By Emily Spears
As high school students, we like to believe that we are present thinkers, that we are experts at living in the moment and being effortlessly spontaneous. By posting “candid” photos of ourselves on Instagram, and making “phone piles” at parties, we convince ourselves that we are living in the present, when many of us have no clue what that actually means, and the mindset that it involves. We want to believe that the stress we receive from school, extracurriculars, family and social relationships doesn’t interfere with what is happening at this very moment. What we choose to ignore, however, is that our minds are often anywhere but the present. As teenagers, it is not difficult to fall into the frequent rhythm of wondering where we could be, what we could be doing, or who we could be with. Many might simply call this FOMO (fear of missing out), but the reality is that high-schoolers simply have difficulty thinking in the present, being able to look around and fully experience what is happening in the here and now. Out of 29 students interviewed, 28 stated that both social and academic stress keep them from being in the moment, limiting their opportunities to learn, take a deep breath, and identify methods to relieve that stress.
The ability to be in the moment and focus on what is happening in the present is a skill that has always been and will continue to be difficult for young developing minds. Not only are there endless distractions that exist in our world today, but teens are also much more susceptible to the common feeling of missing out or being excluded. This in turn often leads to preoccupation within the mind, and diverts from the ability to think in the present. “As an adolescent, the development of the prefrontal cortex is still occurring, which makes teenagers more easily distracted, and harder for them to be in the moment,” stated Dr. David Becker, Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at UCSF and Integrative Medicine Specialist at the Osher Center.
So what exactly does ‘being in the moment’ mean? A lot of it has to do with having a sense of mindfulness. Mindfulness, defined by Kathi Kemper MD, a complementary medicine pediatrician, is “the intention to notice without judgement, the experiences that arise in each moment.” Mindfulness practice has been shown to decrease anxiety, stress, and helps to develop a more positive mindset. Since we know that present thinking is a key element of happiness, why is this so difficult for teenagers to achieve and what can they do to be more mindful?
An inherent part of being an adolescent is trying to make the best of our time and in order to do that, we sometimes sacrifice what we are doing in the moment to think about the other possible pastimes that might be more appealing: hanging out with friends, working and making money, getting homework done, being at a party, etcetera. Counselor Evelyn Dorsett says that “Being a teenager carries a level of distractibility that remains from generation to generation.” According to Dorsett, “…many students are afraid to not be socially connected, and it can lead to distraction.” Sophomore Catherine Craig added, “I notice that I have a constant urge to be interacting with other people, on my phone and also physically being with them– so when I’m not, I feel a big disconnect and that can really pull away from what I’m doing at the moment.”
Stress is often a considerably dominant factor of how many people, especially teens, tend to lose their sense of mindfulness. Everyday, stress plays a crucial role in our lives. It determines our work ethic, causes us mental breakdowns, and most importantly, keeps us from focusing on other things that are going on.
“I am constantly being run down. Between applying for college, mock trial, keeping up in school, working, I can almost never find time for myself. When you are doing so much all the time, it can get really difficult to do it all well. Often times, it’s the stress that I get from all of these activities, that causes a general level of disengagement,” senior Will Rogosin said.
Being mindful and in the moment may appear as though they are more easily said than done. After all, how is it ever possible to get through high-school without preparing for the future and reflecting on your past mistakes, one might ask. And how can applying a sense of mindfulness actually help and improve one’s state of mind and reduce their stress? Part of it has to do with the overall drive to engage for the sole purpose of enjoyment. This is a phenomenon that has been waning over the years as the pressures to get into college and worries about students’ futures only seem to be increasing. 29 out of 29 students interviewed from grades 9-12 stated that they are stressed about getting into college, and that this pressure prevents them from participating in activities that they might have tried otherwise. “When you practice having a sense of mindfulness, you realize that the voices regarding college and the future are not based on reality, that it’s more worry and anxiety instead of the truth… and if you begin to think about it this way, than it can significantly decrease your level of anxiety” commented Karen Sun M.D., UCSF pediatrician and Associate Director of the Integrated Pain and Palliative Care Program.
Often times, this level of anxiety about the future starts to become an element of students’ everyday lives, even when it shouldn’t or when it seems out of place. “When I am going out to do something fun with my friends, no matter what happens, college and the future will always come up in a conversation and that’s all we can talk about,” Rogosin said. With the future acting as a perpetual pressor throughout the day to day lives of teens who already deal with higher levels of distraction, it is almost impossible to focus on the present. Dr. Becker asserts that “bothersome thoughts [regarding stress about school and the future] interfere with our ability to recognize what’s happening.” If we spend these four years of our lives with the mindset that they are simply a stepping stone for the future, our appreciation for the present moment lessens. By adopting the simple practice of mindfulness, we have the potential to live high school minute to minute, day by day, instead of simply as a preparation for the future.
Mark Williams and Danny Penman, authors of “Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World” describe how mindfulness is more complex than putting down your phone, or taking a break from college apps. “You come to realize that thoughts come and go of their own accord; that you are not your thoughts. You can watch as they appear in the air, and watch again as they disappear, like a soap bubble bursting. You come to the profound understanding that thoughts and feelings (including negative ones) are transient. They come and go, and ultimately, you have a choice about whether to act on them or not. Mindfulness is about observation without criticism; being compassionate with yourself… [Mindfulness] begins the process of putting you back in control of your life. Finally, mindfulness is not an attitude, it is a skill. It must be practiced and cultivated.” Many studies have shown the positive effects of teaching mindfulness to teens. According to a study published in the journal Psychological Science, students who meditate, a type of mindful practice, before an exam perform better than those who did not. The September 2016 issue of the journal “Pediatrics” on Mind-Body Therapies in Children and Youth, also states evidence that meditation is beneficial in decreasing blood pressure and improving attention in children and adolescents.
However, you don’t need to meditate in order to be more focused on the present. Sometimes, all it takes is a deep breath and being aware of your surroundings; appreciative of what this part of your life means to you right now. “A lot of the time I see people, myself included, just sort of passing things by, thinking about other things when there is something really valuable happening right then,” freshman Talia Beyer said. Present thinking has the potential to change the lens through which one perceives the world, and the measures they might take in order to achieve what they wish to do. At times, it is only when you take a look around you, and attempt to understand your immediate surroundings, that you are able to fully gain perspective on what is currently happening.
Having the ability to notice one’s feelings without judgement is essential to maintaining presence. Dr. Becker states that mindfulness “allows us to learn not to get too caught up in the intensity of the emotion in the moment.” This interpretation is very prevalent to teens as we tend to make up our minds about an idea or event very quickly, judging it before it has had a chance to play itself out. According to Dr. Becker, “a very large part of practicing mindfulness comes from recognizing that things are going to change…. And instead of analyzing it or assessing it, it is much more helpful to simply notice it and accept it for what it is.”