The Adolescent Brain on Meditation

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By Jamison Monroe, Jr. 

Mindfulness Heals

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. 

Studies of Meditation on the Brain

Meditation has also been proven to reduce “wandering mind,” which is associated with unhappiness. In addition, it can increase empathy, decrease ADHD symptoms, and improve concentration.

Furthermore, Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard Medical School conducted two ground breaking studies of meditation on the brain. Their research showed that meditation enhances areas of the brain associated with well-being, self-regulation, and learning. Additionally, it decreases the volume of the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Adolescent Brain on Meditation

Meditation and Substance Abuse Disorder

Of particular interest to me is the research showing a link between meditation and recovery from addiction. For example, one study proved mindfulness practice is more effective in helping people to quit smoking cigarettes. Also, it was found to be more effective than that of 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) can decrease adolescents’ willingness to smoke cigarettes. 

Yoga Increases Self-Awareness

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.”

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Adolescent Brain on Meditation

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. Eventually, you’re able to do this 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.

Practice sitting still in silence. Do this especially when you don’t want to, when you don’t ‘have time,’ or when it is wildly uncomfortable. Eventually, you develop compassion for whatever shows up inside. As a result, all self-judgment and self-deprecation is rewired.

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Adolescent Brain on Meditation

Biological Benefits of Meditation

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 and meditation 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.” —Michel Mennesson, M.D. 

Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life

In conclusion, meditation is one of the best tools we have to create positive change in our mental health.

Evidence-based research shows that it’s as powerful as antidepressants and increases overall happiness and resilience through multiple mechanisms.

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Adolescent Brain on Meditation

A Simple and True Path to Healing

Meditation 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 long-term, sustainable healing.