No matter how old you are, learning to navigate the inner turmoil that life inevitably brings is no easy feat. But teenagers have extra challenges: hormonal changes, a brain that’s still developing, the intensity of social interactions with peers, academic demands, and their parents’ high expectations. And that’s if they’re lucky! Many teens also struggle with body image issues, strained relationships with family members, and an over-reliance on technology in favor of face-to-face connection. As a result, their mental health can suffer. Furthermore, teen depression, teenage anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and substance use disorder are all potential outcomes for teens who don’t have the skills to weather life’s ups and downs.
What teens need are sustainable, easy-to-access tools that aid them in learning to feel their feelings without descending into despair, anger, fear, or confusion. The good news is that those tools are available to every teenager. Rather than a secret formula or a cure-all drug, the key lies in building simple, everyday habits that support positivity and balance.
Here are five ways for teens to improve their emotional self-regulation.
1. Learning to Ride the Wave
When teens feel intense emotions, they sometimes try to push those feelings away. That can be true even if the emotions are good ones, like pride, love, or joy. Feeling our feelings can be scary and overwhelming. Riding the wave is a tool that helps teenagers become more comfortable with experiencing what’s happening inside them, instead of self-medicating with drugs or alcohol or distracting themselves with technology or entertainment.
“Riding the wave is a metaphor that we use to illustrate the ebbs and flows associated with life. Sometimes the waves are big and other times they are small, but if teens can learn to observe when they are starting to swell, and experience the feelings associated with that, they can mindfully ride them without getting swept away.” —Dr. Prakash Thomas, Psychiatrist at Newport Academy
Here’s how to ride the wave when feelings threaten to overwhelm you:
- Pay attention to your breath and consciously make it slower and deeper.
- Relax your body, letting the muscles release from head to toes.
- Tune in to the feelings you are experiencing in your body and your mind.
- Observe what you are feeling with compassion and without judging yourself.
- Continue to let the feelings be there without pushing them away, as the wave recedes.
2. Meditation and Mindfulness
The ability to quiet the mind and stem the flow of wandering thoughts has multiple mental health benefits. Teens can start by learning how to meditate with a teacher. Then they can establish a habit of taking a few moments each day to practice this skill.
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. Meditation has been proven to have the following benefits:
- Reduces “wandering mind,” which is associated with unhappiness
- Increases empathy
- Decreases ADHD symptoms
- Improves concentration and attention
- Enhances areas of the brain associated with well-being, self-regulation, and learning
- Decreases the volume of the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress.
“Anything that increases awareness helps with the struggle with depression, anxiety, and substance use. For teens, increasing awareness actually increases maturation—particularly if the practice is done in an environment leading to increased connection with others who understand your challenges.” —Dr. Michel Mennesson, Psychiatrist at Newport Academy
3. Physical Exercise
Exercise is a great way for teens to let off steam and focus on something other than their thoughts. Physical activity gets teenagers out of their heads and into their bodies. Consequently, it forces them to be in the present moment. Exercise releases endorphins, a natural mood lifter. Furthermore, physical activities create a sense of achievement that boosts teens’ self-confidence.
The research shows how effective physical activity can be in combating depression. A 2012 research review looked at a range of studies showing that aerobic exercise or strength training can significantly reduce symptoms of depression. In a study of a dozen young adults at the University of Newcastle in Australia, participants with major depressive disorder exercised regularly—three times a week with a trainer and on their own the other days. After 12 weeks of exercise, 10 of the participants were no longer categorized as depressed. In addition, according to one study, exercising regularly and frequently is more important than the intensity level of your workout.
4. Sleep Hygiene
It may seem strange that getting more sleep improves the way teens feel when they’re awake. But it’s true! Researchers have found that teens feel more depressed when they don’t get enough sleep, which makes it harder to handle challenges and deal with strong emotions. Furthermore, not getting enough sleep can increase teens’ likelihood of using drugs and alcohol. One study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control showed that less than nine percent of teens get enough sleep, and the amount of sleep they get decreases as they progressed through high school.
Here are five ways that parents can help teens get to bed earlier and sleep better:
- Set an electronic curfew. Teens’ use of technology often interferes with getting enough sleep. Turning off their computers and cellphones at a fixed time each night will help their brains can wind down and get ready for sleep.
- Create a bedtime routine. They can do relaxing activities before bed instead of using technology, such as reading, taking a shower, listening to quiet music, or meditating.
- Get them up at the usual time on weekend mornings. Sleeping till noon and then staying up late will throw off their schedule for the rest of the week.
- Make sure their bedroom is dark enough. Light can interfere with the sleep cycle. Use blackout curtains to make sure daylight is not disturbing their sleep. All lights in the room should be off when the teen is sleeping.
- Keep the bedroom cool. The body prepares for sleep by lowering its internal temperature, and a cool room can encourage that process.
5. Creativity and Flow
Artistic expression is a powerful way for teens to release and manage emotions. When it’s difficult to talk about what you’re going through, it’s helpful to find other ways to let out what you’re feeling. In addition, creativity induces a state of flow—the experience of being completely absorbed by an activity. When we’re engaged in a flow activity, our brain waves shift to the alpha waves associated with rest and relaxation and the theta waves that occur during meditation. Teens particularly benefit from flow, according to research.
The benefits for teenagers of being “in flow” include the following:
- Feeling happier
- Higher self-esteem
- Greater optimism
- Increased concentration skills
- Decreased focus on disturbing thoughts
- Better coping skills
- More time spent with friends.
Plus, creativity isn’t just about visual art. Artistic expression could include any of the following activities:
- Writing songs
- Making a collage
- Working with clay.
“We have energy and emotion in our bodies that we have to process, otherwise it causes a negative physical and emotional impact. When you hit a drum, you can use it to release that emotion.”—Tim Ringgold, Newport Academy Music Therapist
Watch AnnaMarie share her experience using creativity as an outlet to transform stressful emotions.
Photos courtesy of Unsplash