Stress is a normal part of life and can help young people feel more alert, increase their concentration, provide more energy when needed and enhance their sensory experience. All of this can be motivating – for example, when they are studying for an exam.
There are many physical experiences of stress that are different for all of us. These may include increased sweating, dilated pupils, increased respiration (quick shallow breathing) and having an unsettled stomach. A degree of these physical experiences is normal and OK.
When we experience too much stress it can feel overwhelming. If a young person is finding they can’t concentrate, they are sleeping too much or too little, or are feeling overwhelmed, it can be a sign that the level of stress they are experiencing is becoming problematic. It’s at this point that young people can benefit from support from their parents, teachers or a health professional.
Strategies to support young people to manage stress at school
Physical exercise is good for our mental health and for our brains. If a young person is feeling overwhelmed, the last thing they may feel like doing is exercising but studies have suggested that any activity, from walking around the block to yoga or cycling, could contribute to improving the symptoms of depression and anxiety and help young people feel less stressed. If you’re exercising together, try to make it fun and something they enjoy.
The way that we talk to ourselves, that ‘internal voice’, can have a big impact on our outlook, self- acceptance and confidence. It can be difficult, but with practise, young people can change their self-talk by challenging negative self-talk (e.g., ‘how accurate/realistic is it?’) and turning it into positive self-talk. Positive self-talk has the potential to change perspectives, attitudes and reactions regarding ourselves, others and our circumstances. This can then increase confidence, reduce stress, and can be a very effective way to help prepare young people for a big exam or event.
There are many different relaxation techniques young people can use to manage stress. When your young person feels like everything is getting too much, encourage them to try breathing techniques such as deep breathing or focused breathing (they breathe in through the nose and as they breathe out they say a positive statement to themselves like 'relax' or 'calm down'). If effective, young people should find that their body calms down and relaxes. This can be very helpful to calm nerves before an exam. Check out the web and app-based program Smiling Mind for help with breathing and other relaxation techniques.
We know that what we eat affects our moods. A well-balanced diet will make sure young people have all the essential nutrients needed for their brains to function well and to help keep them both physically and mentally healthy.
We are social creatures, and social relationships are really important to our general wellbeing. It’s OK for young people to take time out for themselves. Encourage your young person to maintain strong social connections when they are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, as their friends and family can help them through these times.
A good night's sleep is vital for mental and emotional wellbeing. Sleep disruptions can increase unhelpful thinking and heighten our stress levels. Try to encourage your young person to maintain a regular sleep- wake schedule. Encourage them to use the bedroom for its core purposes and avoid using distracting and stimulating devices such as a television or other electronic devices when they are in bed.
If you are concerned your young person is impacted by stress and needs additional support, start by having a conversation. You could encourage them to see your family doctor, nurse, occupational therapist, psychologist, social worker or counsellor. At school, they could also talk to a trusted teacher, the Student Wellbeing Coordinator or school counsellor who can provide advice or direct them to the right person if they need further help. Talk to your young person about what you’ve noticed and discuss the possible options for support.
The headspace Work and Study online program can support young people in developing the skills and confidence to reach work or study goals.
The exam period can be a particularly stressful time, so find out if you can support them to set time aside to study, which in turn can help reduce their stress. To reduce exam pressure, encourage them to have a good balance between their social life and study time, plan rewards for after exams, study actively and do past exam papers, and develop and try to stick to a study routine at home.
Limiting alcohol and other drugs can help clear the mind, improve energy and boost motivation. Some people use alcohol or other drugs to help them cope during tough times. This can seem fun and helpful in the short term but often it can lead to feeling more overwhelmed. If a young person drinks alcohol or takes other drugs when they're trying to study, they are likely to feel more tired and less focused, which could lead to an increase in stress when it comes to exam time.
If you are concerned that your young person is using alcohol or other drugs to help cope with school stress it can be useful to have a conversation with them about what you have noticed and the possible impact on their stress levels.
Stress about school performance or exams can be related to young people’s high expectations of themselves or their perception of other people’s expectations of them. It’s helpful to check in with your young person about whether they are feeling under pressure to meet expectations. The conversation may enable you understand their experience and offer an opportunity for them to express their hopes and fears. You can let them know that they are unconditionally loved and accepted and that their worth is not dependent on what results they achieve in school. You can play a vital role in supporting young people to set realistic goals, manage disappointment and build resilience.
Other useful resources
- How to start the conversation about mental health
- Stress bucket interactive activity
- 7 ways to support a young person’s healthy headspace
- Unhelpful thoughts interactive activity
Support with work and study
The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.
Last reviewed 2 August 2021