Be Well!

Be Well Science Recipe

You hear it all the time: “This is stressful!” or “I’m stressed!” But what does stress really do to your body? Feelings like nervousness and anxiety are normal—and even sometimes helpful—but feeling them too much or too often can be damaging to your health. Find out what’s happening in your body when you feel stressed or anxious, and then try three activities that can help you relax and be well!

Age: 4+
Time: 5-60 minutes
Topics: stress management, physical activity, breathing, exercise

What you need:

  • Something stretchy – like balloons, gloves, or thin socks
  • About 1 cup of small grains – like sand, rice, or oats
  • Paper
  • Crayons, colored pencils, or markers

What to do:

1. Can you think of a time when you were stressed, nervous, or worried about something? Try to remember what that felt like in your body. Did you have a funny feeling in your stomach, or a tight feeling in your chest? Maybe your hands got sweaty, or your breathing got faster like you were running.

2. When you feel worried or nervous, your brain sends chemical signals that cause changes in other parts of your body. The good news is, your body can send signals back that help calm and manage those feelings. Try out the three activities below that help engage your body’s calming response.

3. Keep paying attention to times when you feel stressed or worried, and notice how those feelings affect your body. Use one (or more) of the three activities to calm your body and notice whether your body and feelings change. Which activity seems to work best for you? Do different activities work better at different times, or for different feelings?

Belly Breathing

Breathing from your belly (instead of your chest) stretches muscles near your vagus nerve, a nerve which runs from your head down your neck and into your chest and belly. Activating the vagus nerve sends a calming signal that slows your heartbeat and breathing.

1. If you are trying belly breathing for the first time, start by sitting on the edge of a chair. Lean forward with your legs about hip-width apart and place your elbows on your knees. 

2. Let your belly hang down while you take a deep breath. Feel your belly stretch toward the floor as you breathe in, and rise back up as you breathe out.

3. Once you have the hang of it, you can belly breathe from any position. Try it sitting up, standing, or lying on your back.

4. Take three big belly breaths anytime you feel stressed or want to calm your body.

Stress Ball

Repetitive movements like squeezing a stress ball, stretching some clay, or petting your favorite animal can also send calming signals to your brain and body. Here is one way to make and use a stress ball: 

1. Pour some grains of sand, rice, or oats into a stretchy container like a balloon, a plastic or fabric glove, or a thin sock. Fill it full, but leave enough room to tie off the end.

2. Tie a tight knot at the opening. If you really want to secure this, slide the knotted end inside another layer of balloon, glove, or sock and knot that layer too.

3. Now give it a few good, hard squeezes while taking some of the belly breaths from the first part. 

4. (Optional) If you used a fabric glove or sock, you can also put them in the microwave for about 30 seconds to have a warm squeeze. Using oats smells good too!

Get Moving

Another great way to get rid of stress is to get your body moving. Physical activity lowers levels of two stress-related chemicals called adrenaline and cortisol in your body. Exercise is also helpful for feelings of sadness, because it increases the amount of chemicals called endorphins, which make you feel happier.

1. Think about how much physical activity you get in a day. Sixty minutes a day is the recommended amount, but that 60 minutes doesn’t have to happen all at once! It can be broken up into smaller chunks throughout the day and should be lots of different kinds of activities (to help keep you and your muscles from getting bored!) What different kinds of activities do you do to get your body moving?

2. Make a graph like the one below to track the amount and kinds of physical activity you do over two weeks. 

3. Color in one square for every 15 minutes of activity you do in a day. Do this every day for two weeks. Use different colors for each square, using the color code below, to see how many different types of activities you perform during those two weeks.

4. Take a look at your graph to see how many days you got at least 60 minutes of activity. The numbers going down the side represent minutes of activity. The numbers along the bottom are days for two weeks.



























































































Color Codes for possible activities

  • Walking (walking - red)
  • Biking (biking - orange)
  • Playing (playing - yellow)
  • Running (running - green)
  • Chores (chores - blue)
  • Active video games (active video games - purple)
  • Your choice: 
  • Your choice:

What’s happening?

Stress and anxiety are part of your body’s natural "danger alarm” that looks out for possible threats and prepares you to avoid or overcome them. This alarm system is controlled in a part of your brain called the limbic system. When you sense a challenge or a threat, the limbic system releases chemicals into your bloodstream that provide extra short-term energy and alertness. It causes you to focus closely on whatever the threat is, and pay less attention to everything else. It also causes physical changes in your body, like sweaty hands, a “butterfly” feeling in your stomach, a faster heartbeat, or shallow, rapid breathing. It is sometimes called your “fight or flight” response, because it is preparing your body to deal with the danger by either defending yourself (fight) or getting away (flight). 

The right amount of stress, at the right time, is actually a good thing, because it helps you get things done. It can motivate you to study hard for a test, give a great performance at a show or game, or deal with any actual physical danger you might face. The problem comes when your body’s “danger alarm” gets activated too often, or by things that aren’t actually a threat to your life. Having too much of the stress chemicals in your body can make it harder, instead of easier, to focus and make decisions, and it can cause damage to other systems in your body. This is an example of how emotions like anxiety can get in the way of living a healthy life.

While you can’t always control what turns on your “danger alarm” and makes you feel anxious or stressed, activities like belly breathing, exercise, or squeezing a stress ball can help you turn down the alarm and regulate your emotions. In different ways, these activities all signal to your limbic system that the “danger” has passed. The limbic system then sends signals that tell your body to get out of fight/flight mode (for example, it will tell your heart to stop beating as quickly). Decreasing the intensity of the feeling allows other parts of brain, like the area that helps us decide what to DO with an emotion, to get back to work and make better decisions.