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Practicing Stress Relief May Help Children Succeed

11/17/2010 2:18 PM -

New data compiled by researchers from five universities has confirmed the long-held suspicions of campus counselors across the nation: Students today are more stressed than youth during the Great Depression era.

      The findings, taken from a responses to a popular psychological questionnaire used as far back as 1938, show that five times as many as high school and college students are dealing with anxiety and other mental health issues, compared to their peers in previous decades.

   The study analyzed the responses of 77, 576 high school and college students who, from 1938 through 2007, took the Minnesota Multiphastic Personality Inventory (MMPI). Overall, an average of five times as many students in 2007 surpassed thresholds in one or more mental health categories, compared with those who did so in 1938.

   Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor and the report’s lead author, said the most current numbers may even be low given all the students taking antidepressants and other psychotropic medications, which help alleviate symptoms the survey asks about.

   “It’s another piece of the puzzle—that yes, this does seems to be a problem, that there are more young people who report anxiety and depression,” Twenge said. “The next question is: What do we do about it?”

   According to researchers at University at Buffalo, the solution may be as simple as having kids walk to school. A new study, published in the August 2010 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, found that children who took a simulated walk to school later experienced smaller elevations in systolic blood pressure, heart rate and perceived stress while taking an exam than children who received a simulated ride to school.

   These findings provide a valuable incentive to encourage kids to hit the pavement, given that today, more than 85 percent receive rides to school. The data also reflects a dramatic shift through the years, as in 1969, approximately 50 percent of children walked or biked to school, and 87 percent of kids living within one mile did.

   Pediatrician Michelle Bailey, MD of Duke Integrative Medicine, points to another way a child’s morning commute can help reduce stress. Her research shows that walking can be a valuable part of mindfulness-based stress reduction program to help kids reduce anxiety and improve their ability to pay attention and stay focused in class.

A morning stroll can be turned into a mindful exercise by having children use their senses to explore their surroundings en route. “[Encourage them] to pay attention to sights, sounds and odors,” Bailey advises. Have them look for things they haven’t noticed before. Feel the ground as each foot hits the pavement, and as each foot moves inside its shoe. If you are walking with your child, share what you are feeling and seeing, and encourage them to use this technique on the playground and throughout the school day.

   If walking to school is not an option for your family because of distance, safety concerns, or inclement weather, there are other exercises you can engage in with your children to help them manage stress. Mindful walking can be practiced in the evenings as a way to be active after dinner and wind down after a long day; mindful breathing—slow, deep inhalation and exhalation—works well in the morning because it circumvents a harried start to the day by triggering a relaxation response; and mindful listening—gathering the family together and taking turns giving one person your full and undivided attention as they talk about their day—fosters feelings of connectedness, while helping children focus and be mindful when others are speaking.

   All of these techniques translate easily from home to school, and you should encourage your child to slow down and tune into their surroundings no matter what activity they are engaged in. Coupled with daily walks to school when possible, they will help your kids cope with the stresses of school and everyday life.

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