Presenting issues: Stress

December 30th 2018

Presenting issues: Stress

Jigsaw data shows that young people in Ireland are experiencing a considerable amount of stress; it is the third highest presenting issue for those coming to Jigsaw.

Evidence from the data about young people attending Jigsaw and findings from the My World Survey also demonstrate that stress increases with age. In Jigsaw, stress increases from the 6th most common presenting issue for 12-14 year olds to the 3rd most common for 21-25 year olds. The graph below shows the increase in reported stress levels from early adolescence to emerging adulthood in the My World Survey. As this graph shows, stress levels are highest among 22-23 year olds.

Stress findings from My World Survey (Dooley & Fitzgerald, 2012)

What is stressing young people?

The types of stressors young people experience differ with age, with younger adolescents expressing concerns around school, family and friends in the My World Survey. For older adolescents and emerging adults in their early twenties, the main stressors reported in this study were university and college, money, work and family. Emerging adults are at the bridge between adolescence and adulthood and face a host of challenges along their personal, social and professional paths. 

What does stress do to our body?

'Stress' is a biological and psychological response that is triggered when we face a 'perceived threat'; a situation that we don't feel we have the resources to deal with. 

What happens next is referred to as the body’s 'fight or flight' response. Hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released, heart rate increases, breathing intensifies, and blood pressure rises in a sequence described by researchers as an ancient survival response. Nowadays the ‘fight’ might give us a boost to persevere in a difficult study or work task. ‘Flight’ might mean removing yourself from a difficult argument. Another response is to ‘freeze’, when we become rooted to the spot unable to react or remove ourselves.

Can stress be good for us?

Constant, unrelenting and extreme stress can be detrimental to physical and emotional wellbeing. However, some studies have suggested a small amount of stress can be helpful in certain situations.

In a 2013 study, a researcher in Harvard Business School put participants into traditionally stress-inducing events such as karaoke, public speaking, and an exam. Participants in these groups were urged to reframe the task ahead by saying a statement out loud, either “I am excited”, “I am calm” or “I am anxious”. The group that reframed their stress as excitement performed significantly better on the tasks they were asked to do. This suggests that a change in mentality might be helpful when approaching a stressful event like an exam or job interview. Reframing a situation as a challenge to be excited about can improve performance. 

However it must be noted that constant, unrelenting and extreme stress can be detrimental to physical and emotional wellbeing.

What protects against stress?

The My World Survey found that there are protective factors that can defend against the negative impacts of stress. These included seeking social support from friends or family, higher levels of optimism, and planned and supportive coping mechanisms. The key is to find what works for you in managing the fight, flight or freeze response.

More resources

For more tips on dealing with stress, read this comprehensive guide by the New York Times.

Read What is the stress response? 

Watch Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal's TED talk “How To Make Stress Your Friend” 

This blog post was influenced by the following research:

My World Survey (Dooley & Fitzgerald, 2012)

Brooks, A. W, Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement, Journal of Experimental Psychology

Australian Psychological Society’s Stress & Wellbeing survey (2011)

This blog is one of a series on the presenting issues young people face when coming to Jigsaw.