Mindfulness in Times of Distress: Glitter Jars

“So...who’s ever been stressed at Stanford?”

I half-jokingly asked this question to a group of undergrads, PhD students, and faculty on a rainy Thursday night. It was the middle of the quarter, right before the dreaded “midterm season.” With upcoming deadlines for projects and tests, while balancing extracurriculars and friendships, students can feel overwhelmed by all of their commitments.

Twenty-five people attended an interfaith event that benefitted transplant patients at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. Co-hosted by the Catholic Community at Stanford (CC@S), the Muslim Student Union, and the Jewish Student Association, this event gave space and time for students relax and make crafts, while appreciating that the practice of mindfulness exists in various faith traditions. Tiny mason jars, hot water, and an assortment of glitter were transformed into colorful and bright jars that kids could shake. How do these glitter jars help stressed-out Stanford students?

The Science of Mindfulness

Stress is how we feel and consequently how our bodies react when we are fearful or anxious. Stress is healthy, but too much stress for a prolonged period of time is harmful. Physical symptoms of chronic stress include headaches, fatigue, and chest pain. The theory of mindfulness, from the realm of positive psychology, can help counteract the adverse effects of stress. In her famous book Mindfulness, Harvard professor Ellen Langer explains that practicing mindfulness “lets us see things in a new light and believe in the possibility of change.” Mindfulness occurs when we pay attention to what is happening in the here and now. We observe our emotions, our thoughts, our surroundings, in an even-minded way.

So...where do glitter jars come in?

The Science of Stress

 The brain’s emotion regulation system

The brain’s emotion regulation system

An impulsive reaction (i.e. fear or anger) comes from the amygdala and hippocampus, two tiny structures in the brain’s limbic system. If one can delay this reactivity, the prefrontal cortex can respond, allowing both children and adults to regulate their emotions.

Glitter jars are used to represent our state of mind, sometimes calm, sometimes stressed out. All the pieces of glitter symbolize the roughly 2000 bits of information our Reticular Activating System takes in each second. When the mind is calm and clear, like an unshaken glitter ball, information is able to pass successfully to the other parts of the brain. For example, if we need to store memories or pay attention, or solve complex problems, we can do this with ease. In contrast, when the mind is anxious or in a state of stress, the mind becomes just like the shaken glitter jar, cloudy and unfocused, information swirls around.

For patients, especially children, glitter-jar making or shaking is very therapeutic.

One shakes the glitter jar to represent current feelings of stress and anxiety. 

One takes a deep, long breath as the glitter slowly settles to the bottom of the jar.

These steps help the patient visualize their own process of reaching mindfulness.

The Glitter Jar Impact

Nicole Kramer-Lange, a Ph.D. student in Stanford’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Department, gave a talk about the importance of these tiny jars during the event.

 Students listen to Kramer-Lange’s stories about patients she’s interacted with who have used glitter jars before operations.

Students listen to Kramer-Lange’s stories about patients she’s interacted with who have used glitter jars before operations.

Kramer-Lange is currently training in pediatric psychology at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. Her job involves helping kids and families awaiting for or coping with solid organ transplants (getting a new heart, kidney, liver, or lung) and providing psychological consultation with their transplant medical teams.

Kramer-Lange is researching how uncertainty affects the bodies and minds of families coping with serious illness through the Prevention & Intervention Lab at the Stanford School of Medicine. She is passionate about equipping kids with tools to manage the worries that further stress their bodies and minds—and glitter jars help with that every day.

Mindfulness can be difficult to practice as a student. There are many initiatives on campus, such as the annual Wellness Week, courses on wellbeing, mental health counseling centers, etc., that emphasize the need to de-stress. Most students, at one point or another, have been stressed, but as Professor Langer says, “to be mindful is to be in the present, noticing all the wonders that we didn’t realize were right in front of us.”