Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools

Building Stress Tolerance

  • March 28, 2018
  •    BY Tara Laughlin, Ed.D. (Contributor)

By Tara Laughlin, Ed.D., Director of Curriculum at PAIRIN

We see it all the time.  A person rushing around, from activity to activity, to the store and back, jumping from meeting to meeting.  We hear it all the time.  “I’m so stressed!”  We feel it, too.  The pounding heart, tight muscles, mind racing, knot in the stomach.  Stress: it’s an ever-present part of our internal and external worlds.  

When you break it down, stress is simply the mental or emotional reaction your body has to any kind of demand or threat, causing your nervous system to release a flood of hormones.  And believe it or not, stress can actually be a good thing.  When you’re truly in danger, these stress symptoms serve to protect you, helping you stay alert and active, sharpening your focus and increasing your motivation.

Managing stress is one of the elements of emotion regulation, and an essential social-emotional competency.  It’s vital whether we are in danger, or whether our distress is less consequential. None of us will, or would want to, live in a stress-free world.  So it’s worth considering how to better tolerate or manage the stress we feel, regardless of the magnitude..

Stress Management Strategies

Everyone has their own ways of coping with stress.  Some of these ways are positive, and some are negative.  Do any of the following sound familiar?  Or perhaps you’ve seen a friend or loved one responding in these ways?

Negative Strategies

Smoking Sleeping too much
Drinking/Drugs Procrastinating
Junk Food Overscheduling yourself to avoid facing problems.
Hours in front of TV/computer            Taking stress out on others
Withdrawing from family  


If so, take heart.  There are more positive ways to manage stress.  Try these three simple strategies:

Positive Strategies

Deep Breathing: Deep breathing is breathing slowly and fully to increase feelings of relaxation.  By purposefully changing your breathing from being rapid and shallow to the opposite, you send a signal to your brain and body to de-stress.  Try this:

  1.  Sit comfortably with your eyes closed and start focusing on your breath. Feel your stomach moving in and out as you fill and empty your lungs.
  2. Count your in- and out- breaths. How long do they last?
  3. Start slowing your breathing.
  4. Aim for an in-breath which lasts for a count of 6 and an out-breath for another count of 6.
  5. If possible, do this for 5 full minutes without opening your eyes.

Visualization: Picture a place which is relaxing for you, in great detail, and imagine yourself in that place.  Visualization forces you to clear your mind of the many thoughts you are juggling. You can then replace those thoughts with ones that are purposefully calming and relaxing. Try this:

  1. Sit or lie down comfortably, and close your eyes.
  2. Think about a place which you find relaxing, preferably one you have been to before. This might be a quiet forest, a mountain overlook, a beach, or even your bedroom.
  3. With your eyes still closed, clearly imagine yourself entering this place.
  4. Use your sense to see, hear, smell, and feel the details of this place.
  5. Picture yourself finding a comfortable spot and unwinding in this place.
  6. Stay here until you feel calm and relaxed.

Progressive Relaxation: Focus on each muscle group in your body, one at a time, tensing and relaxing them. It may seem strange to tense your muscles while trying to relax, but doing so actually allows you to relax more deeply. Try this:

  1. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position, closing your eyes.
  2. Starting with your toes, tense them tightly by curling them under and holding for 5 seconds.  Then, relax them.
  3. Repeat this process with your feet, ankles, calves, thighs, core, hips, lower/upper back, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, neck, and face.
  4. Pay close attention to how each muscle group feels after tensing it.
  5. Finish by tensing your entire body at once, holding for 5 seconds, and releasing.

The key to using any of these strategies is to find the right time and place when you can do them feasibly. It’s especially useful to practice stress management when you are not highly stressed, so the techniques can be accessible to you when you most need them, and the context might not be so ideal. Notice when you find yourself rushing around, telling yourself or others how stressed you are, or feeling that familiar flood of stress hormones. Use that awareness as motivation to carve out some time for stress relief.

(For more information on strategies to improve social and emotional skills, visit to learn about our SEL curriculum.)


    • March 28, 2018
  •    BY Tara Laughlin, Ed.D. (Contributor)
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