By Tessa Matson, AmeriCorps Member, The Health Center.
Imagine that you are a high school student. It is lunch time and you’re sitting in the cafeteria, waiting for your best friend to grab her lunch and join you. You see her walk in, you wave. She sees you wave and then quickly looks away. She grabs her food, avoids your table and sits down at a table on the other side of the cafeteria with a group of people you don’t know. All of a sudden, you feel confused, then hurt, then betrayed. Your body starts to tense up, you start to sweat and your heart races. You feel as though everyone is watching you, maybe laughing at you, and all you want to do is get out of school as fast as you can.
The psychological and physical effects described are the body’s natural response to danger. When you feel threatened, you’re body automatically triggers the flight-or-fight response. If you were to face a tiger in the jungle, your body would prepare to fight the tiger or flee from it by producing adrenaline, increasing heart rate and blood pressure and shutting down non-essential systems like digestion and immune. Although most of us are safe from tiger mauling, we do experience stress in day-to-day life. The lunch room example is an example of a paper tiger—although there is no immediate danger, there is certainly a perceived threat, which causes our bodies to trigger the same flight-or-fight response.
Some of our students at Lincoln High School and Blue Ridge Elementary School experience stressful situations, which trigger their flight-or-fight response very frequently or at an extreme level. Living far below the poverty line, neglect or abuse, the death of a loved one or family violence are examples of extreme stress that cause extended activation of the stress response. We call this kind of stress toxic stress or, sometimes, adverse childhood experiences (ACES). Toxic stress, over time, can impair proper immune system functioning in children and young adults, which can increase the risk for chronic health conditions such as asthma, obesity, type II diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, among others.
Although these seem like pretty grim outcomes for a kid who has toxic stress, there may be a solution. Mindfulness is a mental health practice that can help reduce stress. Originally adopted from Buddhist practice, mindfulness refers to the ability to direct attention to the experience as it unfolds, moment-by-moment with open curiosity and acceptance (Kabat-Zinn, 1996). Have you ever walked from one room to another room without realizing how you got there? This is an example of being asleep in your day, not being fully alive or present. Mindfulness teaches you how to slow down, to pay more attention to each moment and to observe things objectively. While the flight-or-fight response to stress induces quick response and immediate reaction from the body, mindfulness helps to slow down initial reactions through objective observation of what thoughts and feelings exist before deciding what they mean and how to respond. You might choose to respond the same way had you not practiced mindfulness, yet mindfulness allows you to take the time and space necessary to figure out how you want to react to a situation, to assess how big or small it is and how stressful it is for you. Mindfulness can provide relatively rapid psychological and physical relief from stress.
To help teach mindfulness to students, The Health Center at Lincoln has created Reflection Kits that consist of a large drawing pad, a hard-bound journal and colored drawing pencils. Counselors explain how to practice mindfulness and how to use our Reflection Kits as tools to relieve stress. For some people, engaging in an art form helps to quiet the mind and body. By combining mindfulness and art, students are able to slow down, put down on paper what they are feeling inside in a way so they can see it objectively. Once they are in a clear and calm state, students can begin to respond to challenges rather than simply reacting to them. For other students, journaling allows them to tell a story—their story. Mindfulness helps students shift their focus from what has already been written to what they will write next. In other words, journaling can help students consider their present state and what options they have yet to take. These Reflection Kits provide a safe place for students to unload stressors and practice mindfulness.
With practice, mindfulness can become integrated into day-to-day life. Our goal is to give students the tools they need to find clarity and make mindful decisions. If we can help relieve toxic stress, perhaps the risk for chronic health problems will also decline. So for now, let’s pocket the pills and prescribe a daily dose of mindfulness. Refills: endless.