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Health and Safety: Teaching Tools

Recognizing Signs of Stress

In this activity learners will be introduced to the concept of stress and stressors. Symptoms of stress will be examined. Learners will complete a stress checklist to help them identify how they personally respond to stressful events. At the end of the activity, learners will be provided with strategies for dealing with stressful situations.

What is Stress?

Introduce learners to the concept of stress by giving them a list of situations and asking them - Which of these is stressful or cause stress?

  • You receive a promotion at work.
  • Your car has a flat tire.
  • You go to a fun party that lasts till 2:00 a.m.
  • Your dog gets sick.
  • Your new bedroom set is being delivered.
  • Your best friend moves in for a week.
  • You get a bad case of hay fever.
  • All of the above.


The answer is all of the above. To your body, stress is synonymous with change. Anything that causes a change in your life can causes stress.

Emphasize to learners that stress is many different kinds of things: sad things, allergic things, physical things, and even happy things. Starting a new job is usually a happy event, but it can also be very stressful.

Symptoms of Stress

Major problems can be avoided if symptoms of stress are identified early. Some of the signs of serious problems with stress are:

  • persistent, intense depression
  • chronic sleeping and eating - or the opposite (unable to sleep or eat)
  • inability to concentrate
  • outbursts of violence
  • persistent family conflict
  • excessive drinking or drug use

Ask learners to brainstorm symptoms of stress and write some of their ideas on a blackboard or overhead.

Symptoms can be divided into physical and behavioural indicators.


  • headaches
  • fatigue
  • gastrointestinal problems
  • inability to focus / lack of concentration
  • sexual problems
  • sleep disturbances
  • hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • sweating palms/Shaking hands
  • anxiety
  • heart problems (tachycardia, palpitations)


  • irritability
  • disruptive eating patterns (over eat or under eat)
  • harsh treatment of others
  • increased smoking, alcohol, or drug use
  • isolation
  • compulsive shopping
  • difficulty communicating

Learners will know some of the symptoms of stress from experience - headache, tense muscles, knotted stomach, sweaty palms. Symptoms may also be psychological and interpersonal, such as feelings of insecurity, or arguments with friends or parents.


Introduce learners to the concept of stressors. Stressors are the pressures from the inside (internal) or the outside (external) that cause stress. Stress is the response to these stressors. Some common stressors are anger, conflicts, illnesses, violence, money difficulties, job problems, tests, tense relationships, competition, changes and losses.

Give learners a copy of the Stress Checklist (p.194) and have them think about a stressor they have experienced in the last week or so. To have them focus more on stress at work, have learners identify a work-related stressor. Ask the learners to check off how they usually react to stressors.

Have learners look over the stress symptoms they've checked and circle those that occur frequently.

Ask the following questions:

  • What is your usual way of responding? Do you avoid the situation, take emotions out on others, withdraw, or confront the situation head on?
  • Which of these reactions concerns you the most?
  • What ideas do you have about how to stop these stress symptoms from happening?

Most people don't usually plan how to respond to stress. They tend to react without thinking. An individual's response often depends on the situation and the potential consequences of reacting in a particular way. Provide the following example for clarification:

  • It may be easier to confront a friend about his or her irritating tendency to borrow your clothes and leaving you nothing to wear when you really need it than confronting your mother about re-organizing your bedroom. Both may be stressful to you (e.g., lack of control over your belongings). However, the "power" structure is a little different.

Strategies for Dealing with Stressful Situations

To help learners determine the best strategy for a given situation, present them with the following guidelines:

  1. Assess Your Priorities - By determining what is most important you can give order to your activities and expectations in light of your energy on a given day. A structure to follow makes it easier to engage in daily tasks. The stress of trying to remember what you should be doing is eliminated.
  2. Stress Vulnerability - If you know that presentations make you nervous or know that negotiating a car deal scares you, do not wait until it happens to use your "skills". Practice is essential. By thinking about a stressful situation, and by "acting" out in your mind your reaction or by thinking about the words you might say, you can become better prepared for the actual event.
  3. Expectations - Be realistic. If you did not study for an exam, rarely attended class, and never did your homework assignments, it may not be realistic to expect a good grade. This is a simple example, but expecting too much of yourself and others can be disappointing when expectations and reality do not match. Keep things real to avoid misunderstandings. Also, stress is likely to happen if you feel you must be "perfect" all the time, if you feel you must be someone you are not, or if you can not change your plans to accommodate changes.
  4. Incorporate Healthy Practices into Your Daily Schedule -You've heard it before, but a healthy level of exercise, appropriate eating practices and ... really do lower your risk for becoming over stressed. These techniques can lower blood pressure, strengthen muscles, and reduce tension.

Source: Material adapted from University of Florida/Stress Management Strategies