Stress is a major talking point in our society today. If you ask someone, ‘how are you?’, a common response is ‘I am busy and stressed’. It’s important to define stress and know what it is, how it affects us and then know what to do about it. The Oxford dictionary defines it as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.”

Stress affects all ages, sexes, creed and class. In The Big House we work with young people between the ages of 12 to 18 years old and see how stress is a common problem for our young people. It is usually caused by two things. Firstly, it is whether you think situations around you are worthy of anxiety and, secondly, how your body reacts to your thought processes. This instinctive stress response is known as ‘fight or flight’.

At times, stress can help us; for example, when we take an exam it keeps us focused and can motivate us, as low-level stressors stimulate clear thinking. However, when stress is experienced on an ongoing basis or we feel we are no longer in control of a situation, it can negatively affect our health and wellbeing. It can lead to headaches, IBS, back pain, muscle and joint pains, heart palpitations, crying, chronic fatigue, over or under eating and frequent infections. It is also connected to, amongst other things, anxious thoughts or feelings which can be characterised by a dry mouth, rapid heart rate or palpitations, insomnia, anger and irritability, or an inability to concentrate.

Research from a Northern Ireland Young Life and Times survey says that:

  1. Nearly four in ten (39%) 16-year olds get stressed often or very often. Stress levels are much higher among females than males (51% and 20% saying they got stressed often or very often respectively).
  2. Stress was by far most often connected to school, but problems in the family, with friends and at work were also main cause for high stress levels.

Various situations can cause stress for young people. However, as we approach the summer, we are aware that school can be a really stressful time for them in particular. It’s the time of exams which ultimately builds on stress levels with deadlines and revision pressures. It also brings up thoughts of the future and the ‘what’s next?’ question. Will I pass to get into year 13 or 14, will I get enough grades to get a university place, what course should I choose, if I don’t pass or get good enough grades what should I do? The unknown and uncertainties can push them out of their comfort zone and the sense of being in control.

On top of all this, Christian young people are wrestling with the understanding that God is in control and that they should be reliant on Him in everything and in every situation. When they aren’t, then they can feel guilty and inadequate as a Christian and have feelings and thoughts that they don’t have enough faith and maybe are not a ‘proper Christian’.

What does the Bible have to say about stress? 

Scripture has a lot to say on the area of stress but Jesus’ words are striking when He says “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

This may seem overly simple and the subject of stress is complicated and diverse. Life is hard and difficult and there are many things that cause us to stress. So, the questions that often get asked are – Does God care?

Does He understand and does He want to help? All worthy questions and to each is a long answer. The Scripture in Matthew turns it around to Jesus desiring and wanting a relationship with us urging us to come to Him and offer ourselves to Him no matter how we feel or think about ourselves. This takes the focus off us and onto Him.

We should never do it alone and in the book of James in chapter 5 he encourages us to speak to others about what worries us and pray together. We should be encouraged by Scripture to offer support and care when others are stressed and allow them to talk it through reminding them that Jesus is ultimately interested in a relationship with them.

How to help a young person manage stress 

It can be difficult to know how best to support a young person who is experiencing stress. The following are some steps to help you support someone when they feel or are stressed.

  • It’s about being and not doing. Sometimes we think we know how someone feels but we really don’t know as we haven’t been in their shoes. So, all we can do is to be there for them and let them speak about how they really feel, if they want to.
  • Listen. This sounds simple but can be very difficult to do. The next time you are in a conversation with someone try not to be thinking of what you are going to say next or thinking of a similar experience you had that they have described to you. To be an active listener is to be fully present with the person you are with and hearing exactly what they are saying and then asking them to explain it more fully to you.
  • Make a weekly activity diary. Making a note of how someone spends their week can help to identify their weekly routine which then can be used to help identify time in the week to be doing stress reducing activities. Do this together with your young person and, in so doing, some young people will see for the first time how busy their life can be (which is a stimulus for stress) and the things in their week that can trigger stress.
  • Mindfulness. Just focus on the here and now. The past is past and the future isn’t known! Enjoy the journey, don’t rush to the destination.
  • The benefits of exercise – even just walking. Walking for ten minutes a day can sometimes give the same benefit as some depression medication.
  • Pray. Pray for the young person in your care. Offer to pray with them and/or encourage them to pray too whether on their own or with others they trust.

I hope this article is of some help regarding a diverse and difficult subject. I would welcome any feedback or thoughts on it and if you want to hear more about The Big House, please get in touch or come visit us.

By Mark Kernohan, Project Director, The Big House Ireland – Originally printed in Wider World, Summer 2016