The teenage brain has been shown to be more impulsive than a fully developed adult brain. But that doesn't mean teens cannot become less impulsive. They just need to learn how.
A recent study found that a program teaching different types of healthy mind and body behaviors helped reduce teens' impulsiveness.
The program involved yoga-like stretching and breathing exercises and discussions about healthy nutrition.
It also taught stress management skills and how to handle social challenges such as peer pressure.
While the specific program is not widely available, many other local programs teach the same skills that teens can take advantage of.
This study, led by Dara G. Ghahremani, PhD, of the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles, assessed the effects of a program that teaches teens about stress management and managing their emotions.
A total of 788 students from three Los Angeles-area high schools were involved in the study.
Among these, 524 students participated in a program called Youth Empowerment Seminar (YES!), "...a biopsychosocial workshop for adolescents that teaches skills of stress management, emotion regulation, conflict resolution and attentional focus [for] impulsive behavior," the authors wrote.
There were three modules to the program: Healthy Body, Healthy Mind and Healthy Lifestyle.
The Healthy Body module involved yoga stretches, how to eat mindfully and discussions about food and nutrition.
The Healthy Mind module involved techniques for stress management and relaxation, including breathing exercises and mindfulness instruction. Mindfulness is a strategy of training your brain to focus on the present and accept your emotions.
The Healthy Lifestyle module taught strategies on how to handle difficult emotional or social situations, including peer pressure.
The other 264 students included in the study did not participate in the program and acted as a comparison group.
The students in both groups completed assessments before and after the program that measured their impulsiveness and behavior.
Then the researchers analyzed the results from 327 students who completed the YES! program and 118 students who did not (since not all data was available for all the participants).
The analysis revealed that the students, whose background and demographics were similar in both groups, had similar scores on their impulsiveness at the start of the study.
But after the study, the group who participated in the YES! program had significantly reduced impulsiveness while the control group students had no change in their impulsivity scores.
Even after taking into account the students' differences in age, sex and the school they attended, those participating in the program showed reduced impulsiveness compared to those who didn't participate in the program.
"These results indicate divergence in impulsive behavior between high school students who participate in the YES! program and those who do not, especially concerning lack of planning," the researchers wrote.
"Because impulsive behavior is often linked to adolescent substance abuse, the intervention may help prevent such risky behavior," they wrote.
While the YES! program is one type of program teaching healthy behaviors and mind/body improvement, many other community programs throughout the US teach similar skills.
"Emerging research has supported the use of yoga and mindfulness techniques in helping to improve mental health in teens and children," said Seanna Crosbie LCSW, Director of Program Services at the Austin Child Guidance Center. "And, we know from the medical and psychology fields that stress and impulsivity issues are not simply 'just in the mind', as they influence the brain and the body."
She noted that research has found support that certain meditative activities can have a positive biological effect on a person.
"For example, there is some support that mindfulness and yoga can help reduce the production of cortisol, a stress hormone in the body, as well as lower blood pressure, helping to create a calm body and mind," Crosbie said.
"These techniques, combined with cognitive coping – one of the most research supported strategies in mental health – would create a powerful marriage in terms of addressing anxiety, depression and impulsivity in children and teens," she said.
Crosbie said that similar programs are used at Austin Child Guidance Center.
"The benefits of this program are that they treat the entire child, in a holistic approach – thoughts, feelings, mind, and body," she said. "Austin Child Guidance Center has used similar programs with our juvenile court population, and have had great outcomes as a result."
"For parents who do not have access to YES! program, I would encourage them to seek out local resources that include mindfulness approaches along with cognitive behavioral therapy and skill building," she said.
This study was published in the July issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.
The research was funded by the Thomas P. and Katherine K. Pike Chair in Addiction Studies and the Marjorie M. Greene Trust.