The Adolescent Brain on Meditation
How mindfulness heals
Posted Aug 18, 2015
By Jamison Monroe
Those of us in the field of mental health and addiction recovery have known for years—through personal experience and observation—that mindfulness practice is an incredibly powerful tool for healing. Now science is backing that up, unquestionably.
Take this stat, for example: A review study at Johns Hopkins found that the effect of meditation on symptoms of anxiety and depression was exactly the same as the effect of antidepressants. That’s right, exactly the same.
Meditation has also been proven to reduce “wandering mind,” which is associated with unhappiness; increase empathy; decrease ADHD symptoms; and improve concentration and attention. Two groundbreaking studies by Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard Medical School showed that meditation enhances areas of the brain associated with well-being, self-regulation, and learning—and decreases the volume of the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress.
Of particular interest to me is the research showing a link between meditation and recovery from addiction, such as the study in which mindfulness practice proved more effective in helping people stop smoking cigarettes than the American Lung Association’s “freedom from smoking” program. Another study, conducted at Boston Latin School by the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living (KIEL) and funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, indicated that yoga practice (which includes a strong mindfulness component) could decrease adolescents’ willingness to smoke cigarettes.
According to Sat Bir S. Khalsa of Harvard Medical School, the KIEL’s research director, “Qualitative data collection reveals that adolescents are less anxious and sleep better after doing yoga; in addition, their self-awareness and ease in their body increase, and their worldview begins to shift toward a more positive alignment.”
The data is clear: Mindfulness works.
So what does this feel like from the inside, particularly for those in recovery? My friend Angel Grant—who’s a yoga teacher and cofounder with me and Michael Hebb of Drugs Over Dinner—describes it beautifully: “By practicing meditation, you’re able to gently develop a capacity to witness pain as it happens inside you without letting the stories your mind tells you cause you to act self-destructively. Meditation teaches us to wake up from the habits of our mind so we have clear, conscious choice in our actions. By practicing sitting still in silence—especially when I didn’t want to, when I didn’t ‘have time,’ or when it was wildly uncomfortable—and developing compassion for whatever showed up inside me, all the self-judgment and self-deprecation, my neuropathways were rewired.”
Meditation works simultaneously on the physiological and psychological levels: As the brain and biological markers change, the capacity for resilience and self-understanding expands. “Anything that increases awareness helps with the struggle with depression, anxiety, and substance use,” says Newport Academy psychiatrist Michel Mennesson, M.D. In terms of adolescents, he says, “increasing awareness actually increases maturation—particularly if the practice is done in an environment leading to increased connection with others who understand your challenges.” That’s why mindfulness practice is an integral component of our curriculum at Newport Academy. It’s vital that we take advantage of the neuroplasticity of the adolescent brain in order to effect positive change.
Meditation is one of the best tools we have to create that positive change. Evidence-based research shows that it’s as powerful as antidepressants and increases overall happiness and resilience through multiple mechanisms. It has no dangerous side effects, and it’s free. So why aren’t doctors prescribing teenagers a practice of mindfulness instead of a cocktail of pharmaceuticals? Why isn’t our health-care system paying closer attention to information that could completely shift the way we treat mental illness and substance abuse in this country, for adolescents and for people of all ages?
When this happens, we’ll see more and more people, including many whose suffering has been untouched by conventional methods, achieve the long-term, sustainable healing that Angel Grant has found in meditation. “Through practice and grace, the operating system inside my head has been rebooted,” says Grant. “New pathways have been created in my brain. Heroin and cocaine can no longer compete with the depth of connection I’ve experienced.”
Jamison Monroe, Jr., Founder and CEO of Newport Academy, is a prominent voice in the field of adolescent mental health and addiction treatment. He is an active participant in the movement to reduce social stigma around substance abuse and mental health challenges. Monroe is a writer, spokesperson, yoga teacher, and fierce advocate of holistic learning and compassionate care for struggling teens.