There was a time during second grade, when I didn’t want to go to school. Not because I was a poor student or didn’t like to study. I actually loved school. The problem was that we had just moved to a new neighborhood where two girls my age lived—only they made it crystal clear that they didn’t want to be friends with me.
Even though the situation was resolved and the three of us became friends by the end of the year, I see now that I was under a lot of stress during that time. My family had actually moved twice in two years—once to a rental home and then to our permanent, brand-new home in a different school district. I was a sensitive kid and being ostracised was hard on me. So I reacted by getting sick a lot, or in at least one instance, pretending to have a stomach ache, just to avoid the whole situation.
According to the American Psychological Association, complaints of frequent headaches and stomach aches is a sign of stress in children. There are other signs of stress that parents need to watch for, such as:
- Negative changes in behavior (sudden onset of fear, anger, crying, avoidance of situations that used to be pleasurable, eating too much and eating too little)
- Problems interacting with other kids (not acting like himself, extreme shyness, acting out, bullying)
- Using negative words to describe themselves (“No one likes me,” “I’m stupid,” “Nothing is fun”) or expressing constant confusion, anger, worry or annoyance
Parents should be aware of these signs of stress, because stress in children is on the rise. A host of statistics suggest that American children are experiencing stress at new levels. Suicides among adolescents have quadrupled since the 1950s; only 36 percent of 7th graders agreed with the statement “I am happy with my life;” and in the past decade, the use of pharmaceuticals to treat emotional disorders has shot up 30 percent for boys and 68 percent for girls.
The Effect of Stress on the Brain
According to William Stixrud, a clinical neurologist and adjunct faculty member at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., stress can affect performance in school. Research shows that when kids are stressed, mental efficiency—and grades—can plummet. Not to mention that chronic anxiety and depression can alter the brain, making kids susceptible to depression later in life.
Any way you look at it, stress is bad for the brain—and especially bad for children’s developing brains.
“I make my living by evaluating kids who are struggling with classroom achievement, behavioural problems, depression and neurological disorders,” says Dr. Stixrud. “Stress plays a significant role in all of these problems. I see many children with learning disorders and ADHD—Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder—and there’s absolutely no question that stress significantly interferes with a child’s ability to learn and perform in school. “I would say that the main principle that’s been most commonly derived from twenty years of applying brain research to learning is this: a child needs to feel safe in school in order to learn, because you can’t learn when you’re under stress.”
Dr. Stixrud explains that the stress response, also called the fight-or-flight response, presumably evolved over millions of years in order to protect us from predators. When that fight-or-flight response is triggered, you aren’t supposed to be able to think clearly.
“From an evolutionary point of view, if people thought a long time about ‘What’s the right thing to do?’” as a tiger approached, they got eaten, and they didn’t pass on their genes,” he says. “Nature has protected us from thinking under stress. Consequently, if a kid is under stress, it’s very hard for him to think, to learn, to do school work, to pay attention to the teacher, and to manage his own behaviour.”
A Gentle Antidote to Stress
The antidote to stress, Dr. Stixrud says, is deep rest. “You can prevent and alleviate stress by getting enough rest. This means sleeping until you wake up without an alarm clock—that’s how you know you’re getting enough sleep. Evidence also shows that daily physical exercise, such as walking, helps alleviate stress in the body and brain.”
But the problem is that stressed kids and parents often can’t sleep properly, or the stress load is so great that a good workout or a good night’s sleep doesn’t make a dent. That’s why he also recommends the Transcendental Meditation technique to his patients and their parents.
“The role of the Transcendental Meditation technique is to provide deep rest to the nervous system,” he says. “It provides this deep rest while making the mind more alert. It’s this combination that creates more resilience under stress.
And research shows that kids in even the most stressed urban schools of our nation are benefiting from practising the TM technique on a daily basis, with one West-coast school reporting an increase in attendance to 98.6 percent, an 86 percent drop in suspension, and a 42-point gain in academic performance on state tests. Research in other troubled urban schools reveals equally impressive results, 40 percent reduction in psychological distress, and 65 percent decrease in violent conflict and a 15 percent improvement in graduation rates.
Since teenagers notoriously don’t get enough sleep, paving the way for chronic anxiety, depression and stress, Dr. Stixrud feels meditation is especially important in the teen years. “The TM technique is really good for the developing brain. It gives teenagers a core of peacefulness and happiness inside themselves that they can access twice a day. They are less reactive to stress, and if they do get stressed, it goes away faster. They generally sleep better, find it easier to eat normally, and are better able to successfully handle the hassles of life. These kids simply need antidotes to the stressors in life, which may include drugs and alcohol and sleep deprivation.”
In addition to enhancing brain development and warding off anxiety and depression,research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has found that the TM technique helps reverse obesity, Type II diabetes, heart disease and high cholesterol—conditions that were previously thought to be adult issues but are now on the rise in children.
“The TM program also significantly reduces the risk for type 2 diabetes. By de-stressing kids, I think we also significantly reduce the risk for heart-related and obesity-related problems,” Dr. Stixrud says. “There is good evidence that the TM technique, by providing a tool for systematically de-stressing, allows the heart to work better, and if the heart works better, the brain works better. It makes kids less at risk for all manner of physical and stress-related problems.”
In 2009, Dr. Stixrud and Dr. Sarina Grosswald published a study in Current Issues in Education that showed the TM technique had a significant effect in helping kids with ADHD focus, make better grades and reduce behavioural problems.
“The research showed a 50 percent reduction in stress, which is a huge effect at a statistically significant level,” says Dr. Grosswald. “TM gives kids with ADHD the ability to connect to their inner silence. Even at the age of 11 or 12, that experience of inner peace is really profound, because this is an experience they’ve never had before. They’ve never had a reliable way for their mind to settle down and become quiet.”
What Kids Say About Meditation
Parents, of course, are thrilled when their children thrive in school and are relaxed and happy at home. But what do the kids themselves say about meditation? Here’s a round-up of kids talking about their experience of the Transcendental Meditation technique.
“Since I started TM, life has gotten a lot easier. I think more clearly and I don’t rush into things. Plus, my grades have gone up.”
Cecilia, grade 7, USA
“It helps relax you so you’re more calm and gets your mind ready for any activity.”
Jaiquan, grade 9, Connecticut
“I enjoy meditating because I get disturbing thoughts washed away. When I come out of meditation, the problem is gone. It’s a natural process, it’s not hard, it’s very easy, and anyone can do it if they just learn and try.”
India, grade 10, Connecticut
“I looked at my transcript and freshman, sophomore and junior year, it had all Cs and Ds all across it. Now I’m getting As and Bs and I’m really proud of myself. The only thing that has changed is that I started TM. I saw that as the reason it happened because it’s helped me concentrate much better.”
Kyle, grade 12, USA
“I was bullied and even attacked at my old school. I would have flashbacks and trouble sleeping, and I couldn’t focus on my classes. After TM, I instantly felt whole and happier. I think it brought out the good in me. I’ve had straight A’s all year.”
Kezia, grade 12, L.A.
“Meditation has given me this feeling of tranquility that I hardly experienced before. It has helped me become calmer and find mental and emotional stability. I think I’ve become much more responsible and mature. I see changes in myself and the way I interact with people. I feel more at peace, more blissful. I think kids who meditate have an experience of easiness that puts us in a better mood and makes it easier to be ourselves.”
Daniella, grade 12, Mexico
“TM helps me feel better inside because I am more rested. It opened up my heart. It’s like TM cleans the dust off the window, and then I see the world as beautiful, and I see people as friendly and nice.”
Queena, grade 12, Shanghai
Reposted from TM-Women.org