“I had church last night after soccer and then had homework in three classes. I got some of it done for my other classes, but not this one. My Mom made me go to bed at midnight before I was able to finish my essay.”
It wasn’t the first time this particular 8th grade student came to me overwhelmed with trying to juggle everything in his life. We met at least once a week to come up with ideas to help him keep his straight-A average, continue being a star player on his soccer team, and enjoy some family time each day without having a meltdown. I worked with him for two years to develop strategies to manage it all; fortunately, those rough couple years in middle school set him up for success in high school.
Now, more than ever, students are stressed out due to obligations with school, sports, church, lessons, family, jobs, friendships, the list is endless. The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that students are often overwhelmed and depressed as a result of stress. And while the causes make for quite a list, a survey by the American Psychological Association found that nearly half of all teens (45%) said they were stressed by school pressures. A little bit of anxiousness can be a good thing, and can even motivate students. However, too much can cause problems with sleep, eating, and overall health, not to mention school becoming a burden. So what can we do to help?
Here are 7 keys to relieving student stress that will help them maintain balance in their young lives:
A couple years ago, I ran a marathon. The marathon itself wasn’t the stress reliever, but rather the training that went into it. After I got over the agony of the first few miles, I’d set in and enjoy the running. With each mile, I felt the tension leaving my body, and by the end, I was relaxed and ready for whatever came my way.
Students do not need to run to experience the stress-relief that exercise brings. Whether it is playing on a school team, preparing for a dance recital, or playing a pick-up basketball game, exercise of any kind will cut down on their stress levels. Exercise stimulates the brain chemicals (endorphins, norepinephrine and serotonin) which cause relaxation and happiness. Exercise can be both proactive and reactive, meaning that it can keep stress from building up and can be used “in the moment” like a pressure-release valve. A person engaging in regular exercise will be more relaxed on average than a person who is not. At the same time, when tense or worried, getting a good sweat going often alleviates the pressure of whatever is bothering you.
2. Meditation, visualization, and breathing exercises
Sometimes we just need to stop and breathe. When I’m overwhelmed, I want to get far away from the pressures that are on me. Unfortunately, I cannot just disappear to a tropical island when I need to decompress. So, instead, I find a focal point and take some deep breaths before going back to the task at hand.
It is easy to teach students to do the same. I frequently have students who stress out before tests. Taking a few moments to teach them a deep-breathing technique before giving them their tests completely changes the dynamic. I also remind them that they can repeat this strategy during the test as well. While I have never had a student stop breathing, I have had a couple experience so much anxiety that hyperventilation ensued – finding a focal point and deep breathing helped them get back on track.
Once the body is in a relaxed state of mind, one can easily slip into meditation. I know several teachers that use short and simple meditations with their students on a regular basis.
When I need inspiration, energy, relaxation, or entertainment, I turn on the tunes.
When I run, I listen to music that has a good beat and inspires me to keep going. For road trips, I turn up the volume and do some seat dancing. Writing means mellow instrumental music of some kind. Regardless of the genre, my body mirrors it.
A few years ago, I did an experiment with my students. I gave them a writing assignment with a deadline at the end of class. The first time I gave the assignment, there was no music and much anxiety about getting it done on time. The next time, I assigned a similar topic and deadline, but I turned on some instrumental jazz music. The results were as I expected. When the music was on, the students’ writing was of a better quality and there was more of it. The third time I gave the assignment, I gave them the option of listening to their own music with headphones. Again, there was improvement. When students listen to music, they tend to focus in better on the task at hand, which lessens their stress.
Chaos and disorganization cause stress in my life. If the area around me, such as my desk or my house, is messy and disorganized, I have a very difficult time relaxing. The same is true when I know there are things I need to do and I haven’t prioritized them. I will putter around and do very little of what needs to be done – not a good strategy when there are 150 essays that need to be graded sitting amongst the day’s clutter on my desk. Just looking at the stack of them causes me to mentally clench up. Only when I clean up my desk am I able to get through more than one every 30 minutes.
One of the best ways to relieve stress is to stop it before it starts. Prioritizing what needs to be done and creating a plan of action are both ways of making all that needs to be done become more manageable. Who doesn’t like marking things off a “to-do” list as we complete them? Students who have a strategy to keep their homework, schedule, locker, notebooks, etc. organized typically have more free time and, as a result, less stress.
Kindergarten teachers have it right. Nap time gives not only teachers an opportunity to recharge, but also a way to re-center their students. Most students, especially teens, do not get enough sleep, which means their bodies are not getting the resting time they need to recharge. Eight to ten hours of sleep are needed to support a student’s ability to learn, listen, concentrate, and solve problems. When one has difficulty with those tasks, more stress is created. One way to end this vicious cycle is getting more shut-eye.
My students often ask for nap time during the day… although in their case, chances are that they’re asking in order to avoid schoolwork. While it is not possible to fit a nap into their schedule amidst all the academic requirements, a short afternoon nap after school may help before jumping into their homework.
When I think of animals that reduce stress, I tend to think of furry ones like dogs and cats. The types of interactions you can have with them are as varied as the kinds of warm fuzzies there are. However, there are other animals that can relieve tension as well. Watching fish swim comes to mind. And my daughter doesn’t go for the furry animals – she holds her snake, Marvel. While that would not work for me (as I would be worrying about it getting loose and our cat using her as a new toy), she holds Marvel for hours. I see the anxiety leaving her body as the snake winds and coils around her arm.
When we are playing with or petting an animal, we tend to smile. Not only is it a means of enjoyment for us, it increases the levels of oxytocin (known for reducing stress) and inhibits cortisol (which contributes to increasing it). Spending just five minutes with a special animal, even a snake, can make all the difference in one’s mood.
7. Coloring or other means of creativity
Remember when we used to color for fun? Those days do not need to be over. Spend time coloring. There are no rules on what color you need to use or whether or not you need to stay in the lines. If coloring is not your thing, other means of creativity are relaxing as well. Whether it’s drawing, writing, painting, dancing, playing an instrument, or building with Legos, engaging in something you find joy in always lessens stress.
When my son was young, his means of reducing stress was building dams across a creek. He would build one just to take it down the next time and build it in a different way. My daughter writes. The genre of her writing changes depending on the creative state that she is in. It could be poetry, character sketches, fiction, or a journal entry… it all works for her. You need to find what works best for you.
You determine what means you want to use to reduce your stress. For me, it varies depending on the situation, where I am, and what is available to me. I teach my students the strategies listed above. We all have a strategy we tend to rely on more than others. However, different situations call for different approaches. That’s why it is imperative that we work with our students to help them develop and find a variety of ways to reduce their own stresses.