I was recently interviewed by Western Mass News in Springfield (ABC40) about the question what students can do to reduce their anxiety as they return to school. Since the interview itself didn’t have time to cover all the points I decided to include them here.

What is Mindfulness

Mindfulness is our ability to see things clearly without letting our emotions hijack our experience. We all have the capacity to be mindful – like when playing a sport or a musical instrument, or we see a beautiful sunset and, in those moments, we are present to what’s happening with an open mind and relaxed body.

The challenge is to be mindful in the middle of situations that are unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and threatening like the pandemic or the uncertainty of returning to school after a big gap. No doubt there are big challenges that threaten the physical safety, food and housing security, and very serious implications of the pandemic and there are resources for dealing with those challenges.

I am just speaking about mindfulness as an inner resource that we can strengthen to help us not just in the good times but also challenging times.

How Mindfulness Can Help Students Deal with Anxiety

This is how mindfulness can help students by providing a set of practices and strategies to:

  1. Understand how their minds work under stressful situations
  2. Disrupt their default habits of the mind that are not helpful
  3. Train their minds to be calm, curious, and kind to themselves in non-critical situations so those become their default habits of the mind in critical situations

Here are 3 specific ways in which mindfulness can help students transform their anxiety into opportunities for growth and resilience:

  1. Managing their fight/flight response to their advantage

  • The fight-flight-freeze (fff) response exists to mobilize resources in our body to focus and deal with the threat at hand.
  • Brain doesn’t distinguish between a physical threat like a tiger or psychological threat like a threat to their sense of belonging and feeling accepted going back to school after a year in a new normal.
  • The stress response in the body can feel uncomfortable so the typical reaction is to try to turn away from it by suppressing it, avoiding it, or acting out.
  • When kids don’t have an opportunity to deal with the causes and conditions for their stress, it turns into fear and anxiety.
    • Mindfulness can help students notice stress is their body and instead of resisting the discomfort, they can channel the focus and energy being mobilized in the body to address the challenge. If their concerned about their safety – they can channel this energy to remember to wear masks, follow the safety guidance, etc.
  1. Shift from hopelessness to hope

    • Teenagers have little control over the pandemic or decisions that schools are making. The uncertainty and loss of control can induce anxiety and a sense of hopelessness.
    • Mindfulness trains the mind to see/accept what they don’t have control over like the pandemic but also to see what they do have control over, which is their response to it. For example, if your best friend gets sick during this time and you’re feeling hopeless because you can’t go out to be with them. However, after you have calmed the fff response, you can ask yourself, how can I show up for my friend that lets my friend know that they are loved and supported. Get curious, get creative. Studies show that even simple act of sending loving kindness wishes shift the brain activity from hopelessness to hope and happiness.
  2. Transform negativity bias by focusing on what’s going well in their lives

    • We have a negativity bias, which means we focus on what’s wrong more than what’s working well in our lives.
    • Students can rewire for happiness by acknowledging what’s good in their lives – keeping a gratitude journal
    • To rewire for happiness, we need to not just notice what’s good but also feel it in the body

Mindfulness Techniques that Students Can Employ

There are three steps in any mindfulness training and many make the mistake of stopping after the first step.

  1. Meditate: Train the mind

    • Training the mind to direct attention to what they want and understand how their minds work. Find a meditation that works for them, like feeling the breath or body sensations, mindful walking
    • Connecting with a sensory experience like smell, sight, touch, sound, or taste can also help calm the mind because sensory mind and thinking mind are mutually exclusive
    • Students can use any activity to train their minds to stabilize and observe the workings of their minds like playing a sport, doing Zumba, mindful eating, etc
  2. Contemplate: See what’s here, what’s important, and what’s possible

    • After the mind is stabilized with meditation, now they can see more clearly. Take a few minutes ask questions like: What am I feeling, what is most important to me right now, what’s possible, what are the gifts in this situation – by gifts I mean opportunities to do something in this situation that I didn’t have under usual circumstances. Realigning with what’s important
      For example, a high school athlete that I was working with earlier this year was getting panic attacks during the game. One strategy that worked for her was to take a few moments before the game to reconnect with why she’s playing soccer and how does she want to show up – those are things that she does have control over. By shifting focus away from the number of goals she would make to what she cares about – her sport and her team – she felt more in control and focused.
  3. Act Skillfully: Align thoughts, speech, and actions with intentions

    • Once they’ve realigned with their intentions and explored possibilities, they need to act on them. Even taking one step to deal with their challenge can help them feel more in control.
    • Build healthy habits of the mind in non critical situations so when critical situations happen, they have trained their minds to be stable, curious, and resilient.

How to Get Over the Awkwardness

I. The role of schools

    • Share the science on how our minds work
    • Bring teachers that can speak to students and create programs that are relevant to students – For example, heard young kids complaining how they were forced to sit down with eyes closed and focus on their breath. That’s a great technique but it’s on the teacher to notice that if the kids are restless and distracted to try something different. Take them out to the playground to find a leaf or rock that they can use senses to explore. If that’s not an option bring the leaves or rocks to the kids. Try contemplative drawing etc
    • Train the teachers as they are the role models

II. The role of media

      • Media can cover more stories about the benefits of mindfulness. The more parents and youth understand the science and different ways to practice mindfulness the more mainstream and acceptable it will be for them to try it
      • Showcase role models or people they admire who meditate – For example, athletes like Carli Lloyd (soccer), Michael Jordan (Basketball), and Seahawks (football) and business leaders like former CEO of LinkedIn Jeff Weiner, Oprah, and senior leaders and  engineers at Google (where the Search Inside Yourself program that I am trained in started).

III. What students can do

  1. Understand the science related to their minds and mindfulness.

There’s a compelling case to be made for why to practice mindfulness, when they look at the research:

  • Little control over their decisions: Up to 95% of their daily decisions (and even big ones) will be made by them on autopilot (without knowing the underlying emotions and motivations for those decisions)
  • Little control over their attention: Almost 50% of their day their minds will have wandered away from the task at hand
  • They live with a negativity bias
  1. Find supportive communities, mentors, friends who are also interested in living an empowered and fulfilling life
  2. See for yourself! Test and try for yourself what works and doesn’t work for you.

I welcome you all to email me or share your comments below or attend one of the free intro classes to explore how mindfulness can help you.