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How Mindfulness Teaches Teens to Beat Stress

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Female student in a lotus yoga position.

While there are many programs to help support teens through the various challenges of adolescence, mindfulness has become more popular over the last few years as a way to deal with pressures such as stress and bullying.

“Mindfulness or mindful awareness is paying attention on purpose to what’s happening right now, internally and externally,” said Katie Medlar, director of school and community-based programs at Calmer Choice on Cape Cod. “We do this with kindness and curiosity for ourselves and others.”

Calmer Choice is a nonprofit organization that sponsors secular mindfulness programs in more than 28 schools, for 15,000 students and more than 1,000 teachers. Its mission is to teach young people to manage stress and resolve conflict so they can lead happier and more successful lives. Among some of the techniques the program uses are learning how to deep breathe, visualize, listen and pay attention.

A lot of people think paying attention to breath is hard for anxious people, because they just become anxious about paying attention to their breathing, Medlar said. “Actually, when we pay attention to breath or sound, we’re not in the looping that happens with anxiety; it takes you out of that.”

Calmer Choice also teaches students the technique of “visualizing with curiosity,” which, Medlar explained, means taking an interest in your experience: Where does your breath go when you breathe in, and where does it go when you breathe out? Or, she’ll hold up an oatmeal box and ask the students what’s inside. They’ll guess oatmeal because of the label. But, she has removed the oatmeal and replaced it with something else. She’ll ask the students what it feels like when they’re curious about what’s in the box or what it feels like not to know.

Visualizing exercises work well for both adults and teens, said Dr. Tony Dingmann, an adult and child psychiatrist on Cape Cod.

“Children and teens tend to be more imaginative than adults and more willing to engage in hands-on experiences. Mindfulness is all about the ‘doing’ rather than just talk therapy,” he said.

Teens learn how to experience the environment around them or totally immerse themselves in an imaginary setting, which decreases the anxiety of the moment or the negativity of depression, Dingmann said.

He has recommended mindfulness training for children, teens and adults and said he has seen teens who are anxious and depressed change their outlook, sleep better, become more resilient in stressful situations and expand their relationships.

Mindfulness Retreats

Some programs offer mindfulness retreats where teens can benefit from the quiet and focused environment, free of distraction and everyday commotion.

Inward Bound Mindfulness Education, or iBme, offers multiday residential retreats for teens and adults. Programs are complementary to the work many organizations such as Calmer Choice are doing in the classrooms in teaching mindfulness, Khalila Archer, program director, said.

“This can be both for people who have taken mindfulness in their class at school and want to go deeper into an experience, or also people who come to our retreat can find access to mindfulness in their school or community to support them throughout the year,” said Archer.

The retreats, which last five or six nights, are intensive, and a lot happens in a short period of time. “The retreats can help get people really excited, and it sparks something because the focus and intensity can be really valuable in that way,” Archer said.

iBme’s programs introduce teens to mindfulness with guided meditation, mindful movement, small-group discussions and fun group activities. Teens learn to connect and rely on their own wisdom, Archer said.

While the groups follow specific program guidelines, the retreat provides an environment where there are no agendas, judgments or expectations. The groups work to build community. Although adults facilitate the groups, they have more of a peer relationship with teens to help them develop leadership and ownership.

The teens are given different opportunities that include learning to talk about and articulate how they feel doing meditation and mindfulness and sharing their experiences with others in the group. This all helps in building a relationship with themselves and getting to know who they are.

Dingmann said teens love a challenge and comparing themselves with others to see who can do it better.

“Once the mindfulness seed is planted, those willing to engage will seek further perfection of the process,” he said. “Others who are less willing will always remember the experience and potentially return to it in a time of need.”

Archer said what she hears from teens after going through IBME retreats is they learn to love and accept themselves. “I don’t think personal challenges and struggles or anxiety necessarily go away with mindfulness, but that kind of attitudinal shift can be quite profound in what happens next,” she said.

Mindfulness Apps

Apps can support mindfulness training, education, stress management and meditation. Here are several recommended by Katie Medlar, director of school and community-based programs at Calmer Choice.

  • Stop, Breathe & Think
  • Mindshift
  • Breathe2Relax
  • Smiling Mind
  • Calm
  • Headspace
  • Take a Chill
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Roberta  Cannon-profile-picture

Roberta Cannon began her writing career as a general assignments reporter for a Cape Cod weekly newspaper. Even while working as a registered nurse, she continued to freelance and write for Cape Cod weeklies, including a column on history for the Mashpee Enterprise. She has also written for MD News and PrimeTime magazines. She currently writes for OneCapeHealth News, an online medical news website.