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‘Stress is a mess’: High schooler helps peers battle burdens

REGION — Alexa Mendes, a sophomore at San Dieguito High School Academy, wants to help fellow teenagers cope with stress.

Knowing how the pressures to get good grades, excel in sports, participate in numerous extracurricular activities, and deal with friend and family drama can make a high schooler’s life feel overwhelming at times, Mendes decided to focus her Girl Scout Gold Award project on stress management.

“If people don’t know how to manage their stress in healthy ways, it can become a root cause of other issues like depression and eating disorders,” Mendes explained.

To earn her Gold Award, the highest Girl Scout honor, Mendes has to demonstrate that she addressed an issue facing the community, conducted a thoughtful investigative process, worked with a team to put a plan into action, and then educated and inspired others.

Her now-completed project will go before the Gold Award Committee later this month for award consideration.

Believing that the ability to deal with everyday stress “is fundamental for both getting by and enjoying life,” Mendes stated, her project centered on compiling and sharing stress-relieving techniques.

The result was “Stress is a Mess: Breathe to Relieve,” which is a website with videos, downloadable posters, a booklet available in three languages, and other free resources aimed at reducing stress. While Mendes says the project is specifically tailored to teenagers, the techniques shared are appropriate for adults of all ages and younger children.

Alexa Mendes hopes to earn her Girl Scout Gold Award by helping teens practice healthy ways of coping with stress.  Photo by Grace Keefe

One video explains how to use breathing, visualization and detachment from thought to calm the mind — and then encourages viewers to practice those methods while watching film footage of the ocean set to piano music.

Another resource, a picture-oriented booklet, provides easy-to-follow steps for techniques like writing down one’s worries or practicing tapping. Tapping is a way of using acupressure from the fingertips that proponents say can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The project has been a concerted group effort. Mendes worked with clinical psychologist Dr. Avid Khorram, who was also her project advisor, to verify that the techniques were worthy of recommendation.

Mendes’ father, organizational psychologist Dr. Ernest Mendes, helped his daughter to tailor the site to teenagers by emphasizing the importance of concise and visually oriented instructions.

In addition to other adults who provided expertise and guidance, Mendes’ core team consisted of fellow San Dieguito Academy sophomores. Classmate Melissa Vinding did the film shooting and editing, while Angela Georgens created the graphic designs. Taylor Lee took the lead on website design, and Grace Keefe helped with the distribution and presentation of the materials.

Mendes and Keefe worked with the Peer Assisted Listeners program to present the techniques to the student body at San Dieguito Academy, for instance.

“We had a very positive response,” Mendes stated in an email, noting, “81 percent of the students who responded to our survey acknowledged that they learned a new technique and 80 percent of the students agreed that they would consider using the techniques in the future.”

A key takeaway for Mendes was appreciating the power of teamwork. She wrote on the Stress is a Mess website that after being initially disappointed by the Gold Award requirement to work with teammates, she soon “realized what a blessing they were” due to their “fresh ideas” and various talents.  

Mendes continued, “So if you’re like me and prefer to go solo on big projects, I encourage you to branch out and try working with a team — teamwork really does make the dream work!”

Another important lesson Mendes shared is the importance of striving for excellence over perfection, stating, “If you strive for perfection, things will never get done.”

Thirdly, Mendes learned to “keep swimming,” as she put it. In other words, during any major undertaking people will get discouraged and overwhelmed and might want to give up. Maintaining momentum and persevering through the hard parts will pay off in the end, she found.

As for stress management, Mendes wrote, “Just like any skill, managing stress requires practice!” She said she’s trying to stay consistent with her efforts. While Mendes chooses which stress-relieving technique to use based on the situation, she said her first step is to always take a deep breath.

The website address is https://breathetorelieve.weebly.com/.

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