Laurence Steinberg Addresses Importance of Relaxation and Stress Management

Wellness Week keynote speaker Professor Laurence Steinberg from Temple University, a specialist in psychological development of adolescents, spoke at Wednesday’s All-School Meeting and addressed the effects of stress on adolescents. Steinberg offered tips to increase self-control and to reduce students’ stress. Steinberg’s research has focused on adolescent brain development, risk-taking and decision-making, parent-adolescent relationships, adolescent employment, high school reform and juvenile justice. To begin, Steinberg asked the students if they were stressed. Most students responded by raising their hands in affirmation. “One way of coping with stress is by putting things into perspective. Don’t get too carried away when things don’t go exactly as you wish,” said Steinberg. “During adolescence, your body changes, your mind changes, your emotions and relationships with friends, romantic partners, parents all change and you start to think about new roles like your careers and college. Transitions can bring stress.” Steinberg said that failure to deal with stress effectively can cause an adolescent to become vulnerable to health problems and can lead to anxiety, depression, substance abuse, violence, tension, insomnia, fatigue and the use of alcohol and drugs to escape the feeling of stress. He said that the most common causes for teenage death are reckless driving, experimentation with drugs, unprotected sex and fighting. “A good rule of thumb is that if you are experiencing those kinds of feelings and symptoms for a two week period, it’s probably a good idea to talk to somebody about it,” said Steinberg. “The longer these problems go untreated, the harder they are to treat and the more likely they are to grow.” Steinberg also emphasized the significance of two different brain systems that change drastically during adolescence. The first brain system he addressed was the limbic system in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. “This is a system that processes rewards, punishment, emotional experience, and social experience. It’s the part of your brain that is active when you’re experiencing pleasure, when you’re experiencing fear, when you’re trying to figure out what other people’s emotions are and what others think of you,” he said. Steinberg also explained the effects of dopamine, a strong neurohormone the brain secretes when a person is thinking about food, money, sex or anything that gives the basic human pleasure. “One of the things that happen in your brain during the time of puberty is that there is a huge increase in dopamine activity in this pathway of the brain. What this translates into is that things feel really good during this time period,” said Steinberg. “This increase in dopamine activity has good and bad things about it. The good thing is that things feel so good. The bad thing is that it makes us want to pursue rewards so intensely that it makes us do really stupid things, like causing risk-taking behavior, reckless driving, and experimentations with drugs and alcohol,” he continued. Steinberg used a scientific approach to explain how dopamine ultimately causes addiction. “Molecules in substances like alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, and cocaine go to the receptors for dopamine and your brain can’t tell the difference between them. Your brain produces less natural dopamine, which means you experience less pleasure and reward in your daily life. You start to crave artificial pleasure.” Individuals who are exposed to these substances as adolescents have much greater chances of producing artificial dopamine and becoming addicted. The second brain system that Steinberg discussed was the system crucial in self-control and self-recognition. “This brain system is important for planning, thinking ahead and regulating our emotions and is mainly located in our temples. It develops very, very gradually and is still immature when we’re 14, 15, 16 years old,” said Steinberg. Steinberg concluded his talk by giving tips on how to effectively manage stress. According to Steinberg, a combination of relaxation and concentration improves one’s ability to regulate oneself and better cope with stress. He demonstrated a way to improve concentration by asking the students to simultaneously count backwards from 153 by multiples of seven while listening to his speech. While the students were counting quietly, Steinberg presented three points that can contribute to happiness as adolescents and as adults. “The first is to be in a good mood as much of the time as possible. Second, find something that really engages you that you can be passionate about. Get into that great ‘zone.’ And third, find some meaning in life. Feel that your contributions are important,” he said. When Steinberg asked the students to repeat the three tips he had talked about, many could not remember what he had said. Steinberg demonstrated the importance of relaxation by asking the students to think about their breathing and to focus on their body inhaling and exhaling for one minute. According to Steinberg, practicing these exercises of relaxation and concentration will improve the ability to regulate and manage stress. Steinberg hoped that the All-School Meeting would allow the students to “take some advice and practical guidelines on how to cope with stress.” In 2009, Steinberg was named the first recipient of the Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize for his contributions toward improving the lives of young people and their families.