Stress, mindfulness and compassion for the teenage brain
By trained counsellor, psychotherapist, mindfulness writer and Baptist minister Shaun Lambert to mark National Stress Awareness Day on 6 November
Volunteering once a week in a sixth-form college as a student counsellor I am very aware of the importance of National Stress Awareness Day
Over the last seven years I have noticed dramatically increasing levels of stress amongst the students who come in for counselling. It might be at exam time, or because of relationship difficulties, or because of problems at home – but, whatever the cause, the tide is rising. Often there is a chaotic emotional reaction to the stress event, and usually this is automatic and outside of their awareness. This reaction can often end up in depression, anxiety, episodes of self-harm, over-eating or under-eating, or the use of other harmful coping mechanisms.
I have found that helping the young person to focus on how they are feeling through noticing their breathing enables them to find and connect with a calm place within. This form of therapy, known as mindfulness, is playing an ever bigger part in my counselling with teenagers. Mindfulness is intentionally paying attention in the present moment with a compassionate, non-judgemental attitude.
Educators and parents shouldn’t be surprised by the levels of stress and the often emotional and chaotic reactions to this stress that are experienced by teenagers. Daniel Siegel, an interpersonal neurobiologist, has written about this in his book The Whole-Brain Child
with Dr Tina Payne Bryson, and he has a new book coming out about the teenage brain, called Brainstorm
. Using the analogy of the brain as a house, he talks about the brain as having a left and a right side, as well as an upstairs and a downstairs. The interesting thing that should help us be much more compassionate to teenagers in the middle of an emotional storm, says Dr Siegel, is that the upstairs brain – which is responsible for key characteristics like sound decision making, self-regulation of emotions, self-awareness, empathy and morality – is not fully developed until someone is in their early 20s.
The key developmental task is to learn how to integrate the different parts of the brain in a way that enables us to respond rather than react, to be neither chaotic nor rigid in our behaviour, to use Dr Siegel’s terms.
One of the things that I have found helpful in working with teenagers is a concept of integration developed in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), a mindfulness-incorporating approach.
In DBT, three states of mind are talked about: emotional mind, reasonable mind and wise mind. Wise mind is when emotion and reason are integrated. Mindful awareness practices are the vehicles for enabling this integration to take place.
One of the reasons I use mindfulness is that it helps young people to take responsibility for their own mental health and also puts them in touch with the innate wisdom they have within.
A growing body of research through organisations like mindfulnessinschools.org and others shows that mindfulness interventions can improve the lives of teenagers, having a positive effect on ‘the mental, emotional, social and physical health and well-being of young people who take part.’ The report also lists benefits, which include the reduction of stress, anxiety, reactivity and bad behaviour as well as the enhancement of cognitive, performance and life skills.
One of the areas I am interested in is the use of what has been called ‘lyrical mindfulness’ – the use of paradoxical stories, riddles, poetry and metaphors in helping people move into a mindful state of being. I think these can be a very good way of introducing mindfulness to children and teenagers. Fairy tales (of which fantasy books are a genre) are another meaningful and important lyrical form of story that has the impact of increasing psychological awareness in children and young people. So says the great, late psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim. This is his thesis in the award-winning book The Uses of Enchantment.
I think all books are a form of ‘bibliotherapy’, but especially the fairy tale. This is one of the reasons I have written a children’s fantasy book, Flat Earth Unroofed
– a tale of mind lore, which has mindfulness woven throughout, both theory and practice.
Flat Earth Unroofed is a story first and foremost, but mindfulness is weaved into it because this ancient mind lore is part of the very fabric of being. The book can be read just as a story, but it can also be a non-threatening, enchanting introduction to mindfulness for children and young people – not just through the mindfulness elements, but also through the characters. The characters are soul warriors who experience anxious and depressive thoughts and feelings, but also demonstrate great resilience and innate wisdom to help them manage these.
Children and young people live under more stress than ever before, and developing mental and emotional resilience is key to their being able to thrive. So on National Stress Awareness Day here is another way of drawing young people into their innate wise mind – through the pages of a fantasy novel. Through it they can go the extra mile, which is this year’s theme.
Shaun Lambert is a writer and author of Flat Earth Unroofed – a tale of mind lore and A Book of Sparks – A Study in Christian MindFullness. As well as being a trained counsellor and psychotherapist he is Senior Minister of Stanmore Baptist Church.
Flat Earth Unroofed is available from CLC and Gardners, and is available online in paperback and electronic formats. (@Flatearthunroof)
Picture: RGB Stock