Mindfulness has emerged as a leading intervention for dealing with stress in the school setting. But the term has become overused and watered down, and it can be difficult to sort through the clutter to understand what mindfulness is and how it fits with a Christian worldview. In fact, many Christians are wary of mindfulness because it is often associated with spiritual practices outside the Christian faith.
So what is mindfulness, and can Christians practice it? If so, what does it have to offer our schools and our young people? Could it be that mindfulness is a God-given tool for reducing the stress of our modern lives, including the stress of the global COVID-19 pandemic? Let’s take a look together.
Our current generation of teenagers and young adults has led the way in stigma reduction related to mental health.
The Stress of Modern Life
Young people throughout history have played the role of truth-tellers, and our current generation of teenagers and young adults has led the way in stigma reduction related to mental health. Many students are now eager to share their uncomfortable emotions widely, using social media outlets and other online outlets to express emotional pain. They latch on to diagnostic labels, such as depression and anxiety, and may use them to describe common human experiences, such as sadness and stress. They write emails to their teachers sharing mental health struggles, and they include psychiatric treatment histories in their college applications. In many ways, young people are teaching us all to be authentic in acknowledging the pain of being human.
But even taking stigma reduction into account, it appears that mental health issues are on the rise in modern America. As compared to past generations, teens are more likely to report anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and overwhelmed feelings. They are less likely than teens in the past to spend face-to-face time with one another and less likely to pursue traditional markers of independence such as a driver’s license, a dating partner, or a job. In addition, teens are often more careful and more fearful compared to past generations—more aware of potential dangers and eager to avoid risk-taking, sometimes to the detriment of their psychological well-being and growth. These shifts (and many others) are outlined in detail by psychological researcher Jean Twenge in her book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.
Young people these days are growing up in a world of “too much.”
So why the shift? The issue is complex and the answers are hypothetical, and a dissection of mental health is not the goal of this article. But one piece of the puzzle can be summarized in one word: overstimulation.
Young people these days are growing up in a world of “too much.” Surrounded by continuous noise, light, media, pollution, processed food, commercialism, live streams, and excesses of every kind, children and teens have little opportunity to pause and be present without distraction. In addition, the psychological pressures are constant—“tips” pouring in from every corner, advertisers capitalizing on our insecurities, and a never-ending social media parade of picture-perfect comparisons. These inputs take a heavy toll on mental health for us all, and young people are especially vulnerable.
This quotation from Wendell Berry’s essay “An Entrance to the Woods” summarizes the stress of the modern experience: “Our senses, after all, were developed to function at foot speed; and the transition from foot travel to motor travel has been abrupt. The faster one goes, the more strain there is on the senses, the more they fail to take in, the more confusion they tolerate or must gloss over—and the longer it takes to bring the mind to a stop in the presence of anything” (53).
So if we have become collectively overstimulated and overwhelmed, unable “to bring the mind to a stop in the presence of anything,” what does this mean for the experience of the Christian student—especially in a season of extra pandemic-related stress? Without being present, how do we learn? How do we experience goodness? How do we connect with God? For any of these to occur, we must learn to stop and to stay present. We must learn to show up for whatever is happening in the moment so that we can receive what is being offered.
Berry, Wendell. “An Entrance to the Woods.” In Recollected Essays, 1965–1980. North Point, 1981.
Irene Kraegel (PsyD) is a licensed clinical psychologist who serves as director of the Center for Counseling and Wellness at Calvin University. As a speaker, teacher, and writer, her passion is the practice of mindfulness within a Christian framework. Her recent book release, The Mindful Christian: Cultivating a Life of Intentionality, Openness, and Faith provides Christians with a practical and inspiring tool for deepening their appreciation for the life God has given. Irene also writes at her website, TheMindfulChristian.com, and on social media at @mindfulxian. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her husband and son.