Navigating Back-to-School Stress: Strategies for Teenagers' Well-Being

Returning to school after the summer break can be stressful for some teens, especially when starting high school. While a little stress is normal, persistent feelings of anxiety and stress can interrupt daily life. If left unchecked, these feelings can harm teens' physical and mental health.

Stress is a normal physical and emotional response to an external threat or danger. When faced with a threatening situation, the body releases hormones that activate the "fight or flight" response preparing the body to either confront or evade the threat. Increased heart and breathing rates, high blood pressure, and sweating are common physical responses to stress. Psychological responses include the inability to think clearly and heightened alertness. Everyday challenges or life changes can also trigger an emotional stress response. However, the body reacts to emotional stress the same way it responds to physical threats. More information on the effects of stress on the body can be found in Omnigraphics' Stress-Related Disorders Sourcebook

Stress can be divided into four groups:

  • Acute stress: This is the most common type of short-term stress. Acute stress is experienced in everyday life and can be triggered by mild stressors such as an upcoming project submission, a confrontation, or a distressing event.
  • Episodic acute stress: When acute stress occurs frequently and becomes a way of life, it is called episodic acute stress. If left unchecked, it can progress to a chronic condition.
  • Eustress: This positive type of stress is caused by an adrenaline rush that energizes a person. Adventure sports such as white-water rafting and bungee jumping are examples of eustress.
  • Chronic stress: Situations such as financial struggles, family dysfunction, or childhood trauma can create an environment of ongoing stress. This prevents the body from regulating stress hormones to a normal level, leaving them elevated for long periods of time. Chronic stress can lead to sleep, respiratory, cardiovascular, immune, and reproductive disorders. Other conditions may include:
    • unexplained aches and pains
    • fatigue
    • digestive problems
    • anxiety
    • depression
    • panic attacks

Signs of Stress in Teens

Every person reacts to stress differently. Signs of teen stress can sometimes be confused with signs of physical and emotional changes due to puberty. Parents and caregivers should look out for the following signs of stress in their teen:

  • Physical signs: High blood pressure, tiredness, headaches, stomach aches, diarrhea, frequent infections, change in weight, etc.
  • Emotional signs: Irritability, changes in mood, bouts of anger, etc.
  • Behavioral signs: No longer participating in activities previously enjoyed, lack of hygiene, turning to alcohol or drugs to cope, rebellion at school or home, etc.
  • Psychological signs: Poor concentration and memory, anxiety, etc.

Factors Contributing to Stress in Teens

Stress in teens can also be induced by new or unfamiliar situations, such as starting an academic year or relocating to a new school district. Teens may worry about getting a difficult teacher, making new friends, adjusting to their new class schedule, and increasing academic demands while maintaining a social life. Teens in high school also face pressure to maintain grades that help them get into a good college. After a summer break away from bullies, going back to school can be unnerving for teens who experienced bullying. Teens who hit puberty are often conscious of their changing bodies and worry about negative comments from peers on their looks. Teens from underserved communities may worry about not having new school supplies or clothes that their peers do. Unforeseen, traumatic events such as the death of a parent or loved one, divorce, or physical or sexual assault can also significantly impact a teen's stress levels. The Omnigraphics book Stress Information for Teens details common causes of stress in teens and provides insight into how to help them.

Statistical Insights on Teen Stress Levels

In a 2021 survey, Challenge Success, a school reform nonprofit organization in the United States, shared the following results:

  • Fifty-six percent of U.S. students said their stress related to school has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • Forty-six percent of students said they feel pressure to do well in school. 
  • Fifty-nine percent said they are anxious about getting into a college. 

In 2023, reported the following statistics for stress in high school students in the United States:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, teens reported an average stress level of 5.8 compared to 3.8 reported by adults.
  • Seventy-five percent of high schoolers reported often or always feeling stressed by schoolwork.
  • Seven out of ten teens between the ages of 13 and 17 identified depression or anxiety as a major concern among peers.

Statistics on U.S. teen stress by Pew Research revealed that:

  • Sixty-one percent of teens stress about achieving good grades.
  • Twenty-nine percent stress over their looks.
  • Twenty-eight percent stress over fitting in in a social setting.
  • Twenty-one percent feel pressured into participating in extracurricular activities or sports.
  • Six percent feel pressured to drink alcohol.
  • Four percent feel pressured to do drugs.

Effective Strategies for Teen Stress Management

According to an article on Harvard Summer School's website, teens may experience a longer duration of stress because their brains—including the part that regulates the stress response—have not yet fully developed. Parents and caregivers can help teens take the following measures to cope with back-to-school stress in a positive way:

Practice Relaxation Through Deep Breathing Exercises, Meditation, or Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

Research tells us that deep breathing activates the body's parasympathetic system, commonly called the rest-and-digest system, which helps to relax the stress response by increasing oxygen intake and slowing the heart rate. Meditation and guided imagery (imagining a calm, peaceful scene) are other forms of relaxation techniques that can calm the nerves. PMR involves tightening and relaxing muscle groups until the body is relaxed. It can be practiced before going to bed to facilitate sleep.

Create a School Night Sleep Routine and Stick to It 

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends 8 to 10 hours of sleep (per 24 hours) for teens aged 13 to 18. Create a sleep routine and implement it a week or more before school starts to get used to it. The slightest discomfort can send teens into an emotional meltdown when their mind and body are not well rested. A calm atmosphere in the bedroom (dim lights and cool temperatures), reduced screen time before bed, and mindful activities such as praying or meditating can help teens sleep more soundly. According to a study, "Sleep deprivation in adolescents and adults: Changes in Affect," by Talbot, L. S. et al., published by the American Psychological Association (APA), sleep-deprived adolescents (10 to 13) and teens (13 to 16) found stressful situations more threatening than adult participants aged 30 to 60.

Maintain a Healthy Diet

The importance of good nutrition cannot be overstated. A balanced diet of recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables provides adequate nutrients and vitamins required for a healthy body and mind. According to the Sleep Foundation, sleep problems can be triggered by a lack of vitamins A, C, D, E, and K. Another way to ensure that teens get the proper nutrition is to replace sugary and processed snacks with healthier options. Consuming foods high in added sugars before bedtime may also disrupt the body's sleep cycle.

Exercise Regularly and Engage in Outdoor Activities 

One of the ways teens can minimize stress is by regularly exercising (including aerobics and yoga) or engaging in outdoor activities such as playing sports, hiking, riding a bike, or taking a walk. Exercise releases endorphins—the brain's "feel good" hormones—and can be a great way to relieve stress. According to the Mayo Clinic, regular exercise can improve your mood and relieve mild symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Create a Support Network of Friends and Family

Talking about daily struggles with trusted family members and friends can help teens gain different perspectives and solutions to their problems. Parents should set a time daily or weekly to sit with their teen to reflect on their day or week. This creates a space for them to share their problems and lets them know they are cared for.


Writing down one's feelings can be a great way to alleviate stress. According to the APA, making a gratitude list or writing down positive thoughts can ease symptoms of depression and anxiety. Encourage teens to maintain a journal and write down positive things that happened during the day—such as a test they aced or eating their favorite lunch, and not fixate on distressing moments of the day alone.

Plan Weekend Trips and Carve Out Time for Hobbies 

Weekend trips do not have to involve lavish destinations and pricey hotels. Plan a road trip to visit an extended family, visit an amusement park or a local beach with loved ones, or plan a camping trip to a nearby national park—the agenda should be to take a break from the daily schedule and worries. This helps teens to feel refreshed while having fun. Weekends are also an excellent time to engage in hobbies or local community outreach programs. 

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