Teens, Stress, and Yoga
Stress can have detrimental effects on a person’s mental and physical health. Having a regular yoga and mindfulness practice is a wonderful way to combat the effects of stress. As we know, stress is not exclusively and adult problem, but is plaguing our nation’s teens as well. The following are my findings based on my Master’s level research into the world of stress and teenagers as well as my subsequent findings from teaching yoga and mindfulness to teens.
What is stress (the science bit):
Our bodies are programed to respond to stress as life threatening. Our fight or flight response was developed to keep us alive in the face of danger. While this is useful, our systems are now being put in overdrive and defaulting to this stress response more often than not. What used to be triggered by the approach of a bear or other imminent danger, is now triggered each time we get cut off in traffic, whenever an email pings on our phone, when we have a big test to study for, when we know we have to give a big presentation, and for a hundred other reasons that we experience each day. There is so much in our daily lives that our bodies perceive as threatening, that we now exist in this heightened stress state.
This is a problem hormonally. We have two sets of hormones: stress hormones, and sustaining hormones. Stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol are released at the first sign of danger. While adrenaline fades after the danger is gone, cortisol stays elevated for a day or two to follow. That means each time we get a feeling of stress, our bodies stay on alert for hours. Constantly raised cortisol is no good, in fact, it is most likely the cause of those physical ailments you feel when you’re stressed. It can show up as back and head aches, trouble sleeping, fatigue, digestive issues, anxiety, and decreased immunity. This problem is made worse because our body favors the job of the stress hormones over the job of the sustaining hormones (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone) which help our bodies to build strong bones and muscles, sustain emotional balance, regulate energy and much more. As you probably know, these hormones have a lot to do during the teen years, and elevated levels of stress can make it even more difficult to maintain hormonal balance.
What we know about teens and stress:
-Teens are under a great deal of stress coming from academic pressures, peers, family, and social media (namely the projection of perfection).
-This stress can manifest mentally and emotionally as eating disorders, depression and anxiety.
- The imbalance caused by stress can lead to physical ailments from digestive issues, to headaches, and trouble sleeping.
What is yoga:
In yoga, students are asked to be present in their bodies and minds. This is done through movement, breathing, and meditation. In my yoga classes, I remind students that this is their opportunity to be have no “to-do” list. It is potentially the only time during the day or week when students are taking deep breaths, not worrying about what comes next, or being bombarded with messages about how they should look, think and act. This is a chance for the body to move, the mind to settle, and the breath to flow. It is not just about what happens in the yoga class, but also about the techniques and lessons that are taught and can be used to combat stress in daily life. Yoga and mindfulness are about being present, and accepting each situation as it is. It is not about avoiding all stressful situations, but learning to accept and make them more manageable. Understanding how to be present, tune into your body, and breathe deeply can alleviate stress in minutes. The result changes our body on a biological, hormonal, and emotional level. It’s like hitting the reset button on your phone, but instead, you’re hitting reset on your body and mind, providing a huge boost for your mental, emotional, and physical health.
How yoga and mindfulness can help:
Beyond the physical yoga practice, most classes have a component of mindfulness, which is largely responsible for the stress relieving effects of a yoga class. Mindfulness, similar to meditation is a way of bringing attention to the present. This is done through body awareness, understanding and working with thoughts and feelings, integrating awareness of thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations, reducing harmful self-judgments, and integrating mindful awareness into daily life.
Studies on participants in mindfulness programs report decreases in negative affect, and increases in calm, relaxation, self-acceptance, emotional regulation, awareness, and clarity. The positive effects of mindfulness can actually be measured in our brains. Studies show decreased grey matter in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with the human stress response (less time spent in fight or flight). People who practice mindfulness also present increases in activation of the left-side of the anterior regions of the brain, areas associated with positive affect, and not the right side which signals negative emotional expression, anxiety and depression.
The physical yoga practice has a number of benefits of its own including increased strength, flexibility, confidence, improved body image and over all self-esteem.Teens who practice yoga report feeling less stressed and better able to handle the pressures that school life puts on them. They also experience improved mood, increased energy, and a healthier relationship with their bodies and minds.
From my experience as a yoga teacher, I’ve seen the shift that happens when a teen comes to yoga. They come in feeling tired, stressed, and unhappy. By the end of class, they feel calm, relaxed, less stressed and at peace. So many teens feel the pressure of life so intensely. They are trying to figure out who they are while constantly being pushed and pulled in different directions, bombarded by messages of what they should be, potentially some much heavier issues depending on their family life. There is rarely time in their day for them to slow down, reflect on themselves, and just breathe. Yoga classes offer this space, and my experience has shown that it is so needed and that the results are significant.