Tails wagged as a flurry of hands petted the two dogs sprawled on a carpet at Elk Grove Library Tuesday. The therapy session is part of a Sacramento Public Library program to help teens reduce stress brought on by the barrage of testing taking place this month.
The program, which continues through next week, is being held as many local students find themselves preparing for finals and SAT, Advanced Placement, college placement and state standardized tests. Students can take part in stress-releasing workshops that offer jam sessions, primal screaming, board games and a class to make stress balls at seven different library locations.
"Stress has a lot of impact on students' physical and academic performance," said Jamal Abedi, a professor of education at UC Davis. Students who are under a lot of stress find it difficult to express themselves or think logically.
They can also have physical symptoms including light-headedness, nausea, diarrhea, and frequent urination, according to a report by Harvard Medical School. When it persists, anxiety can take a toll on mental and physical health, according to the report.
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A survey by the American Psychological Association in 2013 found that many teenagers report experiencing stress at unhealthy levels similar to that of adults. It also found that they are uncertain how to manage anxiety.
"It's very stressful, especially since I'm in my junior year," said Bunmi Lebimoyo, 17, who was petting a German Shepard-border collie mix named Kody.
The Monterey Trail High School student said the stress is amplified because getting into a good college is reliant on her scoring well on tests.
Lebimoyo's schedule, which includes track, volleyball and honors and advanced placement classes, adds even more pressure. "Some days I'm waking up early in the morning to finish up the homework I didn't finish up last night," she said.
A friend suggested going to the library to pet the dogs. Lebimoyo has other strategies to deal with stress, including taking a break when she is feeling overwhelmed, drinking a cup of tea or taking a bath or shower using a favorite de-stressing bath lotion.
Stress is much higher in today's youth than for previous generations, said Scott Evans, the lead counselor at San Juan Unified School District. He and Tracie Locke, a college and career readiness counselor with the district, say the higher levels of stress come from a fear of failure and because students often attach unrealistic importance to tests and what they can do for them in the future.
Students also are becoming increasingly more competitive, comparing their scores and school choices with their peers, Locke said.
"There is this whole conversation about getting into the best college, when it should be about finding the right fit for you and doing the best you can on tests," she said. "Even if you don't perform your best on these tests, you are still going to have a bright future."
Evans and Locke said students can reduce test stress by going online to take sample tests, read instructions and to otherwise familiarize themselves with the exam. Sample tests are available for the SAT, CAASPP tests, ACT tests, as well as for Advanced Placement tests.
Students or their parents should also check to see if the AP test their child is worrying over actually will give them course credit at their school of choice - it may not, Locke said. And, even if your college does offer credit for passing a test and the student doesn't do well, they can take the class in college, she said.
Parents also can help their children to be less stressed by teaching them about time management, including showing them how to make lists and better organize the process, Evans said. "A lot of stress comes from being overwhelmed," he said. "Break big things into little chunks."
Evans also suggested that parents help students prepare a plan for studying for tests. Families should take into consideration which courses require additional study time and which do not. The plan should ensure that students don't put off studying until the last minute — a sure way to spike anxiety.
"Go in prepared," Locke said." You will be less stressed on test day."
Abedi said teachers can do their part to lower student stress by giving qualitative assessments throughout the year that use former state standardized test questions or SAT questions to familiarize their students with the tests.
It can actually alleviate a child's stress if they know that it is normal to feel anxious, Abedi said. "This is not unique to you," he said. "It is quite natural to be anxious, but there is no reason to be overly anxious."
Stress is becoming a problem for younger children with more middle school students experiencing high levels of stress. Some are already feeling the pressure to do well in school and to have a lot of outside activities to ensure they get in a good college, Locke said.
"I feel like my head is exploding when I'm doing too much," said Krystol Newton, 14, a seventh grader at Joseph Kerr Middle School in Elk Grove. Newton was petting a Pomeranian named Eddy at the Elk Grove Library Tuesday.
Newton, who is a student athlete, also has strategies to deal with stress. She takes breaks from homework and studying to spend time with her family or to play games on her computer before jumping back into her schoolwork.
"I usually put things off until the last second," said Ella Petrinovich, 13, who also attends Kerr. "It makes you feel like time is almost against you, like you don't have enough time. You have to work as fast as you can, which makes me stress even more."
Locke suggested students who are feeling overly anxious should pull back on some of their outside activities. "It's about making a choice to find balance, so they have a sense of enjoying what they are doing and not just doing it," she said.
Sometimes dealing with stress is as simple as getting enough exercise and sleep, and eating nutritious meals, say experts.
"Schedule some down time or let go time, reading a book for escapism or watching TV or listening to music," Evans said. "Some kids need to schedule that or else it won't happen."
And sometimes kids might just need to pet a dog.
" It just kind of brings things into focus, to just sit down and interact with the dog," said Barbara Street, a volunteer with Capital Therapy Dogs. "You look them in the eye. They look back at you. They are cute. They are calm. They make you feel happy. You smile. You laugh. It's simple."
Tips to study stress free
▪ Take sample tests online.
▪ Prepare a study plan.
▪ Reduce the number of outside activities to ones you truly enjoy.
▪ Schedule down time to watch TV, read or listen to music.
▪ Don't put off studying until the last minute.
▪ Get enough exercise and sleep, and eat nutritious meals.
▪ Be prepared.
▪ Don't place too much importance on one test.
▪ Once the test is over stop worrying.
▪ Pet a dog.