From Meditating to Making: How Design Helps Students Cope With Stress

Close your eyes, and think of the last time you felt stressed.

It’s probably not that hard to come up with an instance: You may have had a deadline looming at work, or needed a last-minute loan to pay the rent, or come home to a huge mess.

Stressors are all around you, so much so that they are often just seen as normal. For high school students, many of the low-grade stressors they encounter every day may seem to compound: There are the academic and social pressures of school, anxieties about leaving home for college (or about not being able to afford a college education), struggles to gain independence, possible family issues, hormonal changes, and — of course — test upon test.

A lot of rhetoric around stress focuses on stress management. Meditation is a way to stay calm. Yoga is a way to relax. Mindfulness is a way reduce stress. For many people, these ways of dealing with stress do help. Yet for all of the potential benefits that these coping mechanisms offer, they are generally surface-level interventions. They are treatments meant to address the symptoms of stress, rarely delving into the why behind it — the job of explorative inquiry is reserved for mental health professionals.

You cannot get rid of low-grade chronic stress; but you can learn to thrive in its midst. What happens when prescribed relievers like meditation and yoga don’t work? What happens when simply redirecting the manifestations of stress is just not enough? How can people find their own ways to thrive under stress?

Designing Objects to Create a Language for Stress

To flourish in the face of chronic stress, you first need to understand the sources of that stress. This is where we believe that design may play an important role. Design is uniquely suited to visually representing complex issues, such as stress. In other words, design allows the intangible to become tangible through visualization and creation.

While yoga and meditation utilize, among other things, intense focus on the body and breath to release stress in the moment, we have seen that design and the act of making can facilitate understanding about the root causes of stress. Design can help students change the way they see their stress, a feat that effectively changes the stress that they experience. This premise became the backbone of our graduate thesis at Parsons. We started to pose questions:

If your stress were an object, what would it look like? Would it fit in your palm or fill the room? What materials would it be made out of?

These are three of the prompts that we used to engage high school students in the initial research phase of our thesis project, This Is Water. After thinking about those questions, the students used arts and crafts materials to build representations of their stress, however they saw fit. Some of them made characters; some created metaphors; and others created abstract representations. We used these creations to facilitate a group discussion about the stress in their lives and how they deal with it. Many of our conversations focused on the stressors themselves: homework, anticipation of a grade, sibling troubles.

After meeting with more than 30 students in three different schools, we noticed a trend that would dramatically shape the focus of our thesis. Namely, there is no language around stress. There is a language for the stressors themselves (e.g., heartbreak). There is a language for the physical manifestations of stress on the body (e.g., crying, insomnia). For some students who seek professional help, there is even the language of counseling. But there is no language that allows people to discuss the stress itself.

Creating the Language to Talk About Stress

From our initial research, we wanted to build on our intuition that the short exercises we ran had begun to give the students a means to talk about their stress, both verbally and through the materials used. We partnered with a local school, The Urban Assembly School of Emergency Management (UASEM), where we worked with a group of seven 10th-grade students once a week for almost three months. We were in a favorable position from a research perspective: We had the students, the time, the buy-in from the administration, and the freedom to experiment with 45-minute lessons every week for 10 weeks. Every week’s activity used the process of making in a different way and was specifically scaffolded to build upon the prior lessons. We were aiming to give a material language to the internal noise of everyday stresses among high school students.

Weeks 1–3: Abstracting Stress

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Students mapped their stress as either quiet (straight line) or loud (jagged line) along four dimensions (D, S, F, T) every week.

Stress is a very personal issue, so the first couple of weeks focused on the self. Because of the complex norms of communicating about stress — these either encourage us to celebrate it or, if not, sweep it under the rug — students were introduced to the idea of a new language for stress.

To start the conversation, we created a dimension to measure how students react to stress called DSFT, which stands for doing, saying, feeling, and thinking. Using a visual string map, students charted how they expressed themselves through each of these dimensions, or actions, on a regular basis. For instance, if a student is particularly extroverted and likes having conversations with others, then the saying dimension would be considered “loud,” and it would be symbolized with a jagged line. For a student who is shy and doesn’t enjoy speaking to others as much, the saying dimension would be mapped as “quiet,” or with a straight line.

Then, we asked students to consider how stress affected the way they expressed themselves across these dimensions. For example, a student who is usually may be “loud” on the saying spectrum may react to stress by talking less with others. This particular students would map her own saying dimension as “quiet” on a particularly stressful week.

In addition, students literally saw their stress in new ways by creating physical representations of it with arts-and-crafts materials. These first weeks served as an introduction to both a verbal and material language for the students’ stress that would be used throughout the 10 weeks.

Week 4–6: Understanding the Systems of Stress

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A role-playing card game had students choose both internal and external responses to stressful events that built upon one another throughout the scenario.

In the middle weeks, we turned from an inward examination of stress to an outward one. Students explored stress as more than just a personal issue, but as something with the potential to affect whole groups of people. They identified how stress from different events can build upon itself throughout a day, a week, or even longer.

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Students identified how responses to stressful events can have both direct and indirect effects on other people.

By participating in a role-playing game and creating a visual map, students saw how their pent-up stress could provide the energy that might sometimes cause them to lash out against those closest to them.

Bottled-up stress can build for different reasons, and when (not if) it explodes, it can be transferred from one individual to another.

Weeks 7–10: Changing the Stress We See

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Students explored their reactions to recurring stressors in their real lives and imagined different responses that could potentially change those stressors in the future.

The final weeks brought the abstract concepts of the prior activities into a more concrete form. During these weeks, we asked students to think about how they could apply the concepts they learned in the preceding sessions to their everyday lives. Students shared and discussed real-world examples from their own lives and analyzed their stresses as a series of events — and their reactions to those events. They saw that by changing their own reactions, they had the ability to change the nature of the events themselves.

Over the course of the semester, we got to know the students with whom we worked fairly well. Constantly switching roles from designers to facilitators to researchers, we were always aware of any small changes in the students throughout the 10 weeks. Much of our evidence is anecdotal, but we could see subtle changes in the way that the students perceived their own stress. As one student expressed to us:

Over the last few weeks, I realized I do things a little more irrationally than I think I do. It’s not like I do it here [at school]. It’s more like I get frustrated when I go home. Your parents nag you all the time. They tell you something, then you yell at them, and it gets even bigger.

Learning From This Research

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This questionnaire asked students how much they thought about their own and others’ stress over the past week.

We created a 10-week program that used both material and verbal language to help seven students articulate their levels and scales of stress. Rather than generalizing everything as “stress,” they were able to start illustrating the root causes of the internal noise they were experiencing. It’s not homework that is stressful; it’s the fear of failure that makes the hands sweaty and the heart race. This awareness, in turn, helped students shift their perspectives from the superficial subjects of stress to the deeper anxieties that were fueling it. Among these are recurring themes that make themselves apparent in school, at home, and in personal relationships.

Ultimately, though, we don’t know what “worked.” We know from our early research that some schools spend as little as one hour during a “Health Day” explicitly talking about stress, whereas our students were exposed to the topic for a sustained period of time. We also know, from our students’ ability to articulate how they saw stress and from their self-reported answers to our DSFT Questionnaire, that they showed a general trend toward increased awareness of the stress in their everyday lives. But was this because of the specific activities we did? Our approach and pedagogy to group facilitation? The fact that we were not their teachers? Or simply that we gave them an avenue to express themselves in a safe environment?

Thinking beyond the seven students with whom we had the privilege of working, we are starting to explore the implications our project may have for the lives of young people at school and at home. There are very few places in students’ lives that have as much potential to shape their mindsets than the schools they attend every day. How can schools start to deconstruct the culture surrounding stress? Schools already have classes that teach life skills and can act as a playground for teachers and administrators to engage students creatively on issues surrounding stress. While these classes can be used as forums to talk explicitly about students’ stress, integrating discussions about stress into other academic subjects can help foster a culture that embraces discussions of feelings in general.

Considering Applications Beyond Design

Having open discussions about stress, its root causes, and its effects can provide considerable relief for students in their personal and academic lives. But this practice can also help students sharpen their analytical skills and broaden their perspectives. Imagine what conversations would occur if students were thinking about how stress affected what Romeo and Juliet were doing and saying. Or if students considered how the stress of George Washington affected how he was feeling and thinking. Understanding how internal noise can affect anyone — from literary characters to historical figures — can also help us better comprehend how it affects each of us personally, and empower us to take active steps to counteract its effects.

Wondering how the K–12 schools you’re considering are helping students address stress productively? Check out their school profiles, and ask a question about stress — or anything else.

Questions or feedback? Write to us at [email protected], or leave a comment below.