One of our high school seniors just got in to Howard University, and she is waiting on a few other responses before she makes her decision of where to study next year. This young woman demonstrates many characteristics of resilience by focusing on her studies, having a strong work ethic (grit), and overcoming adversity to get where she is today. She tends to be quiet and stays away from drama, something I sincerely wish more of the girls would do! And yet…to me she always seems stressed. There is a weariness in her eyes way beyond her years.
You would think that she is on a path to a better life and with it, better health. Certainly that is what I have thought – ‘get them through, get them out into the world, provide opportunities for better education’ – and with that will come financial and social stability, safer environments, lower cortisol levels, increased gene expression, improved immune systems…the science geek inside me gets very excited with all this.
I am so excited about this, in fact, that I am working with a curriculum specialist to develop a resiliency project for UrbanPromise (funded by my first grant – thank you, Horizon Foundation!). We are going to design a train the trainer model so that 6 core staff, representing all the UP departments, will become resiliency experts – and through department specific training embed this knowledge throughout the UP community. I consider this the next big step in becoming truly trauma-informed. But is it the right path? Or better question, is it enough?
A recent article in the NYT has made me think otherwise (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/04/can-upward-mobility-cost-you-your-health/?src=xps). It turns out that adults who have successfully moved up the ladder pay a price with their long term health, with increased rates of obesity and hypertension when compared to their less successful counterparts. I asked our high school senior about this, and she immediately recalled a cousin of hers who developed anorexia from the stress of college. Her eyes were wide as she shared her cousin’s struggle, and I sensed that she worried about this as she envisioned her own future.
The fact is, it is really stressful to break out of the norms – socioeconomic, cultural – of your youth.
I believe what is just as important as promoting resiliency, which we will continue to do, is teaching coping mechanisms and stress management. I actually want to consider stress management as another resilience characteristic, just like grit, determination and knowing your sources of strength. And I believe that mindfulness practices such as breath awareness, yoga and meditation are concrete practices that can help manage stress. IF people are willing to ‘buy in’ to this line of thinking. And give themselves the permission and the time to practice regularly. The science behind mindfulness is certainly there – how brain composition is altered positively when you practice being aware of everything you experience, good or bad, and accept it with loving kindness and without judgment. But it’s not easy to do.
I consider this grant an incredible opportunity to shape an approach to traumatized youth that not only strengthens them but makes them healthier too.
Our high school senior loved the idea of yoga class at college when I brought it up with her. She smiled at the thought, and her eyes brightened. And that’s what I want to keep seeing.