Very few people would say they don’t suffer from stress of some kind! Adults and children alike encounter stress in their daily lives and need to learn strategies to help them manage and bounce back from the curve balls and challenges which life very often throws our way.
Stress can affect us all in different ways; some people experience headaches, migraine, a tightness in their jaw or chest, a stiff neck, and for children stress will often manifest itself in feelings of sickness, tummy pains or a general feeling of being unwell, which they sometimes cannot identify. However, one thing is for certain, stress impacts both on the mind and body, and can if left unmanaged make us really ill.
The body goes into hyper-arousal, we find ourselves on high alert, our adrenaline flowing and often we move into fight or flight mode, with a surmounting feeling of a need to do something to protect ourselves or those belonging to us. I am sure some of you can relate to this heightened state, when the first thought you have is to get away from the situation, and fast!
How does Stress affect us:
While some of us might well achieve our goal during this heightened state, the impact of this adrenaline rush results in increased heart rate and respiration, tense muscles and unexplained pain. You might find if this stressful situation continues you become restless, anxious or continually on edge, which minimises concentration (Weare, 2012). This can result in built up anger and acting on impulse rather than fully thinking the situation through. As a result we can find ourselves suffering ill health, an inability to sleep or aches and pains which seem intolerable. This is the body telling us it is time to stop, that we need to self regulate and get ourselves back into sync. Therefore while it can be good occasionally to move into this heightened state to attain goals, or deal with issues; it is equally important to learn how to shift back into a relaxed state whereby the body and mind can rest and regenerate.
Mindfulness can be useful in helping to make that transition back to a more relaxed state, to re-aline our bodies and minds, to become centred and grounded, and regain that state of control. Evidence shows that mindfulness addresses physical health issues and can help to reduce pain, lower blood pressure and alleviate symptoms of fibromyalgia (Weare, 2012).
How can Mindfulness help:
Mindfulness offers options so we can see and handle the situation we find ourselves in.
- Pay Attention to the moment – Mindfulness encourages us to pay attention to the now. It teaches us to self-regulate and control non-productive thoughts that lead to stress. This is a useful tool with children who worry about the smallest of things, like mum being 5 or 10 mins late to collect them from school. Rather than dwelling on the situation, we can encourage and teach the child to focus on the now, go back to a task or game they were involved in, chat about other things and so the stress is alleviated. Learning to pay attention to what is happening in the moment, instead of becoming caught up in self-created worries and concerns helps prevent thoughts escalating until you are certain there is an actual problem to be dealt with.
- Acceptance provides relief: Mindfulness encourages the attitude of acceptance, and we learn to accept what is happening. So back to our example – mum is late – there are several reasons why this might be the case, therefore it is important to learn to remain in the moment, pay attention to the now, consider the situation with an open mind; which will minimise the impact of stress. Encouraging the child to consider possible scenarios, mum had to call into the shop, mum got held up in work for example, will help the child remain regulated. Maintaining an open attitude and accepting that there is a simple explanation improves our ability to deal with difficult or different situations, thus leading to less negative thinking or over reactiveness.
An easy way to begin practicing mindfulness when faced with a stressful situation is to practice STOP!
- Slow down
- Take a deep breath
- Observe – how are you feeling within your body and mind, what thoughts do you have? What other possibilities or other options do you have?
- Proceed – think about the other options and possibilities and decide which one might bring a better outcome for you as well as for the situation.
Bringing a kind and positive attitude to this practice is useful, making an effort to accept your thoughts as they are. Acknowledge how you are feeling, but be open to exploring the situation further, to taking a fresh look, reconsider the possibilities. Ask yourself is it possible that everything will be OK in the long run?
Mindfulness in Early Education:
Mindfulness is a useful tool for both the child and the teacher. Evidence shows that mindfulness training improves our ability to:
- Self Regulate – re-aline our emotions, this helps to achieve more positive thinking and minimises the risk of over thinking in difficult situations.
- Attention and concentration are improved.
- Executive function is improved for example problem solving, paying attention to detail, focus and plan events, recall and memory and cognitive processes.
- Empathy and awareness of others is enhanced.
- Motivation and learning
- Stress is reduced and so our wellbeing is improved.
Improving these skills is advantageous for both teacher and child efficiency, and being able to function more effectively in itself alleviates stress (Weare, 2012). Recent reviews in the field of mindfulness show that children and adolescents respond positively to mindfulness intervention techniques (Burke, 2009; Harnett & Dawe, 2012), but it is important that some training in the area is engaged with before introducing mindfulness into a school or a setting.
Burke, C. (2009) Mindfulness – based approaches with children and adolescents: A preliminary review of current research in an emergent field, in Journal of Child and Family Studies.
Harnett, P.S. and Dawe, S. (2012) Review: The contribution of Mindfulness -based therapies for children and families and proposed conceptual integration, in Child and Adolescent mental health.
Weare, K. (2012) ‘Evidence for the Impact of Mindfulness on Children and young people’. The mindfulness in Schools project. Exeter University: Mood Disorders Centre.