Mindful Yoga Can Reduce Risky Behavior in Troubled Youth

A new study shows a significant reduction in risky sex and substance abuse in troubled 18- to 24-year-olds after several months of participating in mindful yoga and other positive coping strategies.

As part of a 10-year study looking at risk-taking and decision-making, Dr. Jacinda Dariotis, a University of Cincinnati public health researcher, spent 12 months focusing on early life stressors as a predictor of risky sexual behavior, substance abuse, and delinquency for more than 125 at-risk youths.

She was surprised to find that a small number were already engaging in constructive coping behaviors on their own.

The study revealed that, in spite of early life stressors, positive coping behaviors, either learned or self-generated, can actually have a protective effect.

“We found that many of these youths who had endured stressful life events and otherwise would have fallen into the risky behavior trap could actually have positive outcomes later in life because they chose to join in prosocial physical activities, yoga, or mindfulness meditation,” Dariotis said.

During the study, Dariotis looked at the disconnect between the youths who had intended to have positive influences in their lives but continually found themselves engaged in behaviors that had negative outcomes. She found a link between stressful life events and increased risky unprotected sex, violence, and substance abuse.

“We took a holistic approach, looking at these issues from a social and biological perspective,” said Dariotis, also director of UC’s College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services Evaluation Services Center. “In addition to question-and-answer information, we collected urine samples for drug use confirmation and testosterone levels early in the study to see how hormones played out in negative behaviors.”

According to Dariotis, testosterone can be influential in dominance and aggressive behaviors, but if directed through prosocial behaviors like sports, yoga, or healthy competition, it can have positive outcomes.

“If you are the star on your sports team, you are succeeding,” she said. “You can also be competitive academically where you succeed by competing with your peers.”

Before coming to the University of Cincinnati, Dariotis spent the last decade at Johns Hopkins University gathering most of the data, which includes neuroimaging and weekly questioning of hundreds of youth from all walks of life.

“I’m particularly interested in teaching at-risk youths to regulate their thoughts, processes and emotions,” said Dariotis. “The neuroimaging allows us to see what’s activated in one’s brain while at rest or performing tasks to help us understand the intersection between hormones, brain structure, and activity.”

Dariotis found that at-risk youth who voluntarily spend their time reading books, playing sports, or engaged in avoidance coping behaviors were twice as likely to avoid risky sexual behaviors or substance abuse. An example of avoidance coping behaviors is not thinking about a bad event that had occurred and, instead, thinking about what could be better, she explained.

Dariotis found youths who were unable to develop positive coping strategies were much more likely to turn to greater risk-taking behaviors that included unprotected sex or sex for money, substance abuse, violence, and crime.

Participating in weekly mindful yoga intervention programs as part of the current study taught the youths how to take control of their breathing and their emotions and helped them develop healthier long-term coping skills.

“These findings highlight the importance of implementing positive coping strategies for at-risk youth, particularly for reducing illicit drug use and risky sexual behavior,” she said. “Mindfulness-based yoga programs designed to improve the ability to cope are needed at earlier ages in schools to help vulnerable youths channel their skills more effectively.”

Given the relative low cost of such programs and easy adaptations to different populations and settings, Dariotis noted the return on investment may be substantial, especially if they can reduce arrests, repeat offenses, and other negative outcomes for risk-taking youth.

Source: University of Cincinnati

Photo: Youth engaging in mindful yoga. Credit: Aziz Acharki/Upsplash.

Posted by Patricia Adams