Fueled by the expectation that we can make unpleasant things go away, we often try very hard to manage our stress or unpleasant experience by trying to fix it. After one round of a diet regimen, we regain most of the weight, and move on to another diet, and then another, with the same results. We use alcohol and other substances to help us relax and fix our troubles by forgetting, only to wake up in the middle of the night with the problems racing around in our heads. We become chronically irritable and overcontrolling toward a student who has a knack for getting on our nerves, anticipating her every annoying move in advance. There’s a cyclical quality to our stress management, characterized by repeated efforts to transform unpleasant situations into those that suit us better. Sometimes we manage to make this strategy work, but in the long term we usually end up facing the same problems over and over again, frustrating ourselves in the process.
It is sensible and intelligent to apply the skills of fixing and problem solving to those things that are amenable to change. Certainly, there’s no advantage in mindless acceptance of that which is inefficient or harmful to oneself or others. This is why we teach students to plan, reason, and problem solve (Elias & Tobias, 1996; Kendall & Braswell, 1982). For the most part, such approaches rely on logical thinking and are most successfully applied to well-defined problems with well-defined solutions, such as how to study, solve math problems, and eat healthfully. But not all teacher or student problems are well-defined (Kitchener, 1983). Some of the very real challenges of life and the classroom are ill-defined problems that have emotional underpinnings and no clear-cut answers. How can I handle my angry students? How can I manage to sustain empathy for parents who are uninvolved? How can I maintain my sense of balance when I’m constantly being asked to do more? Mindfulness offers another way to approach the difficult, ill-defined problems and uncomfortable feelings of real life, both for teachers and students. It begins by recognizing that uncomfortable feelings may be a signal that you need to act in some way, but that feelings are not, in themselves, the problem.
Many of the risky and potentially dangerous behaviors of adolescents—procrastination, disruptiveness, disordered eating, cutting, drinking, violence, taking drugs, technological addiction, and so on—have a common denominator. They likely involve avoiding unpleasant emotional experience by trying to make it go away. The extent to which we do this is a measure of our distress tolerance (García-Oliva & Piqueras, 2016; Simons & Gaher, 2005). We all have our limits, but individuals who are highly intolerant of distress and unable to cope adaptively have quick triggers and are more likely to suffer from a range of psychological and behavioral problems (Zvolensky & Hogan, 2013). We know that we are primed to react consciously and unconsciously to threat. High levels of stress or trauma can sensitize people to stress, making the slings and arrows of life more difficult for them to bear. Sometimes, risky behavior like drug abuse can start as an attempt to silence the memories of past pain. But our generally allergic reaction to unpleasantness can also be manifested in more ordinary ways, like avoiding boring homework, cutting classes, or misbehaving. Student behaviors that attempt to make unwanted, uncomfortable feelings like inadequacy, boredom, restlessness, or anxiety go away are common, and they are also supported by certain implicit assumptions. Specifically, we appear to endorse the culturally reinforced belief that unpleasant things should go away. When we can’t make the unpleasant parts of life go away, we often pile on some judgment, criticizing ourselves and others for life’s imperfect circumstances.
It bears repeating that it’s not harmful to try to fix problems or make things better. This is just common sense. The problem is that without some awareness of our knee-jerk inclination to perceive unpleasant things as threatening, our attempts to fix certain things can make them worse. Imagine this hypothetical scenario. A student is walking up the school stairway surrounded by classmates. He stumbles badly, falls and hits his knee, dropping the athletic equipment and books he is carrying, and lands face downward on the stairs. The rest of the kids turn to see what happened. Some ask if he’s okay; others start to giggle and poke fun at him. His face feels flushed, his heart races, and his knee really hurts. He hurriedly pulls himself together and moves along as quickly as he can. From the outside, it looks like he’s recovered. But on the inside, his mind races: They must think I’m really stupid. Come on, don’t be a baby. Suck it up and get back up. Don’t show them you got hurt. I know someone tripped me. I’ll show them.
The mental chatter resumes later as he thinks about his friends’ teasing, fueling his internal distress. Every time he passes that stairway, he remembers himself sprawled on the stairs. He’s sure everyone else remembers it, too. Ruminative processing about how he could be so clumsy plays out in an endless mental loop. He attempts to avoid and suppress the embarrassment of the incident by placing the blame on others and plotting some revenge. Not only is the fall unpleasant in terms of the physical sensations in the body, but his discomfort is amplified by his evaluative stream of thoughts. Mental elaboration sustains the unpleasantness of the physical injury, creating emotional distress. Pain is felt in the knee, but suffering is in the mind. It’s a double whammy. His automatic thoughts and emotions trigger the physiological cascade associated with the stress response. His mind continues its playback loop in an effort to justify his experience and avoid feelings of shame and helplessness. And, perhaps most importantly, these efforts are largely ineffective, because the painful memory surfaces again and again. Students are not the only ones who handle perceived threats by trying to avoid uncomfortable feelings. Similar thought streams (e.g., I shouldn’t have to put up with this. Things shouldn’t be so hard) might also sound familiar to teachers.
You might be wondering what the alternative is, given our ingrained human habit of trying to change or avoid the unpleasant. Maybe it’s not too surprising that contemporary researchers have recognized what many traditional approaches to well-being have long stated: avoidance of negative or uncomfortable emotions is usually not helpful, let alone possible (Hayes, 1994). While avoidance of unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and sensations may produce some immediate gratification, chronic avoidance is associated with a number of problematic outcomes when it becomes a coping style (Spinhoven, Drost, de Rooij, van Hemert, & Penninx, 2014). This knowledge might be particularly important for adolescents, whose brains are especially sensitive to emotional experience and whose habits of coping are becoming established.
Adolescents report more daily experience of negative affect from ages 10 to 18 (Larson, Moneta, Richards & Wilson, 2002) but have more difficulty identifying and sorting out their feelings of anger, sadness, fear, disgust, and upset compared to younger children and adults (Nook, Sasse, Lambert, McLaughlin & Somerville, 2018). Presumably, the adolescent experience of negative affect involves co-occurring emotions that are more complex than those experienced in childhood and that pose greater coping challenges. As described in the hypothetical example, commonly used adolescent strategies for coping with distress (e.g., emotion avoidance, emotion suppression, and rumination) are maladaptive and related to more problems down the line. Although avoidance of emotional experience may offer short-term relief, the longer-term consequences can include depression, anxiety, restricted opportunity, and poor social relationships (Eastabrook, Flynn, & Hollenstein, 2014). Rumination, or the repetitive focus on negative events, thoughts, or feelings in order to reduce the pain of a situation, is a well-known risk factor for depression and anxiety among youth and adults (Rood, Roelofs, Bögels, Nolen-Hoeksema, & Schouten, 2009). A recent examination of multiple studies showed that the maladaptive strategies many youth employ to manage their emotional distress actually play a causal role in the development of subsequent problems (Schäfer, Naumann, Holmes, Tuschen-Caffier, & Samson, 2017). Many major mental disorders have their start in adolescence, and less severe symptoms of disorders like anxiety and depression are alarmingly common (Lee et al., 2014; Spear, 2009).
The mental advances that secondary school teachers recognize in their students, such as the ability to reason abstractly or to take the perspective of others, also come with a price. Because youth can think abstractly, they can also engage in hypothetical thinking (e.g., What if I were richer or thinner, like her?) and can reach counterfactual conclusions (e.g., Then I would be happier). The very same mentalizing skills that allow students to take the perspective of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, allow them to imagine and mull over what their peers and teachers are thinking about them (Blakemore & Mills, 2014). Social media offers a ready platform for comparing oneself to others, a process called social comparison. Social comparison processes, already elevated during adolescence, are exacerbated by excessive media use and linked to depressive symptoms (Nesi & Prinstein, 2015). Cyberbullying is perceived as especially threatening to adolescents because one’s shaming is on public display, comparison with others is exposed, and social isolation is threatened (Nilan, Burgess, Hobbs, Threadgold, & Alexander, 2015).
Overall, despite many obvious advantages, adolescent changes in cognitive and emotional development can lead to increased rumination and emotional distress for some youth. Just as educators work diligently to prepare students with academic knowledge and skills for the next stage of their life, so, too, should we prepare them with other life skills related to healthy emotion regulation. The importance of this social and emotional skill set can’t be overestimated for adolescents, who are at an age when emotionality increases and adult patterns of emotion regulation are beginning to be consolidated (Paus, Keshavan, & Giedd, 2008).
How Mindfulness Helps Regulate Emotions
A major developmental advance during adolescence is the increasing ability to reason, make decisions, and think abstractly. These kinds of cognitive processes are rational and logical, referred to as “cool cognitions” (e.g., These are the factors that led to the civil war, or Here are some steps I can take to break down this project), and they are often taught in decision making and study skills courses (Bergmann & Rudman, 1985). When thinking and decision making are done in an emotional context, as in a group of peers, cognition can be less rational. The so-called emotional or “hot cognitions” can distort thinking and underlie many impulsive acts (e.g., Forget about that homework. Let’s party!). It’s difficult for most of us, but especially for adolescents, to override powerful emotions in order to think coolly and rationally, even if we know better. The student who keeps checking her phone in class can’t seem to resist seeing her best friend’s messages despite her teacher’s disapproval. The student who fell on the stairs may not easily let go of his angry thoughts. In an effort to feel more of the pleasant things, like excitement, and fewer of the unpleasant things, like rejection or shame, adolescents may behave in ways that prove unproductive, especially if these behaviors ultimately become well-established patterns.
Mindfulness gets to the root of these tendencies by encouraging exploration and acceptance of all feelings, without judgment. Mindful awareness of one’s thoughts and emotions includes not just being present and curious about pleasant experience, but about all experience. This is a hard but crucial truth. Mindfulness is not about feeling a certain way; it’s about feeling whatever is present in your life right now in order to have greater discernment about how to respond. This involves changing our relationship to feelings, perhaps especially to unpleasant ones. Rather than trying to escape as soon as we notice them, we actually acknowledge them, and perhaps even make some peace with them. This is what the practice of awareness and nonreactivity fosters.
Some studies show that simply being focused on observing thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations is not helpful and may even add to anxiety (e.g., Oh no, here comes that anxious thought again!). Importantly, it’s how we observe—nonjudgmentally, with curiosity, and without reactivity—that promotes emotion regulation (e.g., Where is the anxiety in my body right now? Can I be curious about it? Can I simply watch the anxious thoughts come and go?) (Baer et al., 2008; Desrosiers, Curtiss, Vine, & Klemanski, 2014).
The process of observing emotions and thoughts nonreactively offers us a glimpse into the operations of our mind. Instead of being caught up as the lead performer in our mental drama, we have a front-row seat for the play. This permits greater perspective and deeper understanding. It also tempers the fear we often have of feeling our own feelings, because there is less automatic avoidance. If we are avoiding something, we notice that as well, but without commentary and without judging. Emotions become more tolerable because we have the courage to feel them, and from our new vantage point, we can see that they ebb and flow. There is less pressure to fix them and greater acceptance of our basic human experience.
Dispassionate observation and acknowledgement of experience, both pleasant and unpleasant, is a lot easier to do when the focus is on the breath or on some activity like eating. This is why teachers often start there. But the rubber really hits the road with stress. Compassionate acknowledgment of our unpleasant feelings and our typical ways of coping with them (e.g., harsh self criticism, lashing out, mental brooding, gossip, bullying, self-harm) is the doorway to reducing our reactivity and lessening our stress overall. We notice the inner mental and emotional experience, and, as best we can, we let it be. This practice has an interesting effect: It releases us from trying to solve the problem of unpleasant emotions. We struggle and stress less. We find less reactive and more regulated ways of working with difficult, ill-defined problems. We pull the plug, metaphorically speaking, to deactivate the stress cascade.
A Mindful Approach to Challenges
We know, at some deep level, that feeling our fear, anger, shame, irritation, anxiety, and sadness is better than masking it. But because it’s not what we usually do, we need to practice. You can try a mindfulness experiment when you next experience something unpleasant (i.e., stress). Maybe your child is cranky before school and you have to rush to get yourself to work. Unpleasant. Perhaps a person who was supposed to help you with a project doesn’t show up. Unpleasant. Perhaps your back pain returns or a student disrupts your class and you can’t finish your lesson. Unpleasant. We can’t escape all stress, but we don’t need to make it worse. Remember that no one is advocating we deliberately try to make ourselves uncomfortable or search out unpleasant experiences in order to suffer more. There are plenty of naturally occurring events throughout the day when we don’t get our own way. Simply acknowledging the affective quality of our experience (i.e., pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral) and the accompanying bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings adds a different perspective to the experience, building resilience and grit (Duckworth, 2016). This kind of emotional resilience can protect adolescents from being overwhelmed by intense feelings of anger, sadness, or other distressing emotions that can lead to destructive actions.
Teachers are natural caregivers whose instincts are often oriented to making things better, so mindfulness of one’s own tendency to avoid discomfort is also a good starting point. When it comes to emotions, not everything can be fixed or made pleasant, and we can’t use performance-based thinking for emotional issues. Many adolescents have come to believe that only pleasant emotions are acceptable and that uncomfortable emotions are a sign of personal weakness or substandard performance in life. This fallacy presents a great but avoidable mental burden. It is critically important that students learn to recognize their uncomfortable feelings in the moment and understand that they do not have to like these feelings if they are to regulate distress in a balanced and wholesome way.
Teachers can help students understand their own tendency to cover up unpleasant feelings by modeling emotional balance. For example, teachers might respond to student pressure or complaints about schoolwork by acknowledging the obvious dissatisfaction without fixing or confrontation. It may be possible, when there is clearly something causing stress in the classroom, to recognize it openly, nonjudgmentally, and in the moment, thus modeling for students a mindful approach to unpleasant circumstances. The practices included in this chapter can provide the foundation for this emotional skill.
Sometimes pressures related to time or performance demands, fatigue, restlessness, and boredom build up in the classroom, and students react in negative ways. Simply avoiding the obviousness of the circumstances by pressing ahead can make matters worse. Allowing students to take a few mindful breaths or engage in some movement can demonstrate acceptance of the situation (e.g., I know we’ve been working hard, and you’re feeling tired) and provide tools for stress management. Simple recognition of the body and feeling its sensations (e.g., noticing feet on the floor, tension in the shoulders) without changing anything can be a particularly effective antidote to stress. Body awareness or interoception helps students regulate their stress because it grounds attention in the physical body and reduces the amplification of distress caused by spiraling thought streams and emotional reactivity (Roeser & Pinela, 2014).
While classroom “peace corners” or places where students can go to self-regulate are becoming more popular for younger children (Lantieri, 2002), they are not usually available to adolescents. The purpose of a classroom peace corner is to provide students a safe place where they have an opportunity to handle strong emotions by recognizing them, accepting them, and restoring balance. They can then find a responsible way to act without hurting themselves or others. The opportunity to take a voluntary break to restore emotional control is certainly something adolescents need. Offering some nondisciplinary means for this process in secondary education settings could help adolescents develop better self-regulation and ultimately improve learning.