When we're faced with a daunting task, it's natural to feel anxious: the heart beats faster, palms sweat, legs shake. The brainstem and limbic stem, the portion of our brain that resembles that of a lizard, is calling the shots. The prefrontal cortex is what regulates our lizard brains. Under normal conditions, our cortex ensures we're connected, empathetic, reasonable, balanced, and flexible. When we react to stress, we can lose flexibility, moral reasoning, and the ability to communicate effectively. So how do you tame your lizard brain? With one very simple act: breathing.
One deep breath can bring your human brain back online. You may still feel anxiety, fear, or pain, but you're now able to deal with your situation in a way that's more human and more humane. What about our students? Teenagers' brains are perfectly wired perfectly to feel emotion. What hasn't developed, and won't for some time yet, is the prefrontal cortex, which helps to fully regulate emotion. Is there anything that can be done to help this development along? Yes: mindfulness.
Mindfulness practice, paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, non-judgmentally, is one of the best ways to develop the prefrontal cortex. Mindfulness is a conscious direction of awareness, focusing on the now, and not rehashing the past or imagining the future. Neuroscientists are increasingly discovering that brains can, and do, change as we age. Studies show that mindfulness practice decreases stress, negative emotions, behavior problems, anxiety, and depression. It also increases attention, self-esteem/self-compassion, the ability to care for oneself and others, and sleep quality. Thirty years of research supports these claims; most major universities teach and/or research the practice of mindfulness.
Introducing students to mindfulness is a way to help develop the prefrontal cortex and, in turn, manage anxiety, decrease impulsivity, and increase attention. I am currently working with Upper School Faculty to introduce mindfulness in their classes and advisories, and will be teaching mindfulness to sophomores in Health & Physical Education classes this spring.
Advisors are encouraged to allow students a minute or two prior to going to their next class. In my advisory, for example, we set a timer and spend 60 seconds paying attention to each breath, practicing being present, and developing attention and focus. Other teachers will encourage a minute of mindful breathing prior to a test or writing exercise. This enables students to make a clean break between what they were doing previously and the task at hand, encouraging increased focus and attention. The Health & Physical Education classes will center around stress management, improving focus and attention, and decreasing impulsivity. Students will be given easy-to-implement techniques they can take with them, and apply to all facets of their life.
The average 16-year-old has taken around 134,553,600 breaths since birth. We're breathing anyway - all we need to do is pay attention.
Heather Stinson started practicing mindfulness when Dr. Baime came to The Haverford School in August 2015 for opening faculty meetings. She participated in two of his eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction courses and has been practicing about 20 minutes per day since. She recently completed a course on the fundamentals of teaching mindfulness at West Chester University's Center for Contemplative Studies, and regularly participates in workshops offered by The Penn Program for Mindfulness.
- The Big Room Blog