Students in middle and high school face a gauntlet of physical and social changes that can make their lives remarkably stressful. Hormonal shifts affect everything from the way they look to the way they think. Shifting social demands from their parents and peers mean that they must constantly monitor their behavior to ensure they are accepted by those they care about.
Furthermore, they face the looming question of identity1: Who are they? What do they want from life? On top of these challenges, teens report that school is one of the worst stressors they face2, and that academic stresses often negatively impact their grades, their ability to manage their time, and their social relationships.
More Than Just a Phase
Adults can be tempted to dismiss this stress as teen angst or something they will get over in a few years. But this stress can have a major effect on teens’ mental health3-5, with grave consequences. According to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 16 percent of students in grades 9-12 report having seriously considered ending their own life in the past year, and 50 percent of these students reported having made an actual suicide attempt6. Every year, approximately 157,000 teens and young adults between the ages of 10 and 24 end up in emergency rooms for self-inflicted injuries, and suicide is the third leading cause of death for this age group. In this light, the stress teens and young adults experience is no laughing matter.
One approach to helping young people deal with this stress is to make sure that teens have the tools they need for proper self-care. Dr. Karen Bluth and Dr. Tory Eisenlohr-Moul of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sought to develop just such abilities. They studied a program for teens in middle and high school7 to determine whether teaching them mindfulness and self-compassion could help improve their experience with stress.
Mindfulness and Self-Compassion
Mindfulness is the practice of actively and non-judgmentally attending to one’s current experiences8. Though simple in nature, mindfulness-based techniques, particularly meditation, have received a great deal of attention in recent years. Evidence suggests that such approaches can be used to reduce stress among different disorders9-12.
Self-compassion consists of self-kindness and being forgiving of yourself when you experience stress – much as you would be towards a friend13. Like mindfulness, self-compassion has been shown to decrease anxiety and stress14-15. Importantly, both approaches can be practiced without guidance from a professional clinician16-17, making them a potentially cost-effective way to treat stress and anxiety.
“Making Friends with Yourself”
In their study, the researchers investigated whether middle and high school students could learn mindfulness and self-compassion techniques through a short program and if they could have a long-term effect on their levels of stress7. They recruited students from the community whose parents felt that they could benefit from the program. Students participated in an eight-week course called “Making Friends with Yourself: A Mindful Self-Compassion Program for Teens.” The course included sessions where teens learned the basics of mindfulness and self-compassion, simple techniques for implementing these techniques in their own lives, and ways they could help them deal with extreme stress.
Learning mindfulness and self-compassion techniques seemed to help teens reduce their stress, and this positive change seemed to last for at least several weeks after the program ended: participants reported lower perceived stress immediately following the program and at a six-week follow-up.
Questions for the Future
It’s unclear if these effects would last for longer periods; future studies will need to observe participants longer after the program ends. Also, the researchers did not investigate if this program could be used to help students diagnosed with anxiety or depressive disorders, so they will have to specifically examine participants diagnosed with mental illnesses. Another question is how this program compares to other interventions. For example, it could be that a program designed to introduce cognitive-behavioral techniques (CBT) to teens could have a longer-lasting, more meaningful impact.
Despite the open questions, these are exciting findings. Anyone can quickly learn to implement mindfulness and self-compassion in their lives, leading to rapid improvements in stress tolerance. Given the negative effect that stress can have on adolescents, this program could make a world of difference as they progress into young adulthood. If you know a teen who struggles with stress, it might be worth investigating whether programs like this exist in your area. In addition, read this article discussing the basics of self-care.
1. Erikson, E. (1968). Identity: Youth in crisis. New York: Norton.
2. American Psychological Association. (2014). Stress in America: Are teens adopting adults’ stress habits? http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/stress-report.pdf.
3. Grant, K. E., Compas, B. E., Stuhlmacher, A. F., Thurm, A. E., McMahon, S. D., & Halpert, J. A. (2003). Stressors and child and adolescent psychopathology: Moving from markers to mechanisms of risk. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 447.
4. Kushner, S. C. (2015). A review of the direct and interactive effects of life stressors and dispositional traits on youth psychopathology. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 46, 810-819
5. Moksnes, U. K., Espnes, G. A., & Haugan, G. (2014). Stress, sense of coherence and emotional symptoms in adolescents. Psychology & Health, 29, 32-49.
6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide Prevention. Retrieved April 21, 2017 from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide/youth_suicide.html.
7. Bluth, K., & Eisenlohr-Moul, T. A. (2017). Response to a mindful self-compassion intervention in teens: A within-person association of mindfulness, self-compassion, and emotional well-being outcomes. Journal of Adolescence, 57, 108-118.
8. Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.
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10. Hoge, E. A., Bui, E., Marques, L., Metcalf, C. A., Morris, L. K., Robinaugh, D. J., … & Simon, N. M. (2013). Randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for generalized anxiety disorder: effects on anxiety and stress reactivity. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 74, 786-792.
11. Kim, Y. W., Lee, S. H., Choi, T. K., Suh, S. Y., Kim, B., Kim, C. M., … & Song, S. K. (2009). Effectiveness of mindfulness‐based cognitive therapy as an adjuvant to pharmacotherapy in patients with panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. Depression and anxiety, 26, 601-606.
12. Vøllestad, J., Sivertsen, B., & Nielsen, G. H. (2011). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for patients with anxiety disorders: evaluation in a randomized controlled trial. Behaviour research and therapy, 49, 281-288.
13. Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and identity, 2, 85-101.
14. Smeets, E., Neff, K. D., Alberts, H., & Peters, M. (2014). Meeting suffering with kindness: Effects of a brief self-compassion intervention for female college students. Journal Clinical Psychology, 70, 794-807.
15. Neff, K. D., & Germer, C. (2013). A pilot study and randomized controlled trial of the mindful self-compassion program. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 69, 28-44.
16. Miller, J. J., Fletcher, K., & Kabat-Zinn, J. (1995). Three-year follow-up and clinical implications of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction intervention in the treatment of anxiety disorders. General Hospital Psychiatry, 17, 192-200.
17. Edenfield, T. M., & Saeed, S. A. (2012). An update on mindfulness meditation as a self-help treatment for anxiety and depression. Psychology Research and Behavior Management, 5, 131-41.
Sam Hunley holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology from Emory University. He pursued his Bachelor's degree in psychology from Furman University and a master's from Emory. Sam's research, alongside Dr. Stella Lourenco, focuses on human perception of the space surrounding the body, exploring the impact of anxiety and phobias on this perception. Together, they contribute to Anxiety.org articles. Post-graduation, Sam became a Presidential Management Fellow.