INTRODUCTION: As an instructor for College Success, at Santa Barbara City College, I have found that students face multiple and challenging stressors and have received little to no training on how to proactively and efficiently manage the to-be-expected stresses of life. Common student stressors such as test anxiety, financial worries, and relationship conflicts are at best distractions and at worst completely disruptive to learning.
For the Developing Emotional Intelligence segment of this semester long class, I created this learner-centered activity to give students an opportunity to increase awareness of their stressors, discover new strategies to reduce their stress, and to create a tangible tool to remind and inspire them to take action.
While I use this structure in a college success class to identify stress busters, it can be used in any class by changing the content of the top-ten list. For example, a business class could use this activity to create its own list of top ten best marketing practices or a speech class could use this to create a personal top ten list of ways to begin a formal presentation.
To give students an opportunity to…
- Identify sources of their stress
- Learn new strategies for managing stress
- Select strategies they will implement
- *Dry erase pen or chalk
- *3×5 cards (one per student)
- *Coloring tools (pens, crayons, pencils)
- *A clock
- *Power Point slides for lecture (text appended below)
DIRECTIONS: Total time 45-50 minutes (and a follow up evaluation one week later)
1. Personalize the activity by asking the class, “What are stresses that college students face?” Write their responses on the board so they can see the list of stressors and recognize them in their own lives. (5 minutes)
2. Next ask, “What if you had a list of strategies on how to reduce your stress?” After a rhetorical pause say, “This activity will help you create your personal Top-Ten Stress Busters list so that you have numerous ways to reduce your stress.” (1 minute)
3. Using the PowerPoint slides, present the causes and symptoms of stress and some strategies to overcome those symptoms. I provide the American Medical Associations definition of stress as “any interference that disturbs a person’s physical or mental well-being.” I also discuss the impact of persistent stress including emotional issues such as anger, anxiety, depression, and overwhelm as well as physical symptoms such as poor digestion, suppressed immune system, high blood pressure, ulcers, insomnia, and fatigue. I turn this short lecture into a discussion by asking the students to add any other symptoms they might be experiencing. (5-10 minutes)
4. Tell the class, “We have been focusing on the source and symptoms of stress, but now let’s look at solutions. Let’s start with what NOT to do. What are some unhealthy ways of dealing with stress?” Write their ideas on the board. When they are out of ideas put up the power point slide on unhealthy stress reduction and ask if there are any that were not included in their brainstorming. (5 minutes)
5. Now brainstorm healthy stress reduction techniques, writing students’ ideas on the board. If your class is using the On Course text, let students know they can draw ideas from Chapter 8, their life experience, or any other resources they want. (10 minutes)
6. Once the students have exhausted all their ideas for healthy stress reduction, put the power point slide up and ask if they see any ideas not on their list. Clarify any they may not understand. Invite them to add any to their list. (5 minutes)
7. Hand out a 3×5 card to each student and ask them to write their personal top 10 Stress Busters. Provide coloring utensils so that students can decorate their card to make it more pleasing or inspiring. (10 minutes)
8. Ask students to decide on one place they will post their top ten list/menu card as a reminder. Have the class brainstorm all the places they could post their top ten list. Suggest that they look at the card during the week and report back on the impact the card had. (5 minutes)
9. After a week, offer an evaluation to follow up on the impact of the exercise. I asked: What did you learn? What did you like and/or dislike? How would you change, modify or improve this activity? Where did you post your card? Did you look at your card? What impact did it have on your stress?
I began by asking students to share what stressors college students face. Many took this as an opportunity to vent. Common stressors included conflicts with parents (“My mom is driving me crazy!”), preparing for exams, meeting deadlines for multiple classes, making ends meet with their limited budgets, body image issues, time management, and romantic relationship conflicts. Some seemed relieved to speak about their stressors while others appeared to get down or depressed when discussing the stressors. One student was visibly depressed about how messy her car and home were. “Every time I see my room, I feel like such a loser.” I could feel the weight of their stress. I was glad to be having a lesson on how to manage the stress they experience.
When I asked the students to record their ideas about healthy stress reducers, there was an immediate shift in the room. Some students changed their body posture and sat up straight. Those who had appeared down seemed relieved to discuss solutions rather than stay focused on the stressors (a classic shift from Victim to Creator, as On Course would suggest). I reminded them that we are motivated by avoiding pain and by seeking pleasure so taking a moment to see how bad the stress is, was a good idea as it might increase their motivation to seek solutions and make changes.
Students noticed a pattern of suggestions. Many included exercise, social support, and meditation (anything that causes you to be deeply relaxed), and then looked for activities that incorporated all three. One student said that dancing was her favorite because she got to be with her friends, sweat out her angst, and tap into her inner self. For her, dancing is efficient stress management.
Nearly all 20 evaluations supported my observation that the students enjoyed the activity and were pleased to have specific options as well as a physical reminder of what to do when they are experiencing stress. The evaluations also told me that the students had indeed posted their cards and used them. Comments included:
- I learned several methods to reduce stress that I really like and will use and have used since we made the cards.
- I got a bit of peace of mind! It calmed me down, because I was not at a loss of what I can do to relax.
- I learned that getting my assignments in does not have to make me a bundle of nerves. Music, friends and exercise make a big difference.
- I posted the card on the front of my binder for now, and I looked at it when I was preparing for an exam. The results were relaxing because I decided to go for a jog on the beach, which cleared my mind of the negative thoughts I was thinking.
- The activity had a great impact. I was overwhelmed by all my finals and every time I looked at the card, I started to have positive thoughts. I also felt less and less overwhelmed every time I looked at the card. Great idea!
- My favorites were to get regular sleep and to dance. I put my postcard on my dashboard in my car. Every time I drove somewhere it reminded me to write in my journal and to go to bed before midnight. I did go to bed at 11 p.m. the last two nights in a row and I feel much more alert during the day.
I have done this activity two semesters in a row. Both times, the exercise offered multiple opportunities for my learning.
The first time I did it, I heard one student say, “I am going to laminate my card.” I realized the students were interested in saving these cards and might be even more motivated to do so if the cards looked colorful and inviting. I used colors the second time around and while a few students did not use the colors, most did and many commented in the evaluation on enjoying that aspect.
A quarter of the evaluations said the activity made a big difference for them and that they would have liked the activity to be offered earlier in the semester. I have been offering it when the class is covering On Course’s Chapter 8 Emotional Intelligence and because it usually comes just before finals week, but I can see that students are under stress from the start and would appreciate some tools to manage that stress as soon as possible. I think stress management should continue to be covered in chapter 8 Emotional Intelligence, but I am going to review my lesson plan schedule to see if I can offer this activity at least one week earlier.
I will use this activity again. It was an excellent learner-centered activity to provide the experience of acknowledging and accepting our stressors and then shifting to creatively implement strategies that will reduce stress and nurture emotional intelligence. Students reported they enjoyed the activity, used the card, and felt it was beneficial.
While I created this activity, content for the lecture and slides came from Skip Downing’s On Course text (Cengage Learning)
Below is the text that I included in the PowerPoint slides.
SLIDE 1–WHAT IS STRESS? American Medical Association Definition: “Any interference that disturbs a person’s mental or physical well-being.”
Physiology – The release of chemicals called cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline) increases heart rate, metabolism, breathing, muscle tension, and blood pressure. (Fight or Flight) Releases 1,400 chemical reactions in your body, some continuing for hours after the stressor that caused it has passed.
SLIDE 2—PHYSIOLOGICAL EFFECTS OF STRESS: Too much stress inhibits digestion, growth, tissue repair, and response of your immune system and inflammatory systems.
-people with high stress are twice as likely to develop colds are those with low-stress.
-70 to 80% of doctor visits are stress-related illnesses.
Ex: high blood pressure, headaches, backaches, indigestion, ulcers, diarrhea, fatigue, insomnia, physical weakness
SLIDE 3–EMOTIONAL EFFECTS OF STRESS
- Total overwhelm
SLIDE 4–HEALTHY STRESS REDUCTION TECHNIQUES – CHOOSE NEW BEHAVIORS
- Separate from an external stressor
- Resolve incompletes – Take care of it now!
- Keep your finances organized
- Say “no” – Understand your boundaries
- Breathe deeply
- Get a massage
- Do something (anything!) towards your goals
- Listen to uplifting music
SLIDE 5–HEALTHY STRESS REDUCTION TECHNIQUES – CHOOSE NEW THOUGHTS
- Visualize problems and troubles shrinking to a manageable size
- Take a mental vacation
- Challenge pessimistic beliefs
- Focus on the positive
- Find the opportunity in the problem
- Elevate – Will this matter one year from now?
- Trust in a positive outcome
- Visualize success with safety
- Assume the best
- Face the fear
- Identify your hurt
- What did you learn by participating in this activity?
- What did you like about this activity? Dislike?
- How would you improve this activity?
- Where did you post your card?
- Did you look at it?
- What impact, if any, did it have?
–Gabrielle Siemion, Counselor, Santa Barbara City College, CA