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How to (Healthily) Survive Stress

As we are approaching the most stressful time of the year, the dreaded week of final exams, the stress amongst students is increasing. As high school students, we are used to the late study nights and large coffees in the morning to try to be alert and focused to do our best. Yet the caffeine in coffee may prevent teens from getting the sleep and nutrients they need for healthy physical development. A new study released by Jonel Aleccia on NBC news has shown that teenage students are stressed more than a healthy amount. According to this study, the combination of the pressure of schoolwork, sports, community service, theater, etc. is causing young people to be more anxious than ever before. Most of the stress is the pressure to perform well academically; to deal with this form of student anxiety, another study by researchers at NYU claims that some students are even reaching the extreme of abusing illegal substances. Additionally, these students develop bad eating habits as a result of stress and start to neglect their own bodies. The stress on students in high school from academics is reaching extremely high levels, leading to negative effects on their health.

High school is about students facing academic, social, and personal challenges, all considered “good stress.” But this overbearing cycle of schoolwork, sports, more work, and sleep, can cause negative stress on high school students, especially at a selective private school like Friends Academy. NYU recently released a study, which the school describes as follows: “In a four-phase quantitative and qualitative study published in Frontiers in Psychology in July 2015, a team of NYUCN researchers led by Leonard assessed the coping skills, academic engagement, family involvement and expectations, mental health symptoms, and substance use among juniors enrolled in two highly selective private secondary schools in the Northeast.” The results of this study showed that 49% of the 11th grade students surveyed and interviewed said they feel stressed on a daily basis. They concluded that these students at rigorous prep schools work as hard as adults, or even harder, considering the difficulty of the Advanced Placement and honors classes they take. The students are then left with little to no time to relax, create, or just be teenagers.

To cope with this overwhelming stress, some students recorded in the NYU study started to rely on drugs and or alcohol. For example, before a test your blood sugar and blood pressure rise, your heart beats faster, and your muscles start to tense. These changes in your body release powerful neurochemicals and hormones, but sometimes they get the best of us. Our bodies cope with this stress by releasing a hormone called CRF (Corticotropin-releasing factor). CRF happens to be released when certain drugs and alcohol are abused, providing a fast stress reliever for students. This quick calm down can eventually lead to a dependence on these substances. In the long run, those who become addicted to drugs most likely will become even more hypersensitive to stress than they were before. In one study focused on opioid abuse, high stress was found to predict continued drug abuse in the addicts’ futures. This is not the only type of stress that can lead to substance abuse, however. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder develops after people experience life-threatening or emotional traumas. In a study released after the attacks of 9/11, thousands of people were diagnosed with PTSD, which increased the risk factor for substanc  abuse and addiction. Most students at Friends luckily don’t face PTSD or rely on substances to cope with their stress, but they do use other short-term coping strategies.

Yes, I have to say I am a culprit of ordering an iced coffee from the deli after a stressful night of studying, but the health costs from caffeine outweigh the benefits. Caffeine is a stimulant found in coffee beans, chocolate, tea, but it is a drug nonetheless. It breaks mental alertness, increases your heart rate and blood pressure, and causes you to feel awake when you probably should be sleeping. Results from annual surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 73 percent of Americans from age 2 to 22 consume caffeine on any given day. So how much is too much? According to Health Canada, a healthy adult or teenager should not take in more than 400 milligrams a day of caffeine. Sure, caffeine does reduce sleepiness, which is perfect when us high school students have a full stack of homework to tackle one night, but later on there is a big down side. “You’ll have more trouble falling asleep and more sleep disruptions through the night,” said a journalist who recently published an article about caffeine's effect on kids. During our teenage years, our physical development is at its peak, so consuming too much caffeine can deprivethe body of necessary nutrients.

That leads us to another question… Are you a stress eater? Do you bolt to fatty and sugary foods when you are stressed? Stress affects what we choose to eat as well, and studies have shown that when a student is at their peak of stress, they fall into bad eating habits. In one particular New York Times study, elevated stress levels lead to unhealthy food choices.  In other words, the Times explains, the stress “amplified the perceived flavor of unhealthful foods and dampened the ability to consider the future, undermining self-control.” A good tip is to stock up on healthy food snacks when you know there is going to be a stressful week ahead; bring nuts or fruit in your backpack instead of a candy bar. Having healthy options in front of you for a rough workload is not only better for your health, but also helps create better eating/snacking habits in the future. At Friends, the cafeteria does a really great job of providing healthier options throughout the day. If you forgot breakfast, do NOT ignore your stomach. Instead, go get a piece of fruit or some oatmeal from the lunchroom. Even at lunchtime, choose the better options that FA so nicely provides, like a salad. FA creates an environment that allows us to have a ton of options, but it is also important to remember not to fall back into bad eating habits even during the most stressful times.

To stay stress free during final exam week, here are a few tips that will help: First, try not to cram; as tempting as it might be, cramming actually causes the stress levels in the body to dramatically increase. Assuming that you have studied in advance, take the night before the exam off to just review the main points and topics. Second, try as best as you can to avoid other “stressful” people because stress is contagious. If your friend is stressing about the final, you will start to stress about the final. To stay away from this surround yourself with supportive friends before an exam, or start a group chat and meet in a study group. Studying in a group can help you learn from others and also alleviate some of the stress build up leading up to the exam. Third, as I stated before, eating well is VERY important during exam week, especially breakfast! Reporter Nisa from Youth Central says, “Good nutrition is a leading factor in a student's academic achievement. A well-balanced diet can help transform a nutritionally imbalanced student into a healthy and dynamic one.” This also applies for caffeine: too much the night before an exam may make it harder to fall asleep, and nothing is more stressful than not being able to fall asleep the night before a big test. The last and most important tip to stay stress free before the exam is to get a good night's sleep. Eventually, after studying for so many hours, your brain reaches a point where it can no longer be productive. The information is literally going in one ear and out the other: you are most likely not retaining any of it. By getting a good night’s sleep you will be alert and focused in the morning to ace the exam! After the exam is over do not forget to reward yourself: you just studied a lot and you deserve to relax. Go out with your friends, go swimming, go to the movies, or just watch some TV.

In our society, stress has taken over teenagers, especially academically. Students have crazy schedules that involve after school activities such as sports, theatre, volunteering and jobs as well as maintaining good grades. It is a lot of pressure. In a study released by a student at NYU, data revealed that students at rigorous schools like Friends Academy who are taking advanced classes have little to no time to “be a teenager.” Some students are even reaching the extreme measures of abusing drugs and alcohol to try to temporarily relieve their stress, but it is only leading to addiction. Luckily at FA we do not have to worry much about substance abuse but more of the short-term stress coping methods like coffee. Caffeine has a negative impact on students sleep at night, a key factor in academic success. By limiting caffeine and increasing healthy snacking, students have proven to do better in school. Friends Academy students constantly have healthy snacks available to them in the lunchroom, so it is not worth it to double caffeine or skip a meal. Lastly, by preparing intelligently for your exams, students can eliminate someof the unnecessary stress in their lives. It is as easy as not cramming, staying focused with people who are NOT stressed, eating well, and going to sleep early. Learning more about stress and how to stay stress free is essential for any student who wants to cope and do well on their final exams. Good luck!

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