Resilient Youth Program at Mass General’s Benson-Henry Institute helps stressed teens stay calm and productive.

Teenagers are more stressed than ever, but often don’t know healthy ways to deal with it. The Resilient Youth Program of the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital can help. For the past 25 years, the program has taught young people, parents and educators techniques to relax and build resiliency to face life’s stressors.

Rana Chudnofsky, MEd.
Rana Chudnofsky, MEd.

“We’re in a time of heightened stress,” says Rana Chudnofsky, MEd, director of the Resilient Youth Program. “But the skills to reduce stress and reframe negative thinking are easy to learn.”

Mind body medicine practiced at BHI is based on research showing that regularly practicing such techniques has lifelong health and emotional benefits. They elicit the “relaxation response”—positive changes in the rate of breathing, heart rate, brain activity and metabolism. Those who learn to elicit the relaxation response are calmer, more focused and productive, research shows.

During the school year, teens stress over tests, papers and presentations. They worry about meeting their parents’ expectations, relationship problems or getting into a good college. Some stress is normal but chronic stress is unhealthy. And it’s not just teens. “I’m seeing stress at younger and younger ages,” Ms. Chudnofsky says.

Teach the Teachers

The Resilient Youth Program was founded in reaction to an alarming number of suicides on college campuses, explains Marilyn Wilcher, BHI senior director and the program’s founder.  “We thought we should do something to reach these students before they got to college,” she says.

Resilient Youth Program staffers have successfully trained thousands of students and educators in schools nationwide.

Besides anxiety and depression, other possible effects of stress include health problems, poor academic performance and harmful lifestyle choices, such as the use of drugs and alcohol.

Through the years, program staffers have successfully trained thousands of students and educators in schools nationwide. They teach teachers who then teach their students various techniques, including breathing and focusing.

In a pilot study in a Boston public school, reported earlier this year, they tested this train-the-trainer approach. They found a significant increase in classroom productivity and in students’ ability to manage their stress.

Toolbox of Techniques

Teachers choose their own way to use what they learn. They can begin a class or precede a test with several minutes of quiet time. Some creatively integrate relaxation methods into the curriculum. So, for example, in Spanish class, they may ask students to visualize themselves in Spain, perhaps using new vocabulary words. “It helps learning come alive because they are more calm and in control,” Ms. Chudnofsky explains.

In addition to their work with school systems, she and co-director Laura Malloy, LICSW, run programs of varying lengths at Mass General for children, teens and parents.

“The more calm a parent is, the more children take that cue.”

All programs teach a toolbox of relaxation techniques. These may be as simple as sitting quietly and repeating a word. Or just breathing, as in this mini relaxation exercise:

  • As you inhale, count very slowly up to four (inhale 1-2-3-4)
  • Exhale, counting slowly back to one (exhale 4-3-2-1)
  • Do this several times

Reframing Negative Thoughts

Another technique is to picture yourself someplace calming, like the beach, perhaps imagining what it would feel like to be a wave, slowly coming in and slowly going out.

Everyone also learns how to “reframe” negative thoughts to ones that are more healthy and realistic. A student terrified about taking a test, can learn to step back and realize she is a B+ student and not likely to fail. Healthy eating and exercise are emphasized.

Parents can also benefit if they practice these techniques with their children. “The more calm a parent is, the more children take that cue,” Ms. Chudnofsky advises.

For more information about how you can support mind body medicine at Mass General’s Benson-Henry Institute, please contact us.