Why Is Meditation Great For Calming Anxious Adolescents?
Takeaway: Meditation can help change the baseline state of your adolescent’s mind – gradually making her a calmer, less anxious version of herself. The trick is to start small (3 minutes a day, at first) and find a meditation style that suits her personality and needs.
Adolescents have to deal with continually changing anxiety levels.
An increasing number of adolescents are being diagnosed with anxiety-related issues, often magnified by overlapping disorders like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Adolescents are undoubtedly affected by stressors like peer pressure/bullying, low self-esteem, problems at home, life changes (e.g., shifting schools), and more. And these stressors can spike, increasing a child’s anxiety levels. For instance, the pandemic worsened adolescents’ anxiety, with a survey of 2395 British teens in 2020 showing that a quarter of them felt ‘nervous, anxious, or on edge’ most (or nearly all) of the days of the previous fortnight.
This anxiety can stay in the mind or show up as physical symptoms.
Children reveal their anxieties through the things they say. For instance, a child might lose a football game and immediately predict that she’ll never be good at sports. It’s not that this assumption is wrong; they just don’t need to be the first thing she assumes. And this habit of catastrophising – i.e., imagining the worst – is often a sign of significant inner anxiety. With some children (especially younger ones), though, these anxieties reveal themselves as physical symptoms. So, your child may not complain of anxiety but regularly gets headaches and stomachaches or has trouble sleeping.
Biologically, this anxiety is often connected to the brain’s default mode network.
Brain scans show us the different parts of our brains that are active when concentrating on a task. But more recently, we’re learning that certain brain parts will often have a baseline activity level even when at rest – i.e., even when they’re in their ‘default mode.’ And so, some neuroscientists group these active-even-at-rest parts of the brain into a functional system called the default mode network. According to this theory/approach, the default mode network is in action when we’re sitting around doing nothing – perhaps daydreaming or remembering the past. And since some minds automatically start worrying when in this default mode, this network likely affects your adolescent’s anxiety levels.
The good news is that meditation seems to help regulate the default mode network.
The concept of the default mode network is hotly debated, but it’s a convenient way to explain the mechanism behind some types of anxiety. I.e., some brains’ default state is anxiety – even while at rest. But is there a way of tackling this anxiety? Well, studies show that meditation might help. For instance, in one study of children with cancer, meditation was shown to lower their anxiety levels – more so than other emotion-regulation techniques like temporarily distracting themselves from their worries. Crucially, meditation seems to work on relaxing the whole default mode network, whereas techniques like distraction need the prefrontal part of the brain to override anxiety. And since this prefrontal cortex is underdeveloped in children (compared to adults), meditation might be the only reliable way for adolescents to tackle anxiety.
What’s great about meditation is that anyone can do it, anywhere.
Meditation is primarily training our awareness and focus when our minds are at rest. And luckily, this doesn’t need any complicated equipment or large chunks of free time. Adolescents can meditate wherever they are, using a range of techniques. For instance, there’s progressive muscle relaxation, where they’ll systematically tighten and loosen all their muscles – from head to toe – relaxing the mind by first relaxing the body. Alternatively, they can use some version of transcendental meditation, where they’ll chant a set of syllables, words (e.g., ‘breathe’), or a phrase (e.g., ‘If this isn’t peace, I don’t know what is.’). This personalised mantra can help focus their mind and rise above whatever worry they’re currently feeling. Then there’s loving-kindness meditation, where adolescents practise ‘sending’ virtual messages of love (e.g., ‘May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you be free from suffering.’) to their loved ones, thereby opening themselves to feelings of loving-kindness.
In particular, science has praised mindfulness meditation as an evidence-based relaxation aid.
With mindfulness meditation, adolescents practise rooting themselves in the present instead of being carried away by random thoughts, daydreams, feelings, judgments, etc. This way, they learn to accept and work with whatever they’re feeling rather than avoiding it. And crucially, they can do this anywhere – while travelling to school, at lunch, or at home before sleeping. The process is as simple as focusing on the breath and bringing their mind back to it every time they’re distracted. (Learn more about mindfulness meditation.)
The trick with any meditation is to start small.
Most people make the mistake of starting too big. They vow to meditate for half an hour each day, hoping to become instantly calmer. And as exciting as this might feel, it’s never sustainable. Instead, encourage your adolescent to start small. Ask them to meditate for 3 minutes (set a timer) right before they go to sleep. And after doing this for 2 weeks, they can graduate to 5 minutes a day. Once they’ve set up this meditation habit, it’ll be easy to increase the length of the sessions later. But if they start with long sessions upfront, they’ll never keep it up long enough to develop a sustainable habit.
Crucially, adapt the meditation to your child’s needs.
If your adolescent is particularly fidgety, get her to try walking meditation. Here, she’ll walk around her room very slowly, paying close attention to the sensations from her feet – as she lifts them off the ground and places them back down. It’s the same concept as the breath-focused meditation we mentioned earlier – except that she’s now attending to physical sensations. This is an example of how you can adapt the sessions to your child’s personality. And this flexibility is vital if you want her to build a sustainable meditation habit.
Also, the right guide can help your child use meditation to trigger other life changes.
The beauty of meditation is that it can trigger large-scale life changes. For instance, it can help improve your child’s breathing, automatically calming her down – likely even improving her sleep. And this calm can then help her regulate difficult emotions, which, in turn, will enhance the quality of her friendships. So, a simple 5-minute mindfulness habit could gradually transform every aspect of your child’s life. To find out more about this, feel free to contact us for guidance. The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356
- Email: Office@TheEdPsych.com
Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.
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