Address That Stress

Why do we feel stressed out?

It’s totally normal to feel stressed out! Maybe it’s hard to sleep the night before a big test at school, or you feel a little shaky before a big game. Stress can help us respond better in the face of an emergency, but it can be an uncomfortable feeling during daily life.

One way to calm ourselves down when we are feeling overwhelmed is to focus on breathing and distract our brains. Having a stress ball can help remind you to slow down, breathe, and relax.

• Identify what is happening in the brain during stress and how it affects the body
• Create a stress ball to use to help focus on breathing during times of worry or stress
Key Vocabulary: Stress, brain, brain waves

Facilitator Background:

New research in mental health and mindfulness suggests that explaining to kids how the brain is wired to respond to stress can help them better manage anxiety and calm down in stressful situations. Recognizing the primitive nature of the brain helps give kids agency even when they feel out of control.

  • Biologically, stress exists because it helps keep us safe: the “caveperson” part of our brains developed the “fight or flight” response as a survival mechanism that enabled us to react in life-threatening situations.
    • When we experience stressful events, the amygdala (emotional processing center) sends signal to the hypothalamus (command center)
    • The hypothalamus communicates with the body through the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which controls involuntary functions like breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, and lungs
      • ANS has two components:
        • Sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight” portion, acts like a gas pedal to provide body with a huge burst of energy so it can be prepared to respond)
        • Parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest” portion, acts like a brake to calm the body down after danger passes)
    • Messages are sent through the ANS to the adrenal glands, which start pumping the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream, which causes:
      • The heart to beat faster (to get blood to muscles, heart, other vital organs)
      • Airways in the lungs to open up wider to get more oxygen
      • Extra oxygen goes to the brain, which sharpens sight, hearing, and other senses (alertness)
    • All of this happens so fast, the brain’s visual center might not have even processed what is happening (that’s why people might be able to jump out of the way of a car without thinking about it)
  • Understanding that this set of steps is uncontrollable, normal, and predictable can help us respond to the stress and start “hitting the brakes”

All of this sounds kind of scary, but stress is not always so bad – there is no growth in the absence of stress. We can think of strength training as a good metaphor: lifting heavy weights makes progress, but we recognize that rest time is needed.

Give Kids Strategies:

1. Breathing: Explain that there is a pathway from lungs to brain – nerves on lungs monitor breathing and help send alarm signals to the brain – but it’s a two-way street, and we can use the connection between brain and lungs to help slow things down (“talk to nerves on lungs” = send message to brain)

2. Recognize that “not calm” does feel like anxiety – kids might need nuance/specificity about what they’re feeling.

3. Ask whether you overestimating danger/risks and underestimating how to handle? When anxiety is too much, we overestimate danger and underestimate ability to cope

Change the Conversation about Mental Health:

  • It’s not about feeling good – it’s about having the right feeling at the right time and managing that feeling appropriately
  • We should be able to count on emotions to reflect the world and navigate
  • Being human means having feelings
  • Ditch prevention/banishment model of emotional distress
    • Focus on emotional regulation of distress including:
      • Expression: sharing feelings
      • Containment: pulling yourself together
    • Help teens balance emotional expression and containment (should be balanced) -> flowing river (not breaking barriers)

Kid Friendly Language:

  • The brain controls all of our feelings and actions – it does this by sending “messages” to other parts of the brain and the body.
  • During an emergency, the brain helps us prepare by sending lots of messages telling us to breathe faster, tense up muscles, and make your pulse faster – all things that would help us survive if we had to flee or respond to danger.
  • When we are feeling stressed out, our brains send those same messages that make our bodies feel really active.
  • There are other chemicals in the brain during stress that increase our energy. That’s why it’s normal to feel things in your body when you are stressed out, like your heart beating faster. It’s all from different messages being sent in the brain.
  • Everyone feels stress differently. Your stomach might hurt, or you might have trouble sleeping. These are all normal, but you can always ask your teacher, parent, caregiver or another adult for help.
  • There are things we can do to change the messages like:
    • Yoga or meditation
    • Using a calm down jar
    • Taking a walk
    • Talking to a friend, a sibling, or a loved one
    • Chewing gum or playing with play-dough
    • What else works for you?

Key Questions


  • Two balloons (clear or jewel toned balloons work well – just be sure there are no latex allergies) OR one medical glove
  • Water beads (soaked in water for 12-24 hours prior to the activity) OR a different filling (see below)
  • Scissors
  • Empty clean plastic water bottle
  • Recommended: funnel

Activity Plan

  1. The night before the experiment, soak a teaspoon of water beads in 2 cups of water overnight. Don’t forget the beads expand exponentially, so make sure they are in a container or large Ziploc with plenty of space. When you are ready to do the activity, pour of any excess water from the beads.
  2. Connect to prior knowledge:
    1. Ask: What are some things that make you feel stressed?
    2. Explain: Stress is a normal part of our lives! Our brains control everything we do by sending different kinds of messages – When we are feeling relaxed, our brain sends one kind of message. But if we are worried about something, it’s a different kind that can make our bodies start feeling different things, like our heart might beat a little faster, or we might sweat a little. One of the things we can do to feel a little better and change the messages our brains are sending is focus on breathing or squish a stress ball.
  3. Pour the beads into the empty plastic bottle.
  4. Stretch the mouth of the balloon over the bottle, turn the bottle upside down, and squeeze the beads into the balloon until it is about fist sized.
  5. Carefully pinch the end of the balloon and slide the bottle out. Be careful because the beads will want to escape and come out of the balloon!
  6. Tie a strong knot and trim the excess.
  7. Stretch a second balloon over the whole stress ball. Tie another knot and trim the excess.
  8. Practice using the ball while taking big, deep breaths. Breathe in through your mouth and feel your belly fill with air, then slowly let it out through your nose.

The stress ball will last about two weeks before the water comes out of the beads. When they start losing water, it is time to make a new stress ball. Also, please be aware that the balloon may split with excess use.

To make a stress ball hand, follow steps 1-3. Then, fill the medical glove with water beads until it is 3/4 full. Tie a strong knot at the top and gently squeeze the stress ball hand.

There are lots of alternatives to water beads for stress ball fillings! You could try:
            – baking soda mixed with hair conditioner
            – flour
            – cornstarch and water
            – uncooked rice or beans

As with all activities, adult supervision is strongly recommended. Water beads should not be ingested.

Follow-Up Questions

  • What have you heard about stress or worry?
  • What are some things that make you feel better when you are stressed?

Extension Activities

Check it out!