“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” - Henry David Thoreau
In today’s fast-paced, interconnected world, how we deal with stress is becoming a top priority for improved overall health. The Mayo Clinic, American Psychological Association and American Heart Association have thoroughly documented the destructive power of chronic stress and its associated increased rates of depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, weight gain, memory impairment, sleep problems, digestive problems, muscle pain, anxiety and a myriad of other health issues.
Many of America’s top corporations and their executive leadership have put employee wellness on the front burner and with good reason. Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of Facebook and Asana, has said, “Mindfulness has helped me succeed in almost every dimension of my life. By stopping regularly to look inward and become aware of my mental state, I stay connected to the source of my actions and thoughts and can guide them with considerably more intention.”
Building a culture of mindfulness leads to powerful outcomes. Aetna’s employees decreased stress levels by one third after doing just one hour of yoga every week, which reduced the company’s healthcare costs by an average of $2,000 a year, according to Financial Times. And, after General Mills instituted a seven-week employee meditation program, 83 percent of participating employees said they took time to optimize their daily productivity, a 60 percent increase from before taking the course.
Mindfulness techniques, also referred to as heart work, continue to be integrated into wellness frameworks across sectors as a way to promote the power of reflection, manage stress and support long-term brain health. Formal meditation (visualizations, breath work, forgiveness and reconciliation practices) and body awareness exercises (body scans, walking meditation, mindful yoga and movement) encourage constant awareness of our emotional state and surrounding environment. Simply put, the tone of the voice in our heads can change our relationship to stress by the second and allow us to better soak in the vibrant and catalyzing moments.
“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear.” - Nina Simone
Considered the “Godfather of Mindfulness,” Jon Kabat-Zinn founded The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which has had more than 22,000 people complete the school’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program (MSBR), and more than 6,000 medical doctors and healthcare professionals refer their patients to the program to date. Participants reported a 38 percent reduction in medical symptoms, a 43 percent reduction in psychological and emotional distress and a 26 percent reduction in perceived stress.
“How you think and how you act can transform your experience with stress,” explains Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist from Stanford University, who has devoted her career to studying stress and our attempts to alleviate it.
In her TED Talk, McGonigal refers to a Harvard study in which participants were subjected to the “social stress test,” a series of nerve-racking tasks designed to produce the physical symptoms of stress: faster heartbeat, heavier breathing, more sweating, and so on. The results showed that participants who reframed their perceptions of stress prior to the tests could actually improve their performance and demonstrate improved cardiovascular functioning, urging us to consider the possibility that there may be a real link between a mindful approach to stress and reduced risk of heart diseases.
Supporting McGonigal’s claims is a recent study from Penn State University, which found that “how you perceive and react to stressful events is more important to your health than how frequently you encounter stress.” Another recent study conducted by Professor Willem Kuyken at England’s University of Exeter found that mindfulness therapy was similarly effective as antidepressant medication in preventing relapses among participants suffering from depression. The National Center for Biotechnology Information conducted a review of 209 studies related to the effects of mindfulness-based therapy. It concluded that mindfulness “is an effective treatment for a variety of psychological problems, especially reducing anxiety, depression and stress.”
“Intelligence is the door to freedom and alert attention is the mother of intelligence.” – John Kabat-Zinn
Stress can be especially detrimental to children, whose stress-response systems are not fully developed. This makes their brains and bodies more vulnerable to the effects of stress, especially for those in underserved communities who are exposed to violence, abuse, neglect and instability. These children face more stress on a day-to-day basis from hunger, lack of access to healthy food, often toxic home life, and living in less safe, more crime-ridden areas. A symposium at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health revealed that children who grow up in poverty are more susceptible to stresses that can “alter the architecture of a child’s brain, impairing cognitive function, attention span, and the ability to regulate emotions.”
Bringing mindfulness into schools gives children a chance to learn self-awareness and healthy habits, instead of falling into patterns of destructive behavior that could have potentially devastating consequences for their long-term health. Early adopting schools have already seen promising results.
Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, who along with its nonprofit partner, the Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education (CWAE), introduced Quiet Time in 2007, a program offering students two 15-minute periods of quiet rest and relaxation each school day to reduce stress and enhance social, emotional and cognitive development.
Over the next three years, 17 studies of the program revealed that Academic Performance Index and STAR standardized test scores improved for Quiet Time participants, especially among students whose grades had previously been below proficiency. Average GPAs, attendance and graduation rates rose while suspension rates declined. Students reported higher self-esteem, confidence and resilience, plus lower levels of stress and anxiety among a number of other improved psychological health factors.
“We have observed and teachers have told us that students seem calmer and happier during school,” said Jeff Rice, the CWAE’s Director of Operations. “They seem more motivated to sit down and focus on classroom lessons and absorb material, and they also appear to have better, more supportive relationships with their peers and with their teachers. Students have echoed that they have a better rapport with their instructors, who seem happier and more relaxed as well.”
Since inception, the Quiet Time program has helped over 10,000 children in the Bay Area. CWAE’s work has caught the attention of the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy. He has visited Visitacion Valley and performed a TED Talk in which he shared the program’s ability to craft such a simple solution to substantially increase’ students happiness in a difficult environment.
“We believe the four pillars of good health are diet, exercise, sleep and meditation,” explains Rice. “Kids can’t learn meditation if they are hungry or don’t have enough energy to concentrate and stay focused.”
Rice isn’t alone. With a focus on positive outcomes, more schools and nonprofits have intentionally incorporated health and nutrition into their educational and curricular framework to create a more comprehensive health culture.
In Baltimore, the Holistic Life Foundation currently operates its Mindful Moment program in 17 local schools, serving 5,000 students per week. It has woven 15 minutes of meditation into the structure of every school day, and also created the “Mindful Moment Room,” a safe space for students who are being disruptive in class or just feeling stressed. There they have the opportunity to take about 20 minutes to relax, discuss the problem with a trained staff member and come up with mindfulness techniques to address similar situations in the future. HLF staff are uniquely qualified to help these at-risk students because staff members went through the program themselves.
“Our staff inspires me,” said Ali Smith, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Holistic Life Foundation. “About half are former students of ours. These were kids who were getting in fights, in detention regularly and dropping out of school, but they were able to pull themselves back to center and share their experiences with other kids. They’re amazing teachers because they can connect to other kids going through the same things they did.”
The program has been initially successful in improving student behavior. During the 2013-14 school year, there were zero suspension of students in preK-fifth grade at HLF schools. At Patterson Park High School, the number of suspensions decreased by about 50 percent. Beyond those numbers, Smith says when he goes to observe schools, he can see a tangible difference in student behavior.
“We pay attention to how the school feels when we walk through it,” Smith said. “You see a lot of situations with the potential for negative or violent behavior, and we’re seeing a lot more of those interactions become positive…That self-awareness and self-accountability increase students’ self-esteem and allow them to care more about how their actions affect themselves and their peers so they can start to aspire beyond just their neighborhood and dream about what is possible for them.”
“All that is important is this one moment... Make the moment important, vital and worth living. Do not let it slip away unnoticed and unused.” – Martha Graham
At the Creative Challenge Community School in Denver, the school’s 300 students participate in two 15-minute mindfulness sessions each month, where the school’s mindfulness program director and instructor, Melissa Kaufmann, who has been practicing yoga and mindfulness techniques herself since 2004, leads them in exercises to heighten their awareness of their thoughts, emotions and surroundings.
“The biggest behavioral change I have seen is the kids’ ability to self-regulate,” said Kaufmann, who left the fast-paced tech startup world to slow down her mind to be able to focus on her true passions. “They have the ability to access mindfulness tools they have learned like breathing, listening, expressing gratitude and generosity, and use them based on their present moment…The students are more kind to each other. They are able to be empathic and caring in the classroom, in the hallways, and on the playground.”
The Erikson Institute, a graduate school in childhood development, received funding to study the effects of mindfulness in more than 30 underserved Chicago public schools over the next four years. They have implemented their Calm Classroom program in 16 low-income schools, with 14 additional schools being studied as a control group with no mindfulness learning involved. While data from the study will not be available until 2019, Amanda Moreno, an assistant professor at Erikson, says anecdotal results have been extremely promising.
“Many teachers tell us that outbursts and tantrums are down, and instructional minutes are up, due to the fact that mindfulness breaks make transitions go much more smoothly,” Moreno said. “One assistant principal told us that he felt the program was responsible for that year’s test score improvements, because they all did mindfulness techniques at the beginning of the testing sessions.”
She says the sessions are not only easy to accommodate in the school day schedule, but they also help students find strategies to address their own social and emotional needs. One of the major advantages of using MBSR strategies is that after completing initial training in the techniques, students can access mindfulness tools at any time without the need for schools to invest in other resources or special environment conditions.
Early evidence points to the effectiveness of mindfulness techniques in reducing stress and increasing happiness in children and adults alike, but where does it go from here?
“There is a lot we still don’t know about mindfulness in children,” Moreno said. “If we want a comprehensive approach to social-emotional development within school walls, we need a way to extend mindful culture to the ocean of relationships we are always swimming in. Some programs, including ours, are testing innovative ways of doing this, such as including civic/greater good activities. We have developed an aspect to our program called Calm Community, in which children and teachers more publicly share how they apply mindful activities to the everyday challenges of school, so that everyone can have a good day.”
“Sometimes when people are under stress, they hate to think, and it's the time when they most need to think.” – Bill Clinton
Mindfulness can sometimes be misinterpreted as trying to use meditation and yoga to reach a zen-like emotional equilibrium, an inner peace free of anger, worry or fear. Rather than shy away from life’s stressors by trying to control or suppress negative feelings, educators and children who participate in mindfulness programs glean insights about their own internal processes and behavior patterns, as well as a heightened awareness of their emotional state in each and every moment, pleasant or unpleasant.
These programs provide a toolkit to help children master how to intentionally reprogram their responses to challenging or uncomfortable situations, how to let go of negative thoughts and how to declutter their minds and pay attention to what is in front of them while leaving room for curiosity and course correction. With more data showing the benefits of addressing the needs of the whole child, we will hopefully see ignited interest in the integration of MBSR-based programs into a layered programmatic strategy in schools that helps children and adults build resilience and live with more ease and well-being.