Stress and the Teenage Brain (Part 1): The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Stress and the teenage brain

Here’s a fact that may surprise you:

The average high school student today experiences the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient of the 1950s.

Take a moment to let that sink in: teenagers who are now considered normal would have been referred for specialist treatment in the 1950s.

What’s causing teenagers to feel so anxious?

Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University Dr Jean Twenge believes the increase in mental health issues is due to how teenagers spend their time – on smartphones and social media. She states:

“Right when smartphones became common, and teens started spending less time face-to-face, their psychological well-being plummeted.”

screen time and mental health

It turns out the more time you spend in front of a screen and on social media, the more depressed and anxious you’re likely to feel. This article helps to explain why this is the case.

The problem with stress

Stress stops you from enjoying minutes, hours and days of your life. It also makes learning information incredibly difficult.

A stressed brain is like a computer that has been infected with a Trojan virus. It can’t process information efficiently. It runs really slowly and often freezes. Its systems have gone haywire.

stressed teenage brain

Studies show the build up of toxic stress in the brain can shorten our telomeres making us age faster and lead to the development of Alzheimer’s.

But let’s be clear, not all stress is the same …

There’s good stress and then there’s bad stress.

Good stress can help motivate you and propel you into action. It can make you mentally sharper and help you lift your game.

Bad stress is toxic stress that lingers in your brain and body. If not managed well, it can cause serious damage.

If you’re now thinking, That’s it! I’m dropping out of school and university. It’s just too stressful!, think again. Why? Because stress that lingers isn’t always harmful.

Neuroscientists Doctors Dean and Ayesha Sherzai (authors of The Alzheimer’s Solution) argue that we should welcome some forms of chronic stress. They state:

“Pursuing long-term goals towards an important milestone (getting an academic degree, for example, or changing a lifelong habit) can seem overwhelming, but this kind of purposeful action actually creates significant cognitive reserve (a measure of the brain’s resilience). The associated stress may in fact be chronic, but it fits your vision and purpose. The stress has both a direction and a timeline: you set the goal, and you’re in control.”

Here’s the critical factor when it comes to stress: you need to be the boss of it (i.e. in control and able to manage it).

But what if you’re not in control of your stress? What can this do to the developing teenage brain?

Neuroscientist Doctor Richard Restak (author of Think Smart) states:

“It [the adolescent brain] doesn’t manage stress very well. Typically stress in an adult brain causes a rise in cortisol levels (a measure of stress) followed by a gradual decrease over an hour or two.

In adolescents, that burst of cortisol hangs around a lot longer, resulting in sustained exposure of the brain to harmful effects, such as shrinkage of cells in the hippocampus (resulting in memory loss and depression) and the amygdala (resulting in anxiety and other overwhelming emotions).”

He goes onto state:

“This has important consequences because the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex are the three brain areas that undergo major changes during adolescence. If these brain areas are damaged by stress hormones, the effect can extend into adulthood …”

In short, stress that is poorly managed can mess with the growth and resilience of the teenage brain.

What can you do to combat toxic stress?

brain power
You need tools, hacks and strategies because toxic stress is an ugly beast. The good news is there is no shortage of effective strategies out there: meditation, walks in nature, avoiding multi-tasking, having time-out from technology (e.g. The Back to the 1950s technique), exercise, etc.

The challenge is to make stress management a top priority. Set aside some time each day to engage in activities that relax your body and brain. If you want to optimise your brainpower, it’s well worth spending the time to do this.

In the next blog post, I’ll share a range of different strategies to decrease and manage toxic stress in your life.