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Mindfulness: How a few minutes a day can change your life 

Cogitative, redhead girl practicing an external mindfulness activity - journaling.

In the month of April, we have been focusing on mindfulness and how just a few minutes a day can really change your life. We recently sat down with Robin coach Dr. Colleen Jacobson to get her take on mindfulness, its benefits and how you can introduce it to students in the classroom.

Q: What is your definition of mindfulness?

A: I like to use Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition because it includes all of the important components:  “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Jon-Kabat-Zinn is credited with bringing mindfulness to the western world in a non-religious way. This is important because a mindfulness practice is so beneficial for everyone regardless of religious or spiritual affiliation.

Q: How can mindfulness help us manage our negative thoughts and emotions?

A: Mindfulness helps us bring our attention to and be fully engaged in the present moment. When we are in a mindful state, our concerns about the past and worries about the future become much less prominent in our thoughts. By practicing mindfulness, we will teach our brains to spend more time in the present.

Q: What are the benefits of mindfulness for teens specifically?

A: There are so many benefits of mindfulness for teens. Some of the benefits include increased attention and focus, ability to regulate emotions and better sleep; all of which lead to an overall calmer state of being and better academic and athletic performance. Another amazing benefit is improved interpersonal relationships as mindfulness is a tool that students can use to cultivate active listening skills and empathy.

When I was finishing my doctorate in clinical psychology, I worked with a team focused on the treatment of adolescents suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. We used dialectical-behavior therapy in which mindfulness practice plays a central role.  The results were impressive – these teens became less depressed and more in control of their emotions. I want to be clear that mindfulness isn’t just for teens with diagnosed mental health disorders. Research has proven that mindfulness can work to lower stress and anxiety among all people.

Q.  Can you elaborate on the research behind mindfulness?

A: How much time do you have? There are hundreds of studies proving that mindfulness can reduce stress and anxiety and regulate emotions among other benefits.

There has been a lot of research around the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. One study found that MBSR helps people develop an adaptive response to daily stressors (Donald, Atkins, Parker, Christie, & Ryan, 2016).  Another 2016 study found that mindfulness can alleviate stress by improving emotion regulation, leading to a better mood and better ability to handle stress (Remmers, Topolinski, & Koole, 2016).

What I find the most interesting is that mindfulness is scientifically proven to actually change your brain. This can have a big impact on teens as their brains are still developing. In one 2012 study, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to demonstrate that the brains of subjects who mindfully meditated for two months hold steady even when not meditating and performing everyday tasks. The scans detected changes in brain activity – specifically in the amygdala – from the beginning to the end of the study. The amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for managing strong emotions and the fight or flight response, became smaller after just eight weeks of practice. Shrinking the amygdala will allow us to better detect and manage overreaction to daily stressors.

Q. What are the best ways to introduce mindfulness into the middle and high school classrooms?

A: The most basic exercise is mindful breathing but I suggest that teachers start with an externally-focused exercise as it has proven for me to generate engagement among the broadest set of students.

I think my students would say that one of their favorite exercises is mindful eating. I pass out one Hershey kiss to each student. I remind them that for this to be a mindful exercise they need to practice their WHAT skills – Observe, Describe and Participate – during and after the experience. The WHAT skills serve to keep students focused on the simple activity of unwrapping and eating the chocolate and noticing the feeling and sensations that arise. Next, I tell students to use the HOW skills: participate non-judgmentally and one-mindfully.  The HOW skills remind students that they must participate fully in the exercise and observe any judgements they may have but then try to let those judgements go.  I find it helpful to prompt students with questions both during and after the activity: What are their observations? How does the Hershey kiss look? How does it feel in your hands? How does it taste? Has your mood shifted? (What and How skills are from DBT for Suicidal Adolescent Patient, Miller, Rathus, Linehan, 2006).

Other mindfulness activities that are great starters for the classroom are gratitude journals and word searches. Then I introduce more internally focused exercises such as focused breathing.

I also encourage students to use mindfulness outside the classroom. There are a lot of great resources, including the apps Aura, InsightTimer and Calm, that can guide students in exercises to maintain and build their mindfulness practice.

Q: How can you encourage students to keep up their mindfulness practice?

A: My recommendation is to lead by example. I frequently share how I use my practice to more effectively deal with my life worries and stresses and how my practice brings me so many benefits that can help me live a happier, more fulfilled life. Last year one of my students was so intrigued by mindfulness that he introduced the concept and activities to his cross country team. Now mindfulness is incorporated into their everyday practice regimen.

About the Coach

Dr. Colleen Jacobson.

Colleen is a licensed clinical psychologist and professor with over 20 years of experience in researching, teaching and counseling young adults. Leveraging tricks and trades of psychotherapy, Dr. Jacobson teaches and supports Robin students on how they can more effectively cope with life issues and mental health challenges to live their best lives.

Meet Colleen