Sophrology and adolescence: part 1

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Sleep, anxiety, self-building and belonging

It is acknowledged now that adolescence does not end with the teenage years, but is a less-defined process spanning young adulthood.  So this period of life does not switch off suddenly at the age of 18, when we might be catapulted into university, or 20, because there’s not ‘a teen’ at the end of the number.  It is a transition that takes its time.  And much of it is connected with what we are now understanding about the adolescent brain.  The intense pruning that goes on, stripping away neural connections so that the brain can enter its period of dramatic growth towards and into adulthood.  The prefrontal cortex that remains under construction until the age of around 25.  A great deal of adolescent experience derives from this neurobiology, alongside the hormonal activity.  The aim, after all, of our adolescence, is to bring us to the point where we can live independently from our parents.  We move towards peers, we question, we feel everything intensely, we need to belong, we sleep differently.  We are building, not only an adult brain and body, but an identity – a self.  It is like a cocoon: the pubescent child enters the chrysalis not knowing what they will become.  When I see teenagers walking along in their hoodies, I know they are in their cocoons, protecting their fragile, vulnerable selves from too much probing.  It is a paradox they must live with for those years: they want desperately to be seen and valued for who they are, but they also don’t precisely know who that is yet, so they need to hide.

Sophrology meets them exactly where they are.  No need to talk or analyse, it assumes that everything they need for this journey is within them.  Strength: it is there.  Calm: it is there.  Confidence: it is there.  Hope for a positive future: it is there.  Gently, oh so gently, it builds that positivity within them.  It never tackles a problem head- on, but rather dances around and through it – always at the pace at which the individual feels happy to go.  The wisdom of the body and the mind will work towards wholeness if we reinforce the positive and point in the direction of what is there within all of us.  No matter what we may have experienced.

So.  Sleep.  Young people do not fall asleep as early, and they need to sleep longer in the morning.  Because of these new rhythms, and often hindered by devices and phones, they can struggle to fall asleep and feel anxiety around it.  They are also dealing with a lot of new experience and trying to process it – often as they are quiet and about to sleep.  In conjunction with standard good sleep hygiene practices (no caffeine after 2pm, no screens half an hour before bedtime, a winding-down routine, a warm bath, a tidy bedroom, no devices in the bedroom), Sophrology works very well for sleep problems.  It is used in pretty much every sleep clinic in France and other parts of Europe.  Through breathing, dynamic relaxation and visualisation we bring calm to our bodies and minds during the day – and this is crucial for good sleep patterns at night.  We learn to be in our bodies both subjectively and objectively – both experiencing from within, and observing from a place of awareness.  This gives distance from our thoughts and feelings.  We no longer identify with every smallest thought that passes through our mind, lost in the feelings it creates.  Then at night we use both the physiological response to counted, structured breathing and the power of the mind to bring peace.  With all my children – and particularly my teenager, I have used this to help them relax and sleep, and it is usually effective within ten minutes – sometimes sooner.  I guide them into relaxation, and the body does the rest.  Sometimes it is a simple body scan.  Sometimes it incorporates breathing in a positive element (like peace, confidence, joy) that they feel they need more of, and spreading it through the body, fixing it there.  Sometimes we take a peaceful colour, the exact shade of whatever colour they feel drawn to, and we invite it in through the breath and diffuse it in the body.  Or we might spend a short time in a landscape of their choosing, their own safe place.  The power of this is enormous.  Once body and mind are safe and calm, they can rest.

Anxiety.  There can be a lot to worry about in an adolescent mind.  Emerging sexuality, friendship issues, school and college pressures, family struggles, strong emotions, changing bodies, leaving home.  And that’s just ‘normal’ experience.  Of course there are many who hold much deeper, more painful places because of the circumstances of their lives and/or the degree of awakened consciousness of their parents. Dabrowski, a Polish psychiatrist who developed the ‘theory of positive disintegration’, says that anxiety and mental pain are a normal part of growth and change.  In adolescence, and other periods of intense change (menopause, for instance), he believes that disintegration happens in order to lift the self to the next level of actualisation.  And anxiety is part of this natural movement; as I mentioned in a previous blog entry, the spiral downwards is actually the way up.  Sophrology assists with anxiety in two ways: it gives tools to alleviate the pain in the moment of experiencing it; and over time it strengthens the person’s connection with their innate ability to handle life, which itself reduces anxious thinking.  We cannot solve anxious thinking in the mind alone, it seems to me.  Working with the body, in the sophroliminal level of consciousness, gently eases the mind and relaxes tension in the body.  When some space has been created in both body and mind, more positive capacities are able to rise up and start handling things.  These capacities were always there, but were just obscured by the anxiety, like the sun behind the clouds.  Sophrology helps to chase the clouds away. 

Self-building and belonging.  It is a tricky business to build your identity, to work out who you are and what you stand for.  Particularly when that budding self is being battered on a regular basis by school or college and other people.  When that self is being shaped and influenced by social media, both for good and for bad.  We are, as Brene Brown says, hardwired for belonging.  After all, not belonging (in evolutionary terms) makes us vulnerable; sets us apart, makes us prey.  Recent research on the most important factors influencing longevity identified social disconnection and loneliness as the biggest threats to a long life – bigger even than genes or diet.  Not belonging literally kills us.  This is a truth that my teenage son knows on a visceral level; the drama of belonging or not is playing out powerfully in high schools across the world.  Teenagers know that belonging equals survival.  But interestingly – and perhaps especially for teens – Brown’s research clearly shows that the opposite of belonging is not what you might think.  It is, in fact, fitting in.  “Fitting in is assessing, and acclimating.  Here’s what I should say or be, here’s what I shouldn’t say, here’s what I should avoid talking about, here’s what I should dress like, look like.  That’s fitting in.  Belonging is belonging to yourself first, speaking your truth, telling your story, never betraying yourself for other people.  True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are: it requires you to be who you are.”   It’s a tall order for our young people, to be who they are and stand in their truth even as that self and truth is still shifting and elusive.  It’s why they often adopt wholesale the values and aesthetic of their chosen group: they are hitching their wagon to a story, trying it on for size.  Some of it will stick, some will not.  It’s a messy business, growing up.  Sophrology exercises allow the young person to find a space of peace, a respite, from this turmoil, and to glimpse the reservoir of strength and wisdom that lies within.  To connect with themselves.  To begin to work out their values.  It helps them to suspend the endless self-criticism and worry that who they are is not good enough and won’t belong in this world.  Non-judgement, gentleness, self-kindness.  We could all do with a dose of these, but particularly our precious young people doing their important work of growing up. 

This is the end of the first part of this post.  Next time, I will look at anger and strong emotions, wellbeing and balance, and the dreaded exams.  Until then.

Wishing you – and the young people in your lives – peace.