Teaching Teens to Relax to Manage Stress
Prepare Teens to Relax
We gain power when we take active steps to relax, even as the world seems to be swirling around. When relaxed, we maintain the presence and clarity of mind that enables us to make wise decisions and to problem-solve. We prepare our children to think clearly, even in stressful times, when we teach them active relaxation — how to intentionally relax.
Sometimes relaxation involves “getting away” from it all for a few moments. Strategies to avoid what’s stressing us out are covered in the piece Guide Teens to Take Instant Vacations. But here, our goal is not avoidance. It is about intentionally achieving a relaxed and focused state of mind to more effectively handle challenges.
Relaxation isn’t just about handling stress. It is good just for its own sake and is an important aspect of maintaining good health. When we encourage our teens to take time to relax, they will enjoy other aspects of their lives more. It feels good. And that matters.
What Relaxation Really Means
Relaxation can be thought of as the absence of activity, as being calm. Active relaxation means taking intentional steps to transform the body into a relaxed state. It takes practice, but we can train our bodies. The benefits to health, wellness, and efficiency are well worth the investment. As important as it is for wellness, it’s also critical to possess this skill in moments of crisis because it can reboot our ability to problem-solve and connect with others’ feelings.
Stress biology teaches us how stress, clarity of thought, and our ability to connect with others’ feelings are connected. Essentially, we have two nervous systems running at once. The voluntary nervous system makes us move and talk when we want to. The involuntary nervous system controls functions that happen without thought, like our heartbeat, breathing, and digestion. The involuntary system further divides into two parts. One operates when we are relaxed and the other rapidly adjusts to help us deal with stress. The body cannot be calm and in crisis at the same time.
The really cool thing is that we can take control of our involuntary nervous system if we trick the system. We can learn to flip a “switch” so our stress hormones stop firing and our relaxation response takes over. We can fool our body by choosing to do the opposite of what it would normally do under stress.
When the body and mind are in crisis, a rush of adrenaline puts us into alert mode. It makes us suddenly and intensely aware of potential dangers. It prepared our ancestors to run from tigers and prepares us to run from modern dangers. Blood rushes from our bellies to our legs so we can sprint away, creating that tingling feeling known as butterflies. Our hearts beat faster to help blood flow and our breathing intensifies. Our pupils dilate to let in light so we can see better while running.
All of these bodily changes make it difficult to think clearly. We’re not supposed to negotiate with the tiger. We’re not supposed to turn to the tiger and reflect on his feelings. The blood is literally shifted within the brain, preventing us from thinking clearly.
Flip the Switch
Knowing what happens to the body when under stress, allows us to seek and flip the control switch. We can’t re-route our blood back to our bellies or stop our pupils from dilating. It’s even hard to calm our thinking or slow our heart rate. Breathing, however, can be influenced. With controlled breathing, we can flip that switch. And while we can’t just “relax” or think away our hormones, we can exercise to use them up.
Use Breath to Relax
Breath is the “control switch” to active relaxation. There are many techniques that are rooted in breath. But don’t be intimidated! It is your breath, you take it wherever you go. It offers an instant portable strategy to regain thought and calm emotions. Consider some of these basic strategies and help your teens become familiar with them.
Controlled breathing is at the root of most relaxation techniques. Breathing exercises can be done almost anywhere. Consider practicing controlled breathing together with your teen. Or, point your teen to online videos that teach these skills. To get started:
- Sit in a comfortable position with your feet flat on the floor (or sit cross-legged on the floor).
- Close your eyes and allow your hands to rest between your knees and hips.
- Inhale slowly and concentrate on your breath. Let your belly expand with air and notice whatever comes to mind.
- Empty your lungs slowly and naturally. Let your mind empty at the same time.
- Take it easy and repeat calm, slow breaths. Fully engage your awareness in the act of breathing.
- Breathe deeply, fill your lungs fully and exhale slowly. Pay attention to your breath. Free your mind from other concerns.
The mind-body connection is powerful. Deep, slow breathing is the simplest way to slow a racing mind. Outside thoughts may intrude, but remain focused on your breath.
4 to 8 Breathing
Another breathing exercise is a technique known as 4 to 8 breathing. This involves the same controlled breathing described above but adds counting to the mix. When you take your first full breath, count to 4. You’ll first fill your belly and then your chest. Then, hold that breath as long as it feels comfortable, before letting it out while counting to 8. Some people will find the count of 4 to 6 more comfortable. Counting while breathing requires your full concentration, further helping you to let go of worries and really relax.
There are some simple postures that can help switch a tense body into a relaxed body. Many teens do homework in a hunched over position. They slouch over a desk or in front of the computer with bent heads and curved spines. Doing so compresses their breathing. Often, their legs shake with nervous energy and their hips are bent as if they’re preparing to run off that energy.
Guide your teens to really think about how they are sitting while doing work or taking a test. Encourage them to take control by sitting up straight, with shoulders back, and legs stretched out comfortably. Add in some deep breaths and they will be physically and mentally prepared to do the work. Simply knowing these easy tricks makes kids feel more in control of their situations and thus, less anxious.
This strategy doesn’t take any extra practice. If you know how to breathe you can do it! Smell is one of our most basic senses and has a real effect on mood. Different fragrances create different feelings ranging from calm to energizing.
Suggest that your teens place a drop of fragrant oil on a cotton ball and breathe it in deeply. If it is difficult to obtain pure essential oils, use what nature provides. Flowers, pine needles, and citrus peels are all rich in soothing or energizing aromas.
There are many types of yoga. The core intention of yoga is to combine controlled breathing, movement, and postures. Yoga strengthens bones and stretches muscles, often while freeing the mind of worry.
Meditation is an age-old relaxation practice. It involves breathing awareness, combined with visualization. The goal of meditation is to turn off mental activity, while remaining in a clear state of awareness. Meditation has been shown to help people focus better when doing daily tasks and in times of high stress. Meditation techniques take practice, but allows a sense of power over your thoughts. Instead of thinking, “I am angry,” through meditation we come to realize, “I am experiencing anger.” This slight difference gives us a sense of self-control.
Mindfulness is a type of meditative practice that is all about being in the moment. A lot of stress stems from fretting about the past or worrying about the future. Mindfulness forces us to be fully present in the here and now. Check out videos of Dr. Dzung Vo, author of The Mindful Teen, demonstrating mindfulness strategies here.
Progressive relaxation is a simple and effective way to actively relax. It involves concentrating on each body body part from scalp to toe, bringing awareness gradually throughout the body. There are a number of ways to do it. First, pay attention to your scalp. Allow it to relax completely. Next, become aware of the muscles around your ears, and allow them to relax fully. Move on to your eyes and forehead, your neck and throat, your shoulders and arms, and so on. Work through your body, inch by inch. All the way to your fingertips and toes. One variation is to tense and release each body part as you go. This uses muscle energy to get you to really focus on each body part.
Achieving Clear Thought
Learning to intentionally relax through any of these methods is important for stress management. But to fully take advantage of these techniques, they should be coordinated with other stress management strategies offered in our comprehensive plan. For example, morning exercise can increase alertness and improve our mood for the rest of the day. This may be particularly true for people with concentration difficulties. That’s why exercise is often the first thing to turn towards when stress starts to feel overwhelming. Because unless you’ve worked out those overwhelming feelings, it is hard to utilize strategies that involve calm thought and planning.
When exercise isn’t possible — like the moment the exam is handed out — a good option is to sit in a comfortable position that reassures your body there’s no emergency worth running from. Then take slow, deep breaths to flip the switch that turns on the calm nervous system.
When teens understand the powerful connection between the mind and body, they can learn to harness that power and use it to their advantage. Support them as they try out different active relaxation techniques until they find a few that work for them.