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How mindfulness can help us overcome stress

Written by Danielle Atherton on 16th April, 2020

Such is life, your students will face any number of issues in one day, and enough to sprout more than a few grey hairs within a week- these can range from interpersonal relationship issues, problems in the home and exam stress. It goes without saying that any sort of distraction has an inevitable knock-on effect on concentration in the classroom.  

In fact, in a sample of Finnish students aged 13–17, self-reported mental health issues were associated with concentration difficulties, poorer academic performance, and worse reading and writing outcomes (Fröjd et al., 2008).

As someone who studied neuroscience at University, over the years I have become increasingly fascinated with hormones, neurotransmitters and the ways in which physiology can profoundly alter human psychology.


Why does stress affect the body so strongly?

In part, we have the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis to thank for this.

This is a component of the brain that is known as a neuroendocrine unit, comprised of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands.

For our purposes, we just need to know that this is the physiological system that stimulates and coordinates our stress response.

Throughout our day we are exposed to ‘stressors’ – a stressor is anything that deviates from the norm, if there is one in the current climate. These can be things like:

  • Exams.
  • Changes in social dynamics – friendship group shifts, arguments with siblings, parental problems.
  • Employment and money worries.

When you are exposed to stressors, the adrenal cortex releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol for several hours the handy biological purpose of this is to facilitate the widely acknowledged fight or flight response, allowing an escape from the perceived danger.

Not-so-usefully, it is also widely agreed that the long-term activation of this system, and the subsequent over-exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones, can put the body at risk of many issues. These include headaches, sleep disturbances and memory & concentration impairment. 

This doesn’t just affect students. It would explain why, as an educational professional, there have been countless occasions of you holding your head in pain with one hand, while simultaneously marking work with the other… although it can often be a fruitless endeavour regardless, as your brain simply doesn’t want to work as it should.


Stress and mindfulness

It’s SO important to find a way to cope with life’s stressors, whether you are a teacher or student – I present to you: mindfulness.

To be mindful is to be aware of your own thoughts and feelings, being present in the moment, without becoming overwhelmed by the reality of the situation you are facing; you can acknowledge that you made a mistake, or that something is very sad, but do not allow that something to envelop your day.

Participants in the study were tested in two contexts while undergoing brain imaging scans -- one for assessing response to physical pain induced by applying high heat to the forearm and another for gauging their response when presented with negative images.

Research conducted at Yale University (2020) revealed that merely an introduction to mindfulness helps people deal with negative emotions and even physical pain. Participants were tested in two contexts while undergoing brain imaging scans; one for assessing the response to physical pain and another for gauging the response when presented with negative images. Both found significant positive differences in brain signalling pathways when participants employed mindfulness techniques.


How can we use mindfulness to overcome stress?

So, mindfulness is a powerful tool that can allow us to improve emotional regulation and cognitive focus in children – but how?

Experts suggest that the best way to present mindfulness to a child can be summed up in three words: keep it simple. Mindfulness sounds confusing and complex to a young child, so you can introduce it as being aware of their surroundings.

Pair this with understanding your own mindfulness, aided by the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS), and use your knowledge to teach about its importance.

Below, I’ve included a link to “8 ways to teach mindfulness to kids” – this article is written by The Huffington Post, and should give you plenty of ways to educate, engage and enlighten.

huffpost.com/entry/8-ways-to-teach-mindfulness-to-kids

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