With limited mental health services in high demand, what’s a parent to do when their child needs help, and there’s no one to turn to? Can help come from within?

“Creating Calm in the Chaos” is a new afterschool program aimed at teaching teens the life hacks to use to quiet their minds, calm their bodies and take control of their lives.

The program is the joint effort of islanders Paula Petry, who holds a doctorate in special education, and Sonja Fritts, a certified HeartMath instructor. They lead the eight-week workshop where teens learn evidence-based techniques and wellness strategies to cope with stress.

Petry is a healthcare advocate for children with special needs and researcher with years of experience teaching stress and anxiety reduction programs. Fritts teaches HeartMath techniques that explore the heart-brain connection that influences our emotions, intuition and behaviors.

“It’s so hard to get teenagers to open up to something, especially if they are struggling,” Petry said.

The program guides youth through a different topic each week. Some of the topics include meditation, breathing, mastering emotions, being aware of personal triggers, learning the neuroscience of adolescence and mapping out one’s dream future.

It sounds like a lot to learn, but Petry hopes youth embrace these wellness practices to build emotional resilience as they “begin their journey into adulthood with the tools and the scientific knowledge that allows them to live a life deeply connected to both the earth and their own soul.”

As a mother of four, Fritts has taught her own kids HeartMath coping strategies and has seen immediate results. “Breathing is so powerful. It’s easy to do. You can do it anywhere with your eyes open, and no one knows you’re doing it.” She said it is the key to dealing with stress to calm the body within two or three minutes.

Petry and Fritts understand the pain of watching a child suffer, and they know how difficult it is to get kids interested in seeking help. That’s why they created a space where BI teens can communicate with one another and learn coping skills.

Petry said the curriculum embodies what she’s learned and from her own journey through grief and recovery after her daughter died years ago. She developed the beginning of the idea for an online Mind Body program and said the kids really took to it because, “Science is the bridge for people.”

“When we’re paying more attention to our senses, we’re more aware and more in the present and less likely to be anxious…less like to listen to negative self-talk,” Fritts said. “Our goal is to help people one kid at a time because it’s really up to the kids.”

Simple life hacks to try when feeling stressed include: shorten an anxiety attack by placing ice cubes on the back of the neck. Singing, humming or chanting loudly tells the body that it is safe. The 5-5-5 breathing pattern can calm and reset the body in minutes and a 10-minute walk in nature can also help.

The next Creating Calm program for grades 9-12 begins Jan. 17, 2023. Learn more at paulapetry.com/teens/.

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