Youth and adults can learn to navigate stress through mindfulness

Everyday mindfulness is key to social and emotional health and well-being.

Notice your surroundings and release the tension in your body to practice mindfulness and encourage calmness.
Notice your surroundings and release the tension in your body to practice mindfulness and encourage calmness.

A growing body of reliable, scientific research shows the benefits of social and emotional learning for both youth and adults. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), efforts that promote social and emotional learning improve young people’s academic success and overall health and well-being, while reducing negative behaviors such as alcohol and drug use, violence and bullying.

Learning to navigate distressing emotions and stress are important aspects of emotional growth and development. Kids, like adults, experience daily stressors in their lives that can take an emotional and physical toll. In a national KidsHealth® KidsPoll, young people said the things that caused them stress included grades, school and homework (36 percent); family (32 percent); and friends, peers, gossip and teasing (21 percent). Too often, kids’ reactions to stress are seen as inappropriate negative behaviors that need to be stopped rather than opportunities to teach new skills that help young people learn to calm their minds and bodies.

One way for children and adults to develop self-awareness and the ability to navigate stress is through the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a process of active, open, nonjudgmental awareness. It is paying attention in the present moment with openness, curiosity and flexibility. Neuroscience and psychological research suggests that the intentional practice of mindfulness improves the immune system as well as increases gray matter in the brain involved with learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, empathy and perspective taking.

Parents, educators, youth workers and others can provide opportunities to practice everyday mindfulness with the young people in their lives. Everyday mindfulness involves paying attention to our experiences in the moment rather than being caught up in our fearful, angry, anxious or worried thoughts. When we are caught up in these distressing thoughts, we often lose perspective about the best way to respond in a painful, difficult or stressful moment.

According to sources like the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, here are a few examples on how to practice mindfulness:

  • Simply notice the sights, smells and things that surround you. Focus on what’s there for you in the moment, right here, right now. If you find your mind starts to wander, that’s okay. Find something in your surroundings to focus on that will bring you back to the here and now.
  • Count your breaths either aloud or in your head. This is helpful if you’re feeling stressed, nervous or overwhelmed. Breathe in for five seconds, counting 1-2-3-4-5. Breathe out for five seconds, counting 1-2-3-4-5. Simply be aware of your stressed or nervous feelings. Don’t judge those feelings or try to push them away. They will pass as you count and breathe.
  • Release tension in your body. Sit, stand or lie down in a comfortable position. Simply notice where you feel tense or stress in your body. When you breathe in, picture yourself gathering the stress or worry into a cloud. When you breathe out, picture yourself releasing that stress or blowing the cloud away.

Research shows that practicing everyday mindfulness is good for our physical, social and emotional health and well-being. Even if our experience in a moment is painful or challenging, we can remain open, aware and curious about it instead of running from it or fighting with it. When we remain mindful and in the present moment, we are better able to tap our deepest, wisest self and respond to hard situations in ways that reflect our core values and who we want to be in the world.

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