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Breathe in: Mindfulness class focuses on teen anxiety and stress

At a time of great personal stress, Josephine Chung, Ph.D., found herself turning inward. Nearly 14 years ago, her family’s house was gutted by fire. Chung’s husband was badly burned and their life was turned upside down.

“Before the fire,” Chung said, “I would’ve considered my husband and myself to be stable and well connected, but this catastrophic and traumatic experience stressed us to our limits.” As Chung helped her husband heal from his injuries, she also worked with contractors to get their home rebuilt. “We all experienced a lot of trauma, and I took so much of it on myself.”

During this crazy time, Chung’s life felt like it was spinning out of control. She realized that in order to take good care of herself and her family she needed to rediscover her innate sense of inner calm. She also wanted to be more mindful and present for her young son.

When she was growing up, Chung’s Korean-American family informally practiced meditation, but it wasn’t until stress threatened to upturn her adult life that she decided to seek out a formal mindfulness meditation class.

“I realized I needed support around mindfulness,” she recalled. “I needed a safe place and a refuge at that time of turmoil.” The class helped her nurture her inner calm. “Eventually, I integrated the practice — the process of sitting and breathing mindfully — into our home,” she said. “It made a tremendous difference.”

As a certified parent coach and developmental psychologist, Chung encounters many young people and parents who tell her that the day-to-day pressures of school and sports and other activities create a sense of mounting stress that make many teens feel like their lives are also spinning out of control.

Because mindfulness-based meditation made such a difference in her own life, Chung decided that she wanted to teach teens how to tap into its stress-busting power. She decided to lead a local session of “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Teens,” an eight-week course created by Gina Biegel that shows young people how to tap into their mind-body resources for fighting stress. She offers the class throughout the year in different St. Paul locations.

When they come to her class, Chung said that participants look like ordinary or even high-achieving kids.

“On paper, the youth I work with present their stress in ways that nobody would detect from the outside. But the truth is that on the inside they are practically boiling over.”

Mindfulness-based stress reduction strategies allow teens to look inside, to be in the present moment and to get in touch with what they are feeling, Chung said. “Through this work, they discover more adaptive, healthier ways of dealing with the stresses in their lives.” 

‘The stakes are so high’

There have been many media reports of late about rising stress levels among American teenagers. Some researchers blame this on technology, others on parental pressure and increasing academic intensity, or a greater societal acceptance of mental illness and a willingness to talk about its impact.

Whatever the reason, the truth is that more young people report feelings of stress and anxiety. Chung blames that in part on a cultural pressure to succeed, a pressure that did not exist when she was a teen.

“When I was growing up almost 50 years ago, school was important,” she said. “I took it seriously, but I also knew when to close the book. I was a straight-A student, but I also had downtime with my family. I took standardized tests like everyone else, but it didn’t affect me as much as the kids I work with today. Somehow the stakes feel much greater.”

Josephine Chung
Josephine Chung

Today kids in middle and high school report feeling mounting pressure to succeed from parents, teachers, coaches — and even from themselves, Chung said.  She wants to encourage everyone to pause, take a breath and put life into perspective.

“Kids feel like the stakes are so high in ways that they are just not,” Chung said. “One test isn’t as important as they think it is. Earning an A shouldn’t be at the center of their universe. Kids give too much weight to a single exam or a single grade.”

While Chung said that stress was an important part of human evolution, the stress response is often misplaced in our modern world.

“Stress is a survival tool. When we were first experiencing that as cave people it was adaptive to be able to run away and avoid being eaten by a tiger. Today we are experiencing the same physiological responses, but there is no tiger chasing us. “

In her practice, Chung said she hears about too many young people self-medicating for stress through a variety of methods, including sex, drugs, bullying, cutting and eating disorders. These unhealthy impulses arise when a person doesn’t have an adaptive outlet for dealing with their stress and anxiety. Mindfulness meditation, Chung believes, can be that outlet, a healthy way to cut the stress and improve a person’s life.

Another key step to cutting stress in young people is to persuade parents to pull back and loosen up on the pressure to succeed at all costs. Part of Chung’s practice is coaching parents through the complicated process of raising children. For many well-meaning mothers and fathers, stepping back and allowing their teens to make mistakes can be a painful process, just as painful as watching toddlers take their first tentative steps only to crash to the ground.

“I talk with parents about allowing their children to trip and fall,” Chung said. “For this generation of parents it is really scary for them to allow their children to fail. Without the experience of falling or falling and picking yourself back up, how will you develop the resiliency that’s needed to get through life? Within our failures are our greatest lessons.”

How the class works

In the latest session of “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Teens,” seven high school students met at a St. Paul church for an hour and a half each Sunday afternoon. The kids attend a mix of public and private schools. (“You’d think that the private, high-pressure schools might create a more stressed teen,” Chung said, “but kids at public schools struggle just as much.”) 

The weekly meetings usually start with a check-in and evolve into discussion, yoga, art activities and meditation practice.

The first meeting, Chung said, is “where we look at the whole person and talk about the change model that we are going to use over the course of the weeks we will be together. I give the kids a background on mindfulness and why it works to quiet the mind. We explore the effects of stress on the mind and body. Then we talk about the importance of building a personal mindfulness practice.”

After that, Chung likes to let the class shift organically, according to student interest.

“I let their needs drive where the class goes,” she said. “There is some structure to it, as well as a lot flexibility.”

One structure that Chung never lets slide is her firm belief that the class should be a safe place where kids can let go of any pressures they may feel to be perfect.

“I tell the kids that it takes a lot of courage for them to just walk in the door every week,” Chung said. “I tell them that when they come to my class they come into a room that is nonjudgmental. It is filled with compassionate hearts. These kids understand that and they come together in community.”

An activity that Chung likes to offer for class participants is a word game. She writes a number of “feeling words,” like “happy,” “content,” “concerned,” “proud,” “ashamed,” “tense,” on pieces of paper.

“I put the words in a pile in the middle of the room and then I ask the kids to pick the feelings that they are currently experiencing,” Chung said. “Then I have them pick feelings that they’d like to feel in the future and the feelings they’d like to let go of. We work intentionally on finding ways to allow the kids to let go of those feelings.”

During the class, Chung teaches the teens about cultivating self-care, learning to fully experience and appreciate the good things in their lives: “We work on emphasizing gratitude and developing a gratitude practice, like writing down three things each day that they are grateful about, big or small.”

For teens only

This class is for the teens only, Chung said. While she keeps parents abreast of what’s been discussed though weekly emails, she works to respect and extend the safe space that the teens have created for themselves. “I want to be respectful of the participants and what they are comfortable talking about,” she said. “It is their experience and theirs alone.” 

Each week, the class goes “super fast,” Chung said. By the end of the eight weeks, students often linger longer than the allotted 90 minutes. Chung appreciates that impulse and stays with them until the last student leaves.

“I gain as much from the experience of being with the teens as they do from me,” Chung said. “What I teach them is not rocket science. Mindfulness practice is a tool that exists within their own tool belt that they can learn to access for themselves. In this class, participants learn that they have the power within themselves to quiet their mind and their body. It doesn’t actually take that much effort, but it definitely does take practice.”

The next session of “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Teens” begins Jan. 7 and will run for eight Sundays from 4-5:30 pm. For more information, go to livebalancedlives.com

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