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The self-help industry is a $10 billion a year industry and Los Angeles is arguably the capital. Sunset Blvd provides all the yoga studios, kombucha shops, whole foods, and life coaches you need. I have seen of adults of all ages walking around with their morning Starbucks and afternoon kombucha. And it’s only a matter of time before we start passing down our self-help habits to teens and pre-teens if we haven’t done so already.
Don’t get me wrong, I actually think the self-help industry has done a lot for psychology. I would argue that the self-help industry, and even life coaches, have introduced psychological ideas to the masses in a much more palatable way. What used to be the image of an old guy watching his patient free-associating on a coach is now supplanted with a young therapist offering mindfulness techniques.
But a question remains, do any of the techniques celebrated by the self-help movement (e.g. mindfulness, positive affirmations) actually work?
This question is particularly important to address with teens. Adolescence has been referred to a period of storm and stress that includes three main components (1) conflict with parents, (2) mood disruptions, and (3) risk behavior (Arnett, 1999). Although this view isn’t always held in modern psychology, it is undeniable that adolescence is a difficult period in almost everyone’s life, except for those few cool football jocks who I envied back in high school. Regardless, any way of mitigating a potential storm would be welcome for both adolescents and parents – even if that means engaging in some of the most popular self-help techniques (e.g. mindfulness, self-affirmations).
Let’s start with mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Research tells us that this isn’t just another hokey practice, but that significant changes can happen in the brain as a result of meditating.
One set of researchers examined brain electrical activity before starting a meditation training, once during the training itself, and 4 months after training ended (Davidson et al., 2003). They found greater activation in the left-sided anterior of the brain, an area associated with positive affect, for meditators compared to non-meditators. They also found greater antibodies for the flu vaccine in meditators, meaning that the meditators were more resistant to these germs.
So if these findings tell us that meditation works in adults, why not start having kids sit on zafu (that thing that professional meditators sit on) with their legs crossed?
Well, some places are doing exactly that. Fairfield, Iowa is leading the meditation movement. It has even been dubbed as Town TM – TM standing for Transcendental Meditation. In particular, the Maharishi School in Fairfield has students meditate twice a day. Older kids practice sitting meditations twice a day while younger kids, under age 10, practice walking meditations for five minutes while silently repeating a word in their head.
Although research has yet to make a definitive judgment on whether these methods in children is useful, preliminary evidence supports the utility of mindful interventions like Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction in adolescence. Teens who went through this intervention reported decreased levels of perceived stress, anxiety, and several psychopathological symptoms (Biegel et al., 2009). Mindful training has even shown to be useful among those with ADHD or other conduct problems (Bogels et al., 2008). However, more work is needed to to test the effectiveness of other types of mindfulness-based interventions like Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and Mindful Education programs.
Ok so this tells us that maybe there is something to mindfulness, but what about positive affirmations?
Research in the positive affirmation has shown that positive affirmations can be a double-edged sword (Wood, Perunovic, & Lee, 2009). Although helpful to some, young adults with low self-esteem who repeated positive self statements like “I’m a lovable person” felt worse than those who did not tell themselves that same statement or were told to focus on how that statement is sometimes true and sometimes not true.
Although this kind of study has yet to be done in adolescents, similar studies have been done. Specifically, self-affirmations interventions that have teens reflect on positive values has been shown to be beneficial under certain circumstances. These studies have teens write about an important value, such as social issues, art, science, politics, or religion at the beginning of the school year. These studies have largely been done with African American students in an effort to reduce the racial achievement gap.
In one particular study, African American and European American middle school students were randomized to either an experimental group or a control group. Both were presented with a list of values, such as “relationships with friends or family” or “being good at art.” In the experimental group, students were asked to indicate which value was most important and to write a paragraph about why they chose that one. In the control group, students were asked to choose their least important value and why somebody would care about that value.
African American middle school students who wrote one or two essays about an important value at the beginning of the academic year earned higher grades at the end of the term compared to those who did not write about their values (Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, & Master, 2006). To the researcher’s delight, the academic performance gap between African and European Americans, as measured by the students’ GPA, was reduced by approximately 40%.
Unfortunately, neither these affirmation studies nor mindfulness studies described above are panaceas to adolescent difficulties. Inherent in the stormy teenage years are some growing pains filled with heartache, rejection, disappointment, and failure. However, maybe these studies provide a silver lining that it can also be filled with resilience, hope, and awareness.
And I’m assuming there is a sizable portion of you who have been reading this article who still don’t buy that some of these self-help, new age-y techniques. But before you eschew it all together, know that yoga, mindfulness, and contemplation practices are the cornerstone of ancient faith traditions of both eastern and western faiths. So although these practices may feel hippie-dippy, it is much more than a fad. It is a re-orientation to practices that cultures around the world have espoused for centuries.
And maybe research hasn’t quite caught up with all of the self-help movement like kombucha or yoga, but maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe we can start right where we are and learn more about mindfulness practices and affirmations. Maybe we can join our teens in a mindfulness class in our local neighborhood. We can have students reflect on their values and their goals at the beginning of the academic year to help them become more mindful of their future. Perhaps that mindfulness is the anchor that stabilizes them through the choppy waters of the adolescent storm. We may not be able to completely avoid the adolescent storm, but maybe we can at least reduce the stress of it all.
Rubin Khoddam is a PhD student in Clinical Psychology at the University of Southern California whose research and clinical work focuses on substance use issues and resilience. He founded Psych Connection with the goal of connecting ideas, people, research, and self-help to better connect you to yourself and those around you. You can follow Rubin on Twitter by clicking here!
Arnett, J. J. (1999). Adolescent storm and stress, reconsidered. American psychologist, 54(5), 317.
Biegel, G. M., Brown, K. W., Shapiro, S. L., & Schubert, C. M. (2009). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for the treatment of adolescent psychiatric outpatients: A randomized clinical trial. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 77(5), 855.
Bögels, S., Hoogstad, B., van Dun, L., de Schutter, S., & Restifo, K. (2008). Mindfulness training for adolescents with externalizing disorders and their parents. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 36(02), 193-209.
Davidson et al. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564-570.
Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., & Master, A. (2006). Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention. science, 313(5791), 1307-1310.
Sherman, D. K., Cohen, G. L., Nelson, L. D., Nussbaum, A. D., Bunyan, D. P., & Garcia, J. (2009). Affirmed yet unaware: exploring the role of awareness in the process of self-affirmation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 97(5), 745.
Wood, J. V., Perunovic, W. E., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive Self-Statements Power for Some, Peril for Others. Psychological Science, 20(7), 860-866.