Better coping through mindfulness
Mindfulness has become a popular buzzword lately, which for some folks is a signal to ignore it or mock it as just the latest fad. Some also dismiss mindfulness because it frequently involves meditation, which in their view is a mystical religious-type thing that only hippies and woo-woo people get into.
Readers of this blog, I hope you aren’t quite so quick to write off mindfulness. Regardless of the preconceived notions you might have, numerous studies have shown that practicing mindfulness has brought benefits to all kinds of people – including young people with ADHD, learning disabilities (LD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and so forth.
What kind of benefits? Here’s a partial list, based on a summary of research compiled by Dr. Barbara Guyer of Marshall University:
- improve attention
- increase positive thinking and attitudes
- better decision making
- increase visual-spatial processing, working memory and cognition
- improve self-esteem
- increase empathy
- improve the immune system’s response
- change brain structures involved with learning and memory, stress, and sense of self
- increase leadership skills
- decrease disruptive behavior
Saaay: aren’t these the kinds of results people take medication for, or go through hours of therapy sessions to achieve? By golly, maybe it’s worth taking a closer look at mindfulness, especially how it can help atypical young people navigate life with more ease while feeling better about themselves.
First, it helps to know what is meant by “mindfulness.” There are lots of ways to define it. Here’s one clear description from the Psychology Today website:
Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.
A couple of key points: if your awareness is in the present moment, you can’t be dwelling on the past (especially the bad bits) or worrying about the future. Many of us use an awfully big portion of our mental energy replaying what has happened to us and/or stressing over what is to come – so much so that we’re not fully present in the current moment, which is really all we have.
The second key point is putting some distance between “you” and the thoughts and feelings that pass through your mind. “You” don’t have to be controlled by them, and you don’t have to suppress or freak out over the bad ones. Just observing them with curiosity, knowing they will pass, will deflate their power to jerk you around.
Do you have an internal critic in your head? If so, chances are the critic is much harsher on yourself than anyone else. The mind is predisposed to dwell on mistakes and shortcomings. It’s an early survival mechanism that serves less of a useful purpose these days, often flooding us with out-of-proportion negativity. This in turn saps confidence and motivation in ourselves and can skew our relationships with others.
Mindfulness practice can help lower the volume of that critic, and increase compassion – for other people, for living creatures, and for ourselves. Offering positive intentions for oneself and others (for example, “May I feel calm today; may those around me be well,” etc.) shifts the mind’s focus to a more positive and caring setting.
The favored avenue to reaching a mindful state is to focus on our breath. After all, breathing is something we are always doing! Attention to breathing is a big part of meditation, but even non-meditators can use awareness of breath to bring attention to the “now.”
Focusing on the sensations felt in different parts of the body – how your feet feel the floor, how eating one raisin is experienced when done slowly and carefully – are also methods for increasing awareness in the present moment. These kinds of exercises are increasingly being used in classrooms and boardrooms.
It seems like every week I read about a new study that shows improvements among young people after mindfulness training. If you want to see summaries of a whole bunch of research about mindfulness practice in schools, follow this link. In addition to studies involving young people in general, it mentions studies with at-risk youth, psychiatric outpatients, and youths with: eating disorders, depression, ADHD, and anxiety. There’s also a section about mindfulness practice for teachers (now why would teachers need to reduce their stress??)
In this link, researchers from Canada describe to teachers how mindfulness can promote social and emotional competence in students with LD or ADHD. Lots of examples of programs and studies are mentioned, including one I found especially intriguing: Mindfulness Martial Arts, a Toronto-based 20-week intervention for youth ages 12-18 with LD and self-regulation difficulties. The martial arts aspect is the cool (or “non-stigmatizing”) part of the program that provides action along with strategies for facing challenges. The program also features mindfulness meditation, cognitive behavior therapy, and behavior modification. Parents get involved too. Notable improvements are seen in the participants. Wouldn’t it be great if such programs became available in more communities?
Want to search out ways to practice mindfulness, for yourself or a loved one? With luck, there will be a group or program in your area – and if you’re really lucky, it’ll be geared toward the type of challenges you’re facing. If stress is a big issue, you could look around for a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. These programs, devised by Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, have helped thousands of stressed-out individuals. Here’s a free online MBSR course that might be worth trying.
Meditation classes and gatherings are on the rise. Yoga is also associated with mindfulness, but not every yoga class emphasizes it. You’d have to check out the local classes to see which ones would be appropriate.
For exploring mindfulness on your own, there are videos on YouTube; there are books, magazines, websites, podcasts, apps – you name it. Have you seen the recent surge in coloring books for adults? Those, and labyrinth tracing, are other avenues to mindfulness. Heck, just taking a walk in nature or sitting near a body of water can do it too. Using these rather ordinary activities might be a good way to introduce mindfulness to someone who’s resistant to the idea of meditating or joining a class.
Pretty much anyone can benefit from mindfulness practice: all ages, neurotypical or not, students, parents, teachers, professionals, active military and veterans, safety officers….
In particular, young people who learn and think differently have a lot to gain from a practice that yields advances in social functioning, emotion regulation, and self-esteem along with improvements in academic performance. Whether you find guidance for mindfulness in school, after school, or on your own, there’s a lot of potential good that can come out of it for the individual (and for society) – with little if any down side.
Tags: academic performance, AD/HD, Asperger's, autism spectrum, breath, depression, diagnoses, emotional disturbance, learning disabilities, meditation, mindfulness, MSBR, parents, programs, social functioning, special education, stress, therapy
About janet565I've lived in the Inland Empire of Southern California since 1982. My profession involves maps and geography. I hope you find the blog useful, and wish you well....
The purpose of this blog
Climbing The Cinder Cone presents resources that may help young people who learn or think differently. The focus is on situations that "fall through the cracks," where it isn't clear what programs or treatments are appropriate.
The blog mostly addresses topics our family has dealt with (or should have known about). Anyone with experience in these areas is invited to chime in!
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