As our 3-month period of relaxation comes to an end, we must get ready to not only buckle down and get work done, but also make sure we are prepared when stress and anxiety come in the way. I have not always been the best at the second part, but as a rising high school junior, I know that keeping my mental health in check will soon become a necessity as I juggle the pressures of grades, social life and college applications. My question is: how? Even though I am fortunate enough to attend a school that puts an emphasis on ending the stigma around mental health, I notice that my friends, classmates and I are constantly struggling to find ways to cope with stress and lead healthy lifestyles.
Teen girls struggle with complex social and academic pressures and often times schools and families are inconsistent in the ways they provide guidance, if they provide any at all. Oftentimes, adults underestimate the amount of pressure we are under, saying things like, “wait until you are an adult”. Actually, a survey from August 2013 shows that many teens also reported feeling overwhelmed (31%) and depressed or sad (30%) as a result of stress. More than one-third of teens reported feeling tired (36%) and nearly one-quarter of teens (23%) reported skipping a meal due to stress, according to the American Psychological Association. This makes sense due to the fact that most of the approximately 20 million teen girls in the US (not to mention those of us living across the globe) have to deal with social and family pressures, school, college applications and more. Yet, most of the mental health advice my friends and I encounter is perceived as preachy or irrelevant. Of course, it would be great to take days off and postpone assignments, and spend my days doing what truly makes me happy. Nevertheless, this is inefficient in the long run, not to mention potentially damaging to our GPAs! Chilling out too much in school ends up hurting students even more. Luckily for me, I’ve had the opportunity of interning at the Brain Performance Institute, part of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas, for the past two summers. The work my team (the Stress Solutions team) does on creating life-enhancing programs is important to many groups of people – ranging from the the Dallas Police Department to war veterans to corporate executives – and also to teen girls.
I’ve learned that our brains are neuroplastic, meaning that depending on how we use our brains, we can increase our connectivity, reasoning ability and more. One way to strengthen your brain and cope with stress is to build resilience. Resilience is not bouncing back from an obstacle but rather adapting to and healing from a stressful situation. One tool we can use to build resilience and cope with stress is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a form of mental training in which individuals engage in exercises to cultivate an attentive, present-centered, non-reactive mental mode. During my time at my internship, I went from thinking about mindfulness as a “nice-to-know” to a “need-to-know” tool that is backed by hard science. Research has shown that mindfulness can enhance human performance in terms of cognitive performance, physical health, brain health, emotional well-being, quality of life and situational awareness and attention.
Whether you are just beginning to feel the stress of high school or have been struggling with it for a while, here are five tips on how to practice mindfulness. Each of the five practices listed below is grounded in scientific research with measurable outcomes:
- Be grateful – Gratitude means focusing on what you have, instead of what you do not. Intentionally showing gratitude activates the areas of the brain that are associated with emotional processing, social judgment and decision-making. In addition to the benefits on the brain, practicing gratitude can bring greater balance to life by reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression and strengthening social and personal relationships. In a 2012 study, group of Chinese researchers looked at the combined effects of gratitude and sleep quality on symptoms of anxiety and depression. They found that higher levels of gratitude were associated with better sleep, and with lower anxiety and depression. Feelings of gratitude directly activate brain regions associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine, or the “reward” neurotransmitter. To practice gratitude, some suggestions are to keep a gratitude journal, reflect on what life would be without certain blessings, savor the happy surprises in life, write an email to someone who has had a positive impact on you and visit someone you appreciate.
- Practice meditation – At the Max Planck Institute in Germany, brain imaging demonstrated that brain structure actually changed as a result of different forms of mindful practice, including different types of meditation. Meditations can be guided or unguided. There are many different types of meditation, including breath awareness meditations, sound meditations and body scanning. When practicing meditation, your mind will wander. The practice of noticing the mind wandering and bringing your attention back to the breath takes practice. To practice meditation, find an app that works for you and remember that consistency is key.
- Practice mindfulness formally – Think of practicing mindfulness formally as a gym for your brain. Not only does it help change your physiological response to stressors, but it also helps reduce mind wandering, which in turn makes you a happier individual. In fact, research at Harvard Medical School proved that mindfulness changed the brains of depressed patients. Practicing does not have to take very long. Some examples of formal practice are mindful movement and deep breathing exercises. A tip for practicing mindfulness is to find something that works for you.
- Use Heart Rate Variability – By using your smartphone or a heart rate tracker, you can measure your physiological response to stressors. If you can learn to control your heart rate variability, you will be a better decision maker, be more socially aware, have a better reaction time, as well as be more physically healthy. It is exciting to think that even though our emotions such as anger, anxiety, and more often get the better of us, there are specific strategies that we can all learn which will help us become more calm in the face of stress by bringing our heart rate back down.
- Practice mindfulness informally – Informal practices can take place during those moments where you are truly present. This could be when you are working out, playing an instrument, observing nature, being present in a conversation, washing dishes and more. Informal mindfulness practices reinforce the formal practice and allow us to find meaningful ways to integrate awareness and richness into the rhythms of our lives.
As teen girls around the world return to school, they should achieve their full creative potential in both their social and academic lives. Here’s to being our most positive selves.