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School stress, anxiety and mindfulness

Patrick Delaney
May 9, 2016

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The only times I’ve felt truly free from debilitating stress and anxiety was while in the classroom. As a special education high-school teacher, I’ve always been able to get in the “zone” and focus on my students. However, when the lesson was over, and it was time to go back to the real world, stress and anxiety would come flooding back. Why was my mind so busy? How was it that other people could just go through life without a care in the world while I was stuck with this criticizing voice in my head? My mind continuously ran through “what if” and “if only” statements all day, every day. It wasn’t fair, and I was sure I was the only one experiencing this self-doubting dialogue.

Drowning in stress and anxiety

Five years ago I was on a mission to find out what was “wrong” with me. I was looking for a pill and/or a doctor that could understand my plight and offer a concrete solution. I stumbled on mindfulness, but wasn’t ready for something as silly as “following my own breath.” It wasn’t until months later, while reading how mindfulness was a research based, secular, scientifically proven program that had been used to help cancer patients deal with pain at UMASS since 1979, that I decided to give it a shot. I was desperate.

Practice

I began sitting, following my breath, and noticing my thoughts for 10 minutes each morning. During the day, I read books and research articles on mindfulness. I knew from my reading that it wasn’t a magic pill, it was a slow process, and that it was simple, but not easy. After a couple of months, I began noticing my thoughts versus getting caught up in them, and the stress and anxiety was lessening as time went on. I continued to experience stress and anxiety, but it no longer had a grip on me; it was no longer my enemy. I was finally able to enjoy my day to day, moment to moment experiences much more than in the past.

Students

While attending conferences and IEP meetings at school, I was astounded by the number of students and their parents who expressed how stress and anxiety was ruining their teenage lives. Knowing what these students were experiencing, I approached the administration with the idea of teaching mindfulness to students with disabilities who were experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety. They agreed.

I collected data every two weeks through the use of surveys specifically designed to measure stress and anxiety in adolescents. Twelve weeks later I returned. The data confirmed that teaching students about the brain and nervous system along with practicing mindfulness each day for 10 minutes was making a major impact in reducing their stress and anxiety. A year later, I was asked to teach mindfulness to a group of incoming general education freshman along with teaching two classes to students with disabilities.

Athletes

After reading that mindfulness was being used by professional athletic teams like the Chicago Bulls and Seattle Seahawks, I approached our school’s head football coach and suggested teaching mindfulness to his team; he was immediately on board. I worked with the team weekly, and before each game. The difference it made in the players was evident throughout the season. In the winter, I began working with the Varsity Girls Basketball team. The players took mindfulness and made it part of their everyday lives. They believed and trusted in the process and had their best season ever making it to the state championship final four tournament. After the basketball season ended, I began teaching mindfulness to the Boys Golf team.

Moving forward

Next year, along with teaching mindfulness classes and working with the athletic teams, we are creating a mindfulness club, where students can meet, learn about stress and anxiety, and practice mindfulness before beginning their day. Knowing personally the stress that public school teachers face, we are planning a mindfulness program for the teachers and staff of our school as well.

Going through life in the present moment is so much better than living in the past and worrying about the future. Armed with mindfulness, I’m now able to help others experience this difference for themselves.

Patrick Delaney has a master’s degree in education and doctorate degree in special education. He has taught high-school special education for the past 16 years. His website is themindfultoolbox.com and offers free mindfulness resources and guided meditations for teachers, students, athletes and anyone interested in becoming more mindful.

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