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The Stress-O-Meter

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TOPIC: Stress & Stress Management

CONCEPT: Students in high school often report that they use alcohol and marijuana to "relax" and "deal with stress." Awareness of the causes of distress and ways to effectively manage stress are protective factors.

OBJECTIVE: Students review facts about stress and the effects of distress on the brain and body and discuss ways in which to better manage stress before it becomes "eustress or distress."

GRADE LEVEL: High School

Method: Small group activity
Time Frame: 25 minutes plus "Post Test" and "Discussion"
Material: "Stress-O-Meter!" - one for each pair of students (see link below)

ACTIVITY: Print out "The Stress-O-Meter". Form cooperative teams. Direct each team to brainstorm and write a definition of "stress", as they understand it. Ask each team to report out. Review the definition and information on stress ( see information below). Ask each team to brainstorm and write a definition of "stress management" and invite each team to report out. Review the information on stress management and mismanagement (see below.) Follow immediately with the "Post Test" questions to determine the extent to which students understand the two terms.

POST-TEST: After the information portion of the activity, ask the class:

  • What is "stress?"

  • What are the three categories or stages of "stress?"

  • What is "distress" and why is it harmful if it is sustained over time?

  • What is stress management? Mismanagement?

Ask the teams to create a list of the routine situations, conditions and/or events in their lives and rank them on the "Stress-O-Meter." Follow with the "Discussion."

DISCUSSION: After the small groups have completed their "Sress-O-Meters", facilitate a class discussion using the following questions and write the students' ideas on the board.

  • Did everyone on the team agree on the ranking? If not, why?

  • Does the same situation, condition or events affect everyone the same? Why?"

  • What situations, conditions and events did you list as being "eustress" - boring?

  • What attitudes, actions and behaviors could prevent eustress or create interest?

  • What situations, conditions and events did you list as being normal "stress?"

  • What situations, conditions and events did you list as being "distressful?"

  • What attitudes, actions and behaviors could prevent or reduce distress?


STRESS is normal. Stress happens when we hear, see, smell, taste, touch or are touched. Sensations and movement are ways we display our stress - normal reactions are a sign of normal stress levels. A perfect balance of stress is health. Stress is the brain and body's normal reaction to being stimulated. Think of the brain as a computer. It comes into the world with the basic operating systems, central nervous system, circulatory system, respiratory system, reflexes, etc. However, it does not have all its software - the programs for vision, speech, emotions, memory, abstract thinking, problem solving and attention and concentration. The brain needs input or stimulation from the five senses to build these capacities the brain needs to be stressed. The brain's food is stimulation and learning without them, it dies.

"EUSTRESS" is the absence of stress. It is the absence of stimulation or the uncontrolled response to the absence of stimulation. At its ultimate the sign of eustress is death. At the level most of us experience from time to time, a sign of eustress is being bored to death! However, because an infant cannot self-stimulate or control the level of stimulation in his/her world, when an infant is not visually stimulated, or talked to or touched, he/she dies not of boredom he/she physically wastes away. Infants who are not stimulated adequately, even if they are well-fed and otherwise tended, suffer from eustress and what is known as "failure to thrive."

"DISTRESS" is the opposite of eustress. It is the uncontrolled response to a highly stimulating situation, condition or event. At its ultimate, the sign of distress is also death people who are dying are said to go into respiratory distress. At the level most of us experience from time to time, it is sweaty palms, fast-beating hearts, short, rapid breathingfear, anger and other strong emotions can produce distress in the body like being chased by a thousand pound gorilla. Over time, sustained distress begins to act as a psychoactive drug acts in the brain. If we think of the brain as a computer, alcohol and other psychoactive drugs act like computer viruses; they change, delete or scramble the code that our computer - our brain - uses to operate. Sustained distress does the same thing; the neurotransmitters and hormones such as adrenaline are working overtime. Soon the brain and body accept this state as normal, so that when the event, circumstance or situation that stimulated the distress response is over, the body and brain remain in a state of distress. This is sometimes known as post-traumatic stress syndrome.

STRESS MANAGEMENT is the ability to control one's practiced response to stimulia person's practiced response to any given situation, condition and event. Stress management requires that we know what causes us eustress, stress and distressand what our response ishow controlled it ishow well we maintain balance. Effective stress management techniques include deep breathing, bio-feedback, yoga, aerobics, sports, spiritual stimulation, recreation, working out, running, biking, friends, writing, journaling, music, dance, art, reading, volunteering and talking to a trusted friend or counselor and tons of laughter and safe hugs.

STRESS MISMANAGEMENT is the use of substances to control one's response to stimuli. Some people use psychoactive substances to help manage their response to situations, conditions and events that they find over-stimulatinglike work, family relationships, and money problems. Adults who use alcohol and other psychoactive drugs to manage their response to stimuli run the risk of becoming addicted to the substance they have turned to for help. The brain develops a tolerance to the substances the way it develops a tolerance to distress, and it takes more and more of the substance to provide relief. For children and adolescents, the use of alcohol and other psychoactive substances can be devastating. The latest studies on the brain reveal that it does not finish developing until a person is around twenty years old. Psychoactive drugs act like computer viruses; they change, delete or scramble the code the computer - the brain - uses to operate. Not only do children and adolescents develop addiction four times faster than adults, they run the risk of damaging their cognitive, emotional, social and physical development. Adult brains, which can still be harmed by use of psychoactive drugs, do not sustain the same level of damage because their brains have completed development. Stress mismanagement among children and adolescents is life mismanagement.

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