Navigating High School

By Emily Pierson, MEd, Mental Health Therapist

Are you a high school student that feels lost? Are you struggling to balance school, a social life, activities and family responsibilities? Do you feel pressure to make decisions about your future? If so, know that you are not alone. In fact, teens today are reporting higher levels of stress than adults during the school year (2). In Minnesota alone, there are approximately 250,000 high school students currently (1). All of these teenagers are doing their best to successfully navigate school, state testing, college prep and future planning, while simultaneously balancing sports, clubs, friendships, relationships, volunteering, working, a family life, and much more. Needless to say, it’s no wonder teenagers today are experiencing higher levels of stress than ever before.

What Kind of Stress Do You Have?

Everyone responds to their surroundings and life events differently. What                                                                                              might be   stressful to you, may not be stressful to your best friend or even your siblings. Unfortunately, everyone experiences stress to some degree. Sometimes stress can be helpful. If you weren’t stressed about your upcoming biology exam, you probably wouldn’t study. And, if you were being chased by a bear, your body’s stress response would tell you to react, and you would notice physical changes such as an increased heart rate, quicker breathing, and tense muscles (4). Stress can motivate us to do better. But, other times, stress can become really overwhelming, especially when there are multiple areas in your life that are stressful at the same time. Here are a few examples (4):

  • Normal, everyday stress: This type of stress includes going to school, getting homework done, spending time with family, walking the dog, and other daily tasks and responsibilities.
  • Negative events: Everyone has bad days. You bomb a test, your coach benches you, your boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with you, you’re in a fight with your best friend, or your parents are getting a divorce. While some of these events may seem more severe than others, any of these negative events can naturally cause an increase in stress.
  • Traumatic stress: Traumatic stress is much more significant than something negative happening in your life. This could include a major accident, assault, being in danger of being harmed or killed, sexual abuse, or a sudden loss. Trauma causes or bodies to have extremely distressing physical or emotional symptoms, that may have long lasting effects.

The important thing to remember here is that stress and situations will affect individuals in different ways. Just because one person is able to seemingly “just get over it” easily doesn’t mean that you can on your own. And that’s okay. In a survey completed by the American Psychological Association, they found that 83% oof teens reported that school was stressful. Safe to say, that the majority of teens experience some sort of stress during the school year.

If Everyone Has Stress, How Does It Affect us?

As previously mentioned, some stress can be positive and motivating. However, too much negative stress can have a number of negative affects on your body. Here are some signs that stress may be becoming too much (2, 5):

  • Feeling irritable or angry more easily
  • Changes in behavior (i.e., acting out)
  • Ignoring responsibilities like homework, forgetting things
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Getting sick more often including headaches and stomachaches
  • Sleep changes, including sleeping too much or too little
  • Feeling tired all the time

These are just examples of some short-term, more immediate signs of stress. These short-term effects, can begin to take place right away after a stressful event. However, long-term stress can lead to issues with digestive, immune, reproductive and cardiovascular health (4). Everyday stress can turn into something more serious, including more severe mental disorders (4). It is important to pay attention to your stress levels, manage them in a safe, healthy way, and find help if you feel you are unable to do so.

How Teens Can Manage Stress

Now that you know how to recognize stress, how do you manage it? If you aren’t healthy, you can’t go to school, do homework, go to work, play sports, participate in activities or clubs, or do things that that you need to do.  Have you ever heard adults talk about ‘self-care’? Self-care is the practice of doing things to take care of your own physical and mental health.  It is now understood that self-care becomes more and more important as stress levels rise. Here are some ideas for how you can manage stress in your life (4,5):

  • Talk About It: Imagine a can of soda that is dropped one day. Then, the next day it’s dropped again, and the next day it is shaken once, then twice, then three times. Eventually it’s going to blow, right? The same could be said for humans and their emotions. We can only be shaken so many times before we need a healthy outlet to let our feelings out. Find a trusted person that you can share your feelings with. Maybe a friend, a parent, coach, doctor, teacher, therapist or another trusted adult. Anyone you feel comfortable with – someone who will be supportive and helpful.
  • Take Care of Your Body: One of the best things we can do for our mental health is to take care of our physical health. When you feel overwhelmed, our tendency is often to push aside our basic needs. Make an effort to focus on sleep, a healthy diet, and exercise. Do your best to sleep at least eight hours a night. Put the phone down, turn the TV off, and create a dark, safe environment in which to sleep.  Instead of reaching for fast food, sugar, and soda, try to eat fruits, veggies, and proteins. Try to get some exercise a few days a week. You don’t have to run marathons every day, but go for a walk, do some yoga or light strength training.  Anything to get your body moving. Movement helps to process and get rid of the stress chemicals circulating throughout your body.
  • Practice Stress Reducing Techniques: Stress reducing techniques (aka ‘coping skills’), will look different for everyone. The important piece, is to use healthy coping skills. Unhealthy coping strategies like using substances, giving in to negative thinking patterns, sleeping too much or too little, overeating or not resting can have a negative impact on your health. Here are some ideas for healthy coping skills:
    • Prioritizing
    • Exercising (yoga, running, lifting weights,playing sports, hiking, etc.)
    • Going for a walk
    • Being in nature
    • Listening to music
    • Taking a break or a day off
    • Spending time with positive, healthy people
    • Working on your hobbies
    • Trying something new
    • Reading
    • Drawing, painting, coloring or creating art

These are just a few suggestions for healthy coping skills. Don’t be discouraged if you try something and you don’t feel like it works. It may take some trial and error to find what works best for you.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help: While it may seem like it at times, you are not alone and do not have to cope with stress alone. Your parents could be a good resource and they do have experience getting through high school. Although no parent or parental figure is perfect, they generally do want to help. Another option, is to ask to speak to a therapist or counselor. Most schools have mental health professionals on staff who can provide help to students. For something more in depth, see if there is a helping professional in your area or one that’s available via telehealth. Therapists can help make sense of the overwhelming and can teach healthy coping skills.

High school can be very overwhelming. Teenagers today are subjected to not only school, but also extracurricular activities, social media, work, pressure to maintain ‘good’ grades and attend college, and to balance friendships and a family life. Take into consideration that stress rates are rising, and it’s no wonder that mental health concerns continue to rise as well among this age group. Remember though that you are not alone and there are people around to help you. Lean on others as needed. Practice healthy coping skills. And do your best. That’s all you can do. Hang in there, high school won’t last forever.


Emily provides telehealth services, offering a holistic approach to mental health and wellness. In addition to prioritizing mental well-being, she uses a strengths-based perspective to improve relationships and physical health.  She is passionate about helping teens and adults set and meet realistic, achievable goals, while also meeting them where they are in their journey.

Emily was born and raised in Alaska, where she received her Master’s degree in counseling from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  After moving to the “Lower 48”, she has been working as a therapist for the past four years.

Resources/References

  1. High school Graduate Projections. Minnesota Office of Higher Education. Retrieved from: http://www.ohe.state.mn.us/mPg.cfm?pageID=1290. Accessed October 11, 2021.
  2. Teen Stress Rivals That of Adults. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/04/teen-stress. Accessed October 11, 2021.
  3. 6 Common Triggers of Teen Stress. Retrieved from: https://www.psycom.net/common-triggers-teen-stress/. Accessed October 11, 2021.
  4. 5 Things You Should Know About Stress. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved from: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress#pub3. Accessed October 11, 2021.
  5. How to Help Children and Teens Manage Their Stress. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/topics/child-development/stress. Accessed October 12, 2021.