Johnny Beard didn’t know that he suffered from borderline high blood pressure last year, when researchers singled him out for a study on whether meditation could lower blood pressure. The Augusta, Ga., high school senior was just glad for an excuse to miss 15 minutes of class every morning.
But the meditation sessions that Mr. Beard attended at Lucy Craft Laney High School made a tangible difference in his life. His blood pressure dropped into the normal range and stayed there at least four months after the sessions ended.
“I thought it was a joke,” said Mr. Beard, who is now a freshman at Fort Valley State University in Fort Valley, Ga. “But as I got into it, I became more relaxed and more focused.”
Mr. Beard’s experiences and those of 155 other hypertensive secondary school students from Richmond County, Ga., were chronicled in a report published last month in the American Journal of Hypertension. The findings showed that the twice-daily meditation sessions led to marked decreases in blood pressure levels for most of the students who took part.
The study, which focused on African-American students, is among a handful in recent years that have begun testing out new approaches for relieving student stress. Experts say the small spate of research on the subject stems from two trends: a growing recognition that stress, anxiety, fear, and other negative emotions can interfere with learning, and a realization that, in today’s high-pressure society, children and teenagers are as vulnerable to stress as any adult.
Aimed at the Heart
Some educators believe that the increasing focus on testing students and holding them accountable for the results may contribute to student stress as well.
“Their lives are far more stressful than I would’ve ever dreamed my life would’ve been at that point in time,” said John C. Keppel, 55, who teaches psychology, history, and economics at Stoughton High School in Stoughton, Mass.
Two years ago, Mr. Keppel helped test an anxiety-reduction program called HeartMath with juniors and seniors who had failed one or more of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests. Passing the tests is now a graduation requirement in that state.
Though anecdotal, the results from that small experiment were positive enough to prompt the local school system to try it with younger high school students at risk of failing the tests. Now, Mr. Keppel is busy giving workshops on the techniques to districts around the state.
Robert A. Rees, the director of education and humanities at the Institute of HeartMath, a nonprofit research and education organization in Boulder Creek, Calif., said the program, in use in 200 public and private schools, is getting a similar welcome from educators around the country.
Most of the school-based HeartMath studies conducted up until now have been relatively small-scale. Done in schools in Houston, Minneapolis, and Phoenix, they suggest that besides reducing stress, the program could help improve students’ test scores.
“Anxiety creates a type of ‘noise’ in the brain that disrupts our ability to comprehend and reason,” Mr. Rees said. So it naturally follows, he said, that reducing stress levels might produce better test results.
To test the program’s academic impact more rigorously, the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Education in January awarded the institute a $1 million grant to conduct a randomized study of the approach in at least 10 school districts in eight states. The study is set to get under way next school year.
The theory underlying the HeartMath techniques is that stress disrupts the patterns of neurological, hormonal, pressure, and electromagnetic information that the heart transmits to the brain. Researchers measure some of those interactions by tracking “heart-rate variability,” or the beat-to-beat changes in a person’s normal heart rate. With their techniques, HeartMath researchers maintain, students can be taught to even out those variable heart rhythms and achieve a more productive state of “physiological coherence.”
Though the techniques and programs vary, they generally involve teaching students to focus on their hearts and generate positive emotions, such as appreciation. Mr. Keppel, for instance, visualizes how his daughter looked as a newborn when he practices HeartMath techniques.
Likewise, Vernon A. Barnes, the Medical College of Georgia researcher who conducted the Transcendental Meditation study in that state, ran into no objections from educators when he proposed teaching students the meditation techniques. The welcome was somewhat unexpected, because such techniques in other districts have drawn protests from parents and conservative Christian groups that say the practice smacks of religion.
But Mr. Barnes found that Richmond County educators, some of whom suffered from high blood pressure themselves, were concerned about their students’ stress levels. He also noted that hypertension is a particular concern in black communities, such as those that surround many of Richmond County’s schools. Some research shows, in fact, that blood pressure problems may be twice as common among African- American children and teenagers as they are among white youths.
Repeating a Mantra
For their study, Mr. Barnes and his co-authors screened 5,000 students at five secondary schools, sifting out 156 whose blood pressure levels were highest. The hypertensive students were randomly assigned to two groups. One group meditated twice a day: 15 minutes during homeroom period and 15 minutes in the evening at home. The remaining students attended a 15-minute daily class, also held during homeroom, where they received information on controlling blood pressure through diet and exercise.
Transcendental Meditation involves sitting quietly with the eyes closed and mentally repeating a mantra, which is a word or sound.
All of the students’ blood pressure rates were measured on four different days using ambulatory monitors that students wore on their bodies for 24 hours at a stretch.
After four months, when the program ended, the daytime blood pressure levels of the students who meditated had decreased. There was no change in blood pressure levels for students in the comparison group. Also, blood pressure rates had stayed low for the experimental group when researchers checked them again four months later.
“We didn’t have resistance, because the program did nothing but good for students,” said Mr. Barnes, who noted that students also reported reduced levels of anger and improvements in their concentration and sports performance. “Guidance counselors love us.”
But Rita K. Benn, a researcher at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, who is studying the effects of meditation on younger African-American students in Detroit-area charter schools, cautioned that all of the studies on student stress-reduction techniques are new and involve relatively small numbers of students.
“We still have to be careful about generalizing and exaggerating the findings,” she said. “Yoga or even writing may be just as effective, but we just don’t know that yet.”
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Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the May 26, 2004 edition of Education Week as Researchers Explore Ways To Lower Students’ Stress