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Yoga-CBT: Antidote to Teenage Stress

Think of the last time you felt anxious.  Whether the feeling was fleeting or it overwhelmed you for days, your thoughts raced…your heart-rate followed…and you may have felt paralyzed — or at least unable to focus productively on anything you needed to do in the moment.

Anxiety affects over 40 million Americans, and increasingly the teenage population, the majority of whom struggle without treatment and suffer effects from mild to severe, with episodes lasting from minutes to years.  Anxiety has a negative impact on not just cognitive thought but also on physical health, relationships, and overall well-being – and it can be especially destructive for youth who are just developing their sense of self, navigating new social relationships, and beginning to explore their place in the world.  Anxiety can have a long-term debilitating effect at this sensitive stage of development.

Developed ten years ago by psychologist Dr. Manjit Khalsa, Ed.D., and Julie Greiner-Ferris, LICSW, Program Director of the Riverside Outpatient Center in Upton, Y-CBT (Yoga-Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) is a short-term group therapy model that addresses anxiety in its entirety, as a problem of both the mind and the body. Over six sessions Y-CBT utilizes a blend of yoga for relaxation, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to retrain the mind.  An encouraging guide to applying the principles and practices of Y-CBT to everyday life can be found within The Yoga-CBT Workbook for Anxiety (New Harbinger Press, 2017), an illustrated and easy-to-follow workbook written by the program’s creators.

Recently, along with adolescent specialist Dr. Jacqueline Vorphal, Ph.D., they adapted the program to fit the special needs of teens – tailoring it to their differing social concerns and activity.  After testing the program in two central Massachusetts high schools with gratifying results, Y-CBT for Teens is currently helping adolescents in central MA through Riverside’s Upton Outpatient Center and at the Life Skills Center and Riverside School in Milford.

A PowerPoint presentation developed especially for a teen audience gives detailed descriptions and demonstrations of anxiety symptoms and their impact on daily life – as teens tend to want more hard facts and direct answers to their questions.  The six-week Y-CBT program is accessible to people of all ages and abilities, and the low-key approach to movement is chair-based for adults, who close their eyes and generally relax into a feeling of comfort and safety.  Not so with teens – they want to be aware of what’s around them.  As well, their activity levels require more “doing”…to this end they are able to use their hands for craft activities, or stretch out on yoga mats.  And the practice of sitting facing into a circle, as adults are usually comfortable doing, is altered for teens – they sit in a line to avoid direct eye contact and the unease this can generate, or in a circle but facing outward.

With these modifications, teens are able to fully engage in the blend of CBT with yoga and breathing exercises, simultaneously calming the anxiety of the mind and easing the stress in the body.  At the end of the six-week high school pilot program, participants reduced their anxiety by 70% more than a control group of their peers, and those in the training reported significant decreases in depression and stress as well.  They find much-needed strength as they juggle the burdens of school, home and social stress.  What’s more, these teens have learned healthy coping strategies that they can practice for the rest of their lives.

Recognizing Y-CBT for Teens as an innovative program that addresses a significant problem in the field of children’s behavioral health, Riverside was one of three finalists selected to present at the 2019 Children’s Behavioral Health Awards sponsored by the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health.

If you think your teen would benefit from Y-CBT, please call Riverside’s Upton Clinic at 508-529-7000 for information.

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