2020 has been a year like none of us has experienced before. With COVID-19 taking over the world, claiming thousands of lives, shutting down global economies and stopping a whole generation of young people learning, the rates of stress, depression, anxiety and overall poor mental health and emotional wellbeing have been on the increase for months and it’s likely to continue for some time. So what can we do about it? The teaching of mindfulness as part of schools’ PSHE programme would go very far in addressing many of the problems that a lot of students will be coming into this new school year with.
Speaking with friends, family, colleagues and students over the past few months, I’ve noticed a dramatic increase in people’s worry, stress and anxiety. Living in ‘Fight or Flight’ mode creates a continuous state of stress. What this means is that we are releasing cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline into our bodies. And stress over time not only leads to poor physical health and a weakened immune system, it can also lead to longer term mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. The mind/body connection is clear and this is where mindfulness can form part of the solution.
Mindfulness at its essence is the practice of living in the present moment, using our breath as an anchor to bring us back to what is really happening all around us. Fear and anxiety are emotions that rise up in our body, stay for a while and then pass. When we hear frightening stories on the news, these worries, fears and anxieties are easily amplified by the stories we tell ourselves in our mind. And when this happens, our bodies respond with the ‘Fight of Flight’ response, which is not a productive or healthy place to reside.
Various studies throughout the past ten years have shown that practising regular mindfulness is linked to a decrease in stress in both adults and children. By sitting in silence, and being aware of the sounds, smells, sensations, thoughts and feelings we’re experiencing in the present moment, we allow our bodies to enter a parasympathetic, or relaxation mode. And when our bodies are still, we allow ourselves the space and freedom to relax, unwind and turn our thinking brain back into action.
If practiced regularly as part of a PSHE programme in schools, mindfulness can help students lower their levels of stress and anxiety. Focusing on the rise and fall of the breath buffers the noise of news and social media. Life brings with it a lot of noise and distraction but mindfulness can nurture a sense of self-regulation and calm to those who use it, akin to ‘watching the storm’ instead of being in the middle of it. When we meditate, we slowly start to change the neural pathways in our brain. When we agree to sit with ourselves, quietly, taking in whatever is going on around us in THIS moment, we learn to let things come, stay for a while and pass, without judgment, attachment or aversion. And it’s this ‘evenness of mind’, this knowing that all things are transient, this letting go, where we can find true power and freedom. And when we let go of fear or REACT mode, we regain clarity of thought. We reclaim our ability to RESPOND to the world around us with kindness, non-judgement, appreciation and gratitude. And when this happens, a real shift in community is possible. Our relationships with family, friends, work colleagues and community members can all be improved.
Schools have historically been very good at teaching students to use their brain to learn new and wonderful things. It’s time we incorporate mindfulness as part of the school curriculum so that students can use their brain to learn the art of wellbeing.