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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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During a workshop that I was facilitating on marijuana and the teen brain, a high school sophomore said to me, "I take Ritalin on weekdays for attention, but go off it on the weekends because that's when I smoke weed." I asked him, "Are you saying that you've got a mind-altering substance in your brain every day?" He answered with a concerned look, "Do you think I should get off the Ritalin?"

It's no surprise that young people are taking more psychoactive chemicals for psychological problems, such as poor attention, anxiety, and depression. In many cases, like the student above, they choose to self-medicate in addition to using a prescription drug. In some schools, I've been told that as many as 25-40% of their students are on medication for psychological and behavioral problems, and that does not include recreational use. In addition, when I meet with teens as part of my work speaking at schools across the country, the vast majority of them report that they have stress, anxiety, and trouble paying attention in class. Medication can save lives for those with severe and debilitating conditions, but for everyone else, I believe we can do better.

In order to foster a sense of resilience and encourage healthier ways to cope with life, we need to educate young people about natural highs. Over the past decade, neuroscience research has shown that exercise, meditation, positive social support, laughing, and many other factors can elevate mood and improve brain functioning. These activities don't require putting a chemical into your body, but they do take time and effort to have an impact.

The Teen Brain vs. the Adult Brain

Teenagers have lots of reasons for being more anxious, stressed, and distracted than adults. They deal with high expectations from parents, social pressure from friends, and the constant fear that their smartphone will go dead and totally ruin their life. To make things worse, the teenage brain is generally more anxious than the adult brain. This may be due to the rapid development of the amygdala, a brain structure involved in emotional expression, compared to the slower development of brain areas involved in decision making and reasoning. Also, the teen brain has a larger pleasure center than adults, which means that rewards feel -- well, more rewarding. This is particularly true of risks taken in unsupervised settings with their peers. As a result, the teenage brain is a contradiction of epically exhausting proportions, both more anxious and more thrill seeking than its adult counterpart.

Teenage angst is nothing new, but using natural highs to alleviate it might be novel. One of the best-studied natural highs is running or any form of cardio exercise. My wife loves running. She even runs when it snows. I always tell her, "If you get lost, I'm not coming to get you." When I ask her why she runs, she says, "It makes me feel better, even when I'm tired. It also helps me focus at work." It turns out that there's a lot of research backing her up. Thirty minutes of any physical activity that elevates the heart rate helps to release endorphins and improve mood and cognitive functioning. Regular running has also been shown to increase the volume of the hippocampus, the most important brain structure for memory. It doesn't have to be intense physical activity, either. Taking a walk in the woods has shown benefits for memory, mood, and attention.

In my case, I love meditation, despite having been a skeptic for many years. Meditation has proven to be a powerful stress reliever for me, particularly at night. Students report some of the highest levels of stress during the evening hours when they're tired but expected to finish homework and fight off distractions. Meditation is like a cell phone charger for the brain. I encourage students to start out with 5-10 minutes in the late afternoon, before dinner, to test it out. The goal is to practice calming the mind. Nodding off is fine, even welcomed. I've presented this to students and staff for over a year, and the response has been tremendous. They are in a better mood after the meditation and report experiencing greater productivity that doesn't interfere with their sleep.

Exploring Your Own Natural High

Whether you love surfing, biking, cooking, or gardening, consider your favorite pursuits as means to your own natural high. Invite young people to experiment with perceiving the activities that make them happy through the lens of a natural high, and then report back to you about how it made them feel. This can be a great bonding experience for the classroom and teach skills for dealing with stress for years to come. Check out yoga and meditation classes in your community -- some might even be free. Visit websites such as Inward Bound or Guided Mindfulness Meditation, along with meditation apps that you can download. For the classroom, check out Natural High, an online source of free videos and curriculum for teachers to help youth identify and cultivate their passions.

Does your school have a dialogue with students about recognizing stress and exploring the best means of coping with it? What does that look like? Please share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

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Matt Bellace, PhD's picture
Matt Bellace, PhD
Speaker, Psychologist and Comedian

Thanks Stella! It is true, adolescence is a period of time marked by intense learning and brain activity. Harnessing that brain power to learn positive skills for the almost 60+ years of life that follows is the key. Meditation appears to be one of several proven ways to increase quality of life and cognitive functioning for teens and adults alike.

Patty McLain's picture
Patty McLain
Youth Wellness Advocate

Thank you so much! I am passionate about raising awareness about teen stress and about creating workshops and professional development that focus on youth wellness, especially in regards to proactive strategies and natural solutions, so I was really excited to read this article.
One part that really resonated with me was when you wrote, "In order to foster a sense of resilience and encourage healthier ways to cope with life, we need to educate young people about natural highs. Over the past decade, neuroscience research has shown that exercise, meditation, positive social support, laughing, and many other factors can elevate mood and improve brain functioning."
After working in a public high school as a teacher and instructional coach for 11 years and seeing a steady and profound increase in stress (especially as standardization and accountability measures became more of a focus), I chose to leave my position in order to put all of my time and energy into helping teens manage stress and develop positive coping strategies by fostering mindfulness, creativity, compassion and confidence. As I get further into this adventure, I'm definitely finding out more and more just how crucial these stress-management techniques are for everything from academic success and healthy relationships to drug abuse prevention and emotional well-being. Thank you again for your work and for bringing more awareness to teen stress and offering some natural solutions.

Matt Bellace, PhD's picture
Matt Bellace, PhD
Speaker, Psychologist and Comedian

Hi Patty,
What a terrific story! I love that you identified a problem and used your passion to pursue a career to make a difference. It's such an empowering process, yet so difficult for many people to initiate. Any links you can provide for your work?

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Leona Hinton's picture

Many thanks for writing this article, Matt. Teenagers are stressed out and many of them need help. I'll recommend these websites to my students, I really want them to deal with stress and anxiety.

Pamela Rowe's picture

This year one of my colleagues and I are doing a collaborative coaching project on mindfulness. As we are learning how to reduce our stress and become more effective teachers , it makes me realize that students are always watching us and we can be an effective change for students just by role modeling. Students can learn how to cope with stress through educating them about how their brain works and the strategies such as mindfulness that can help them understand themselves and how they think.

Elizabeth Harkert's picture

Thank you for posting this article. I am a pre-service teacher and I believe that there needs to be more encouragement of healthy natural highs as well as strategies for coping with stress and anxiety. None of these ideas were stressed in my high school, it was always a deal-with-it attitude. Today, even before coming across this article, I had a professor tell me to go for a walk or run because I was frustrated about a concept in a paper and was not focusing. What would be a solution or alternative to someone having a stress-reliever that is not easily attained? For example, I love archery but no longer own a bow or have a archery range close by, what would be another alternative or solution?

Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA's picture
Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA
Advocate, Lawyer, Teacher and Founder of Beyond Tutoring

I think it may be helpful to ask:

What was it about archery that let you destress? Was it the tactile feel of the bow or the being in the outdoors? Was it the security? Was it the thrill of a bullseye?

I think once you have an answer to these questions it will be easier to find activities to help you cope with anxiety.

lberr's picture

Great article! One comment I've heard from multiple students and peers is, "When I do activities to help me cope with stress [such as meditation], they just make me feel more stressed because I know I should be using that time to study." I respond by saying that a little de-stressing now will pay off in greater productivity and happiness later, but this doesn't help students actually overcome the problem. Does anyone have an idea about would be a helpful response to these students?

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school

Iberr, I think what you're onto is that de-stressing and problem-solving or executive function skills are two separate issues. Students need both. It might help students to plan into their day how to relieve stress as well as how to manage stressful tasks in productive ways - making a schedule, setting up good study habits, etc. Destressing without actually doign your work won't help in the long run, but neither will "all work, no play."

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