Students stressed out? Time to de-stress

Skylar Segura first met Brian Gaeta-Symonds during a routine open house at the city of Claremont’s Youth Activity Center in conjunction with the beginning of a new semester.

Ms. Segura was doing her job as a human services supervisor, greeting visitors to the YAC and talking up the various programs, while Mr. Gaeta-Symonds was busy enrolling his son at Claremont High.

She recalls how excited he was to find out about the center and had an idea for a workshop to help students deal with stress in their daily lives.

She remembers him saying, “Oh my gosh, this is so cool, can I do a workshop?”

So, in spring of 2019 the de-stress drop-in group was launched with two monthly meetings:?One on the second Tuesday of the month at the Tracks Activity Center for middle schoolers, and the following Wednesday at the YAC for older students.

“Kids love it,” Ms. Segura said during a recent visit. “We have returners and new faces every time.”

The ad for the workshop says it all:

Stressed out at home and school? Come learn new ways to de-stress through mindfulness, guided meditation, and other calming practices. We will also do some de-stressing using materials and hands-on practices. This is a drop-in group; come and go as needed. Presented by Claremont Presbyterian Church and Brian Gaeta-Symonds

Mr. Gaeta-Symonds, 37, is an associate pastor at Claremont Presbyterian Church, but he made it perfectly clear he had no intention of promoting Christianity or any religion as part of the de-stress workshop.

“I am not here to proselytize,” he said. Rather his motivation is to share the stress relieving techniques he learned as a young man, while experiencing internal conflicts with faith and identity.

“De-stressing came into my life when I came out. I was conflicted all of the time with issues between the church and being gay,” he said.

The stress and anxiety gave him acid reflux that was so acute, his doctors were considering surgery. But a friend who had a deep passion for mindfulness showed him some relaxation techniques that helped him get through that particular difficult time. And he has been promoting these techniques ever since.

On a recent Wednesday about a dozen CHS students, and one recent graduate, gathered around a couple of folding tables for the October session of the de-stress workshop.

Asked what stresses them out the students’ response was a universal “Everything.” But pressed further, the biggest contributors were school and grades. Seniors added pending deadlines for college applications including the essay requirement, in addition to balancing the demands of outside forces, including family duties and extracurricular activities.

“It’s not distressing, it’s de-stressing,” Mr. Gaeta-Symonds said as the students laughed.

“I want to approach you at your narrative, learn your story and meet you where you are.” he said. “The goal is to center our energy focus, our mind or our body.”

To get started he had a student ring a singing bowl as everyone closed their eyes and focused on breathing.

In an exercise called lectio divina, Mr. Gaeta-Symonds read from a poem by Ella Phillips titled “For all those people.” He recited the poem twice, like a mantra, and then asked if any single word or phrase stood out. Everyone was a bit shy about sharing, but eventually one student responded, “Broken heart.”

Carl Noriega, 15, said he couldn’t pull out just one word, but he liked the poem and its message in its entirety.

Next came the hands-on portion, a game called “filling my plate.” Using a marker, participants divided a paper plate into six portions, like a sliced pizza. Next they labeled two slices as “people” followed by an “S” for school and a “P” for personal. They repeated that step by labeling two slices for places and two for things.

The students were next asked to personalize the slices, for instance “people s” could be a difficult teacher, “things p” might be chores at home. They did not all have to be negative, although Mr. Gaeta-Symonds admitted it is human nature to focus on the things that are hard.

Finally, he instructed everyone to fill in the slices with a crayon to symbolize how much mental attention a particular issue takes up. If filling out college applications took up a lot of mental space, that slice would be completely colored in. The plate provides a visual reminder of everything going on just under the surface, as each person goes about the daily chores.

Mr. Gaeta-Symonds then divided the group into pairs with instruction to share a positive and a negative slice from his or her plate. The other person was directed to just sit and listen without comment or interjection.

He explained that too often people, not just teens, need to be heard without suggestions, judgment or criticism. It’s the difference between safe space and brave space, where one feels comfortable talking about something personal.

“You may not be looking for a solution, but just to vent,” he said. “It’s also important that you thank someone for authentically listening to you.”

After the workshop, Alex Ainsworth, 15, reflected on the filling your plate exercise. “Things you push to the back burner actually take up a lot of head space.” Alex said, adding that the workshop was cool and the free snacks were appreciated.

“I just want to relax,” senior Aniyah Powell, 17, said as she sat with her friend Jocelyn Williamson, 17. “Plus I like coloring.”

The two agreed the stress of being seniors and college applications were the biggest stressors in their lives. They both planned to attend another workshop.

Mr. Gaeta-Symonds said he could have spent the entire hour talking to the teens, but prefers to give them tools to work things out on their own. He really enjoys the classes himself, noting the students are very hungry for the chance to overcome their anxiety and feel better.

“Talking about it, naming it and sharing are the things that are really going to help,” he said. “I wish I had something like this when I was young.”

—Steven Felschundneff


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