Mindfulness is getting so much exposure right now, you might be tired of hearing about it. But I hope all the talk makes you curious instead. The thing about mindfulness is that it has been shown to make a real difference in lowering stress levels, improving mood, outlook, creativity and productivity. Who couldn’t use that?
A number of studies have found that parents of children who struggle are suffering from chronic stress — and they have the biological markers to prove it. For many parents in this circle, their stress hormones (cortisol) don’t respond as they should, their immune systems are weakened, their cells show advanced aging, and they have poorer sleep quality.
But before you let this information get you down, I want to highlight one study that provides hope and shows a path to resilience for parents like us (or anyone).
The Vanderbilt Stress Intervention Study
In 2014, Elisabeth Dykens and her colleagues at Vanderbilt University conducted a study on nearly 250 mothers of children with autism or other developmental disabilities. At the start, 85% of participants had significantly elevated stress, 48% were clinically depressed, and 41% reported anxiety issues. (Just so you know, these are high numbers, even as compared to the prevalence of depression and anxiety in the general US population.)
The subjects participated in one of two programs: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or Positive Adult Development (PAD). The MBSR approach emphasized more physical exercises, such as deep belly breathing, meditation, and gentle movement. The PAD program focused on more cognitive exercises such as practicing kindness and gratitude.
After six weeks, both groups experienced significant reductions in stress, as well as improvements in depression, anxiety, sleep, and life satisfaction. Mothers in both groups also showed fewer dysfunctional parent-child interactions.
Lessons from Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
Even though a formal MBSR practice is fairly intensive, we can experience similar benefits by employing the same tools in abbreviated ways.
Here are three simple practices you can try. Do these each day – even if you only find a few moments – and you should start to notice a difference. (I have!)
1. BODY SCAN
This is a core tool of MBSR. It can be practiced for a full 45 minutes in supine position, or for just 1 minute whenever you think of it.
Get into a comfortable position, supine or sitting.
- Take a few deep breaths before you begin.
- Starting with your toes, notice what you feel.
- Any discomfort? Tension? Coolness? Heat?
- Don’t judge these sensations as bad or good, just be aware of them. For example, if you move from your hips to your low back and notice throbbing pain, you can say to yourself “I notice that pain, now I will breathe and move on.”
- Let your awareness sweep up your body, gently noticing the physical sensations in each part. Shins, knees, hips, abdomen, low back etc. until you reach the top of your head.
- Get as granular as you like (left eyeball, right ear…)
- If thoughts interrupt, just notice them and gently guide your awareness back to your body.
- Take a few more deep breaths and continue with your day.
The body scan is a powerful way to tune into your body and get out of your head. Over time, it can teach you how to enter a moment – however difficult – and remain balanced.
2. RELAXING BREATH: The 4-7-8
I learned this breathing exercise from the integrative health pioneer, Dr. Andrew Weil. It’s like a massage for your nervous system. As he explains, this method is subtle when you first try it, but it gains in power with repetition and practice.
- Place the tip of your tongue up against the roof of your mouth, just behind your front teeth. Keep it there through the entire breathing process.
- Breathe in deeply through your nose to the slow count of 4.
- Hold your breath to the count of 7 (or as long as you are able, not longer than 7).
- Finally, exhale through your mouth, making a whoosh sound, to the count of 8 (as a general rule, you want to exhale for twice as long as you inhale).
- Repeat the sequence three to five times (or more).
This is a tool you can use any time, any place. If you feel stress escalating, or something upsetting happens, this technique is your friend. You can also use it help yourself fall asleep
S.T.O.P. is another proven MBSR technique. It’s an effective way to learn how to find the space to respond – rather than react – to challenging situations. One mom told me she practices S.T.O.P. before she walks into school to pick up her son. She says it helps her get centered before moving into challenging situations. I use it any time I need to regroup.
Click here or look in the Toolkit to learn how to do it.
One of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is calming ourselves. The more balanced we feel, the more grounding we can be for our kids. These mindfulness based techniques are a wonderful way to get started. Seize the moment.