Managing stress: making choices

1 hour (probably longer)

Create a safe and positive learning environment by agreeing ground rules for the session.

Download the session Managing Stress: Making Choices

This session is divided into three activities that may take approx 40 minutes each. 

In this session we will learn:

  • that we all have control over how we react to a challenge or stress
  • to understand the link between thoughts, feelings and behaviour
  • to use problem-solving skills
  • that how we react and cope is individual to each of us




Activity 1

Thoughts – feelings – action!

  1. Hand out body outlines on large pieces of paper to small groups of students. Ask them to write around the outline of the head the things that can put pressure on us and make us feel stressed. These can be as big or small/trivial as they like. They could be things other people do or say to us or things we hear in the media.
  2. Feed back some of these and share – emphasise that there are many different things and no rules about what can cause us stress. What makes one person feel stress will not have the same affect on another.
  3. Now write inside the head what thoughts those pressures can initiate, such as ‘I’m never going to do this in time’, ‘I can’t cope if it goes wrong’, ‘I’m going to enjoy this’, etc. Positive and negative thoughts are both OK.
  4. Explain that the thoughts we have affect how we feel. Now fill in the body with feelings, both emotional and physical, that can be a reaction to these thoughts and pressures, like a headache, stomach ache, tiredness, anxious, over-excited, sweaty, panicky etc. Again, there are no right or wrong answers.
    • ​Note: Explain that there is a link between our thoughts, feelings and what our body does. In the age where we had to fight with animals, our fear told us to fight or run away. Today we have different fears and worries and our thoughts and feelings are still very real and can be difficult to cope with. How we react to a stress can depend on how much control we feel we have over what is happening. When things feel really out of our control it can be harder to deal with them and recognise our thoughts and feelings.
  5. Ask the class to think of examples of how stresses they have written down can seem completely out of their control, such as parents splitting up. Take this as an example and explain that even when we have no control over how other people behave, we do have control over how we tackle what is happening. How can we help ourselves to reduce feelings of stress by learning how to focus on what we are able to control? The most helpful thing is to problem solve. This means looking first at the areas that can be changed and then exploring the options.  
  6. A key factor in problem solving is often finding support. Demonstrate this by asking a student to clasp their hands together and not let go. Hand them some things to carry (the demands or challenges in life) and then show how, with other people, this job becomes easier.



How do I know when things are getting too much and the stress I’m feeling is unmanageable?


Activity 2: Problem solving



  1. Hand out ‘Meet Jan, Sarina and Yuseth’ sheets to each pair.
  2. Explain: Each character is feeling under pressure for different reasons, and has decided to talk to a trusted adult. In threes, students take on the role of the adult, the character and an observer. The task is to build up a full and accurate picture of what is going on, recording their ideas:
    • How is the person feeling?
    • What is causing the stress, what are they worried about? List their thoughts.
    • How is the stress affecting their behaviour and their life?
    • How are they coping at the moment? 
  3. ​Take brief feedback about each character from the group. What did the students find out? Reflect and feedback: We notice people are stressed when they change the way they usually act. To get a picture about what is going on, we ask not just about actions, but also explore thoughts and feelings. This is the starting point for helping someone find ways to manage their stress.
  4. Hand out action planning grid.
  5. Explain: When people feel stressed, it can be tempting to make suggestions about what they should do to resolve the situation. No one likes being told what to do, and anyway, you might not know what the best solution is to someone else's situation. What you can do is help them to explore what their options are, so they can make their own choices.
  6. In small groups fill in the action planning grid.
  • What could the character do/change to improve their ability to cope?
  • What would be the consequences of making this choice?
  • What action plan do you think these people could put in place?


Activity 3




  • Explain: There are lots of things people worry about, but we do not always have control over what happens to us. Use the example slide to talk about a problem that someone has and how they can use this to see what they are able to take control of and do something about.
  1. Hand out the circles of control sheet.
    • Explain: There are lots of things people worry about, but we do not always have control over what happens to us. Use the example slide to talk about a problem that someone has and how they can use this to see what they are able to take control of and do something about.
  2. In pairs, take your character (Jan, Yuseth or Sarina) and think about their worries and stresses in the correct circle. For example, Sarina's exams taking place are out of her control. Make a list of actions they could take to deal with that stress. Sarina can't control whether or not the exams happen, but she can control how much she revises (control), and making sure she finds time to relax and spend time with her friends (support).
  3. Reflect and discuss: There are stresses in life which we have some control over. When we have control, we can look at ways to solve the problem. For example, although Yuseth has a difficult decision to make, he can take control by making sure that whatever he decides he explains it sensitively to his mum and his girlfriend, so that they aren’t offended. There are also stresses we can't control. Although we can't change the stress, we can change the way we think about it and react to it. For example, Jan can't change the bully's behaviour but can choose to talk to someone about how he is feeling. Sarina has little control over the upcoming exams, but can make sure she takes enough time to relax and look after her health.
  4. Ask students: Do you ever find that when you are worried about one thing, you start to worry about everything else as well? Next time this happens you can consider using the control circles idea to keep worries in perspective.
  5. Discuss: If Sarina was going through the same thing as Yuseth, would they be equally stressed?
  6. How stressed someone is depends on how they experience the situation. What one person finds easy to cope with another person may find very hard. Coping well with one thing doesn't mean you will cope well with everything.
  7. Ask: Is it possible to measure how stressed someone is? We can make a rough guess by judging the levels of demand, control and support, but in the end the only way to really find out what someone is feeling on the inside is to ask them. Sometimes we can make judgements about other people without really knowing all the facts, so try to talk things through with them first. Also, you may be a good source of support for someone else.
  8. Show students the five areas of wellbeing. One way to manage stress is to make sure that you are doing other things that can help you feel good and give your life balance. Discuss each of the five areas and ask students to consider something from one section they could do over the next week that they don’t think they are doing at the moment. For example, ‘I will call a friend after school I haven’t spoken to in ages’ or ‘I will go to the Karate club I’ve been thinking about’. Ask students to share their plan. Remind them that putting a plan into place to help cope with stress is important and they also need to be doing these things to help them feel better able to cope with more stressful situations.



How do I cope with stressful things at the moment? What one thing could I do to positively cope with stress?


Links and Learning Journeys

This session links to: My support network | Ups and downs of the day | Positive thinking | Listening skills | Talking helps

It is also part of 2 suggested learning journeys:

Learning journey: building resilience: Ups and downs of the day | Expressing feelings | Managing stress: making choices | Building resilience | Talking helps | Being positive

Learning journey: coping with stress: Ups and downs of the day | My support network | Developing listening skills | Managing stress: making choices | Aggression | Let it out

Make sure young people know what support is available and how to access this support.