Arielle Nathan was in the hospital again. She was overwhelmed and had been vomiting for hours on end. She was used to this.
And all because of stress.
Up until about a year ago, the Santa Fe Prep junior suffered frequent episodes of stress-induced sickness. She is not alone. According to a 2013 study by the American Psychological Association, teens in the United States are even more stressed out than adults.
Not only are teens navigating schoolwork and social pressures, but they’re also growing up “in a world of gun violence and terrorism, social media and lack of good health care in schools,” said Erin Doerwald, a licensed clinical social worker and the Program Director at the SKY Center (New Mexico Suicide Intervention Project). “You guys have been handed a really huge, hard baton. You have to deal with all the age-old troubles of the human condition while also figuring out how to live in a society with a collective ADHD and disconnect from nature, a world that is overscheduled, chronically sleep-deprived, and has essentially forgotten how to slow down.”
Doerwald, who defines a healthy lifestyle as a balanced lifestyle, knows from experience that she feels better when her home life, work life, physical health, emotional health and mental health are all given the equal care they need. “Taking care of your mental health and being able to regulate your emotions is really difficult but really important to practice for the sake of your overall well-being,” she said.
According to Kate Latimer, a licensed counselor at Santa Fe Community College, physical and mental health are inseparable. “There’s a feedback system in relationship there,” she said of the connection between physical and mental health. “Stress affects people’s health dramatically. In fact, we know that when people are exposed to prolonged stress for a period of time, they are more likely to develop physical illnesses. So, when we talk about mental health and physical health, there’s really no separation.”
One thing that can have an adverse effect on teens’ mental health is the ubiquity of digital technology and social media.
“Mentally, there’s so much anxiety and so much pressure now, maybe because of social media,” Nathan said. “I think that social media puts a lot more pressure on people because you want that perfect life to show all of your friends. You also have to deal with seeing everyone else’s ‘perfect’ life.”
Doerwald agrees that social media “absolutely causes teens stress.”
“Depression and anxiety are way on the rise, and there has to be a correlation to the rapid rise of connectivity,” Doerwald said, explaining that there’s the social aspect of it and there’s also the fact that you can see depressing and disturbing events that are going on all over the world all the time. “We’re way over-exposed to trauma and horror.”
When we feel vulnerable, it can be more difficult to take care of our health, but it is also more important to find ways to do just that. Latimer said the best way to do that is to start at an early age and to see ourselves as multidimensional beings. As humans, we experience physical, mental, emotional and spiritual consciousness, and being fully healthy requires all of these needs to be fulfilled. Start with the essentials, she said: exercise, nutrition and sleep.
When Nathan realized that she was overwhelmed, she decided to take action by first implementing these essentials and focusing on what made her feel good. “I try to only do things that I really enjoy and that I’m really passionate about,” Nathan said.
She also believes that confidence is important. “It’s really hard to be genuinely confident as a teenager, but ‘Fake it till you make it’ is sort of my motto,” she said. “If you act confident, not arrogant, just poised and self-assured, then eventually you’ll actually start to actually feel confident. Being confident definitely helps with my anxiety because then I have a better mindset to return to.”
Latimer said healthy habits can include spending time in “the healing power of nature,” avoiding gossip in order to build healthy relationships, and staying away from drugs and alcohol.
As for methods of developing and maintaining such habits, her best advice is to practice. “I think what it really comes down to is the difference between being on autopilot and being aware of our tendencies and habits. Making sure that the tendencies and habits that we have are consciously chosen. That we’re actually being aware and awake,” she said.
The SKY Center has also developed a comprehensive “toolbox” for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. The toolkit has six “facets,” each with multiple practices:
Social connection: feeling cared for and caring about others.
Self-regulation: the ability to manage moods.
Mindful awareness: paying attention to the present moment on purpose, and with kindness.
Physical care: drinking enough water, exercising, eating well and resting.
Optimism: cultivating a sense that there is meaning and purpose to one’s daily life by making sure there are things to look forward to.
Nature connection: cultivating the sense that we are part of this beautiful planet.
When nothing seems to be working, Nathan said you can “take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that everything is going to be OK.”
Isabel Gallegos is a freshman at Desert Academy. Contact her at email@example.com.
Hannah Laga Abram is a junior at the Santa Fe Waldorf School. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.