Students, the Brain, and Stress: Why Yoga in Schools is Critical

By Juliet Kaluzniacki, Founder of Planet Namaste

The notion that schools are a safe environment is eroding quickly. Schools are supposed to be havens for students, a place where they learn, grow and thrive. Unfortunately, over the last several years we have witnessed Columbine and Sandy Hook, and have heard stories of bullying and teenage suicide. We have seen teachers and professors shot by disgruntled students. For decades, schools have had fire drills and earthquake drills in some parts of the country—and now they carry out active shooter drills.

Growing up in this type of environment wreaks havoc with our students. Colleges are reporting an increased need for mental health services, and the number of students reporting stress and depression is at an all-time high.

Two main issues are at play: the teenage brain and the environment. Neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegal describes the brain as having two distinct areas: an upstairs/logical part that houses the cerebral cortex and the downstairs/emotional part that is more primitive and is responsible for innate reactions such as the fight or flight response. From birth until the late teens, the brain’s predominant decision-making mechanism is the downstairs/emotional part of the brain. The upstairs brain is not fully developed until the age of 27. Inherently, students are not equipped with the brain power to handle the amount of stress that they experience on a daily basis.

The environment, including the school environment, additionally plays a key role in stress. According to licensed psychologist Monica Neel, “Any type of threat, real or imagined, and remembered stress or threats have the same physiological response in our bodies.”  When humans are faced with stressful situations, real or imagined, the stress feedback loop is activated, telling us to fight or flee; however, rarely are we required to do either one. Without being able to release the stress via fight or flight, the trauma remains in our cells and becomes chronic. Psychology Today reports that chronic stress leads to a multitude of health issues, including anxiety, depression, digestion, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, and memory. Simply being exposed to threatening images can cause trauma.

Imagine what students are experiencing 24/7. Biologically, their hormones are surging; emotionally, their feelings are rampant and overwhelming. Then add traumatizing images from the media, headlines about the “Mother of all Bombs,” images of migrants who have perished, and videos of immigrants being arrested and deported. Furthermore, being friended/unfriended on Facebook and having your entire life under scrutiny via social media can be personally traumatic. These factors all trigger the stress-feedback loop to release cortisol, the stress hormone, and increase the heart rate. Physically, the body is preparing for battle, yet the brain is not developed enough yet to make sense of it. Add the pressure of school. Every day, every hour, students are competing with their peers. Only one person can be valedictorian.  Only one teammate can be MVP. Only one student can be first chair in the band. Students’ brains are not fully developed to be able cope with such pervasive and constant stress.

Yoga can help students manage their stress. We can’t control brain development, we can’t control the environment, but we can control how we interpret and react to the world around us.  Yoga can teach students how to listen to their bodies so they can recognize the physical feelings of stress and adjust, through tricks like controlling their breath. Simply by controlling the breath, students can immediately lower their heart rate and decrease blood pressure. Yoga is a comprehensive system of wellness that incorporates the mind, body, and spirit. If more schools offered yoga, there would be less stress in our students, and our students would be better focused, happier, and learn lifelong skills of wellness, health, and resilience.

 

Juliet Kaluzniacki, founder of Planet Namaste and member of Burbank Unified School District’s Department of Mental Health and Wellness, is working to integrate yoga into the schools as a way to teach children and young adults coping mechanisms and mindfulness to enhance their mental health.

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