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Articles and Other Resources That Will Inform Your Teaching and Counseling

Four Strategies for Managing Stress
in Students—A MiniBook

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This is a collection of key strategies and activities to help your students incorporate these strategies into their daily lives. The downloadable version of this MiniBook is 19 pages in length. Enjoy!

Several Roads to Serenity

The Western world has only recently begun to recognize the benefits of a technology the Eastern world has employed and enjoyed for centuries.  Relaxation techniques involving meditation, progressive relaxation, visualization and special breathing can intervene powerfully between stress and its ill effects.  Systematic relaxation can change physiological processes and, when practiced regularly, has been shown to lower blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and serum cholesterol.   The negative effects of stress on learning are well known and documented. As biologist John Medina states in his 2008 book, Brain Rules, "Stressed people don't do math very well. They don't process language very effectively; they have poorer memories both short and long term. Stressed individuals do not generalize or adapt old pieces of information to new scenarios as well as non-stressed individuals. They can't concentrate. In almost every way it can be tested chronic stress hurts our ability to learn."

Providing nurturing environments and teaching relaxation techniques is an important avenue cpmtributing to the social and emotional well-being of children. When anxiety, anger, resentment, and upset feelings command their thoughts, students have far less capacity available in their working memories to process what we want them to learn, and for managing the daily challenges pf social interactions.

The relaxation techniques provided in the free MiniBook are simple to learn and with practice can make an impat in the lives of your students both in and out of school. These same relaxation techniques can also benefit you and help with the daily stress and tension with which you deal.

Many of your students have probably been told that relaxation is good for them.  But have they been told how to relax?  Everyday activities may leave them tense and bracing their muscles for actions they never take.  Try this:  Without warning, have your students stop in the middle of an activity.  Then ask them to notice where and how they are bracing or tensing their muscles.  You try it, too. 

When we check ourselves, we often discover a clamped jaw, an overly tight grip on our pencil, pen, or other tool, and rigid tension in our neck and shoulders.  Readied for action that is subsequently aborted, we continue to use an intensified degree of muscular contraction—much more than is necessary.  It is not surprising that we experience backaches, headaches, and neck and shoulder pain.

Progressive Relaxation

Dr. Edmund Jacobson developed a technique to induce nerve-muscle relaxation in hospital patients.  He called the technique progressive relaxation.  Jacobson taught his patients a series of exercises that required them to contract specific muscle groups—then relax them.  He progressed his patients from one muscle group to another.  By contracting the muscles before relaxing them, patients were able to recognize what muscle tension felt like.  Once familiar with the sensation of tension, the patients could voluntarily induce relaxation.

Dr. Jacobson measured the amount of electrical activity produced in muscle fibers when people had residual tension, even during times when they appeared to be relaxed.  He discovered that this systematic way of controlling muscle tension produced profound relaxation.  The relaxation was pleasant and left patients feeling refreshed.  Dr. Jacobson believed that tense muscles contributed to tense minds, and that if individuals could induce physical relaxation, mental relaxation would follow.

Progressive relaxation requires neither special equipment nor a vivid imagination, and offers both physiological and psychological benefits.  The technique has been used to treat a variety of conditions ranging from migraines to backaches.

Practicing progressive muscle relaxation reduces pulse rate and blood pressure and decreases perspiration and respiration.  It is based on the premise that the body responds to anxiety-provoking thoughts and events with muscle tension.  While psychological tension increases the anxiety, deep muscle relaxation works directly to reduce physiological tension and is thus incompatible with anxiety.  The habit of responding with one blocks the habit of responding with the other.

By practicing progressive relaxation, students can become more aware of their muscle groups and recognize specific areas where tension is a problem.  To reap the full benefits of progressive relaxation, students will have to practice the technique regularly; however, this needn’t be a deterrent.  Tensing and relaxing a single “problem” muscle group takes only moments.  Nevertheless, the first few times you teach the technique, strive for an environment that is quiet and relatively free of distractions.

A Progressive Relaxation Activity—Downloadble version is fully formatted

Why

Even young people may have chronically tense muscles.  By tensing and relaxing muscle groups, one group at a time, they can identify specific muscles and recognize the difference between tension and relaxation.  Deep muscle relaxation reduces physiological tension, and is incompatible with anxiety.  In addition, progressive relaxation can help relieve insomnia, fatigue, depression, and high blood pressure.

When

Use progressive relaxation activities to help students obtain immediate relief from general muscular tension.  To treat chronic symptoms (or to help students habituate the process), two 15-minute sessions each day produce excellent results in one to two weeks.

How

Have your students either lie down or sit in a chair.  In a pleasant voice, read aloud the directions that follow.

Lead the students in the progressive relaxation exercise at least twice before distributing the “Progressive Relaxation Guidelines” for their personal use.

As students systematically tense and relax each muscle group, suggest that they use self-talk to assist in melting the tension.  Messages like “Relax, let all the tension dissolve,” or “I am feeling calm and relaxed.” 

Progressive Relaxation Guidelines

  1. Sit straight in a comfortable chair and relax.  Place your hands in your lap and your feet on the floor.  Close your eyes. 
  2. Tense, tighten, or squeeze the muscles in your right hand into a fist and hold tightly for 5 seconds.  Release, noticing the tension in your fist, hand and forearm.  Relax for 20 to 30 seconds.  Repeat with your right hand, noticing the contrast between feelings of tension and relaxation.  Repeat with your left hand and then make fists with both hands at the same time.  (Remember to tighten for 5 seconds and release for 20 to 30 seconds each time.)
  3. Bend your elbows and tense your biceps. Relax, straighten your arms feeling the difference between the tension and relaxation. 
  4. Wrinkle your forehead tightly.  Smooth it out and relax.  Frown and feel the strain throughout your forehead.  Relax and let your forehead become smooth again.
  5. Tightly squeeze your eyes closed.  Relax.  Keep them closed gently. 
  6. Clench your jaw, bite hard.  Relax.
  7. Press your head back as far as possible and notice the tension in your neck.  Roll your head to the right and then to the left.  Straighten your head and bring it forward. 
  8. Place your chin on your chest.  Feel the tension in your throat.  Relax.  Bring your head to a comfortable position again.  Lift your shoulders high in a shrug.  Hold.  Relax. 
  9. Breathe in and take a complete natural breath.  Hold and notice the tension.  Exhale.  Repeat several times.  Tighten your stomach and hold.  Relax.  Place your hand on your stomach.  Breathe deeply, pushing your hand up.  Hold and relax.  Arch your back, being careful not to strain it.  Relax the rest of your body. 
  10. Feel the heaviness in your lower body.  Relax your feet, ankles, calves, shins, knees, thighs, and buttocks. 
  11. Relax shoulders, arms, hands, neck, jaw, and facial muscles.

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Breathing

Various breathing exercises have proven effective in reducing anxiety, irritability, muscular tension, fatigue, and depression.  Dr. Herbert Benson, in his book, The Relaxation Response, reports that when people engage in breathing exercises on a regular basis, they feel more relaxed and notice beneficial effects in their bodies.

A simple but effective method of relaxation is the practice of deep breathing.  Next time one of your students is distressed—frightened or crying, for instance—notice the student’s breathing.  Chances are it will be shallow and rapid, and will seem to emanate from the chest.  This is called thoratic breathing, and is related to the tension in the student’s body.  The use of diaphragmatic breathing—deep breathing that emanates from the diaphragm—will tend to relax the student. 

The diaphragm is a muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen.  When we breathe, the diaphragm expands and contracts.  This action, though usually automatic, is subject to voluntary control.  When air is inhaled, the diaphragm expands and tenses; when it is exhaled, the diaphragm relaxes.  By lengthening the time we spend exhaling, we encourage full use of our lung capacity. 

To practice diaphragmatic breathing, have the students expand their abdomen so their stomach rises and falls with each breath while their chest size remains relatively constant.  This action, which will probably feel forced and unnatural at first, provides sufficient oxygen to properly oxygenate the blood and maintain good mental and physical health.

Relaxation Breathing Activity—Downloadble version is fully formatted

Why

Deep breathing is relaxing.  It eases tensions, anxiety, depression, irritability, muscular tension, and fatigue.   Deep breathing is also healthful, helping to oxygenate the blood and improving feelings of general well being.  In addition, shallow breathing, hyperventilation, cold hands and feet, and breath holding can be prevented and treated with deep-breathing exercises.

When

For maximum results, have students practice breathing exercises twice daily for approximately five to ten minutes each session.  Although breathing exercises are not difficult to learn, time and patience are required to realize maximum health benefits.  Some effects may not be observed for several months.  In addition, encourage students to engage in a brief session of deep breathing during any tense or anxious moment, such as prior to speaking in front of a group, taking an exam, or dealing with a difficult situation.

How

  1. Use the breathing exercises on the next three activity sheets. 
  2. Have students sit, stand, or lie in a quiet place.  Sitting and standing posture should be erect but relaxed—not rigid.  
  3. Before you begin an activity, have students pay close attention to how they are breathing. 
  4. Don’t be too concerned if students have trouble attending to their breathing.  Suggest that, when their minds wander and they start thinking of homework, chores, television, or friends, they simply let those thoughts pass naturally and then return their attention to their breathing and the activity.  Assure students that maintaining attention and focus will become easier and easier, and that they will soon learn to control drifting thoughts.
  5. After you have led an activity at least once in class, distribute the corresponding activity sheet so that students may repeat the activity at home.

Natural Breathing

  1. Sit up straight in a comfortable chair, or stand erect, but relaxed.
  2. Notice how you are breathing.  Breathe slowly and deeply.
  3. Close your eyes and breathe slowly through your nose.  Inhale deeply so that the air fills the lower section of your lungs and your diaphragm pushes your stomach outward to make room for the air.  Then, as your lower ribs and chest expand, fill the middle part of your lungs.  Finally, as your chest rises slightly, fill the upper part of the lungs.  Do this in one continuous motion as you inhale.
  4. Hold the breath for a few seconds.
  5. Exhale slowly through your nose and mouth.  As you exhale, allow all of the tensions to leave your body. 
  6. Continue to breathe deeply like this for five minutes (or more).
  7. Gently open your eyes.  Stay seated (or standing) in the same position for a few moments.
  8. Resume your normal schedule feeling more relaxed than before.

The Windmill Breathing Exercise

  1. Stand straight with your arms extended in front of you.
  2. Inhale deeply so that the air fills the lower section of your lungs and your diaphragm pushes your stomach outward to make room for the air.  Then, as your lower ribs and chest expand, fill the middle part of your lungs.  Finally, as your chest rises slightly, fill the upper part of the lungs.  Do this in one continuous motion as you inhale.
  3. Rotate your arms backward in a circle several times.
  4. Reverse direction and rotate your arms forward, or alternate directions like a windmill.
  5. Exhale forcefully through your mouth.
  6. Breathe several deep, purifying breaths.

Breathing and Guided Imagery

Play relaxing music at a low volume (optional) while you read these directions to your students:

Sit or lie in a comfortable position.  Gently close your eyes and slowly breath in and out.  Take a deep breath and let it out.  (Pause.)  Take another deep breath and let it go.  (Pause.)  Continue to breath deeply.  Imagine a warm summer day.  (Pause.)  You are outside, lying on your back in lush green grass.  You are looking at the sky, which is a beautiful blue. (Pause.)  You see soft white fluffy clouds that look like large tufts of cotton.  Point to one of the biggest clouds and, as you slowly pull your hand back, watch the cloud begin to drift toward you.  (Pause.)  See it float down close to the ground.  Climb onto the cloud.  Feel how soft and comfortable it is.  As you breathe, feel the softness of the cloud and watch the cloud become pink.  (Pause.)  Take a deep breath and fill your lungs with the lovely pink of the cloud. (Pause.)   Notice how you are feeling.  (Pause.)  Breathe in and out slowly.  (Pause.)  Now think of your favorite color and notice that your cloud has become that color.  (Pause.)  Take a deep breath and breathe in your favorite color.  (Pause.)  Notice how you are feeling now. (Pause.)   Breathe in and out slowly.  (Pause.)  Change the color again and notice how that color feels.  (Pause.)  Change the color one more time.  (Pause.)  Always notice how you feel.  (Pause.)  Now as you breathe out, watch all the colors flow out like a rainbow.  Enjoy lying in your rainbow cloud.  (Pause.)  Say to yourself, “I am relaxed.”  “I feel good.”  “I am healthy.”  “The colors are pretty and relaxing.”  (Pause.)  Take another deep breath and blow the beautiful rainbow cloud away.  Watch your special cloud drift up and away.  (Pause.)  When you are ready, open your eyes and look around.  Gently stretch and notice how relaxed and good you feel.

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Visualization

A French pharmacist, Emil Coue, believed that people are what they think.  He asserted that if we simply imagine ourselves in a beautiful and natural scene, we can relax, relieve tension, solve problems, and change our mood from sad to happy. 

Similarly, your students can use their imaginations to reduce stress.  The possibility has its roots in the familiar “halo effect.”  If students think they will be miserable doing something, they probably will be.  By the same token, if they believe they are capable, they are apt to produce acceptable results.  Focusing the mind on positive healing images improves health and reduces anxiety.  Using affirmations—positive statements, such as “I am relaxed”—bridges the conscious and unconscious minds, assisting the unconscious to bring a goal to realization. 

Visualization is much like daydreaming.  As the students recall memories or engage in self-talk, they can train themselves to consciously develop their body’s ability to ignore stress and induce relaxation.

When students get upset at school or in their personal lives, like the rest of us they tend to struggle with unwanted thoughts and rehash problems without resolution.  Helping students relax their minds will allow them to relax their bodies—they cannot be relaxed and tense at the same time.  Their minds cannot race wildly when they are focused on peaceful, calming thoughts.  When students focus on positive images and thoughts, they block out intruding and upsetting ideas and can enjoy a deep state of physical relaxation.

Visualization is simple.  Begin by having your students visualize a pleasant scene they have previously experienced.  Encourage them to re-experience the scene, seeing, smelling, touching, hearing, and tasting every possible detail.  By involving the five senses, students make the scene more powerful.  If possible, play relaxing music or environmental sounds, such as those of the ocean or rainfall, to help produce a state of calm.  Add deep breathing to multiply the benefits.

Once students have learned to control their thoughts and have trained themselves to respond to particular images, they can call forth those thoughts and images whenever they want to relax. 

The goal in imagery training is to reduce and control mental anxiety.  Being anxious is a cultivated habit, but with some conscious effort students can also cultivate the relaxation habit.

Visualization

Why

Visualization, or the use of positive imagery, is one of the most invaluable skills a student can learn.  Not only can visualizations be used to manage stress, they can be consciously created to achieve a goal.  The desired process and outcome, whether it be making an oral report, playing the violin, initiating a conversation, improving a back swing, or skiing a difficult slope, is repeatedly visualized exactly as it would look if it were occurring perfectly. 

When

Students already visualize daily.  Once they learn to visualize deliberately, they may find that the easiest times to employ the process occur while lying in bed—in the morning before rising and at night before falling sleeping.  Other opportunities for visualizing emerge throughout the day, in the moments prior to a test or conference, while waiting for an appointment, or while doing warm-up stretches before an athletic contest.

How

Have your students sit or lie comfortably with their eyes gently closed.  Ask the students to scan their bodies to notice tension in specific muscles and relax those muscles as much as possible. 

Play a tape of soft, relaxing music in the background while you read aloud the script printed on the activity sheet entitled, “Visualization: Creating a Special Relaxation Place.”

Visualization:  Creating a Special Relaxation Place

In a quiet, soothing voice, read these directions to the students: 

You are going to create a special place where only you can go.  It will be a retreat, with a private entry.  It will be safe, comfortable, peaceful, and filled with sensuous detail.  For example, you may choose to create your retreat in a wooded area patterned with sunshine and shade, where you can hear birds sing, smell flowers, look at trees, touch rocks and plants, and feel the breeze. 

Close your eyes and in your imagination, walk slowly to a quiet place.  (Pause.)  Your special place can be indoors or outdoors.  (Pause.)  This place is peaceful and safe.  (Pause.)  What things do you see on your way to your special place?  (Pause.)  What sounds do you hear?  (Pause.)  What can you smell?  (Pause.)  Notice the temperature.  Is it cold, hot, or in between?  Make the temperature comfortable.  (Pause.)  Notice the path to your special place.  Only you see it and know it is there.  This is a safe, special, private spot.  (Pause.)  Feel the ground beneath your feet.  (Pause.)  Follow the path until you enter your safe place.  (Pause.)  You have arrived at your special place.  (Pause.)  What is above your head?  (Pause.)  What is below your feet?  (Pause.)  Reach out and touch something.  What does it feel like?  (Pause.)  What do you hear?  (Pause.)  What do you smell?  (Pause.)  Remember that in this special place, nothing can harm you.  There is no danger.  You can let go of all tension.  You are relaxed.  You are safe.  You are comfortable.  Picture relaxation gently washing over you like a wave.  (Pause.)  Affirm, “I am relaxed.”  “I release all tension.”  (Pause.)  Memorize the way this place smells, looks, and sounds.  (Pause.)  You can come back to this place any time.  You can relax here whenever you wish.  You can come to this special place to solve a problem.  Now, leave your special place by the same path.  (Pause.)  Notice the things along the path.  (Pause.)  Look ahead and appreciate the view.  (Pause.)  Remember, you can return to this special place whenever you wish.   When you are ready, open your eyes and take a few moments to enjoy the relaxation in your mind and body.

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Meditation

Mention meditation to older students and they are likely to respond that it sounds difficult, boring, or weird.  In reality, meditation is a simple mental exercise that gives students control over their capacity to attend to things in their environment.  Students choose what to focus on rather than being subjected to the universe of stimuli. 

Meditation decreases oxygen consumption, heart rate, alpha brain-wave emissions, blood lactate, and carbon monoxide production.  It increases skin resistance and peripheral blood flow to the arms and legs.  Meditation offers greater benefits in the form of specific physiological changes than do the most common relaxation techniques—reading, sleeping, and watching television.  In numerous studies, the psychological health of regular meditators fared better than non-meditators.  Those who meditated were less anxious, experienced greater self-actualization, more positive feelings following a stressful encounter, and were generally in a better state of mental health.

Meditation usually involves one of two focal points: auditory or visual.  Using the former, students close their eyes and focus on a simple word or phrase which they silently repeat.  For example, a student might think “one” as she breathes in and “two” as she breathes out.  This quiets the mind and, although it may look as though students are doing nothing, the process is an active one.  If thoughts and worries enter the mind, the student simply observes the thoughts, lets them go, and again concentrates on the breathing in and out.

The visual focus involves having students fix their attention on something unchanging, such as the flame of a candle or a spot on the wall as they experience mental silence.   If both auditory and visual are used together, students add the repetition of the word or phrase (e.g., “one,” “two”) as they inhale and exhale. 

Little is required to practice meditation—a quiet place, straight-backed chairs, and twenty minutes of uninterrupted time.  To be effective in alleviating anxiety, improving sleep, or improving mental health, meditation should be practiced regularly.

Meditation Activity

Why

Meditation will help your students relax, become centered, improve their concentration, and learn to live more fully in the present moment.  Meditation can also be used to curtail obsessive thinking, anxiety, depression, and hostility. 

When

After leading the meditation exercises in the classroom, suggest that students use them any time they can be quietly alone for several minutes at home.  Early in the morning and just before dinner are good times. 

How

Lead your students in both the “Mantra Meditation” and the “Breath-Counting Meditation.”

Have the students find a comfortable position: in a chair with knees comfortably apart and hands resting in their lap, cross-legged on the floor, or Japanese fashion on their knees with big toes touching, heels pointed outward, and seat resting on the soles of their feet. 

Remind the students to keep their back straight, mouth closed, and to breathe through their nose. 

Direct the students to take several deep breaths with their eyes closed.  Urge them to maintain a passive attitude.  They will have many thoughts interrupt their concentration; tell them to simply notice the thoughts and let them go.

In a quietly audible voice, read the directions for the activity of your choice.

After the activity, invite the students to discuss their experience.

If your students are grade 5 or above, distribute the activity sheet so that they may repeat the activity at home.  

Mantra Meditation

Mantra is the most common form of meditation throughout the world. Select a word or syllable you like, such as “love,” “one,” or “OM.” 

Sit comfortably and focus your attention.  Begin by taking several deep breaths.  Chant your mantra silently to yourself by saying the word or syllable again and again in your mind.  As you repeat your word, thoughts may occasionally intrude.  Let them pass and focus again on repeating your special word.  Eventually, as you say it over and over, your mantra will find its own rhythm.

Try to stay focused on the mantra so that it does not become automatic or mechanical.  Maintain awareness of the process.

Breath-Counting Meditation

This is the most relaxing of the meditations.

Sit in a comfortable position and take several deep breaths to center yourself.  Close your eyes or fix them on a spot about four feet in front of you.  (If you like, use a lighted candle and focus on the flicker of the flame.)

Take deep breaths and focus your attention on each part of the breath:  inhale, exhale, pause.  As you exhale, say “one” and continue counting each exhale, saying “two...three...four.”  Begin again with “one.”  Should you happen to lose count, simply start over again with “one”.

If you slip into thinking about other things, don’t try to force the thought from your mind.  Let the thought pass and release it.  Then return to counting your breaths. 

After 20 minutes, bring your focus back to the room and take a few moments to get reoriented.  Stretch and yawn.

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