Our People: Helping teens deal with anxiety

ALL ABOUT THE BREATH: Jess Smith and Emma Chapman run workshops for 9-14 year old's, building resilience and teaching young people how to manage stress and anxiety. Picture Martin Hunter

Along with juggling young families and running businesses, yoga instructor Jess Smith and child psychologist Emma Chapman started up a series of mindful retreats for the 9 to 14 year-old age group this year. Based in Sumner, they aim to help young people manage the complexities of growing up in the 21st century. They talk to reporter Sarla Donovan

So why have you aimed the retreats at this age group?

Emma: It’s a really good age in their development to put mental health strategies in place that are a little bit more complex than you could do with those under the age of eight. Also they’re really open at this age, they’re not as self-conscious and you can get a lot of good, honest work done with them – would you say Jess?

Jess: Yeah, they’re very honest and they’re not so ‘in their head,’ their answers come out really fast. And they’re fun to be with.

Emma: We give them this journal that’s got a whole lot of stuff in there so that throughout their teenage years as they’re growing and processing things more they have these tools. It’s almost like we’re trying to not be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, we’re getting in before all that and giving them tools to go forward with.

What are the biggest challenges facing ‘tweens’ today and how are you helping them?

Jess: One thing is they’re living outside their body, not inside.They’re busy looking at social media and everything’s so out in front of them, there’s so much comparison that they forget to listen to that internal voice and develop their intuition. Even with yoga, I never teach that it should look like this. I’m really mindful of my language so it’s more of an inquiry: ‘how does it feel?’

Emma: We need to be able to feel all of our emotions and know what to do when they overwhelm us. Social media is about the persona of what you want the public to see and often that’s just happy, lots of friends and all that kind of thing. And we’re saying hang on, let’s get back to what’s real in life and the fact that not everyone’s happy all the time, so what do we do with those big emotions?

Can anybody attend a retreat?

Emma: Anyone can come. These are strategies for everybody, you don’t need to have anxiety or be stressed out. We would only ever restrict anyone from coming if they were working really closely with mental health services, meaning that being in the group would put them so far outside their comfort zone that it wouldn’t be safe.

How do you think the earthquakes have affected young people in Christchurch?

Emma: For my part I think it’s a very useful tool during the retreats that children have had the shared experience of the fight/flight/freeze response during the earthquakes and we focus on how this has built resilience.

Jess: Teaching them how to breathe is a really important part because as we know during fight/flight the breath gets shortened and the heart rate comes up so we’re learning how to work with that: grounding the feet, coming back to the breath and anchoring. It’s such a small
tool but it can go such a long way.

Emma: The breathing is a huge part of our retreats. We come back and back and back to it.

Can you describe what you do each day?

Jess: I start with a 90 minute yoga practice, maybe some meditation, a little bit of art work and then we have a break, have some food and then Emma takes over.

Emma: Once they come to me I usually do some psycho-education around their brains and anxiety/stress, things like that. So they’ve been grounded by Jess and then unfortunately I take them straight back into their heads. But they’re ready for it by then and it’s at their level, just making sense to them as why their bodies go into
fight/flight/freeze and things like that. And then we work through different strategies, cognitive behaviour therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, both of which work really well with this age group and it’s kind of up to them to take those away and decide what works for them and what doesn’t. There’s lots
of homework involved with that, and lots of sharing which is really nice.

Jess: By day three I have to calm everybody down, they’re so excited and talking and there’s this beautiful friendship that starts between everyone.

How did you come up with this idea?

Jess: Emma actually contacted me. A good friend of her’s came to one of my yoga retreats (for adults) and she mentioned that she wished her daughter could have gone and I think Emma’s brain lit up and she contacted me.

Emma: There’s nothing in the market like it and for someone like myself who’s a private psychologist having to make people pay $150 an hour to see their children when I could actually give thee same strategies in a group setting . . . I just thought we need to get this
out there. The mental health service in Christchurch is crazy, there’s a 28 week wait or something like that to see someone through the public system. And although there’s still a cost it’s very low compared to what it would be
if you were doing it individually with someone privately.

Jess: For me, yoga is in big competition with rugby and netball and just the A to Z of activities. Kiwi kids have so much on their plate besides just going to school so when yoga gets put on the table it’s kind of the last thing a kid’s going to do so it’s nice to offer it as something that is going to benefit other aspects of their life, not just physically.

You’ve run two retreats now, what’s the feedback been like?

Emma: That it’s been really life changing. They all want to do it again. We have a form we ask them to fill out at the end.

Jess: And they’re brutal! (laughs.) As adults we’re so conditioned to be nice but it’s like “I didn’t like the food,” or “What! Homework? I thought this was a retreat!”

Emma: Then we have feedback weeks or months later from caregivers and they’re saying they’ve really found it useful. They go away with quite a large pack of things so we’re not just saying do the four days and see you later, they’ve got things they can go back to so when the next big thing comes up in their lives they can go back to their yoga mat that they’ve decorated for themselves and all of the things that they go away with that makes it doubly powerful.

Have you made any changes since running the first retreat in January?

Jess: We’re trialling one day workshops because the four days is a commitment and expense and at least it gives people who can’t take breaks during the holidays an experience of what it’s like.

Emma: Another big thing is we used to just take girls and we have decided to be more gender diverse because of course there is no need for it just to be girls. We thought possibly it was going to create a safe space but all genders can do that.

And what does the future hold for the Mindful Retreats?

Emma: We get a lot of really good sponsorship from people because we hate that people aren’t able to come because of money so ideally the government would start sponsoring us and we could roll it out across primary schools. That would be where we’re aiming for so we’re collecting a lot of data so we can approach government agencies and see what they can do.

•Four-day winter Mindful Retreat, Tuesday July 17 – Friday July 20, 12.30 – 5pm at Van Asch Deaf Education Centre. See the Mindful Retreats Facebook page for details.