The number of American adolescents and teenagers suffering from depression and anxiety is higher than ever before – and rising. Recent studies suggest that as many as 1 in 5 teenagers suffer from clinical depression.
Kids are under a lot of stress these days. Some of it is brought on by external factors like parents, school, peers, and the media; some of it is instigated by self-imposed standards or perfectionism. The physical, psychological, and social changes that plague teenagers can be overwhelming to the point that they feel a constant sense of disappointment – even dread – and don’t know how to cope with their feelings.
Here are just some of the areas in which teenagers experience stress:
- Academics: keeping grades up, taking AP classes, learning disabilities, getting high SAT scores
- Getting into College: applications, scholarships/grants, fear of rejection
- Family Life: divorce/separation, fighting with parents or siblings, financial problems
- Relationships: friends, bullying, discrimination, fitting in, peer pressure
- Identity: finding your own voice and ‘who you are’
- Body Image: puberty, acne, growth – compared with media images of ‘perfection’
- Extracurriculars: sports, music, competitions, and other activities that take time and attention
- Health Issues: diabetes, weight problems, etc.
- Growing Independence: learning to be more responsible, make wise choices
- Bad Decisions: using poor judgment, carrying guilt or shame
Any and all of these stressors can contribute to feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy in a teenager. Fortunately, there are some proven strategies for reducing depression and anxiety in teens.
Today we’re going to focus on one powerful technique: Mindfulness.
I use Mindfulness in my NYC practice (and in my own life!) so I have witnessed the benefits of it firsthand. Mindfulness is a practical tool because 1) it’s so effective, and 2) it’s so easy to do. It can be practiced anywhere at anytime. You don’t have to be seated alone in a dark room with incense burning and New Age yoga music playing in order to practice Mindfulness. All that is required is a little focus and your breath. You already breathe without thinking about it, so you’re halfway there!
What is Mindfulness?
I recently prepared an excellent blog post on this very topic – check it out:
Mindfulness for Teens describes it this way:
Asking someone to define mindfulness is kind of like asking, “What does chocolate taste like?” or “What does your favorite song sound like?” Definitions can only give you a small idea of what the real experience is like. Just reading about mindfulness without experiencing it yourself is like going to a restaurant to read the menu without tasting any of the food. Just as the point of going to a restaurant is to taste the food, the point of mindfulness is to experience it for yourself.
That said, there are some descriptions of mindfulness that might be a good place to start. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness, “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” is simple and to the point. Mindfulness is all about paying attention to the present moment. Mindfulness is about shifting out of autopilot and awakening to the here and now. Mindfulness is about freeing yourself from regrets about the past and worries about the future.
Awakening. Non-judgment. Freedom. Sounds like something you can get on board with, right? The best part is, it requires so little and the payoffs are incredible.
But I don’t have time! If your day is jam-packed with school, sports, music, drama, or other activities, then homework (and more homework), don’t worry. You can literally devote 2-3 minutes a couple times a day to practicing Mindfulness and see huge benefits from it!
Are you a Multi-Tasker? Mindfulness can be practiced while you’re doing other tasks in your day, such as:
- Eating breakfast
- Brushing your teeth
- Taking a shower
- Getting ready in the morning
- Walking or riding to school
- Walking to class
- Walking/petting your pets
- Cleaning your room
- Exercising or playing sports
- Drawing or painting
An Easy & Effective Way to Reduce Emotional Stress in Teens
Here are 3 ways the busy or overwhelmed teenager can practice mindfulness:
1. Mindful Breathing
Stop what you’re doing for just a moment. Just focus on being “here” – you don’t need to do anything else. Now bring your attention to your breath. You don’t have to change your breathing pattern, just focus your attention on it. Notice the movement of the air as you draw in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.
In your mind, say “Breathing in, breathing out” as you breathe.
To stay focused, try counting your breaths – 1 for inhaling, 2 for exhaling, etc. – to a count of 10. If your mind wanders away from your breath, that’s okay. Just say “Oh, my mind has wandered”, without passing judgment. Then gently guide your attention back to your breath.
2. Informal Mindfulness
Take a look at the list (above) of things you can do while practicing Mindfulness. The idea here is to tune into your senses as you perform the task. Before you start, take a few mindful breaths and observe what is happening right here, right now.
As you start the task, tune into all your senses. What do you see/hear/smell/taste/feel? Take your time – don’t rush through it. And focus on doing just that one task, nothing else.
Continue to breathe mindfully as you perform the task. When you complete the task, stop and take a few more mindful breaths and return to the present moment.
3. Guided Meditation
Guided Meditation takes you through a series of mindfulness exercises. You simply listen to the guide, and perform the tasks he or she is leading you through. This requires more focus and more time than mindful breathing or informal mindfulness.
Mindfulness for Teens provides a number of Guided Meditations of varying styles and lengths. Give one a try!
If you have any questions about how Mindfulness can help you or your teenager, please contact me for a brief consultation at (212) 787-7771.
Dr. Laura Muggli specializes in anxiety and depression for teenagers and adults in New York City.