High school can be a stressful time.
There are all those tests. (You couldn’t pay me to go back and take a standardized test.) Peer pressure, competition and an array of growing pains come with evolving into an adult.
But some area schools are using mindfulness as a way to help balance out those stressors.
McCallie School English teacher and counselor Trey Tucker helps students practice mindfulness, and he said it can have tangible benefits.
Here’s how it works with a class: He tells the students to get in a seated posture that they can hold for five or 10 minutes. Then, he guides them through an exercise. Sometimes he’s speaking. Sometimes they are sitting in silence. Sometimes there’s soft music or white noise.
He talks them through focusing on their senses: What do they feel? What do they hear?
“Then, I’ll start teaching them how to breathe,” he said.
Breathing so that the stomach rises and fills with air activates the vagus nerve and triggers a relaxing feeling, Tucker said.
Simply learning that small detail about taking deep breaths has served some students well, he said.
It’s a tool that counteracts daily pressures and irritants, as is mindfulness in general. Coming back to the breath, being in the moment-even for only a few minutes-has powerful, centering effects.
When students learn they can do that before a test or in another moment of anxiety, it gives them a feeling of empowerment and confidence, Tucker also said.
The students, which range from ninth to 12th grades, are generally pretty open to it, Tucker said. Maybe they are more open than some adults, he said.
“Most of them like it the first time, and then maybe 20 percent of them say it was uncomfortable because they just weren’t used to not having that stimulation,” Tucker said. (In a past column, I wrote that feeling uncomfortable is one of the ways to know that your mindfulness practice is working.)
Simply sitting with ourselves and focusing on the present moment can be arduous; it’s not something everyone does often.
We’re accustomed to being occupied, if not physically then mentally.
Maybe we’re focused on our phones, dazed by television or fixated on a vexing traffic jam. Maybe we’re always striving to have fun, to be good, to do more, or we’re astray in our own inner monologue.
But practicing mindfulness can help rewire our brains.
“Neurons that fire together wire together,” which means that every time we have a thought or behavior, it triggers the firing of neurons, which forms a larger network in the brain.
And when you repeat an experience over and over, the brain triggers the same neurons again and again, creating a circuit. It’s how we learn. Once a neural path is engaged a few times, it becomes habitual.
Practicing mindfulness lays down new neural pathways and circuits in our brains.
“It’s a new pathway we are having to build in our brain, and there is some discomfort involved in building any new pathway,” Tucker said.
But teaching teenagers to do this early means they can take this skill with them as they and their brains grow.
And the benefits for students are boundless. It can help decrease hyperactivity and impulsivity, reduce test or general anxiety, help with behavioral outbursts, improve sleep quality, and boost both attention spans and emotional regulation, he said.
All those skills can be helpful in school, athletics or other extracurricular activities, he said.
I reached out to see if any teachers in the Hamilton County School System are doing this, and I may be able to connect with someone next week. If I do, I’ll share what they are doing.
As an adult, my personal mindfulness practices help me become a more content and balanced person, and I can only imagine how it could have benefited me to start at a younger age.
We all should remember to breathe deeply and learn how to be still.
It’s good to see McCallie working to teach those skills to teens.
Here’s hoping it helps grow a more enlightened future generation.
The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.