Mindfulness and youth

Mindfulness is a much-hyped concept, but its benefits are also supported by evidence (Davidson & Goleman, 2017; Goyal et al., 2014). Mindfulness means paying attention to experience in the present moment and noticing what you are feeling and thinking, as well as what sights, sounds, and body sensations there are right now. In short, it means being present in the here and now instead of being lost in thought. Thinking on autopilot is a natural state for the human mind and brain – so much so that we call being lost in thought the Default Mode Network in neuroscience (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). Thus, developing mindfulness requires practice.

Most of mindfulness research has been conducted with adults, but within the last 10 or so years evidence of benefits to children and adolescents has also begun to consolidate (Zoogman et al., 2015). Meta-analyses indicate benefits in terms of improved wellbeing and lessened psychopathology, like anxiety and depression, which especially during the times of COVID-19 have become more prevalent in the younger populations (CDC, 2020).

How then on a more specific level, can younger people benefit from mindfulness? The same way as adults – beginning a practice and making sure to begin from baby steps, so a routine is established. Number one common mistake in beginning a mindfulness practice is probably to overshoot one’s goals (“I will practice 30 minutes every day”) and then discontinue practice because a routine has not been properly formed. I will break down three beginning steps into an actionable plan:

  1. Establish an amount of practice (I suggest 1 minute at first) and time of day when you will practice. Commit to doing the practice and preferably no more. This way you will learn the routine and after a month or two it will be ingrained and harder to discontinue.A beginning mindfulness practice is simply to bring attention to the breath and notice how it feels. When the mind wanders away to thoughts, you just take note and gently bring the attention back to the breath. This way you build up concentration which is useful in expanding the practice in the future. For more instruction, you can download a mindfulness app (I recommend Calm, Waking Up, and 10 % Happier).
  2. Once there is a steady routine, increase the amount of practice. Perhaps from 1 minute to 5 minutes. Or 2 if you want to take it slowly. You can increase again after a couple of months. This gradual easing into a steady practice routine scientifically backed way to habit formation and is crucially important to establishing a practice (Clear, 2018). Out of this steady practice the benefits from mindfulness start to emerge.
  3. In everyday life, try to every now and then ask “what am I noticing right now?” – what body sensations, thoughts, emotions? The main benefit from practice is beginning to notice what happens in the often fast pace of everyday life – when you get angry or excited or nervous and make decisions based on habit or reaction. That is a time when reflection is the most useful and a better decision can perhaps be made.

 

This should help you get started!

 

Oskari Lahtinen, MPsych
Doctoral trainee
INVEST flagship / Psychology
University of Turku

 

References:

CDC. (2020, June 24). Mental Health – Household Pulse Survey – COVID-19. Retrieved June 25, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/covid19/pulse/mental-health.htm

Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. Penguin.

Goleman, D., & Davidson, R. J. (2017). Altered traits: Science reveals how meditation changes your mind, brain, and body. Penguin.

Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E. M., Gould, N. F., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., … & Ranasinghe, P. D. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA internal medicine, 174(3), 357-368.

Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932-932.

Zoogman, S., Goldberg, S. B., Hoyt, W. T., & Miller, L. (2015). Mindfulness interventions with youth: A meta-analysis. Mindfulness, 6(2), 290-302.