As an alumnus of an independent school, I have enjoyed reading about the increasing emphasis on teaching cooperation, teamwork, mindfulness, and empathy. As independent schools become more globally and racially diverse, the need for greater reflection, for awareness of one’s own thinking and biases, and for curiosity about the perspectives of others also grows. The ability to empathize may be the most critical need in this century, and some research suggests that mindfulness can help cultivate empathy.
Stress is unavoidable in modern life, but it doesn’t have to get you down. Work, money and family all create daily stress, while bigger issues like politics and terrorism contribute to our underlying stress levels. But approach it the right way, and it won’t rule your life — it can even be good for you. Here are ways to deal with stress, reduce its harm and even use your daily stress to make you stronger.
Stress is inevitable; getting sick from it is not.
THE PERCEPTION OF STRESS
While we know that stress is associated with health problems, plenty of people with high-stress lives are thriving. How is that possible? In 2012, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison published looking at how 28,000 people perceived stress in their lives. People in the study answered these two questions:
- During the past 12 months, would you say that you experienced:
- A lot of stress
- A moderate amount of stress
- Relatively little stress
- Almost no stress at all
- How much effect has stress had on your health?
- A lot
- Hardly any
The researchers looked at death rates in the study group over nine years. The results are startling. The study found that having a lot of stress in your life was not linked with premature death. But having a lot of stress in your life and believing it was taking a toll on your health increased risk of premature death by 43 percent.
CHANGING YOUR PERCEPTION
With stress, the mind and the body are intrinsically linked. You can view stress as something that is wreaking havoc on your body (and it can) or as something that is giving you the strength and energy to overcome adversity. Here’s a quick way to think about these two very different views of stress. Read the statement, and then think about your own reaction to the biological changes that occur during times of stress.1. When I’m stressed, my body releases adrenaline and cortisol. My heart is beating faster. This means that:
- Common View: Stress is increasing my risk for cardiovascular disease and heart attack.
- Alternative View: My heart is working harder and my body is mobilizing its energy to get ready for this challenge.
2. When I’m stressed, my stress response is causing my breathing rate to increase. This means that:
- Common View: My fast breathing is a sign of anxiety. I worry about how stress is affecting my mental and physical health.
- Alternative View: I should take a deep breath. My faster breathing means more oxygen is getting to my brain so I can think more clearly.
3. When I’m stressed, my heart and circulatory system respond, causing my blood pressure to rise. This means that:
- Common View: I can feel my blood pressure rising. This can’t be good for my health.
- Alternative View: Circulatory changes are allowing more oxygen and nutrients to fuel my muscles. I’m feeling stronger and ready for the challenge ahead.
It’s probably clear to you that the alternative view is the better choice for thinking about stress. It may be hard to believe that such a small shift in thinking could make a difference, but that’s what when they paid 50 study subjects $25 each to take part in a lab experiment designed to induce stress. The test involves giving a talk in front of a group of unfriendly evaluators, followed by a tricky word test. (Researchers have consistently found that this formula of public speaking plus testing in front of a hostile crowd is incredibly uncomfortable and stress-inducing for the poor people who agree to take part in the study.)
Before the social stress test, one group was allowed to play video games; another was taught to simply ignore stressful feelings if they experienced them during the test. But a third group was given advice similar to the quiz above. They got a primer about the physical stress response and were told how a higher heart rate, faster breathing and internal jitters were all tools for making you strong during a stressful event. They were told how the body’s stress response evolved to help us succeed, and that the increased arousal symptoms of stress can aid your performance during times of stress. The bottom line of the lesson was this: In a tough situation, stress make you stronger.
The group that learned to rethink the role of stress in their lives did far better on the test. They gave better speeches and were rated as more confident. They smiled more and had more-positive body language. And physiological indicators showed that their bodies were also managing the stress response better than those of test subjects who were taught to ignore stress or given no advice at all.
The Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal has been a champion of rethinking stress, noting that the right approach can make you smarter and stronger. Her TED talk on the subject, has been viewed 14 million times.
“What I learned from these studies, surveys and conversations truly changed the way I think about stress,” Dr. McGonigal wrote in her book “The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it.”
Learn skills to better handle stress.
The best way to get better at stress is to practice it. Scientists call this “stress inoculation,” and just as exposure to a virus will inoculate you from contracting a virus a second time, regular exposure to small amounts of stress can inoculate you from the most detrimental effects of stress when you suffer a big stressful event in your life.
1. Education: Learn what to expect. If you need chemotherapy, are experiencing a divorce or have had a setback at work, talk to people who have been through it and learn what to expect going forward so you can be prepared, rather than blindsided, by the stressors ahead of you.
2. Rehearsal: While you can’t rehearse for life’s biggest moments, you can live your life in a way that prepares you for stress. It can be a physical challenge like competing in a triathlon or conquering a mountain. It can be an intellectual stressor like reading your poetry in public or giving a speech. The point is that you need to rehearse stressful situations in order to perform your best under stress.
3. Implementation: When the stressful event hits, you are prepared. You know what to expect, and you’ve experienced stressful situations before. You’ve got this.
Think about how firefighters train. They educate themselves about fire and how it behaves in different situations. They put themselves through grueling physical training to practice carrying heavy equipment, navigating smoky, dark buildings and stairwells, and braving the heat of a raging fire. They practice running into burning buildings. The training is hard and highly stressful.
Now imagine you are out for a nightly walk and you see that a neighbor’s house is on fire. Your heart races. You panic. You fumble with your phone. You take a step toward the house. You hesitate. What do you do? Fortunately, the firefighters arrive and race into the home without hesitation. Your moment of stress and anxiety is just another day at the office for them. They know what to expect. They trained for it.
You can practice for everyday stress in similar ways, by putting yourself in challenging situations. The good news is that practicing stress can actually be enjoyable, even thrilling. The key is to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Here are some suggestions:
- Run a marathon
- Play in a Scrabble competition
- Read an original poem at a poetry slam
- Climb a mountain
- Sing karaoke
- Tell a story in front of a crowd
- Take on a tough project at work
- Kayak the Colorado rapids
- Train to scuba dive
- Attend a boot camp
Not only will challenging experiences give you more confidence, but the repeated exposure to stressful situations can also change your body’s biological response to stress. Your stress hormones become less responsive, allowing you to better handle stress when it comes.
Dr. Dennis Charney, a psychiatrist and the dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, notes that programs like Outward Bound and basic military training are all designed to make people uncomfortable and build their skills so that they will be better able to handle stress later on. When his children were young, he took them on adventure trips that included “a degree of anxiety” like exposure to wildlife or kayaking in remote areas as a way to build confidence and prepare them to deal with stressful events. Putting yourself or your children in difficult social situations or speaking in public can help adults and children accumulate social and intellectual skills that help in times of stress.
“Live your life in a way that you get the skills that enable you to handle stress,” says Dr. Charney. “Put yourself out of your comfort zone.”
AN RX FOR RESILIENCE
Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.
You can boost your resilience in a number of ways. In the book the authors, Dr. Steven M. Southwick and Dr. Charney, studied people who experienced great stressors — prisoners of war, men in the special forces, victims of trauma or survivors of catastrophic events. They found that people with the most resilience in the face of extreme challenges shared several behaviors and mind-sets. From that research, the duo identified 10 factors associated with resilience. You don’t need to practice all 10 behaviors to build resilience; just pick the two or three or four that speak to you.
1. Adopt a positive attitude. Optimism is strongly related to resilience.
2. Reframe the situation. Just like the stressed-out study subjects were taught to reappraise stress as their friend, people who are resilient typically reframe a negative situation as an opportunity for growth, learning or change.
3. Focus on core beliefs. People with a deeply held core belief, strong faith or a commitment to altruism often show more resilience.
4. Find a role model. Seeing someone else who has come through adversity can strengthen your own resilience.
5. Face your fears. Confronting a challenge rather than avoiding it will help you cope and build confidence.
6. Fall back on religion or spirituality. For many people, strong faith or spiritual beliefs can fuel resilience.
7. Seek social support. People who reach out to friends, family and support groups fare better during stressful times.
8. Exercise. It improves mood, relieves stress and makes you physically stronger.
9. Inoculate against stress. Challenge yourself regularly in the areas of emotional intelligence, moral integrity and physical endurance.
10. Find meaning and purpose. Having a clear purpose in life can boost your emotional strength during difficult times.
Numerous studies have shown us that exercise can improve your mood.
Exercise can channel your stress response into something constructive and distract your mind from the challenges at work or home that make you feel chronically stressed. In many ways exercise appears to be a form of stress inoculation. In studies, mice given access to running wheels and tubes to explore for just two weeks became resistant to stress compared with mice who had not exercised. They measured this by exposing the mice to an aggressive mouse. After the bullying, the exercising-mice bounced back, but the sedentary mice continued to show signs of stress. The bottom line: Exercise doesn’t eliminate stress, but it does give your body the physical conditioning it needs to recover from it.
How Much Exercise Do I Need to Manage Stress?
It doesn’t take much. Even small amounts of exercise can help you manage your stress. The key is consistency. Don’t let the stress of your day push exercise off the schedule.
Does the Type of Exercise Matter?
The exercise that is best for relieving stress is the one you will do consistently. Find something that fits your schedule and that you enjoy. For some, that will be a morning spin class or an evening run. For others, it will be a 30-minute walk at lunch time. found that people who engaged in any exercise, evan a small amount, reported improve mental health compared with people who never exercised.
What About Weight Training?
One study showed that six weeks of bicycle riding or weight training eased symptoms in women who received a diagnosis of anxiety disorder. The weight training was especially effective at .
Indeed, some research suggests that when it comes to reducing stress, you’ll get more out of exercise if you incorporate some weight training. Studies show that anaerobic or resistance exercises (working with weights) taxes muscles more than aerobic exercise like walking or running. The result is that weight training, done right, may produce more mood-boosting endorphins than cardio exercise. Exercises that stress the large muscles seem to have the biggest effect, like squats, leg presses, incline situps, military presses and bench presses.
Don’t go for a powerlifting record. The best weight training to manage stress consists of three moderate-weight sets of 10 repetitions with one minute of rest. found in a small study that this 3-10-1 moderate weight strategy produced more endorphins than using heavier weights for five reps and a longer rest.
TAKE IT OUTSIDE
Simply taking your exercise outdoors can have a significant effect on your mood.
In a volunteers who walked outdoors reported enjoying the activity more than those who walked indoors on a treadmill. Subsequent psychological tests showed outdoor exercisers scored significantly higher on measures of vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure and self-esteem and lower on tension, depression and fatigue.
A found that those who exercised outside did so longer and more often than those working out indoors. The outdoor exercisers averaged about 30 minutes more exercise each week than those who walked or otherwise exercised indoors.
A that people have lower blood levels of cortisol, a hormone related to stress, after exerting themselves outside as compared with inside. There’s speculation, too, that exposure to direct sunlight, known to affect mood, plays a role.
from the University of Essex found that exercisers exposed to the color green found it easier to exercise and were in a better mood than exercisers exposed to gray or red. (Think green trees versus a cement-walled gym.)
Exercise your mind and let it rest to help it better process stress.
GIVING YOUR MIND A REST
For people dealing with high levels of stress, it can be hard to fathom how a few moments of meditation will help. After meditation, the stressors are still there — you’re still getting divorced, caring for an aging parent, struggling with the demands of a high-stress job. How can a few moments of deep thought possibly help your life?
It may help to think about how muscles get stronger. Unrelenting exercise simply tears down a muscle and leads to injury. Smart exercisers know the value of a day of rest — that’s when your muscles regenerate and come back stronger than before.
Now think about your mind as an emotional muscle. Unrelenting stress without a break will not make it stronger. Your emotions, your brain and your body need moments of recovery to get stronger from stress.
“It’s about stress and recovery. Just like you build a physical muscle, just like you build biceps, you have to take the same approach to life stressors,” says Jack Groppel, co-founder of the , which offers a course called “The Power of Positive Stress.“
Think of meditation like high-intensity interval training (H.I.I.T.) for the brain. During H.I.I.T., you go as hard as you can, then you give yourself a few minutes of recovery before returning to the exercise. This cycle is repeated multiple times and has been shown to be more effective for building strength than long, slow bouts of exercise.
Now imagine a high-intensity, high-stress workday. But every hour, you take two minutes to let your brain recover. “Stress is the stimulus for growth,” says Dr. Groppel. “Recovery is when growth occurs. If there is no recovery, there is no growth. That’s how we build the resilience muscle.”
has been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness and boost your immune system. For centuries yogis have used breath control, or pranayama, to promote concentration and improve vitality. The Buddha advocated breath-meditation as a way to reach enlightenment.
Science is just beginning to provide evidence that the benefits of this ancient practice are real. Studies have found, for example, that breathing practices can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and attention deficit disorder.
One study who were seeking work and experiencing considerable stress. All of them participated in stretching exercises, but half of them were also taught formal mindfulness meditation. After three days, everyone said they felt refreshed and better able to withstand the stress of unemployment. Yet follow-up brain scans showed differences in only those who underwent mindfulness meditation. There was more activity, or communication, among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm. Four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much lower levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though few were still meditating.
To learn more about meditation, try the introductory exercise below.
WRITE IT DOWN
Another way to cope with stress: writing. It is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health. It may sound like self-help nonsense, but research suggests the effects are real.
Timothy D. Wilson, a University of Virginia psychology professor and author of “Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By,” believes that while writing doesn’t solve every problem, it can definitely help people cope. “Writing forces people to reconstrue whatever is troubling them and find new meaning in it,” he said.
Journal every day. Just writing about your thoughts, feelings and experiences every day can help. Explore your thoughts and feelings about an issue. Don’t just re-live the stress in your life but try to find meaning in it or explore how well you’ve handled certain situations. Be disciplined and write at the same time every day so it becomes a habit. In a University of Texas study, students who wrote about stressful or traumatic events for four days in a row reaped the benefits for months after. For the next six months, the writing students had fewer visits to the campus health center and used fewer pain relievers than the students in the experiment who wrote about trivial matters.
Change your story. Use writing to force yourself to confront the changes you need to make in your life. On the first day, write down your goals, then write down why you haven’t achieved them (“I don’t have the time or the money,” “Too many family responsibilities,” etc.) The next day review your writing. Now ask: What is really standing in the way of your goals? Change the story so you have control. Maybe the answer is: I don’t put myself first. I don’t make exercise a priority. I let other people talk me into spending money rather than saving.
Write a mission statement. People deal with stress better when they have a strong moral compass. This means knowing what you value in life and using that as a guidepost for all decision. By creating a mission statement people can begin to identify the underlying causes of behaviors, as well as what truly motivates them to change. “A mission statement becomes the North Star for people,” says Dr. Groppel. “It becomes how you make decisions, how you lead and how you create boundaries.” To learn more, read our article
STRESS AND YOUR APPETITE
Stress can have a huge impact on your eating habits. During acute stress (the hours after a car accident or the shock of a layoff announcement at work), the stress response can shut down appetite. The fight-or-flight response is designed to suppress hunger — you won’t be effective in battle or run that fast if you are thinking about food. But chronic stress has the opposite effect. Repeated doses of cortisol in your body due to high stress can lead to an increase in appetite.
And the reality is that food really can make you feel better during times of stress. So-called comfort food like chocolate cake and ice cream to chronic stress. The problem with continuing to self-medicate chronic stress with comfort foods is that it will lead to weight gain and poor health.
Just as you need to reframe your view of stress and exercise and meditate to give your body a break from stress, you can also adopt strategies to use food to help you better cope with stress.
During times of stress, we can be particularly careless about what we eat and resort to mindless snacking, grabbing sweets from the office treat table or eating bags of junk food on the run. During times of stress, it’s particularly important to engage in “mindful eating,” which involves eating slowly and relishing every bite.
How to Be Mindful at the Holiday Table
Holidays are often filled with expectations. Take a moment to appreciate the present.
“The question isn’t what are the foods to eat, in my mind,” a holistic physician who oversees , a holistic-living center in Bedford, N.Y. “Most people have a general sense of what the healthy foods are, but they’re not eating them. What’s on your mind when you’re eating: That’s mindful eating to me.”
Here’s a simple exercise to try next time you are sitting down to a delicious meal:
- Place a forkful of food in your mouth. Make it something you love.
- Put the fork down and resist the temptation to take a second bite.
- Chew slowly. Tune in to the texture of the food, the flavor, the aroma. Focus on the colors on your plate.
- Be present in the moment and think only about the food in your mouth. Reflect on the effort that went into growing or producing this food; the effort it took to prepare this meal.
- Savor the moment.
To learn more, read
Support and Relationships
Your friends and family can be both a cause of stress and a cure for it.
LEAN ON LOVED ONES
The pressure of family responsibilities is one of the most common forms of stress. But during times of stress, our friends and family members are most likely to give us the support we need to get through it.
One of my involved a steep hill, a heavy backpack and 34 university students. Students were fitted with a backpack full of free weights equivalent to 20 percent of their body weight. They stood at the base of a hill on the University of Virginia campus with a 26-degree incline. Wearing the heavy backpack, they had to imagine climbing that hill and guess the incline. When a student stood alone, he or she tended to guess that the hill was very steep. But when they stood next to a friend, the hill didn’t look as daunting. Overall, students in pairs consistently gave lower estimates of the hill’s incline compared with students who were alone. And the longer the friends had known each other, the less steep the hill appeared.
The lesson: The world does not look as challenging with a friend by your side.
For people who study stress, the role of friendship, family and support networks can’t be overstated. Time and again research shows that social support is a defining element in our happiness, quality of life and ability to cope with stress.
MAP YOUR SOCIAL NETWORK
During times of high stress we have a tendency to retreat. We cancel social plans and focus on the work, money crisis or trauma that is our source of stress. But friends and social support are among the best forms of therapy to help you escape stress for brief periods of time. Friends can also make you feel better about yourself, and that mountain of stress in your life won’t look so steep.
When Dr. Southwick, Yale Medical School psychiatrist, co-wrote his book on resilience, he interviewed a number of people who had shown resilience against all odds, including former prisoners of war and people who had survived trauma. One thing they had in common was social support.
“The resilient people we interviewed actively reached out for support,” said Dr. Southwick. “They don’t sit around and wait.”
Even POWs held in isolation devised a tapping method of communication with their fellow prisoners. “Most, if not all, said it was life-saving to know they weren’t alone and they were cared for,” said Dr. Southwick.
When Dr. Southwick, a psychiatrist, meets with a new patient, one of the first things he does is construct a diagram of the patient’s social network. Sometimes they just talk about it; some patients want to map it out on paper. “Who is in your life? Who can you count on?” asks Dr. Southwick. Make your own list of your social network and keep it handy when you need to call on someone for support.
DON’T JUST SEEK SUPPORT, GIVE IT
If you lead a highly stressful life, the solution may be to add one more task to your daily to-do list. Give back.
Research consistently shows that helping other people and giving social support is a powerful way to manage the stress in your life and boost your resilience. Volunteer work, mentoring, mowing your elderly neighbor’s lawn, listening to a friend who is struggling — all these can enhance your own ability to manage stress and thrive.“
Time spent helping others, sharing our knowledge and providing social and emotional support gives meaning and purpose to our lives,” said Adam Grant, a Wharton management professor and co-author of the book “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy” with Sheryl Sandberg. “Getting out of yourself and helping others may be even more powerful than receiving social support.”
REACH OUT AND TOUCH SOMEONE
The simple act of touching another person — or being touched — can ease your stress. James A. Coan, an assistant professor of psychology and a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia, recruited 16 women who felt they had strong support in their relationships. To simulate stress, he subjected each woman to a mild electric shock under three conditions, all while monitoring her brain. The shocks were administered in no particular order while the woman was 1) alone, 2) holding a stranger’s hand, and 3) holding her husband’s hand.
Notably, both instances of hand-holding reduced the neural activity in areas of the woman’s brain associated with stress. But when the woman was holding her husband’s hand, the effect was even greater, and it was particularly pronounced in women who had the highest marital-happiness scores. Holding a husband’s hand during the electric shock resulted in a calming of the brain regions associated with pain similar to the effect brought about by use of a pain-relieving drug.
Coan says the study simulates how a supportive marriage and partnership gives the brain the opportunity to outsource some of its most difficult neural work. “When someone holds your hand in a study or just shows that they are there for you by giving you a back rub, when you’re in their presence, that becomes a cue that you don’t have to regulate your negative emotion,” “The other person is essentially regulating your negative emotion but without your prefrontal cortex. It’s much less wear and tear on us if we have someone there to help regulate us.”
ANIMALS CAN HELP
Spending time with your pet can offer a temporary reprieve from stress. Spending time with your dog and taking it for a walk is a twofer — you get the stress reduction of a pet plus the stress-busting benefits of a walk outdoors.
The evidence that pets are a source of comfort and stress relief is compelling. At Veterans Affairs hospitals, therapy animals including dogs and parrots have helped patients undergoing treatment for post-traumatic stress
In a controlled among patients with heart disease, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found a significant reduction in anxiety levels and blood pressure in the heart and lungs in those who spent 12 minutes with a visiting animal, but no such effect occurred among comparable patients not visited by a dog.
Excessive stress can take a physical toll if it’s not managed correctly.
Heart: During a stressful event, — cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. In some parts of the body (skin, digestive system, brain) blood vessels constrict, allowing blood flow to increase to larger systems (heart, large muscles). The body is redirecting oxygen and nutrients to the areas where they are needed most to give you the strength to fight or flee. But blood flowing to a smaller area causes blood pressure to rise. Normally the effects are temporary, but some research suggests that in people with chronic stress, the effects on the heart are unrelenting, raising the risk for high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.
Immune System: Chronic stress can depress the immune system and make you more vulnerable to colds or more serious illnesses.
Diabetes Risk: During stress, the liver increases glucose production for a boost of energy to propel you during an emergency. Chronic stress can lead to extra blood sugar, increasing risk for diabetes, especially among those already at high risk, such as the overweight or those with a family history of the disease. According to the , learning to manage your stress can be nearly as effective at controlling blood sugar as medication.
Stomach and Digestion: Stress can affect how fast food moves through your body, stomach acid and the absorption of nutrients. Chronic stress can also lead to overeating or alcohol use. All of these factors can contribute to a number of gastrointestinal issues including acid reflux, heartburn pain, nausea, stomach pain, ulcers and diarrhea.
Sex and Reproduction: In men, chronic stress can affect testosterone levels and sperm count, and contribute to erectile dysfunction. In women, stress can create irregular menstrual cycles and painful periods and exacerbate premenstrual syndrome. Stress can also worsen the symptoms of menopause, including more frequent and more severe hot flashes. In both men and women, chronic stress can dampen sexual desire.
Illustrations by Sam Kalda
Mindfulness is something I incorporate into each of my classes once a week, and it only takes four to seven minutes. After reviewing the benefits of mindfulness practices—like reduced stress, boosted working memory, and lowered emotional reactivity—it was no longer a nice-to-have, but rather a necessity.
Opening a Mindfulness Activity
At the beginning of each weekly session, I welcome everyone into a circle. We leave an empty chair for those who are unable to join us that day. We put our feet flat on the ground, close our eyes, and start with three deep breaths in and out. I guide students to follow where the air from their breath goes. While students are focusing on their breath, I invite them to reflect. Sometimes we reflect on the theme we’re going to discuss in class, but not always. I always spend a minute having everyone, including myself, focus on how we’re showing up to the space. Someone could show up happy from a great start to their day, angry because of an argument they just had, or stressed from an upcoming exam. We always make sure to validate how we are showing up without judgment toward ourselves.
Facilitating Mindfulness for the First Time
I have found the following steps useful in introducing and facilitating a mindfulness practice:
- Let the research and purpose speak for themselves. I often lead with: “It is not strictly meditation, but rather a practice in supporting your mind to take care of yourself.” I then list the benefits.
- Offer an out and get visible buy-in. Students will often be hesitant. “It’s weird!” they may say. And that’s OK. When I first introduced this to students, I told them that if they could find a research-based practice that achieved the same goals, I would be happy to help them create a proposal for the group. I then asked the group to give a thumbs up if they could at least try it.
- Share how developing a mindfulness practice has personally benefited you. After I get my students’ buy-in, I tell them how mindfulness has helped me, and I give one or two anecdotes. For example, the last time I had to have a very difficult conversation with a personal friend, I felt my mind racing. I got to the coffee shop a few minutes early, put my phone away, and got into position—feet flat and hands flat on my knees. I took a few deep breaths, calmed myself, and made myself aware of how I was showing up. I was able to recognize why I was showing up that way, and I asked myself how I wanted to show up. I tried to keep my focus on only that and my breathing. I then visualized how I wanted to show up, took a few breaths in, and returned to the present moment. The conversation with my friend was incredible and uplifting. None of my dialogue was colored by the anxiety, stress, or self-consciousness that cluttered my mind leading up to that conversation.
- Give a reason for every direction the first few times you go through the practice. For example, I’ll begin by saying, “We’re all going to close our eyes. I’ll keep mine open to make sure that no one is being watched because that could be awkward and feel unsafe, and my job is to ensure your physical and emotional safety.”
- Balance giving directions with silent time to practice the task. I will often say, “Together, we take a deep breath in [followed by a collective breath], and a deep breath out.” I then give us 40 seconds or so of just focusing. For that 40 seconds, I am silent. Before starting, I say, “Now we are going to hold that focus for a little while. We just focus on where our air is entering and exiting our body.” Then every time I have a new direction or narration, I include myself again. It must be a balance between targeted narration and silent time to practice the task.
- Only directly address behaviors that are unsafe. Otherwise, like when a student laughs or tries to make silly sounds, I will often gently reinforce the mindfulness practice by saying, “And we’re taking a deep, calm breath in.” I do this in a very direct but soft tone that sounds like a parent calming a child down rather than reprimanding them.
- Allow for reflection and feedback. The first few times, I had my students turn to a partner and discuss how it was for them, offered space to give me critical feedback, and also offered them space to make meaning of their experience. Often, it sounds like, “OK, now turn around to your partner, give them a high five or ask if they want a hug, and discuss how that exercise was for you. Was it annoying? Fun? Interesting? Did you find yourself thinking about things you wished you hadn’t? Whatever it is, be ready to share something that came in your conversation with the whole class at the end of 90 seconds!”
Ultimately, it takes a strong trust with your students and a set routine. At the end of the day, teaching is not about guaranteeing that students will use what we teach them. It’s about ensuring that they know how to use it, and giving them the space to practice it. Like one of my students told me, mindfulness “doesn’t help me know what to do, but it helps me recognize that I need something.”
Take a deep breath, expanding your belly. Pause. Exhale slowly to the count of five. Repeat four times.
Congratulations. You’ve just calmed your nervous system.
Controlled breathing, like what you just practiced, has been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness and boost your immune system. For centuries yogis have used breath control, or pranayama, to promote concentration and improve vitality. Buddha advocated breath-meditation as a way to reach enlightenment.
Science is just beginning to provide evidence that the benefits of this ancient practice are real. Studies have found, for example, that breathing practices can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and attention deficit disorder.
“Breathing is massively practical,” says Belisa Vranich, a psychologist and author of the book “Breathe,” to be published in December. “It’s meditation for people who can’t meditate.”
How controlled breathing may promote healing remains a source of scientific study. One theory is that controlled breathing can change the response of the body’s autonomic nervous system, which controls unconscious processes such as heart rate and digestion as well as the body’s stress response, says Dr. Richard Brown, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and co-author of “The Healing Power of the Breath.”
Consciously changing the way you breathe appears to send a signal to the brain to adjust the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which can slow heart rate and digestion and promote feelings of calm as well as the sympathetic system, which controls the release of stress hormones like cortisol.
Many maladies, such as anxiety and depression, are aggravated or triggered by stress. “I have seen patients transformed by adopting regular breathing practices,” says Dr. Brown, who has a private practice in Manhattan and teaches breathing workshops around the world.
When you take slow, steady breaths, your brain gets the message that all is well and activates the parasympathetic response, said Dr. Brown. When you take shallow rapid breaths or hold your breath, the sympathetic response is activated. “If you breathe correctly, your mind will calm down,” said Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College and Dr. Brown’s co-author
Dr. Chris Streeter, an associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at Boston University, recently completed a small study in which she measured the effect of daily yoga and breathing on people with diagnoses of major depressive disorder.
After 12 weeks of daily yoga and coherent breathing, the subjects’ depressive symptoms significantly decreased and their levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid, a brain chemical that has calming and anti-anxiety effects, had increased. The research was presented in May at the International Congress on Integrative Medicine and Health in Las Vegas. While the study was small and lacked a control group, Dr. Streeter and her colleagues are planning a randomized controlled trial to further test the intervention.
“The findings were exciting,” she said. “They show that a behavioral intervention can have effects of similar magnitude as an antidepressant.”
Controlled breathing may also affect the immune system. Researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina divided a group of 20 healthy adults into two groups. One group was instructed to do two sets of 10-minute breathing exercises, while the other group was told to read a text of their choice for 20 minutes. The subjects’ saliva was tested at various intervals during the exercise. The researchers found that the breathing exercise group’s saliva had significantly lower levels of three cytokines that are associated with inflammation and stress. The findings were published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine in August.
Here are three basic breathing exercises to try on your own.
If you have the time to learn only one technique, this is the one to try. In coherent breathing, the goal is to breathe at a rate of five breaths per minute, which generally translates into inhaling and exhaling to the count of six. If you have never practiced breathing exercises before, you may have to work up to this practice slowly, starting with inhaling and exhaling to the count of three and working your way up to six.
1. Sitting upright or lying down, place your hands on your belly.
2. Slowly breathe in, expanding your belly, to the count of five.
4. Slowly breathe out to the count of six.
5. Work your way up to practicing this pattern for 10 to 20 minutes a day.
When your mind is racing or you feel keyed up, try Rock and Roll breathing, which has the added benefit of strengthening your core.
1. Sit up straight on the floor or the edge of a chair.
2. Place your hands on your belly.
3. As you inhale, lean forward and expand your belly.
4. As you exhale, squeeze the breath out and curl forward while leaning backward; exhale until you’re completely empty of breath.
5. Repeat 20 times.
Energizing HA Breath
When the midafternoon slump hits, stand up and do some quick breathwork to wake up your mind and body.
1. Stand up tall, elbows bent, palms facing up.
2. As you inhale, draw your elbows back behind you, palms continuing to face up.
3. Then exhale quickly, thrusting your palms forward and turning them downward, while saying “Ha” out loud.
4. Repeat quickly 10 to 15 times.
During a workshop that I was facilitating on marijuana and the teen brain, a high school sophomore said to me, “I take Ritalin on weekdays for attention, but go off it on the weekends because that’s when I smoke weed.” I asked him, “Are you saying that you’ve got a mind-altering substance in your brain every day?” He answered with a concerned look, “Do you think I should get off the Ritalin?”
It’s no surprise that young people are taking more psychoactive chemicals for psychological problems, such as poor attention, anxiety, and depression. In many cases, like the student above, they choose to self-medicate in addition to using a prescription drug. In some schools, I’ve been told that as many as 25-40% of their students are on medication for psychological and behavioral problems, and that does not include recreational use. In addition, when I meet with teens as part of my work speaking at schools across the country, the vast majority of them report that they have stress, anxiety, and trouble paying attention in class. Medication can save lives for those with severe and debilitating conditions, but for everyone else, I believe we can do better.
In order to foster a sense of resilience and encourage healthier ways to cope with life, we need to educate young people about natural highs. Over the past decade, neuroscience research has shown that exercise, meditation, positive social support, laughing, and many other factors can elevate mood and improve brain functioning. These activities don’t require putting a chemical into your body, but they do take time and effort to have an impact.
The Teen Brain vs. the Adult Brain
Teenagers have lots of reasons for being more anxious, stressed, and distracted than adults. They deal with high expectations from parents, social pressure from friends, and the constant fear that their smartphone will go dead and totally ruin their life. To make things worse, the teenage brain is generally more anxious than the adult brain. This may be due to the rapid development of the amygdala, a brain structure involved in emotional expression, compared to the slower development of brain areas involved in decision making and reasoning. Also, the teen brain has a larger pleasure center than adults, which means that rewards feel — well, more rewarding. This is particularly true of risks taken in unsupervised settings with their peers. As a result, the teenage brain is a contradiction of epically exhausting proportions, both more anxious and more thrill seeking than its adult counterpart.
Teenage angst is nothing new, but using natural highs to alleviate it might be novel. One of the best-studied natural highs is running or any form of cardio exercise. My wife loves running. She even runs when it snows. I always tell her, “If you get lost, I’m not coming to get you.” When I ask her why she runs, she says, “It makes me feel better, even when I’m tired. It also helps me focus at work.” It turns out that there’s a lot of research backing her up. Thirty minutes of any physical activity that elevates the heart rate helps to release endorphins and improve mood and cognitive functioning. Regular running has also been shown to increase the volume of the hippocampus, the most important brain structure for memory. It doesn’t have to be intense physical activity, either. Taking a walk in the woods has shown benefits for memory, mood, and attention.
In my case, I love meditation, despite having been a skeptic for many years. Meditation has proven to be a powerful stress reliever for me, particularly at night. Students report some of the highest levels of stress during the evening hours when they’re tired but expected to finish homework and fight off distractions. Meditation is like a cell phone charger for the brain. I encourage students to start out with 5-10 minutes in the late afternoon, before dinner, to test it out. The goal is to practice calming the mind. Nodding off is fine, even welcomed. I’ve presented this to students and staff for over a year, and the response has been tremendous. They are in a better mood after the meditation and report experiencing greater productivity that doesn’t interfere with their sleep.
Exploring Your Own Natural High
Whether you love surfing, biking, cooking, or gardening, consider your favorite pursuits as means to your own natural high. Invite young people to experiment with perceiving the activities that make them happy through the lens of a natural high, and then report back to you about how it made them feel. This can be a great bonding experience for the classroom and teach skills for dealing with stress for years to come. Check out yoga and meditation classes in your community — some might even be free. Visit websites such as Inward Bound or Guided Mindfulness Meditation, along with meditation apps that you can download. For the classroom, check out Natural High, an online source of free videos and curriculum for teachers to help youth identify and cultivate their passions.
Does your school have a dialogue with students about recognizing stress and exploring the best means of coping with it? What does that look like? Please share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.
Some experts think mindfulness is the antidote to distraction, misbehaving–even poor math scores. Are they on to something?
Christina Johnson’s classroom must be the most peaceful place at Cane Run Elementary School in Louisville, Ky. Instead of desks, six rows of black yoga mats line the floor. All the lights are off except for one gently glowing lamp. Underwater sounds gurgle from a pair of speakers.
Today nearly two dozen fifth-graders are sitting on the mats with their shoes off and eyes closed, following Johnson as she guides them through a relaxation exercise. “Take a nice, nice deep breath in, and keep your hands on your anchors, please,” Johnson says. The kids place one hand on their chest, the other on their belly. Johnson taps a chime and the kids know what to do: listen intently, and when the long reverberation stops, their hands shoot up. “Good job,” Johnson says. “We’re ready.”
For the next 45 minutes, Johnson leads the class through exercises that are designed to increase mindfulness–a catchall term for practices that help you focus on the present moment. They learn how to savor the taste of a mint until it dissolves on their tongue; they move their little bodies into poses lifted straight from a yoga studio.
Cane Run, which requires that students attend the class twice weekly from kindergarten on up, is at the frontier of a growing movement. Mindfulness has come to the classroom. At Cane Run, it’s still an experiment: researchers want to know if a program like this can improve students’ focus, behavior, academic performance–even their empathy. A seven-year study, called the Compassionate Schools Project, is under way in 26 Louisville schools. If all goes as well as researchers expect–and if officials can secure the funding–mandatory mindfulness classes will wind up at every public school in the city.
That mindfulness is taking its place alongside math in elementary school says something about the stressed-out state of kids’ brains these days. Educators increasingly believe that mindfulness can be an antidote to three of the biggest mental-health challenges that kids face: anxiety, trouble paying attention and bullying.
It makes sense. In adults, the benefits of activities such as yoga, meditation and deep-breathing exercises are well established. A robust body of research shows that these exercises lower stress, ease anxiety, improve sleep, ward off sickness, reduce depression and even blunt pain. If mindfulness can work even some of the same wonders in children, the implications would be huge. Up to 20% of kids in the U.S. have anxiety–and anxiety is the No. 1 predictor of depression in adolescence. Diagnoses for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in kids show no signs of slowing, creeping up from 7% in 2003 to 11% in 2011.
Classes in mindfulness, its advocates hope, can make a dent in those worrying numbers, while also teaching kids softer skills, like how to communicate feelings, how to get along with classmates and how to modulate reactions–all skills that researchers believe the practice helps develop. If kids start early, the skills may prove useful down the road at countering the stresses and distractions of adult life. “These are not niceties. These are critical capabilities,” says Patrick Tolan, a professor at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education who is leading the analysis. “If children today don’t learn how to take care of themselves, it’s going to have enormous impact on our health care costs and on the health of our nation.”
Although research on mindfulness in children is still preliminary, studies show that it can help kids who have anxiety and trouble paying attention with their schoolwork, behavior and stress regulation. First-through third-graders who were taught mindfulness and breathing techniques had fewer ADHD symptoms and less test anxiety, one study found. Even for kids without these issues, mindfulness has been shown to increase kindness, sleep quality and even math scores.
This training appears to work in kids as young as 4. Preschoolers who received 12 weeks of a kindness and mindfulness class earned better grades and were more likely to share than counterparts in a control group, according to research by Lisa Flook, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin who is studying a mindfulness program in several schools in Madison. “A body of work shows there are these innate prosocial and altruistic qualities present from a very early age in children,” Flook says. “This is a way of nurturing the seeds of kindness in children.”
In another ongoing study, researchers from the University of North Carolina Wilmington teach preschoolers yoga poses and relaxation exercises. After just two weeks, these kids exhibit better attention, awareness, gratitude and happiness compared with kids who did not have the classes. “What’s amazing is that this brief exposure appears to be so powerful,” says lead researcher Simone Nguyen, a developmental-psychology professor at the university. “A few minutes of breathing, a few minutes of paying attention to the moment are appearing to make a difference.”
A movement is also under way to train teachers in mindfulness. “Our theory is that if we actually produce educators that are more aware and empathic and attuned to children, that in its own right is going to have an effect on kids’ nervous systems,” says Chris McKenna, program director of Mindful Schools, a group in Emeryville, Calif., that trains teachers in mindfulness.
“There’s an almost immediate calming effect of mindfulness practice,” says Randye Semple, an anxiety-disorder expert and assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. Calm breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system–the opposite of the fight-or-flight response–which slows heart rate and makes blood pressure go down, she says. Mindfulness training also encourages kids to focus attention on whatever is happening in the moment. “Essentially, mindfulness is attention training,” she says. “We’re showing them that attention can be increased, that it can be ramped up and it can be trained.”
Another study this summer found that students had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol if their teachers reported being burned out. But if stress is contagious, so is its opposite. In a study of hundreds of teachers across 36 public elementary schools in New York City, half of the teachers received mindfulness and stress-reduction training while the other half did not. Those who were trained in mindfulness became better at handling their own stress–and as it turns out, the benefits appeared to spread to the kids too. According to Tish Jennings, associate professor of education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, the teachers who got the training were more sensitive to their students’ needs and better at fostering a productive environment for learning.
Encouraged by results such as these, a growing group of researchers, advocates and parents are pushing for mindfulness to be taught in all public schools. In some places, like Louisville, it could replace an enrichment or health course, while other districts will pick and choose parts of the practice to incorporate into existing classes. Other schools may try to create a more mindful culture by training teachers instead of adding a dedicated class. Private and charter schools across the country have been on to this for some time. “Self-regulation and attention can benefit kids on both ends and throughout the [socioeconomic] spectrum,” says Flook.
Not everyone thinks mindfulness belongs in schools. Classroom time is more prized than ever–and resources are scant. “If you can’t get art and music in a curriculum, you’re not going to be able to get this,” says McKenna. Nor do all parents find the material acceptable. One school district in Ohio piloted a mindfulness program in 2011 and found the results so impressive that it soon expanded to other schools. But parents complained that they felt the practice was teaching religion–Buddhism–and had no place in the classroom. In 2013, the district, in Canton, shuttered the program.
It’s a criticism researchers have heard before. “I don’t think any of us deny that most of these general practices and concepts come from Buddhism,” says Semple. “But we’re not teaching Buddhism. We’re teaching kids how to pay attention.”
Jennings too is careful to identify her program as “100% secular.” “We don’t teach anything related to other parts of yoga that might be considered spiritual or religious.” That’s part of the reason researchers are studying it closely. If the results show what they expect–a nearly universal benefit for kids–researchers hope it will lead to even broader adoption nationwide.
In Louisville, Christina Johnson knows it’s already working on her fifth-graders. She talks them through their final movements–raising both arms to the sky in a pose she calls “sunrise,” then releasing “all that negative stuff” as they flop over their toes–and then tells them to close their eyes and check in with their feelings. Moments later, a boy’s soft sniffle breaks the stillness. Johnson hugs and holds him as he whispers to her about problems at home. No one snickers. No one even opens their eyes.
“When the brain gets still and everything gets calm, the feelings come out,” Johnson says later. “That’s why this needs to be in schools.”
Mandy Oaklander @mandyoaklander Jan. 26, 2015
Fourth and fifth graders who did mindfulness exercises had 15% better math scores than their peers
In adults, mindfulness has been shown to have all kinds of amazing effects throughout the body: it can combat stress, protect your heart, shorten migraines and possibly even extend life. But a new trial published in the journal Developmental Psychology suggests that the effects are also powerful in kids as young as 9—so much so that improving mindfulness showed to improve everything from social skills to math scores.
Researchers wanted to test the effects of a program that promotes social and emotional learning—peppered with mindfulness and kindness exercises—called MindUP. Developed by Goldie Hawn’s foundation, it’s used in schools across the U.S., Canada and beyond.
The study authors put 99 4th and 5th grade public school students in British Columbia into one of two groups. One group received four months of the mindfulness program, and the other got four months of a standard “social responsibility” program already used in Canadian public schools.
In the mindfulness classrooms, the program incorporated sense-sharpening exercises like mindful smelling and mindful eating, along with cognitive mindfulness exercises like seeing an issue from another’s point of view. Children did a three-minute meditation three times a day focusing on their breathing. They also acted on their lessons by practicing gratitude and doing kind things for others.
For the four months, researchers analyzed all kinds of in-depth measures, like behavioral assessments, cortisol levels, children’s self-reports of their own wellbeing, reviews from their peers about sociability and the objective academic scores of math grades.
The results were dramatic. “I really did not anticipate that we would have so many positive findings across all the multiple levels we looked at,” says study co-author Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl, a developmental psychologist at the University of British Columbia. “I was very surprised,” she says—especially considering that the intervention took place at the end of the year, notoriously the worst time for students’ self-control.
Compared to the kids in the social responsibility program, children with the mindful intervention had 15% better math scores, showed 24% more social behaviors, were 24% less aggressive and perceived themselves as 20% more prosocial. They outperformed their peers in cognitive control, stress levels, emotional control, optimism, empathy, mindfulness and aggression.
The program also may have had an unintended effect—one the researchers didn’t measure, but now want to. “Anecdotally, teachers tell us that the program helped them calm down more—by doing the program and integrating these mindful attention practices and being more aware and thinking more about others, that they actually become less stressed,” Schonert-Reichl says. “That has huge implications, and a further area of research is needed.”
More research is needed, but mindfulness interventions like these are promising. “Doing these kinds of programs in school does not take away from academics,” Schonert-Reichl says. “It adds to a growing research literature that’s showing, actually, these kinds of programs and practices increase academic gains. By adding this on, you not only create more academically capable, successful students, but actually create more caring, less stressed, kind students.”