Dealing with Stress

BY Lisa Van De Ven

In a Scarborough community centre on a snowy Saturday afternoon in February, two girls – 17 and 18-years-old – talk about the stress of high school social politics. There’s a boy, it seems, who’s become rather controlling. He doesn’t want the two friends hanging out and the girls aren’t quite sure what to do about it. Sound familiar?
The setting is the YWCA’s Healthy Living Spa, a nine-week program designed specifically for girls 15 to 18.  The program provides teens with a break from exactly the kinds of stresses that these two girls are experiencing. Participants learn everything from yoga to creative-writing techniques.  They also find out how to pamper themselves with facials – a simple way to take a break and relax – and to cook healthy meals that will provide their bodies with the fuel and nutrients they need to handle that stress when it comes.
The idea more than anything, says program facilitator Sofia Mojica, is to teach girls how to deal with stress now, while preparing them for future life strains, too. After all, stress is a normal part of a teenager’s life and it’s how you deal with it that makes all the difference.
“Every week in the beginning we have a little powwow to talk about how our week went, to talk about our frustrations,” Mojica says. “A lot of them are really stressed about making it to university, getting good grades, and getting along with their parents.”
It’s something that 17-year-old Puja Bagri, a student at RH King Academy and a participant in the YWCA program, can understand. Adults, she points out, can often make light of the pressure teens feel, telling them “What do you have to worry about?” instead of acknowledging their concerns as real, and coming from all corners of a young person’s life.
“When you get into high school, marks really matter a lot—you find yourself stressing more and more about it,” Puja says. “Then just school life, social life, and trying to keep a balance between everything, your friends and school and family. And then there are stresses at home, obviously, and once you’re almost finished high school then you have to think about university and tuition fees and everything else, which can get really stressful.”

         

Mojica tells the girls in her program to know that stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “It’s your natural way of reacting to things,” she says. It’s what girls do with that tension, she adds, that can sometimes be negative. Puja, for instance, has seen some people her age turn to drugs and alcohol. “They don’t know what else to do,” she says.
For teenage girls, another common way of dealing with stress might be through eating too much, or not enough, or just not making healthy food choices. Body issues – including eating disorders like anorexia or binge eating – can result from the kinds of pressures that teenagers deal with every day.
“The way we look at and feel about our bodies is often influenced by our social interactions in environments like school, work or by the choices of friends we make. According to whether these interactions are healthy or not, whether they [enhance] or deplete our self-esteem, can impact the way we look at our bodies and more so how we deal with stress,” says youth and women’s advocate Jill Andrew.
Unable to control the other things going on in their lives, many girls try controlling their food intake and weight instead, with the idea that
being “perfect” physically will sort everything else out in their lives. “The catch is, there is no such thing as perfection,” Andrew adds.
Like Mojica, Andrew suggests that the true answer to fighting stress begins with a healthy diet, a good support system – including supportive friends – and extra-curricular outlets that help add balance to your life.
“It’s called ‘giving ourselves a break,’” Andrew says. “It’s finding balance. It’s enjoying life.” What a novel idea!

STRESS LESS

So what should – and shouldn’t – you be doing to help your body deal with the stress on hand? Experts say a balanced diet can be one of the most important factors.

DO increase your B vitamins, which help create the quick fuel your body needs to deal with a stressful situation. If you don’t think you’re getting enough in your diet, a multivitamin once a day should provide you with the B vitamins you need.

DO add more Vitamin C to your diet as well, which helps boost the body’s immune system and produces anti-stress hormones.

DON’t increase your caffeine intake. That extra cup of coffee may be your first go-to solution, but in fact it will only increase your blood pressure and stress hormones.

DON’T rely on junk or fast foods. In fact, things like artificial sweeteners, fried foods, red meat, and white flour products can add more stress to your system.

(Sources: Food as Medicine by Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD; and various materials by nutritionist Leslie Beck, RD)