Mindfulness Helps Headaches in Teen Girls
It may surprise you to learn that teenagers report higher levels of stress than adults.
In 2013, the American Psychological Association’s annual report concluded that while stress among Americans was not new, teenager stress is growing, and teenagers cite school as the highest contributing factor.
Recently, some schools have turned to mindfulness-based programs as a way to alleviate stress among their students. A pilot study led by the University of Washington, explored art-based mindfulness activities that schools could use to reduce headaches, a common side effect of stress in adolescent girls. After a three-week trial of twice-weekly mindfulness and art therapy sessions, the girls reported experiencing significantly fewer headaches.
What is Mindfulness & The Practice of Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, in the moment and aware of where we are and what we’re doing. While mindfulness is something we all naturally possess, it’s more accessible to us when we practice it on a daily basis.
Whenever you bring awareness to what you’re directly experiencing via your senses, or to your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions, you’re being mindful. And there’s growing research showing that when you train your brain to be mindful, you’re actually remodelling the physical structure of your brain.
Mindfulness-based practices are most commonly associated with meditation and breathing practices but can also involve art, dance, prayer, and other mind-body-spirit connecting activities.
The pilot study included eight girls between the ages of 14 to 17 from a high school in Seattle. All the participants reported experiencing three or more headaches not related to an injury within a two-week period, and five of the eight mentioned tension or stress as the main reason for headaches.
The study involved meeting twice a week for a 50-minute session with the research team. Each session began with an activity in which students would map out on a drawing of a body – where they were feeling stressed. Then the teens would participate in mindfulness and art activities before closing the session with another body map.
Teens tried different mindfulness techniques in each session so they could find which ones worked the best for them. One example of what teens liked was square breathing, a technique that encourages people to take slow breaths by concentrating and counting. What teens disliked was mindful eating, a technique that asks people to focus on what and how they’re eating. “They hated it,” Björling said. “This was a technique straight out of a lot of mindfulness programs for teens, but it didn’t connect with them…”
Teens also tried different mindful art activities. During each session, the students tried a new art medium; they particularly liked using oil pastels; and different types of art therapy projects, including one where they worked together to create mandalas before and after a meditation exercise.
Results: A 40% Reduction in Headaches.
At the beginning of the study, the girls reported 7.38 headaches, on average, within the previous two-week period. At the end of the study, that number had dropped to 4.63; for almost a 40% reduction in symptoms. The benefits continued even seven weeks after the study had ended. The researchers published their findings May 22, 2019 in the journal Art Therapy.
Empowerment Our Youth & Creating Options
This study highlights an important approach to working with and helping teens. Interventions should be made in cooperation with teenagers if we want these strategies to work. It is both useful and empowering to invite teens into a conversation about their own health and how they might deal with any particular ailment.
While the teens experienced fewer headaches after the study ended, their overall stress levels didn’t change much. But the students reported feeling better in the moment, saying that they felt like they could handle whatever happened for the rest of the day – and that is empowering.
Long before COVID-19, stress levels in teens were already high, but the mental health afflictions (and subsequent headaches) of our youth is growing. Some teens will want nothing to do with art mindfulness. As a community, it is important to continue to explore as many options – encompassing medical, integrative and natural therapies – as possible, so that we have a plethora of tools to support our youth with and choose whichever tools resonate best with the unique individual they are.
Courtesy of Dr. Emina Jasarevic, ND
Source: 1. Björling, E.A. et al. (2019) Participatory Pilot of an Art-Based Mindfulness Intervention for Adolescent Girls With Headache. Art Therapy. doi.org/10.1080/07421656.2019.1609325