she says. "Unfortunately, kids are the ones who often teach us. They are more open-minded and more receptive. Sure, we can tell parents to breathe, to meditate, to be grateful, more positive, more open, but until they are ready to receive the message, they won't get it.”
2. Avoid negative people.
Watch out for friends who keep talking about how nervous they are or how things are not going to work out, says Mitcheom. It’s very common when you’re nervous to focus on the negative, and our minds even have a bias toward negativity. Being aware negativity is there and contagious is key, she says.
3. Pay attention to the way you eat.
Good nutrition is vital to well-being, say Selivan and Mitcheom, especially when stress can take a toll on both physical and mental health. A poor diet can hurt not only the way you look but also the way you feel.
Mitcheom advises eating more fruits and vegetables, and Selivan urges eliminating sugar, which leads to “sugar highs” and crashes that are unproductive for sustained learning.
4. Do not rely on drugs and alcohol.
Temporarily relieving stress with substances can be tempting, but if you’re looking to impress college recruiters with high grades and achievements outside the classroom, drugs and alcohol derail you more than they help, say Selivan and Mitcheom.
Alcohol is a depressant, notes Mitcheom. Leaning on it or drugs can cause or worsen symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Teens who think they or a friend might have a drug or alcohol problem can take a National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence self-test, or get more help or information through the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s website, Alateen or Above the Influence, a nonprofit that offers support and advice to teens on peer pressure, drugs and alcohol.
5. Try practicing mindfulness techniques.
Mindfulness, says Mitcheom, is paying attention in the present moment without judging. It’s about paying attention to what’s in front of you.
To stay in the present and in a good space when stressed out, tell yourself that, in all likelihood, things will turn out OK, she says. Then, put your hand on your heart, take a couple of long, slow, easy breaths, and allow yourself to be at ease with all that is present.
6. Don’t pile worries on top of worries.
In meditation and mindfulness there is a concept called the two arrows. The first arrow, says Mitcheom, is something that is painful but unavoidable. Perhaps it’s the worry you didn’t do well on the SAT. You can’t do anything about this. The second arrow increases the worry unnecessarily because your mind adds more stress by taking the worry to the nth degree. You might have thoughts like: “I never score well on tests,” “Someone else is better” or “I won’t do well.” You can control the second arrow. Redirect your thinking and remind yourself, “I’ll do the best I can,” advises Mitcheom.
7. Get some exercise.
Exercise is very important when you’re ridden with anxiety, says Mitcheom. When you notice you’re feeling uptight, take a breath and do 10 jumping jacks to get yourself out of your head.
8. Make sure you sleep.
The biological clock of an adolescent, says Selivan, is set up so that they cannot fall asleep until 11 p.m. But going to sleep well after this can negatively affect performance in school. And though it’s a nice thought, you can’t physically catch up on lost sleep and restore yourself to good health over the weekend, she said.
To get a good night’s sleep, don’t eat dinner too late, and if you snack later, make it something light, like fruit or a few nuts, says Selivan. Try camomile tea and maybe read a book an hour before bedtime. Also, turn off late-night TV, electronics, bright lights, and, yes, phone screens, she says, all of which have lights that will disturb your circadian rhythm.
9. As you go to bed at night, name 10 things you are grateful for.
Mitcheom advises reframing your point of view with even the most basic of positive reminders, such as: You can walk and run; you live in a house; you have a school to go to and the intelligence to attend college.
10. Schedule in time for fun.
Be sure that every day has a few laughs, says Mitcheom, even if it’s as basic as trolling YouTube, watching a movie or texting friends.