Big Picture High School sophomore Ava Aragon taught her peers how to focus on the flame of a candle this spring to help them calm down.
The lesson was part of a class focused on understanding trauma and stress – and learning to manage and overcome it.
Focusing on a flame helps Aragon with her own anxiety, she said.
“It gives you an opportunity just to focus on the now,” she said.
Aragon is far from the only teenager dealing with anxiety. A Pew Research Center poll recently showed anxiety and depression top the list of concerns among teens, beating out drug addiction, alcohol and bullying.
In Southwest Colorado, Doty Shepard, who founded Resilient Colorado, a nonprofit, is teaching teens and adults to understand and manage the stress and trauma that can affect their brains and behaviors.
Shepard taught Aragon’s class at Big Picture about stress and has also led other trainings for high school students and adults in the region in the last year.
“Students today are ready to talk about – and they want to talk about – things like trauma and suicide and violence, and the adults aren’t ready. It’s difficult for them,” she said.
However, whether teens or adults understand them or not, the effects of severe trauma can shape their lives.
Some children who go through serious trauma, such as abuse or neglect, have smaller brains as a result, Shepard said. Traumatized children are also more likely to score lower on IQ and reading tests.
Those who have four or more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect, are far more likely to experience mental health problems and participate in risky behavior, such as alcohol abuse, drug abuse and unsafe sex, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
They are also more likely to die early and experience chronic health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease.
Traumatized people develop addiction because they are trying to address the lasting physiological effects of trauma, said Ruby Jo Walker, a Durango-based expert in neurophysiology and trauma treatment.
Walker’s clients are often relieved when she explains traumatic experiences have had a biological effect on their body that can be addressed, she said.
“It’s not about how strong you are as a person, it is about biological responses,” she said.
Traumatized people have trouble staying in the present moment and their attention can be easily hijacked by their emotions, she said. But people can learn to observe their emotions through mindfulness and regulate their nervous system response rather than being overtaken by it, she said.
“I am, personally, endlessly hopeful about recovery from trauma,” she said.
Shepard presents the realities of the ACEs study to teens and adults, but she also teaches students how to protect their minds and unwind from the effects of toxic stress. Toxic stress is similar to trauma in its effects, and it can leave the brain in an emotional state struggling to problem-solve or learn.
The body’s response to stress is intended to keep humans alive if they met a bear in the woods, she told an Animas High School class during a training. The fight, flight or freeze response is intended to be triggered for 30 to 40 minutes.
Humans were never intended to take the bear home with them at the end of the day, she said. But that’s the effect of toxic stress, she said.
“Your nervous system never gets a chance to regain its equilibrium,” she said.
To help students deal with stress, Shepard suggests using short practices that can help reset the brain during the day and developing healthy habits at the end of the day.
For example, taking a moment to notice five items you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste is a practice that helps many people restore some of their attention to the present moment, she said.
At the end of the day, it can help to exercise, play an instrument or develop other healthy habits to release stress, she said.
Practices that calm the brain down, such as yoga, can help build gray matter, improve the immune system’s response and increase the brain’s resiliency, she said. The most effective practices to use vary by individual. She invited her students at Big Picture to try out many different strategies to see which ones lower their pulse, she said.
She also invited the Big Picture students to teach each other resiliency practices.
Aragon taught her peers about watching a candle’s flame, a practice she learned from her former therapist.
By taking the four-week class, Aragon also learned to detach from unhealthy relationships with people who brought her down and kept her in a constant flow of negativity and to seek out people she could count on, she said.
“A big support system has been my girlfriend helping with school, which helps me not stay so stressed out at school,” she said.