Mental and emotional wellbeing is critical to overall health. By supporting teens in developing healthy coping skills, you can set them up for success in dealing with stress and challenging circumstances in the future. This activity helps promote mindfulness and teaches teens how to practice health-enhancing behaviors, which can support better management of stress and reduce the chances of exploring substance use as an alternative.
Stress has been linked to substance use.1 If someone has a hard time coping with stress, it may play a role in their use of drugs or alcohol.1 Teens can learn to use healthy coping strategies to help build resilience in response to challenging circumstances and events. For example, mindfulness–slowing down to pay attention to what’s going on around you at the moment–can help teens create mental “breathing space” for dealing with distressing emotions.2 That breathing space can look like teens’ increased awareness of their thoughts, feelings, and senses, as well as the ability to distance themselves from those thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness-based activities can also enhance teens’ emotional wellbeing and decrease how overwhelmed they feel from stress.3 Activities that help teens build resilience can benefit all teens who participate in them.4
This activity is designed to be delivered virtually, although it can be adapted for in-person classes.
Students will be able to...
- Practice health-enhancing activities that promote and nurture their mental and emotional health.
Teacher prompts are in italics.
Your mind and emotions affect your overall health. Unmanaged stress can increase the risk that a person may attempt to deal with stressors—including mental health issues and trauma—by using drugs and other substances. Today, we’re going to do an activity that can help you nurture your own mental health. Since every person is unique, the activities that help you relax or feel better may be different than the ones that may help your friends or family members.
Ask students: With a show of fingers, how stressed are you now? One finger (not the middle, please) indicates barely any stress, 10 fingers means super stressed.
The 4-7-8 breath. This breathing exercise involves breathing in for a count of 4, holding the breath for a count of 7, and exhaling for a count of 8. You can adjust the speed of each breath based on how fast you count. When a person does this for the first time, they should do it seated or lying down and only for a few breaths, as it can make some people feel a bit giddy or light-headed.
Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Say: It's OK to feel “not OK.” It can be hard to handle difficult circumstances. That’s why it’s really important to take care of your emotional and mental health, and to practice healthy ways to cope. Hopefully by the end of this activity, when I ask about your stress level, it might go down at least one number.
Select an activity from the list below, and practice doing it for the next 10 minutes. You may even want to try something you haven’t tried before to see if it’s relaxing and something you might enjoy. Ideas for activities may include…
- Draw a picture of a favorite place or memory.
- Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. You can use a free app, like this one, Breathe2Relax.
- Read or listen to a mindfulness passage (example).
- Write about what’s on your mind.
- Write down 10 things you feel grateful for.
- Practice guided imagery.
- Exercise (either aerobic, like dancing along with music videos, or stretching, like yoga).
- Listen to music that helps you relax.
Give students about 10 minutes to select something and practice. Consider using chimes or a bell to bring them back.
Say: Write in the chat how you felt before the activity and how you feel now. For example (place in chat), tight in my chest/open and easier to breathe.
Ask: Did anyone feel more stress, or a feeling that wasn’t positive, related to the activity you chose? Provide time to listen and discuss.
It’s important to find activities that support your mental health. If what you tried today didn’t help you feel less stressed, consider trying another option from the list. It may take a few tries to find what works best for you. As I said earlier, what works for your family members or friends might not work for you.
Did you notice that the options I listed included different kinds of things: physical activity and movement, reading, drawing, writing…? That’s because it’s important to know that taking care of your mental and emotional health might mean taking a nap, or running a mile. It might include writing down your feelings, or listening to music. Knowing what you can do to support and manage your mental and emotional health is half the work! Plus, bringing yourself back to a state of calm may help you in other areas of health and life.
Ask: With a show of fingers, how stressed are you now? One finger (not the middle, please) indicates barely any stress, 10 fingers means super stressed.
Did you learn something about what could help you feel less stressed—or what doesn’t help? Provide time to listen and discuss.
-  Sinha R. How does stress increase risk of drug abuse and relapse? Psychopharmacology. 2001;158(4):343. doi:10.1007/s002130100917
-  Sapthiang S, Van Gordon W, Shonin E. Mindfulness in Schools: a Health Promotion Approach to Improving Adolescent Mental Health. International Journal of Mental Health & Addiction. 2019;17(1):112-119. doi:10.1007/s11469-018-0001-y
-  Galla BM. Within-person changes in mindfulness and self-compassion predict enhanced emotional well-being in healthy, but stressed adolescents. Journal of Adolescence. 2016;49:204-217. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2016.03.016
-  Dray J, Bowman J, Campbell E, et al. Systematic Review of Universal Resilience-Focused Interventions Targeting Child and Adolescent Mental Health in the School Setting. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 2017;56(10):813-824. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2017.07.780