Focusing on the self

In harmony with herself

What can students learn from slowing down and taking a deeper look inside themselves?

Story by Michael L. Jackson

The pressure facing today’s high school students to succeed has never been greater. But how do students stop and say no to additional stress from time to time? And what are the benefits of doing so?

“I think there’s more pressure on teens than there ever has been,” says Delma Mindel, an Indiana-based licensed family therapist who helps teens overcome anxiety and other disorders. “Whether it’s at school, at home or with their friends, it’s not easy to get teens to slow down.”

Slowing down, however, may be just what is needed for today’s high school students to achieve greater balance and clarity in their daily lives.

Mindel has been practicing for more than two decades. She works with teens to teach them the art of mindfulness-based stress reduction.

As your anxiety levels rise, the body begins to create a slew of stress chemicals—cortisol and adrenaline, chief among them. When you meditate, Mindel says, you begin to create new neuro-pathways in the brain that produce healing chemicals—dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. In layman’s terms, these chemicals soothe the mind and body.

“There’s more than 30 years’ worth of research on the efficacy and helpfulness of mindfulness meditation on changing the brain, changing behavior, moods and well-being,” Mindel says.

Michael London, a certified academic life coach for teens who teaches meditation as part of his practice, recommends that students start small when it comes to mindfulness-based relaxation—twice per day for no more than five minutes. The key to quieting a restless mind, he says, is to concentrate on one object at a time, making sure that the focus is based inward instead of outward.

He describes the process as circular. You begin by concentrating on the breath, which calms the mind. Calming the mind in turn further quiets the breath, leading to even deeper concentration and calmness. London cautions that it’s not pleasant when first learning the art of meditation, but consistent practice eventually creates a desire not only to do it every day, but also to do it for longer periods of time.

“Meditation is for anyone,” London says. “The younger the practice is instilled, the more benefits you’ll be able to reap from it. To have this tool at such a young age can prevent years of anxiety and stress.

“Meditation is a thing that teens need to have more of in their life if they’re searching within,” he added. “It’s the perfect thing to help them dig deeper and learn about themselves a little more.”

In addition to meditation, one way to begin reducing anxiety and stress is to stop focusing so much on merely what you want to do, and instead focus on who you want to be.

Hayden Lee, a colleague of London’s and also a certified academic life coach for teenagers, says it is especially important for teens to take the time to be deliberate with silence and calmness. But according to him, there is also a huge gap between what students are learning in schools and the skills that are actually needed to be successful in life. In his practice, Lee helps teens become critical thinkers and teaches them the art of self-awareness, how to identify value in their lives, how to be flexible, resilient and adaptable, and perhaps most importantly, the value of empathy for others and gratitude.

“There is an opportunity to really tap in and learn about yourself early in life, and then use that as a benefit for the rest of your life.”

Teenagers, London says, need to be intentional in taking the time to be quiet and reflect, and to think more critically about what they want in their lives. What are their goals? And what personal characteristics does it take to achieve them?

“I work with college counselors all the time and students miss the mark quite often because they’re thinking about the checklist but they’re not thinking about the characteristics and qualities that it takes in a person to achieve that to-do list,” London says. “They’re focusing on things that are out of their control instead of focusing on the things that they can control.”

It is in those moments of meditation and quietly reflecting on that which they can control that London says “there is an opportunity to really tap in and learn about yourself early in life, and then use that as a benefit for the rest of your life.”

Taking the time not only to learn those skills while in high school, but to incorporate them into their daily routines can be very impactful on students once they graduate. High school students benefit daily from the rigidity of scheduling. Classes, lunches, study halls, and before- or after-school activities are scheduled in block fashion.

“High school students benefit from structure,” says Lela Mixon, director of the Center for Advising and Student Achievement at the University of Indianapolis. “They’re usually not as successful juggling as many things in college, due simply to the fact that they’re now responsible for juggling their own time.”

Mixon agrees with Lee that high school students tend to be more externally focused on what makes them look good on their high school résumé or college application. She says what’s more important is taking a more internal and intrinsic focus, and asking several key questions:

  • Who am I?
  • What motivates me?
  • What are my interests?
  • What impact do I want to have on the world?

Answering those questions becomes easier through the art of mindfulness and meditation, London says.

“When you get to these really deep levels of concentration and let go, there’s a lot to be gained,” he says. “You begin raising your self-awareness and start uncovering a deeper connection to yourself. Mediation is not a problem solver, but a tool to help you solve your problems. It aligns you with your purpose, and there’s a lot to be gained from that.”

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