Illustration by Dung Hoang
Story by Maryalice Yakutchik
“Inhale it back!” instructs James, a fifth-grader leading his classmates in yoga postures.
On hands and knees while stretching his polo-and-plaid-clad torso, James pauses.
The next few seconds are positively breathless—and possibly transcendent. In withering afternoon heat, a dozen gangly kids perched catlike on purple mats unfurled atop the scuffed gym floor of a city school are calm and focused, respectful and balanced, belying the fact that all are teetering on the impulsive cusp of adolescence.
“Exhale it forward!”
Tamar Mendelson is breathing easy these days, having just been awarded a three-year $775,000 grant (with collaborator Mark Greenberg at Penn State University) to continue investigating the effects of a school-based mindfulness intervention involving yoga-based movement, much like the one James is now involved in. Ever since the Mental Health assistant professor reported positive results from a small stress reduction intervention in four Baltimore city schools, Mendelson has been gearing up for a more comprehensive study involving 270 fifth- and sixth-graders in six schools. Now, with new funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, that effort begins in earnest.
Her aim is to replicate data from the pilot study of 97 youth that showed mindfulness practices significantly reduced stress responses such as intrusive thoughts and emotional arousal. In addition, Mendelson will track long-term intervention effects by examining academic performance, neurocognitive abilities and other outcomes.
Mendelson, PhD, suggests the intervention (developed by Baltimore’s Holistic Life Foundation, Inc.) could serve as a much-needed buffer against not only the “normal” developmental stress of adolescence but also the traumatically chronic kind that weighs on kids from the inner city. In more affluent areas, privileged kids have their own stressors (and many more resources to cope with them). Regardless of locale, the fact remains: Adolescence is a badlands of stress.
The route from childhood to adulthood traverses complicated, often uncharted territory replete with slick slopes of emotion, hoodoos of hormones, and flash floods of physical and contextual changes, all of which demand risk taking and reward sensation seeking. Natural physiological changes necessarily drive young people toward new experiences —remember your first kiss? first car crash?—that are inherently stressful.
Emerging evidence from the field of neuroimaging and elsewhere has convinced a dozen or so Bloomberg School researchers that adolescence is an inordinately rich time to wrestle stress to the mat to reveal its underlying mechanisms—and perhaps the opportune moment to intervene.
“When you shape the coping skills of young adolescents, you can have a distal effect because you’re intervening fairly early in the trajectory of lifespan development,” says Mendelson. “You might expect lots of bang for the buck if you improve their ability to regulate emotions and thoughts. It could have major public health significance if kids stay in school longer, if they are less violent and rely less on drugs and alcohol to cope.”
Most traditional interventions involve educating adolescents about things they already know, according to Jay Giedd, chief of Brain Imaging at the Child Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health, and an adjunct professor in Population, Family and Reproductive Health (PFRH) at the Bloomberg School.
Adolescents are adept at what Giedd calls “cold cognition.” In a neutral environment like a classroom or the family dinner table, cold cognition allows them to explain all the reasons it’s important to wear a helmet when skateboarding and a seatbelt when driving; enables them to convince parents that they understand perfectly the perils of binge drinking and popping prescription painkillers. However, in the real world—in the context of high-emotion, peer-pressure situations—adolescents don’t take time to weigh consequences and calculate risk, Giedd says. “Hot cognition,” an entirely separate decision-making mechanism, isn’t altogether online yet. Lacking “hot cognition,” they just do it. They go. It’s how they’re built—like Ferraris, but without the brakes hooked up. The adolescent brain accelerates so smoothly—so naturally and magnificently—that not flooring it is the aberration.
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