A recent study entitled “‘Safe in My Own Mind’: Supporting Healthy Adolescent Development Through Meditation Retreats” was published in The Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology by Dr. Brian Galla, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. It explores the relationship between intensive, week long, residential meditation retreats and teen’s emotional regulation, self awareness, and cognitive functioning.
The study enrolled teens with an interest in meditation to participate in a week-long residential retreat hosted by Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (iBme) over the summer of 2016. After enrolling 79 teens; 40 attended a weeklong retreat and 39 were randomly assigned to a “non-retreat control group”.
Through several questionnaires completed by teens as well as parents, the study collected data on emotional functioning, self-regulation, and working memory from both groups of teens before and after the retreat. The findings suggest that intensive, week-long, residential meditation retreats may support psychological health and wellbeing for teens. Compared with the teen’s who did not attend a retreat, the retreat participants reported decreased feelings of depression, increased gratitude and positivity, increased emotional self-regulation, and increases in working memory.
This study also sheds new light on the outcomes of intensive, week-long, residential meditation retreats when compared to the outcomes of school-based mindfulness programs. During residential retreats, teens set aside the routines of school, extracurricular activities, jobs, and the many technologies which accompany these routines in order to prioritize meditation practices. While school-based programs may afford several minutes of formal meditation practice during a busy school day, week-long residential retreats allow teens to experience many hours of daily practice in a close community of friends, teachers, and mentors. Galla suggests week-long residential meditation retreats “offer an unprecedented opportunity for adolescents to train their minds in support of self-awareness, self-regulation, compassion, and empathy.” This study suggests that multi-day retreats may even support improvements in psychological wellbeing comparable to school-based programs spanning several months.
This study supports previous research suggesting that measures of self-compassion are important indicators of well being. In fact, these measures may be even more important than measures of increased mindfulness. When compared to the control group, retreat participants reported increases in self-compassion, which corresponded to decreases in depression and stress as well as enhanced gratitude and positivity. In contrast, retreat participants did not show improvements in mindfulness when compared to the control group, which suggests that self-compassion played a major role in promoting these positive outcomes.
Research on the effects of meditation for teens often attribute improvements to an enhanced ability for teens to maintain mindfulness, defined as non-reactive awareness to pleasant, unpleasant and neutral emotions arising from moment to moment experience. On the other hand, practices focusing on the cultivation of compassion intentionally aim to increase positive emotions of empathy and kindness toward one’s own experience and the experiences of others. While Galla notes that mindfulness likely plays an important role in the improvement of emotional self-regulation and psychological well being, he argues that this study challenges the assumption that mindfulness is the most supportive mental quality to cultivate in pursuit of adolescent health and wellbeing.
While contributing many novel insights about meditation and adolescent health, this has a few limitations. The inclusion of a control group is an important improvement over previous research about the effects of intensive, week long, residential meditation retreats. However, the study could not be randomized due to logistical challenges, so it’s possible the findings are influenced by unseen factors. Future research would benefit from an attempt to account for the impact of meditation teachers on teen’s retreat experiences. Teachers inform both the content and quality of retreats, so positive outcomes may be the result of talented and engaging teaching, rather than the practice of meditation alone. Importantly, these findings shouldn’t be used to generalize the benefits of week-long residential retreats for all teens. This study offers important insights and should help guide future research, but parents and teens should always be intentional about deciding whether or not a residential retreat is appropriate for them in their specific context.
Many factors contribute to the qualities of self-compassion, emotional regulation, and psychological well-being suggested by this study over the course of a weeklong residential retreat. As iBme Executive Director Jessica Morey has written, the iBme curriculum supports teens in developing self-awareness, compassion, and ethical decision-making with the goal of empowering teens to apply these skills in improving their lives and communities. Our experience suggests that the teachers, mentors, and teens who make a retreat possible must work together to co-create safe, inclusive, and fun spaces where teens can be honest about their challenges and successes as they connect with compassion and joy to their own experience, in their relationships with peers, and with the natural world.