A culture of stress

Stress has become a larger part of teenagers lives in more recent years, and STA has taken action by hiring psychotherapist Mark McGonigle to teach Mindfulness to students.

April 28, 2016

story by Zoe Butler

There was once a woman who not only had a 4.5 GPA in high school, but acted as the president of virtually every club and an “outstanding” citizen, the type of person about whom people think, “she’s going places.” She was also a secret perfectionist, and once she got a scholarship to a school in the East she only lasted two weeks under the heavy duty classes. She ended up in her parents’ basement, depressed, truly believing her life was ruined.

This woman was a patient of clinical social worker and psychotherapist Mark McGonigle, and she is one of many who suffers from not having the mental strength to deal with pressing stress.

According to the American Psychological Association, teenagers reported stress levels at 5.8 on a 10 point scale, compared to the healthy 3.9 in 2014. The study also states that in more recent years, the number of people dealing with stress is significantly increasing, and while there are many causes for this stress, the main cause is school work. Counselor Amanda Johnson and psychology teacher Ray Hain believe that a majority of stress comes from pressures put on students.

“I believe the main reasons I see most students stressed is pressure to be perfect in every aspect of their lives,” Hain said. “The American culture and education system backed by teachers and parents have often put unrealistic expectations on our children. These expectations are even further internalized and magnified by the individual.”

Students often feel stressed with the amount of work put on them from all aspects of their lives, and the pressure that follows.

“It’s stressful because you can have an amazing grade in a class, but then you have to worry even more about keeping it there,” sophomore Helayna James said. “Or if you have a bad grade, then all your effort is put into bringing that grade up, which makes your other classes suffer. Then you have to add sports, a job, volunteer work and extracurriculars.”

The American culture and education system backed by teachers and parents have often put unrealistic expectations on our children. These expectations are even further internalized and magnified by the individual.”

— psychology teacher Ray Hain

Johnson shares how the internal results of stress actually stem from a chemical process that can be very damaging for the brain and body.

“When we are stressed, there’s a hormone called cortisol that is released in our brain and when that is released at [high] levels because we’re stressed out, that actually causes chemical changes within your body and your brain, and that can be very toxic and dangerous,” Johnson said.

According to Johnson, if this happens over a long period of time, the chemical processes can cause chronic stress, which contributes to anxiety and depression.

These chemical changes are what produce the noticeable changes in our lives when dealing with stress and anxiety, which the American Psychological Association describes as becoming easily agitated, fatigue, inability to focus, low self-esteem and much more.

As more and more people and institutions are recognizing stress as a real problem with students, many are trying to find ways to help students, including STA. This past summer, president Nan Bone, academic principal of affairs Barb McCormick and principal of student affairs Liz Baker met with McGonigle to discuss STA’s future with a “Mindfulness training” program to help students with stress.

Baker, among other reasons, decided to implement the problem because she realized not enough was done in past years to combat severe student stress.

“Initially, I think [STA’s] answer to [stress] was to really beef up the guidance department in their tenure to have a capability of having counseling available on campus,” Baker said. “Then they also worked on formulating that yoga class.”

However, it wasn’t until talking to McGonigle that the administration decided to try out the Mindfulness curriculum.

Founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) Jon Kabit-Zinn, defines Mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.”

“That’s when we decided to initially train teachers first, so we did a teacher’s Mindfulness training retreat, [which] was right before parent teacher conferences in October.” Baker said.

According to McGonigle, STA teachers needed to be taught first so that they could get an understanding of the idea they’re trying to teach. After the retreat, where teachers learned many mindfulness skills, the six week session for students started during activity periods, led again by McGonigle. He has been teaching Mindfulness since 1982, and since he is a therapist, he must approach it through a science based lens.

“Meditation in and of itself is not much different than kind of a workout for your mind to develop inner strength in lots of different ways,” McGonigle said. “So it’s a way to build up the strength of your mind and really adaptability to whatever comes at you in life, because life will come at you.”

By bringing in these sessions, STA and McGonigle are working in conjunction to provide a “safety net” that will internally protect them from suffering the consequences of stress.

photos by Maddy Medina

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McGonigle and the students are using a program called “Learning to Breathe,” based on the novel by Patricia C. Broderick. In the acronym BREATHE, each of the letters represent what that specific session will focus on. The letters standing for body, reflection, emotion, attention, tenderness, habits, and the last ‘E’ standing for empowerment, which is the overall intention.

“It is to empower people to know how to care for themselves, in their mind and in their awareness,” McGonigle said. “It’s kind of a weird notion, but somebody taught you how to wash your hair once, nobody’s ever taught you how to cleanse your mind of stress. So that’s what this is, is cleansing the mind of unneeded stress.”

In the first session, on body, McGonigle and the students discussed the overall principles of mindfulness, and focused on how grounding awareness in the body has an immediate stress reduction response. He gave students exercises in focusing attention on one part of the body so they literally couldn’t stress about a test, since awareness can only be in one place.

“Mr. McGonigle has encouraged us [students] to let stressful thoughts simply float away,” junior Emma Kate Callahan said. “This simple practice helps me let go of my anxieties by re-establishing myself in the present moment.”

You can experience a wave of stress, but if you practice enough mindfulness, and you know how to surf those waves, it’s not a problem.”

— Mark McGonigle

McGonigle described this as avoiding the “automatic pilot” thinking including fantasy, self criticism, self judgement and judgement of others that is distracting from the present.

“So all the different ways that our mind can automatically create stress, you can interrupt that with body awareness, and that’s what we covered in the first session was just how to become aware of your body,” McGonigle said.

McGonigle is focusing on building inner strength for students, so that if they ever encounter a stressful situation, they can overcome it.

“You can experience a wave of stress, but if you practice enough mindfulness, and you know how to surf those waves, it’s not a problem,” McGonigle said.

McGonigle discusses how the things that calm humans down are often very simple, like taking a walk or listening to music. He also says that these things are made a little better with some meditative practice.

According to Baker, the administration is currently thinking about how a Mindfulness program can be implemented in the curriculum. The hopes of Baker and McGonigle are to begin this training for students starting freshman year, so it can be carried with them throughout their entire high school career and life.

“If we do [the mindfulness curriculum] freshman year, then everybody at least has the knowledge of Mindfulness, then however they want to use it they can use it,” Baker said.

The good news is that practicing mindfulness and meditation, according to McGonigle, takes little effort and time.

“The scientific evidence is if somebody meditates for six minutes twice a day, and they do that in different ways for eight weeks, there would be a dramatic shift in the biology of stress in your body, even the activity of your brain would change dramatically,” McGonigle said.

While many approach stress in a desperate way, McGonigle describes a positivity of meditation that is often overlooked, which is that the human brain’s natural state being one of compassion, which calms everything down when cultivated.

“When you let go of judgement, what kind of fills in automatically in our mind and our being is a sense of compassion, for ourselves and for those around us,” McGonigle said.

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