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April 7, 2017
14-year-old Jacob seems to have it all. He lives in a wealthy suburb, attends an independent school, plays sports, and is a star member of his school’s band. And yet, he feels uneasy and stressed. His body is going through rapid changes, making his voice crack, his face erupt with embarrassing acne, and his legs perpetually too long for his pants. His schoolwork is starting to get so far ahead of him that he feels like he’ll never catch up, and he worries about staying on top of his extracurricular activities. Some of his friends have even been urging him to try drugs. All of this pressure is exhausting and sometimes he just wants to give up.
Just across town, Kay’s life couldn’t be more different. She and her mom live in a poor urban neighborhood where, if she wants to be safe, she never walks alone—even to and from school. Oftentimes, the only real meals she gets are at school, and aside from those meals, there is little that is predictable in her life. She is naturally bright, but the crushing poverty, along with the drugs and violence she sees around her make the future seem hopeless.
Jacob and Kay have very different stories, but one thing these teens share is a feeling of being overly STRESSED.
Of course, the teenage years are, almost by definition, stressful. Hormonal and other physical changes in the body, along with fluctuating relationships with peers and parents create tension for all kids as they shift toward adulthood. But without the proper coping tools, these and other pressures of family, friends, grades, or finances can quickly begin to feel overwhelming.
Studies show that America’s children are more stressed today than ever. Suicides among adolescents have quadrupled since the 1950s. One major study revealed that only 36% of seventh graders agreed with the statement, “I am happy with my life.” In the past decade, the use of pharmaceuticals to treat emotional disorders has increased by 68% for girls, and 30% for boys.
It’s hard to pinpoint why kids are experiencing more stress today. Some studies indicate that it’s a result of a greater sense of uncertainty they feel about the future. Others indicate that they are learning from their stressed-out and anxious parents, who are not setting clear boundaries.
Whatever the cause, when young people are stressed, their academic performance suffers, and the rate of depression, anxiety, withdrawal and aggression, along with unhealthy coping strategies like drug and/or alcohol use, increases.
One surprisingly effective toolbox for managing stress involves learning the relaxation techniques of Mind Body Medicine.
This approach includes three essential components:
1) Practicing techniques to elicit the relaxation response. Kids learn to use a mental focusing tool and to maintain a quiet, aware, “non-judging” attitude, which involves gently directing the mind back to a point of focus when other thoughts arise. The key to effectiveness here is the establishment of a regular, ongoing practice. The benefits of such a practice can be dramatic.
A typical exercise that helps evoke the relaxation response might be:
2) Teaching stress awareness. Simply being aware of the many ways that stress affects us—cognitively, emotionally, physically, behaviorally and spiritually—is an important first step in effectively managing stress.
3) Learning and utilizing adaptive strategies to better respond to stressful situations. This involves redirecting thoughts in response to stressors, positive perspectives and building social connections.
Research shows that children and teens who were trained in mind body techniques developed more efficient work habits, and felt less stress and anxiety. They also increased their grade point average, self-esteem and feelings of control.
The beauty of this approach is that kids learn about the resources they have inside themselves to build resiliency. Rather than just taking a pill, they can tap into an inner reserve that helps them create the best possible outcome for many of life’s challenges. This is incredibly empowering, and it creates a positive behavioral feedback loop that will continue to serve them throughout their lives.
For more information on this approach to stress management, please visit the website for the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine (BHI) at Massachusetts General Hospital (www.bensonhenryinstitute.org). BHI is a worldwide leader in the management and treatment of medical conditions related to stress, and in developing wellness programs to prevent it. They also specialize in working with children, educators and parents through their Education Initiative (EI) program. Since 1989, the EI has worked with students of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, in groups and individually.
– A version of this blog was originally published on January 6, 2014