Navigating Stress During the School Year

UT Health Austin psychiatrist shares tips for managing academic stress

Reviewed by: Stephen Strakowski, MD
Written by: Lauren Schneider

A teenage girl in a classroom smiles and takes notes.

According to a 2014 report from the American Psychological Association, academic pressures represent a significant source of stress for more than 80% of teenagers.

“Some short-term focused stress can help with performance because it can make you more alert,” says Stephen Strakowski, MD, a psychiatrist in UT Health Austin’s Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences who specializes in adolescent treatment. “Anxiety is your brain interpreting a threat, so it’s getting you to pay attention to something.”

Dr. Strakowski cautions that outside of a survival scenario, prolonged stress is never good for anyone. Here, he provides strategies for teens and their parents or caregivers to keep this unhealthy academic stress at bay.

Tips For Teens

<br>Stay in touch with your emotions

Stress is a normal reaction to the pressures of everyday life. Worry, fear, anger, sadness and other emotions are also all normal emotional responses to stress. When it comes to handling academic stress, it’s important to pay attention to the stress that underlies these emotions. If your emotional response to stress begins to interfere with your ability to do the things you want or need to do, this stress has become unhealthy and should be addressed right away.

Signs of excessive stress may include:

  • Disrupted concentration
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Feelings of depression or anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts

If you or someone you know needs immediate help, especially if someone is hurt or in danger of hurting themselves or others, please contact one of the crisis lines below.

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<br>Maintain healthy habits

Finding and practicing healthy ways to cope with stress can help you reduce its impact on your daily life. Preventing and managing long-term stress can also lower your risk of developing other conditions, such as heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, and depression.

The following healthy lifestyle choices may help mitigate the effects of stress:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Keep a consistent sleep schedule
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol
  • Share what you are feeling with someone you trust

Students who feel overwhelmed can speak with a guidance counselor, social worker, or nurse at their school. Team-based telehealth consultation services are also available through the Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine (TCHATT) initiatives, which provide telemedicine or telehealth programs to school districts in Texas to help identify and assess the behavioral health needs of children and adolescents and provide access to mental health services. For more information about TCHATT, visit here.

Tips For Parents and Caregivers

<br>Think long-term when setting expectations

“Work with the teenager around their life goals,” suggests Dr. Strakowski. “What is it they want? What are they trying to accomplish? Frame academic achievement within those goals.”

Certain paths require different levels of academic achievement and parents and caregivers should not equate this with a career’s value. “Academic achievement is a tool, not a goal in and of itself,” shares Dr. Strakowski.

Help your teen understand their limits

“Failing is how you learn most of the time,” explains Dr. Strakowski. “Once reasonable expectations have been established, a parent or caregiver can help their teen by allowing them to try and fail, and supporting them when they do.”

Caregivers can also help their teenager assess whether they are pushing themselves too hard. The teenaged years are a good time to address these concerns, because the consequences are generally not as extreme when they find themselves trying to do more than you can.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

“The job of an adolescent is to break from their parents, and they don’t always do it eloquently,” says Dr. Strakowski. “Caregivers hoping to establish an open channel of communication about issues like stress with their teenagers should not take adolescent behavior, such as eye-rolling, personally. Allow teenagers to tell you things without quick, judgmental responses or criticism. Recognize that most choices are neutral or morally have no value.”

Prioritize important issues such as interpersonal violence, unwanted pregnancies, substance abuse, and drunk driving over messy rooms, body piercings, and outfit choices.

Keep Your Eye on the Big Picture

It’s important that both teens and their parents or caregivers keep a healthy sense of perspective. “While failing an exam can feel like the end of the world,” shares Dr. Strakowski, “the actual risk you’re facing is generally pretty minimal. If you fail a test from time to time, you can recover from that.”

For more information about the Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences or to make an appointment, click here.

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.