Lesson Plans

Back to lesson plans archive
April 15, 2013

Mental health and disasters: How your body reacts during and after a tragedy – Lesson Plan

By Shannon Sullivan, Arlington, Va.



Estimated Time

Two class periods of 45 minutes each, depending on class size, including one evening of homework

Grade Level

7 – 12


  1. Students learn about how the body reacts to stress.
  2. Students evaluate the long-term affects of stress on people whose lives have been impacted by disasters and national tragedies.
  3. Students discuss the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and apply this concept to situations in their own lives.
  4. Students consider what they can do to recognize and control stress caused by disasters and news coverage of tragedy.


Psychologist Abraham Maslow is famous for describing a hierarchy of needs, that can be illustrated as a pyramid with safety and security right above breathing and food.

When people get older, the need for security does not go away entirely, but we develop strategies and skills to disguise fear or insecurity in order to get through what we need to do in a day. Routines, rules, and familiar people and places help us to manage stressors.

So what happens when the earth moves under our feet or we hear an explosion and the sounds, scents, and even the air we breathe is different?

Even people with highly developed coping skills are likely to have a strong reaction-fear.

Some people show immediate signs of stress, such as crying, shortness of breath, and an accelerated heartbeat.

Physically, our bodies produce a “fight or flight” response when under extreme stress. The adrenal glands, located just about the kidneys, release hormones called adrenaline and non-adrenaline in the blood stream.  The body responds by showing what we recognize as signs of stress, such as an increased heart rate, high blood pressure. A message is sent to the brain, or a neurotransmission, to let the body know that there is danger.

(Teachers, use this Adrenal Gland guide as a reference).

When this happens, sensations that are less critical for immediate survival, like hunger pangs, are suppressed, so the body is prepared for “fight or flight.”  This means the body helps a person not to think about a photo album in the basement if they need to leave a home that is on fire, or worry about dinner plans as their work place is flooding.

Cortisol is another hormone released by the adrenal glands, which helps to regulate many systems of the body, but it also makes mammals more sensitive to adrenaline and non-adrenaline by increasing blood pressure.  The message to release this hormone comes from a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which a part of the brain responsible for long-term memory and spatial navigation.  During a disaster, cortisol helps the brain to develop “snap shots” of what has happened, so we learn to avoid the things that put the body in danger.  Cortisol also helps to regulate critical systems of the body after the disaster has ended.

The long term affects of “too much” cortisol could include learning difficulties, insomnia, depression and even psychosis.


  • Step 1: 

    Have students list, as a group or at their seats, the tasks of daily living, such as school, playing sports, shopping, visiting friends.

    On the worksheet attached, a Venn diagram, have the students write the activities in the appropriate circles. The goal is to see how each part of their life could be impacted, and where there is overlap. For example, if they volunteer for school credit, and were too tired to keep up their commitment, that activity would involve their community as well as their school life. This worksheet could be given as homework.

  • Step 2: 

    Explain to students that people who survive national tragedies or disasters, and those who provide services during these events, may experience mental health issues months after the event due to the surge of hormones that kicked in during the crisis to override the fear or anger responses.

    Medical professionals often have to overlook something that would seem gory in a movie to save a life. Even recovery workers offering assistance to victims may receive angry responses from survivors and those who feel frustrated or helpless.

    The December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn. that resulted in the death of 20 students and 7 adults, left the country in shock. How do communities deal with these types of random acts of gun violence? How can they begin to heal from these tragedies?

  • Step 3: 

    Have the students view the two videos of life after the Newtown tragedy, and the poem about the Hurricane Sandy aftermath, and ask them to think about the previous assignment.  Ask them to compare the need for food and medical care to needs such as a sense of safety and finally, higher level needs, such as the need to be creative, understand who you are (self-actualization) or to have strong self-esteem.  As they view the videos, ask students to think about things that are still obstacles to having these needs met, months or years later. You may choose to distribute the transcripts to the video clips, so they can follow the text as they view the clips.

  • Step 4: Ask students to think about images they’ve seen of the attack on the Boston Marathon.  How did those pictures make them feel?  How do they decide when to pay attention to the news and when to do something else?Have the class watch this video from comedian Amy Poehler, whose Smart Girls series addresses issues important to teenagers. Ask students to consider how to stay informed and connected without being overwhelmed.

Extension Activities

Ask students to discuss, or write a journal entry, about reactions to tragedies.  Include the following:

      • What are signs of stress that could require immediate attention?
      • What are long term affects of stress on the human body? On families? On communities?
      • What strategies or techniques can a person use to minimize  the impact of stress? (Connect with friends and family, sleep, exercise, eat well, drink water, so body will recover from the release of hormones released during stressful times).
      • What could you do if you or a friend are experiencing sleeplessness or depressing thoughts and feelings?

Last Updated: February 14, 2013

Shannon Sullivan is a former journalism teacher and special educator who creates web-based content for educational networks and facilitates online learning communities. Her work as a producer of educational content for National Geographic’s site for teachers and parents received national acclaim, and earned a Webby Award. Ms. Sullivan is an advocate for early intervention, universal design for learning and accessible media. She is owner of Meltdown Free Media and blogs tips for parents and teachers at www.biggerboxofcrayons.com. She is a graduate of Harvard University’s Technology, Innovation and Education program, and studied Curriculum and Instruction at Boston College.

  • Tags:

  • Standards

    Tooltip of standarts

    Relevant National Standards:
    • Standard 2: Knows environmental and external factors that affect individual and community health
    • Standard 4: Knows how to maintain mental and emotional health

    Related Stories

    Tooltip of related stories

    More Articles

    Tooltip of more video block

    RSS Content

    Tooltip of RSS content 3