Stress, School and Self-Regulation

In my practice, I have seen a growing number of adolescents and young adults struggling with stress and anxiety.  This translates into difficulties which unfortunately are not being effectively considered within the educational system. A recent article in the Toronto Star on Student Stress interviewing York Professor Stuart Shanker highlights the problem.

“Life is very complex; our children are exposed to stressors in everything from video games to junk food, and anxiety is one of the biggest problems in elementary schools, high schools, even post-secondary,” said Shanker.

My own experience in treating clients through programs like Mindfulness Martial Arts and Taming the Bull, is that self-regulation is key to addressing what Shanker calls the core-competencies. A recent report published by the People for Education outlines the five core social-emotional competencies (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, interpersonal relationships and decision-making).  I am personally very pleased to see advocates suggesting that schools focus greater attention on student well-being, mental health and social-emotional development.

Is Exercise a Prescription for Mental Health?

Current “wisdom” encourages individuals to exercise as a solution to just about every ailment imaginable and this is understandable given all the evidence that exercise has numerous benefits to overall health and well-being.  But for individuals who struggle with mental health, even getting started is a challenge.  A recent article by the BBC highlights a new sports program in England attempting to overcome obstacles to physical activity and exercise for individuals with mental health issues. I see this as a positive development, however simply prescribing exercise may not be an option for everyone.

In my experience, a critical step to improving mental health is addressing self-regulation; something which is vital to daily life. Individuals who suffer with anxiety and depression often experience difficulties with self-regulation that negatively impact motivation, sleeping patterns and eating habits. Simply adding exercise to the daily routine of an individual who is already under resourced and strained may garner some benefits, but is likely to result in self-regulation failure in the long run.

I have found that integrating exercise within the context of the counselling process, something I call Experiential Exercise Psychotherapy (or EXP for short), holds promise for those who encounter mental health and self-regulation challenges. By improving self-regulation skills that combine physical/social and cognitive/emotional strength building, individuals experience incremental gains that create a foundation for further growth.

When I began developing and using the principles of EXP (where body, mind and brain activities were continuously integrated within the therapeutic relationship), clients successes became apparent across a spectrum of life activities. So while I support participation in exercise and sport activities wholeheartedly, I am skeptical about prescribing it as a standalone antidote for individuals struggling with poor self-regulation and mental health issues.

Taming the Bull: A Guide to Strengthening Self-Regulation

Recently, I have completed the new program manual called Taming the Bull: A Guide to Strengthening Self-Regulation.  This manual compliments the current therapy I offer to clients and includes a practitioner and client handbook as well as resources and images that are useful for those having difficulty with self-regulation.  In the near future, I hope to offer workshops to health practitioners interested in this program.