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Finding the Balance between Stress and Downtime

Students need regular downtimes, and here are a few suggestions for helping your student create times to find stress relief and regroup.

Lindsay Metcalfe, School Counselor

In her recent NYT article How to Help Teenagers Embrace Stress, Lisa Damour neatly lays out an alternative view of stress as a potentially positive experience. Not only can stress be beneficial, she posits, but it is a necessary condition for growth. Stress provides the push we need to perform at optimal levels.

Matt Levinson, in his recent blog post, has provided some excellent tips for adults hoping to help shift their student’s perspective on stress. That positive view of stress can help teens rise to new challenges, allow them to master new skills, and create greater capability and resilience to future stressors. But embracing stress isn’t enough: Damour notes that in order for stress to be productive, students need to have regular times to find relief and regroup. They need downtime.

Both pieces of this message are particularly timely as we head into the end of the academic quarter. It’s a moment when students are likely to be feeling some stress! So while you’re helping your student view that challenge in a positive way, I encourage you to help them find downtime as well. This week’s four day break provides an excellent opportunity.

Here are a few suggestions for creating downtime:

Sleep: Students often laugh at us when we remind them of the importance of sleep, but we’ll keep telling them anyway. Sleep is the ultimate break for the brain:  it allows the neural networks that are active in the daytime to rest, but it also helps us regulate emotions, encode memories (especially important when preparing for a test), and improves physical health. Encourage your student to prioritize sleep and set a reasonable, consistent bedtime.  

Socializing: Ideally this is something that happens away from screens. Do a fun, low-key activity as a family. Urge your student to see a movie with a friend. Often, during periods of heightened stress, students feel that they need to make all of their time productive. In fact, finding some moments of fun and frivolity will help them recharge and be more efficient in the long run.

True downtime: “Downtime” is used as a catchall term for any kind of relaxation, but teens need dedicated time when they’re not really doing anything at all. It can look like laying around on the couch or just chatting without any particular agenda. Often it helps to have some sort of automatic activity that keeps their hands busy but their minds free: sorting laundry is a classic example (but make sure that you’re not piling on the chores and calling it downtime!).  

Make it a habit: Finally, downtime isn’t something that we should only resort to when we’ve already exhausted all our energy. It’s most effective when it’s something we can regularly find in our everyday routine--this was part of the reason for building daily Community Time into our school calendar. Make sure to model downtime yourself and send the message that it is okay--even important--to take a break.

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