The current Fairfax County school budget concerns reflect the pressure for school officials, administrators and teachers to do more with less for Fairfax County children. This is amidst a real problem of ever-increasing enrollment and already-crowded classrooms. While fully fixing the problems is not likely in the near future, there is an acute need to address the high level of stress resulting from these economic pressures.
The Feb. 3 issue of Time magazine’s cover reads “The Mindful Revolution” and goes on to detail the increasingly well recognized stress-reducing benefits of learning to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness in a nutshell is being more fully present in each moment of our lives as it unfolds, rather than being continually lost in worries about the past or anxiety or planning about the future. It involves bringing our attention back to the here and now, repeatedly, and noticing when our minds habitually wander (often in stress-based thinking). We can apply focused mindfulness to many of our daily activities and experience life more fully, such as walking, learning, listening to music, eating and brushing our teeth mindfully. Formal practices of mindful meditation use a focal point to help us anchor our attention, such as focusing on one’s breathing.
But mindfulness practices go beyond simple awareness to include becoming better attuned to recognizing habits that create stress in our relationships, cloud our thinking and judgment, and lead to depression and anxiety. For example, the quality of our thinking is an important consideration, given that as humans we have a “negativity bias,” a lens through which we place more emphasis and time on thinking about negative experiences and appraisals than positive ones. Exercises in compassion, openness, gratitude, and acceptance pervade mindfulness teachings and help us to soften in our stance towards ourselves and others.
The foundation of mindfulness research comes from a program called “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR),” founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He established MBSR as a program for patients suffering with chronic pain and medical illnesses, and since then it and programs like it have shown positive results in areas such as stress reduction, pain management, depression and anxiety. It also has positive effects on calming the stress-based response system in our bodies that, when overly active, interrupts our ability to focus, problem solve, and experience positive emotionality.
Returning to the issue of our collective concerns about needing to help children in our county learn as well as to retain teachers amidst considerable resource gaps in the budget, it seems like a little mindfulness could go a long way. There are several efforts to bring mindfulness to the schools, with goals of reducing stress, calming bodies, focusing minds, bringing intention to thoughts and actions, and increasing empathy for others (e.g. see www.mindfulschools.org, thehawnfoundation.org/mindup, and the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, bringing mindfulness to schools in our local area www.imcw.org). Teacher programs are also being developed (e.g. www.care4teachers.org). While mindfulness won’t solve the economic problems our county faces, it may assist in bearing the burden a little more easily and buffering the impact of the stress on our children’s development.
The writer is a psychologist and owner of The Village Wellness Center in Herndon.