Reflections on Difficult Times and How Mindfulness Can Help

The last 6 months have been difficult for my family and me. In fact, I can’t recall another period in my life in which I felt so overwhelmed, depleted, and discouraged. Thankfully, the worst of it has past. I’ve since had time to reflect on this period and, in particular, how my mindfulness practice helped me cope. While much of what follows is an account of my personal experience, I believe the value of the practice as it is applied here is universal.

I’ll try to get you up to speed on what happened without boring you to death with the minutiae of my “first-world” problems: My wife and I live with our 2 little kids (M, 4 years old & G, 1.5 years old) in a condo in Montreal. Last spring, we discovered a significant mould infestation in our basement. The problem was so bad that it was compromising the structural integrity of our kitchen and bathroom floors (we were lucky the floor didn’t caved in while M & G were in the bath) and poisoning the air quality in our home. Imagine: G had been breathing this toxic air since she came home from the hospital at 2 days old! The upshot was that we had to: move out; hire specialists to decontaminate the crawlspace; rip out the floors; dig up our yard to fix the water infiltration problem; and then rebuild and refinish everything. To make matters worse, we had to pursue 3 separate lawsuits if we wanted to recoup the 6-figure costs of the job.

In the middle of all of this, I got some devastating news from my mother: her cancer relapsed. It had been under control for 3 years thanks to an amazing new drug, but sadly, the disease had progressed and the drug was no longer effective. We didn’t know how much longer she had to live.

I have learned over the years that when I’m processing emotion or feeling overwhelmed, the primary symptom is irritability. I am easily frustrated by minor setbacks and impatient with people around me. What I lived over the summer was the perfect storm of triggers for me in my vulnerable state: we moved in and out of 6 different homes, supported our children through the change, managed the financial burden of all the work on our home, had countless meetings with contractors and lawyers, all while having to process this troubling news about my mother’s health.

Because we moved around a lot over the summer, it was tough to keep track of our stuff. I’d go to the bathroom to shave before work, only to realize I’d left my shaving stuff in another bag at home; my daughter wanted to sleep with her 2nd favorite stuffed animal, but that one was in storage; my wife wants to charge her iPhone, but I forgot to pack it at the other apartment. On and on like this for 3 months. And each each of these little frustrations would infuriate me. I would tighten up, growl inside, and think (over and over again) “This is so irritating! I can’t deal with all this frustration! I can’t believe I have to buy yet another iPhone charger!” As you can imagine, my head was not a fun place to be.

In one of my more acute moments of discouragement, it occurred to me that the magnitude of these challenges superseded my capacity to practice and cope with them. So I looked for inspiration from Pema Chodron, whose books had helped me through difficult times in the past. I picked up Living Comfortably with Uncertainty and Change and was reminded of one of her most compelling theses: that moments of difficulty offer the best opportunities to deepen insight and wisdom.

According to Pema, when things don’t go according to plan – when things fall apart to use her phrase – we typically react with some form of resistance such as frustration, disappointment, sadness, or indignation. We are attached to having things the way we want them and all of these reactions involve emotionally doubling-down on the plans that have not worked out.

When things don’t go according to plan, we typically react with some form of resistance such as frustration, disappointment, sadness, or indignation

Rather than tightening our grip on what has already slipped away, Pema invites us to let go and relax into the “fundamental groundlessness of being.” That phrase is fancy spiritual jargon referring to the impermanent and unsatisfying nature of reality. The fact is that my desire to have my “stuff” in order is bound to be unsatisfied because “stuff” invariably falls out of order again. iPhone chargers get lost and found; the soothing presence of stuffed animals comes and goes; apartments floors rot and get rebuilt; relationships fall apart and come together; even human life itself arises and passes. So as long as we are attached to having things a certain way, we will inevitably experience that dissatisfaction. In Buddhism, this is called dukkha.

Most of us, myself included, can’t really help it. Our brains evolved to make us feel more at ease in familiar environments that are predictable and under control. It requires more effort and energy to adapt to novel, unpredictable circumstances – and who knows what unknown threats lurk in the disorder? So adaptation to change is often accompanied by stress, anxiety, and depletion. Stretching beyond our evolutionary heritage and working skillfully with dukkha requires significant practice.

According to Pema, we can open up and ease into moments of frustration and stress. This practice begins with mindfulness. The idea is to drop into the moment-by-moment unfolding of an awareness that is not hooked or shaped by our preferences or judgements. The resistance itself can be used as an invitation to shift into openness and curiosity. In my case, that refers to the tightness in neck and shoulders, accelerating frustrated feeling, and racing thoughts about how my circumstances. Any of these elements could serve as a cue to stop and say “wow, resistance is here; let’s see what this is like.” At one level, this attitude disrupts the automatic habitual reactions of irritation and rumination and makes it possible to relate to the moment differently, such as with kindness and self-compassion. At a deeper level, it also opens the door to the experiential insight of impermanence, a deep and clear understanding that conditions change and sustainable well-being arises from a willingness to accept and work with what shows up.

We can open up and ease into moments of frustration and stress. This practice begins with mindfulness.

Of course, a lot of repetition and deliberate practice is required to move from a momentary insight to new way of being. And I have to admit I did fail to make this shift more often than I succeeded. But I do have one interesting experience to share.

One morning in the middle of the summer, I took my daughters out for a walk so my wife could catch up on sleep. The weather was lousy, but it hadn’t started raining yet and the kids needed to get out. So we went and had a reasonably good time. On the way back, the whining started: “I’m huuunnngry. I’m tiiiiirred. I don’t want to walk anymore, etc.” Shorty after that, it started pouring rain (obviously) and the whining escalated to crying.  Somehow, despite headache, fatigue, and own wet clothes, I managed to not react. I didn’t say or do anything except observe the moment unfolding. To be clear, this wasn’t an act of suppression or self-deception; there were simply no other “strategies” available to me aside from letting go of my preferences and working with what was present. After a minute or 2, the kids calmed down and walked along quietly. Then, the rain actually let up. And as we approached our home, I noticed a feeling of peaceful gratitude set in as the beauty of my surroundings registered, as well as a sense that everything was going to be ok.

For a brief moment I was attuned to the “fundamental groundlessness of being.” And as hard and complicated as that sounds, it actually involved little effort or technique – just slowing down and tuning in. So here is your invitation to try relaxing into those moments (big or small) when you’re feeling stuck in reactivity. It may help bring back intentionality and a deeper appreciation of impermanence.

Photo by Michael Dam on Unsplash

 

Managing Back-to-School Stress during the COVID-19 pandemic

Back-to-school stress is a normal occurrence for most children. But this year’s coronavirus outbreak has led to increased anxiety around this already stressful time of year. Here are some tips to help your child or teen manage some of the changes they will encounter this year and the complicated emotions they will face now that they are back at school.

Promote self-care & practice relaxation activities

Self-care is an important part of wellness. Encourage your child to engage in activities that promote self-care and relaxation on a daily basis. It’s important to note that sometimes children may need to take time to discover what activities help them feel good and recharge. So, encourage them to try a variety of activities. Some self-care activity examples include; writing in a journal, colouring/drawing, taking space to listen/dance to music, meditation, watching a movie or reading a book, and keeping active. Relaxation exercises that are important to promote include; deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, or grounding exercises. You can find many guided relaxation activities online or through mobile applications. And don’t forget! Parents need self-care too! Make sure to also create them to engage in your own self-care activities.

Avoid second-hand anxiety

Children and teens are extremely in sync with their parents’ well-being. If you are anxious and make a lot of statements of worry, then most likely your child will pick-up on that anxiety and emulate it. It’s important that parents have a space to express their worries and vent but try as much as possible to do so behind closed doors.

Have open and age-appropriate conversations

Youth are aware that a virus exists, and it has had an impact on their life and school environment. It is important to have an honest, age appropriate discussion with your family about what is happening, procedures that the school is implementing, and how they can help and stay healthy. Not talking about it may cause more anxiety in your child. Begin by finding out what your child(ren) know about the current situation, what they understand, and what information needs to be corrected. In an age appropriate way, answer any questions they may have. It’s ok to say when you do not know something. Tell them you will do some research to find out and get back to them. Its also ok to acknowledge that the situation is stressful for both you and them.

Validate emotions

This is a difficult time for everyone. It’s important to have conversations with your child about their emotions, encourage a space for them to talk, and ask specific questions about their feelings around starting school. For example; you can ask a younger child what they miss/don’t miss about being in school? What they are worried about/excited about in going back to school? You can provide younger children with a fun activity, like colouring, to introduce the topic and keep the conversation flowing. Its also important that when your child/teen is talking about their emotions you don’t go into “problem-solving” mode right away. First step is always to validate how they are feeling. For example, “I can see that you’re feeling X, that’s normal. It’s a difficult time right now.” Help your child with labeling their emotions if you see they are having a hard time identifying how they feel. Finally, try to avoid minimizing how they are feeling (e.g., “just tough it out”), but validate that what they are experiencing is normal in the given situation (e.g., “It’s normal to feel upset when our whole routine is changed, many people are feeling the same way right now”).

Involve students in decisions

Children and teens have very little in their control when it comes to how the school is going to function. Having them involved in some decisions (especially for teens) is very important. Feeling some sense of control helps decrease high stress and difficult emotions. Letting your child choose the colour/design of their mask, having them choose their lunches, or providing choices for social activities are easy ways to provide choices and include your child in the decision-making process.

Equip students with situational knowledge

Talk to your child about the protocols currently in place at the school to keep them safe and the strategies they can take to help maintain that safety. It’s important that your child understands how to properly wash their hands (and to wash hands often), what physical distancing means, and how they can implement it at school. There are many YouTube videos that demonstrate the proper way to wash your hands and the benefits of washing hands regularly. Further, with younger children it might also be helpful to role play scenarios that they might encounter at school.

Monitor media consumption

There is a tremendous amount of information being shared on social media, television, YouTube, etc., that is not always accurate. Further, constantly watching the news and consuming COVID-19 updates and stories can significantly increase anxiety and stress. It’s not only important to monitor your child’s media consumption for accuracy, clarify any new information they receive, but also limit the amount of virus-related media they are consuming.

Keep a routine

Although school protocols and procedures may feel like they are constantly changing, it helps to gain some resemblance of normalcy by controlling the aspects one can control. A routine can help in providing this sense of normalcy and control during the pandemic. Creating transition routines for after school activities like washing their hands when the enter the house, changing their clothes, and engaging in a self-care or relaxation activity can help alleviate anxiety.

Maintain a regular sleep schedule

Sleep is essential for many reasons including managing stress, anxiety, and promoting general psychological well-being. Some simple and important sleep hygiene strategies include, keeping a consistent sleep schedule (wake-up and bedtime), schedule your “ideal” amount of sleep hours, limit napping (especially late in the afternoon), reduce electronic use at least 1-2 hours before bed, make the bed a sleep-only zone (i.e., no homework done in bed!), develop a relaxing bedtime routine that can be followed each night, and avoid substances that can interfere with sleep (e.g., caffeinated drinks and foods).

Organize time with friends

Finally, in some school’s students are being separated into classrooms or “pods” that do not change throughout the day. If your child is not in a group with their friends, it is important to organize regular and scheduled physically distant activities and social time outside of schoolSocialization and friendships are extremely important to child and adolescent development and it will help in decreasing your child’s anxiety to know that they will not be missing out on spending time with their friends.

If your child is experience very high levels of stress or anxiety you can also seek professional services which are available in both the private and public sectors.

For additional information on the Quebec back-to-school protocols currently in place visit:

https://cdn-contenu.quebec.ca/cdn-contenu/adm/min/education/publications-adm/covid-19/plan-rentree-2020-en.pdf?1598463227 – English

https://cdn-contenu.quebec.ca/cdn-contenu/adm/min/education/publications-adm/covid-19/plan-rentree-2020.pdf?1597860080 – French

Episode 12: The Science of Stress and Stress Reduction with Professor Sonia Lupien

 

“Stress is a friend, but it can become an enemy if you don’t take care of it.” – Professor

Sonia Lupien

This episode of the Numinus Podcast is dedicated to Bell Let’s Talk day, January 30th, 2019. Please share this post on social media (see instructions below) to contribute to mental health initiatives focusing on anti-stigma, care and access, research, and workplace health.

In this episode, Dr. Joe talks with professor Sonia Lupien. Sonia is a Full Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Montreal. She is also the Founder and Director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress. Sonia is a highly prolific research scientist, with dozens of publications in some of the top journals in her field.

In recent years though she has directed some of this ambition to making her scientific discoveries more accessible to the public. For example, she set up a website to explain all of her lab’s findings in accessible language. She published Par Amour du Stress (the english version is called Well Stressed). And she appears regularly on local radio and TV. She also recently released a stress management iPhone app called iS.M.A.R.T., which was funded by Bell Let’s Talk.

Sonia was generous enough to share with us one of her worksheets from her DeStress for Success program. You can download it here. It’ll come in handy during the podcast.

In this episode, Sonia and Joe discussed:

To help support the Bell Let’s Talk campaign please share this episode on social media. And if you want to support the Bell Let’s Talk campaign directly in other ways, on January 30th, Bell will donate 5 cents for the following actions:

  1. Twitter: Every tweet and retweet using #BellLetsTalk and every Bell Let’s Talk video view on their Twitter page
  2. Facebook: Every use of the Bell Let’s Talk Facebook frame or every Bell Let’s Talk video view on their Facebook page
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  4. Snapchat: Every snap sent using the Bell Let’s Talk filter or every Bell Let’s Talk video view
  5. Texts and Phone Calls: Every mobile and long distance call and text made by Bell Canada

And finally, if you are struggling with stress in any way, please feel free to reach out to Numinus for information on our therapies, mindfulness trainings, and workplace programs at numinus.com.

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Here are some highlights of the conversation with Sonia:

On the Stress Mindset

“There is as much positive effects of stress and cortisol than there are negative.”

One of the things that I talk to my clients quite a bit about is the mindset about stress. There was a large epidemiological study in the US with tens of thousands of participants that followed them for many years. One of the significant predictors of early mortality was a belief about stress. That stress is bad.

The implication was that if you’re able to view stress in your life that it makes for a positive thing, you’re going to be much more adapted for modern life. Do you buy that?

“I do.

Crum was the first person to talk about stress mindset. He did a study where he split people on the basis of their stress mindset.

A lot of people have a negative stress mindset. So they think that stress is always bad. It decreases performance, it makes you sick etc. But you have some people that have positive stress mindsets. They say, ‘You know. Stress is good for performance.’

He took people like this and took them to his lab and measured stress hormones. He found that those with a negative stress mindset had a much more significant level of cortisol than those who had a positive stress mindset.

Many scientists asked, why do people have a negative stress mindset? I think there are two reasons for this: one, the media, and two, scientists. If you look at the news, everything is negative. Scientists as well, it’s more popular to study negative stuff than to study positive stuff.

The second part of the study of Crum. For a week he presented videos summarizing the positive effects of stress to people who had a negative stress mindset. And he was able to decrease stress hormones in these people. In contrast, he presented videos the toxic effects of stress to people who had positive stress mindsets, and he increased stress hormones.

So basically what we are reading on Instagram, Facebook, the newspaper, whatever it is can a significant impact on our stress. It’s more important than ever to start talking about the positive effects of stress, teaching people about how stress can benefit us.”

. . .

“I’m dreaming of the day where people just know what stress is and understand that acutely it’s positive, chronically it’s negative.”

. . .

“Stress is a friend, but it can become an enemy if you don’t take care of it.”

 

On Social Media

“It is what you read, not necessarily the amount that may have a bad impact on your stress system.”

What is the best way to shift people’s mindsets about stress?

“Social media. Many studies are studying emotional contagion on social media. There was a study where they modified the Facebook newsfeed to present them with more positive news than negative news from the East to the West of the United States. And then for a week, they look at the contagion of the sharing of these posts. They found that when people receive positive news, they are more likely to share positive news and give positive news.

In a study we did, we found that when women read negative news, they are significantly more reactive to stress afterwards. We also measured their memory of the negative news 24 hours later, and the women were remembering 30% more of the negative news.

The next time you read the newspaper, look at the valence, positive or negative, of what you read. 97 percent of it is negative. Always.

So we think that it doesn’t have a negative impact on us because we’re just browsing Facebook or reading the newspaper while drinking a coffee in the morning, it doesn’t have an effect on us. It does have an effect, particularly in women. I don’t know why.

A colleague of mine, a journalist, Laurent Imbault, decided to create a website just for positive news. And if you feel bad in the morning, just go read this, and tell me how you feel. It’s amazing. It’s called Goodness TV.”

. . .

“One day someone will raise the point that the media has a public health effect that

costs a lot of money. And I hope that one day someone will calculate how much it

costs.”

 

On Decreasing Stress

“The brain is a superb machine of adaptation.”

What are the determinants of stress? What makes you produce stress hormones?

“What are the determinants of stress? I told you when your brain detects a threat, it produces stress hormones and these stress hormones. But the question is, what makes you produce stress hormones? What are the determinants of a stress response?

The first distinction that we make is between an absolute and relative stressor. An absolute stressor is a real threat to your survival. We don’t have a lot of absolute stressors these because we’re in a very wealthy, educated, and healthy society. Yet the World Health Organization predicts depression related to chronic stress will be the second cause of invalidity after cardiovascular disorders which are related to stress as well. We have a problem.

This is where scientists have discovered that we’re suffering not because we’re surrounded by absolute stressors, but by relative stressors. Scientists have found that there are four characteristics of a situation that will induce this physiological stress response. I challenge your audience to find a stressful situation that cannot be defined by at least one of these characteristics.

NUTS

Novelty

Unpredictability

Threatening to the ego

Sense of low control

Each time your brain is exposed to one or more of these four characteristics, you will produce a stress response. Stress. Don’t go NUTS.

We teach people the NUTS characteristics to help people deconstruct stressful situations. For example, Sarah stresses me out at work. Is it because she is novel? Is it because she’s unpredictable? Etc. Then we help people make sense of their stressor. And when you make sense of a stressor, you produce less hormones.”

Can you unpack that a little bit? What does it mean to make sense of a stressor?

“When you have a stressful situation, the best way to deal with it is to first deconstruct it. We give kids homework. So we say, ‘For a week, you’re going to write down all of the situations you find stressful.’ ‘I got into a conflict with my mom.’ ‘I got into a fight with my brother.’

You’re going to draw a little grid. And on the grid, you’re going to put the four letters of stress N. U. T. S. And for each of the situations you’re going to put a little X for any of the characteristics that explain this stressor. For example, I got into a fight with my brother. Was it novel? ‘No, I always fight with my brother.’ Was it unpredictable? ‘Yes. This time it was.’ Was it threatening to your ego? ‘Yes, I lost.’ Did you have control over the situation. ‘No, I didn’t have the feeling I had control.’

Now you know why this particular situation was stressful for you. A well defined problem is a problem almost solved.

Once you have deconstructed your stressor, you will reconstruct your stressor. You have to give the feeling of control of the situation to your brain because that way you’ll have less stress hormones. This situation was stressful because it was unpredictable. So what can I do to make it more predictable? Find a plan A, a plan B, a plan C, a plan D.

What you have to understand is that 90% of people will never put into action their plan B. I don’t care because study show that when you have a stressor, if you bring to your consciousness your plan B that you had to deal with it, this mere idea will significantly decrease the stress hormones because it gives the sense of control to your brain to stop producing these stress hormones.

Having a plan restores a sense of control.

On Mindfulness Being Mandatory in the Classroom

“You have to let the child do whatever they want to do, when they want to do it. I remember when I said this to the school director, she looked at me and she said, ‘Madame Lupien, it doesn’t make sense. They are seven years old. They cannot choose.’

I said, ‘On the contrary, kids are much better than adults to do what they need to do to reduce their stress response.’ Follow your intuition. I think that the problem we have so far is that everybody is looking outside of them for universal solutions to deal with stress.

Your body has everything it needs to deal with stress. Think about it. If it didn’t, we would be dead. We would have never survived to mammoths for example. We have inside of us what we need. So follow your intuition. One week it can be something. Next week, it can be something else.”

Advice to Parents

“Each time I give a conference to parents, I say in the beginning, ‘If you really want to help your child, don’t talk to me about stress in your children. They’re quite good at dealing with it because they follow their intuition. If you really want to help your children to deal with stress, start by decreasing your own.”

On Negative Emotions

“How long does an emotion last? Most people think that when they have a negative emotion, it will last forever. Then they start freaking out and ruminating and then it increases the stress hormones.

Studies show that the worst emotion you can have lasts a maximum of 48 hours. Sometimes–if you’re not depressed–the best thing to do is to do nothing because it’s the same as pain. Pain is not fun, right? But why does pain exist? Because it tells your brain, take out your hand from the oven. It’s hot. When you burn yourself, what do you do? You cut your hand? No. You wait for it to go away.

Why don’t we do this for emotions? For many people when they have a negative emotion, it’s as if they have a hot potato in their hand. They don’t know what to do with it. They have to get rid of it. And exchange it for a positive emotion, and they’re ready to give up the dog, divorce, and sell the house.

Just know that most of the time, a negative emotion–sadness is the longest emotion, shame is the shortest with 30 minutes–so if you know that the longest emotion is sadness, and it lasts usually 48 hours, sometimes just doing nothing, naming it, and it goes away. Don’t you think it’s amazing information to give people?”

Last Thoughts

“Your body is an amazing machine to deal with stress. Follow your intuition.”

Ted-Ed Video: How Stress Affects Your Brain

Stress. Everyone is talking about it and trying to find ways to remove the negative affects of it from our lives. But do we really know how harmful chronic stress is on our physical and mental well being?

This Ted-Ed video explains how long term stress can not only make an impact on your brain’s functioning but even damage your dna. Pretty scary stuff but not to worry there is an answer to dealing with the stress that is accumulated in our day to day lives and even reverse some of the damage done.

It is mindfulness.

Dr. Joe talks to Leslie Roberts about Childhood Stress

Leslie Roberts: The headline reads: “How Childhood stress can knock 20 years off your life.” When we talk about childhood stress, we’re not talking about the most extreme, we’re talking about probably things that happen at your house and back in the day we didn’t realize what parents were doing to their kids, and I would say you know as I always do, parents do the best they can with the tools they have but a lot of toolkits were missing a few tools and as a result kids had some childhood experiences that could be affecting them later on into adulthood and I think that’s a conversation we have to have because a) you could have it and not know it and it could answer some of the questions about why you are the way you are why you react the way you do and b) there is something you can do about it. I want to bring in Dr Joe Flanders, Founder and Director of the Numinus Clinic. Joe- this is something new to the general public but it’s something that in your field you have probably followed for years.

Dr Joe Flanders: Sure, ya. Myself and my team here at Numinus do work with children, supporting them, working through the kinds of issues you just described and also helping adults process these types of challenges looking back and making peace with the challenges they face as adults that are the downstream consequences of what they experienced as children so yes this is something we see on a regular basis.

Leslie Roberts: It’s becoming more mainstream, more people becoming more aware of this as we go down that stream of self-help. I hate to use that term because a lot of people roll their eyes but I think we can all benefit from it.

Dr Joe Flanders: Yes, so self-help has this sort of bad reputation because I think anyways that a lot of books out there fall into the self-help genre and in many cases its superficial, pop-psychology, and you know, many people can benefit from some of the ideas in there but it is important to distinguish it from good solid evidence based tools for helping people cope with these types of challenges.

Teen Stress

Everyone’s familiar with adult stress: among other sources, adults can face family stress, work stress, financial stress, and health stress. But adults aren’t the only ones suffering from this pervasive mental health problem: teenagers are also reporting increasing levels of stress.

“Teens are stressed for the same reasons grown-ups are stressed,” explained Numinus Clinic psychologist Dr. Robin Moszkowski. “There are a lot of academic expectations, with tons of homework, as well as projects and tests to study for. Plus, teens have tons of extracurricular activities and responsibilities, with little down-time.” “Stress in teenagers is a growing concern,” added Numinus Clinic director Dr. Joe Flanders, who also works with teens.

In a recent study, Dr. Nancy Heath and her research team in the McGill Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology asked over 900 grade seven students to identify the causes of stress in their lives.

The two primary culprits were academic difficulties (33%) and conflict with parents/family (31%), followed by conflict with peers (21%) and conflict between parents (14%). Flanders added “Teens’ constant connectivity via social media and cell phones doesn’t help. Constant texting, Facebook use, etc. increases overall arousal, adding to the feeling of stress.”

Alarmingly, when asked how they cope with stressors, some students reported adaptive strategies like listening to music, playing sports, or seeking someone to talk to, but others reported maladaptive coping strategies such as substance use, non-suicidal self-injury (e.g., cutting), risky sexual behaviours, and excessive video game use. According to Flanders, many stressed teens also develop issues surrounding eating and body image.

Armed with these statistics, Heath and PhD student Amy Shapiro developed the StressOFF Strategies program, a brief one-time stress management intervention for teens. StressOFF was offered to grade nine students at fifteen Montreal schools.

The goals were to increase teens’ awareness of stress and stress management, and to teach teens adaptive long-term strategies for decreasing stress.

In addition to relaxation training and psychoeducation about lifestyle choices (e.g., diet, sleep) and support-seeking, StressOFF focused on cognitive-behavioural and mindfulness interventions.

Shapiro explained why the research team drew from both styles of intervention. “While CBT endorses engaging with negative thoughts to change them to more helpful thoughts, mindfulness encourages teens to distance themselves from negative thoughts and feelings.” She added, “Teens learn to recognize and accept painful thoughts and emotions for what they are: little bits and pieces of language/sensations.”

In the CBT component of the program, teens were taught to challenge negative thoughts like “I’m a complete failure” by taking a deep breath and considering how they would respond to a friend who articulated that thought (e.g., “You failed one exam, it’s exaggerating to call yourself a complete failure.”)

In the mindfulness component, students were taught to observe the present moment without judging. They practiced tuning into their five senses (the feeling of the chair beneath them, sounds in the environment) and practiced focusing on their breath without trying to change or control it.

Why include both mindfulness and CBT? Shapiro explained: “Mindfulness is a technique that students can use in a stressful situation where they don’t have time to challenge the negative thought (e.g., during an exam) or when the thought can’t be challenged because it’s true (e.g., I wasn’t invited to the party).”

The StressOFF program was well received by students: 86% of participants reported that they learned “medium” to “a lot” about stress and stress management.

Of participants who had reported needing stress management strategies prior to the intervention, most reported that they would use the CBT and mindfulness strategies taught in the StressOFF program.

The emergence of this type of intervention for teenagers in encouraging and timely. Two-thirds of the teenagers who participated in the StressOFF program reported minimal knowledge about stress and stress management, and under 20% reported having received formal instruction in stress management by parents, teachers, or mental health professionals.

The results of the StressOFF program demonstrate that you don’t have to be an adult to experience considerable stress. And fortunately, you don’t have to be an adult to benefit from group or individual stress management training.

Numinus Clinic psychologist Moszkowski added: “Working with teens, I help them to become aware of the causes of their stress, and the thoughts and feelings they have surrounding their stress. Then, I help them to develop the right tools to cope with stress, such as relaxation training or mindfulness.”