USING MINDFULNESS TO COMBAT STRESS – A SIX-PART SERIES

Part Six: Its a Wrap!

This is the last of the six-part series on the practice of mindfulness. To reap the full benefit of everything we have learned from the last six posts, it is important that you start this journey with openness and curiosity. In the absence of an agenda and preconceived notions you will be able to view your experience in a new light. Start this journey with the mind of a child, being open and receptive to whatever you may experience. Paying attention to your energy and attitude towards practice is crucial because if you are forcing yourself to feel calm or expecting something magical to happen as you are meditating then you defeat the whole purpose of being in the moment and letting change happen naturally.

So I ask that you make a commitment to yourself to practice meditation on a daily basis. Whether it be for 5 minutes or 40 minutes, consistency is key. Practice both formal and informal mindfulness with a sense of curiosity and willingness to explore what may unfold for you. Lastly, learn to honor your limits – whether they be physical or emotional.

The key concept of mindfulness is to pay attention on purpose to the present moment without judgment. So no matter where you are or what you are doing, simply be aware of whether you are present (both physically and mentally) to what is going on. From time to time ask yourself, ‘Am I fully awake?’, ‘Am I paying attention to what is happening?’, ‘Where is my mind?’, ‘How is my breathing?’ etc. Tune into the sensations of your body – consciously relax those parts of the body where you feel tension. Tune into your thoughts – be aware of what your mind is up to. Tune into your reactions to people and situations– become aware of how you react to them. What prompted you to react the way you did? The moment you become aware that your mind has wandered from the task at hand bring your attention gently back to the present moment – and do this repeatedly. You are creating new neural pathways in your brain by doing this!

Managing those tantrums

Now that you have a basic understanding of what goes on in your child’s brain when they have a meltdown (please refer to my previous article https://therapybliss.wordpress.com/2014/11/03/understanding-your-childs-tantrums-and-meltdowns/ ) you can try a few strategies that may help them calm down. The first thing to understand is that every child is different. Children have unique personalities and temperaments and your responses to their misbehaviors or emotional meltdowns should take this into consideration. When you realize a strategy is not working, try a different approach. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. This might be the hardest thing to do (speaking from experience), but staying calm and centered while your child is having a meltdown is crucial. The reason being, losing patience, getting frustrated or yelling just makes the situation worse – for you and your child. In addition, you are giving the tantrum more power than it deserves. When children are upset, they lose their sense of coherence and are often uncomfortable with how they are feeling. At this point, they need someone to provide a safe environment and help them through the storm. Seeing you lose your cool is scary, unsettling and confusing to them, resulting in an escalation of the undesired behavior.
  2. Keep your voice calm and gentle yet confident when you talk to them. This not only gives them the reassurance that everything is going to be ok and that you will help them calm down but it also shows them that you will not give into their demands.
  3. Acknowledge their feelings. Instead of saying ‘Don’t be mad’ or ‘Don’t be sad’, or ‘Stop crying’ say ‘I understand why you are mad’ or ‘I know how you feel right now’ or ‘I’m sorry you feel so sad’. This teaches them that it is perfectly ok to experience different types of emotions and that there is no shame in being angry, sad, anxious or whatever emotion they might be going through.
  4. Sometimes simply seeing you respond in this way might be enough to start the process of de-escalation. When you see this happening try giving them a hug and let them feel your slow and deep breathing. Most of the time when children are upset their breathing becomes shallow. When they feel the calmness in your breathing, they unconsciously start to mirror your breathing. The act of simply bringing their breathing back to a normal pace has tremendous physiological effects.
  5. If the meltdown still continues after you have acknowledged their feelings and set your limits, let them know in a calm way that they can come to you whenever they are ready and that you will be there to hear them out. Now starts the part of letting the meltdown or tantrum runs its course. Go about doing your work ignoring the screaming and crying as best you can. But when they are ready for connection, pay full attention. If they need to be hugged, hug them. If they need to talk, hear them out. It always helps to sit down or kneel while doing this, so they do not have to look up at an ‘authority’ figure while feeling emotionally vulnerable. It also shows them that you take them seriously and care about what they have to say.
  6. If you are in the habit of giving time-outs, remember that explaining to your child why they are in time-out or asking them what they could do better next time, while they are in time-out may not be very helpful. Talking logic to a child when they are emotionally agitated is useless. Instead, take them to the time-out corner after announcing to them that they are on time-out and then stay quiet. Talk to them about the behavior after the time-out, when they are calm and able to see logic.
  7. When your child is in a better mood tell them that it is ok to feel such strong emotions, but that there are nicer ways to express them. For eg. It is ok to be angry, but it is not ok to throw things.

Parenting can be a tough job. And we make it tougher by putting unneeded pressure on ourselves to be the ‘perfect parent’. As I tell my 5 year old perfectionist, ‘perfection’ is simply an illusion. So the next time you are in the midst of a chaotic situation that involves your little one, take a few deep breaths, remind yourself that your child’s tantrums are just a cry for help and know that it is not a reflection of your parenting. Everyone goes through uncomfortable emotions and children just need to learn how to handle them in a healthy way.

Understanding your child’s tantrums and meltdowns

If you are a parent I am sure you have experienced your child’s inevitable tantrums, meltdowns, mystifying shifts in mood, totally embarrassing and dramatic public displays of emotions at the most inappropriate of situations. You do your best to calm your child, trying to keep your sanity intact at the same time. But have you ever wondered what might be going on physiologically inside your child’s brain that causes such strong reactions? Understanding what is happening in your child’s brain when they are throwing tantrums, having meltdowns or simply too upset to hear a word you are saying, may shed some light into what they are going through at such moments. Instead of emotionally reacting to the child’s meltdown, you may be able to see their situation with empathy and react in a more informed manner. So here is a very basic Brain 101 for you.

In simple language, the front part of our brain is called the prefrontal cortex (the ‘smart’ part of our brain) which takes care of decision making, planning, reasoning, moderating social and other complex cognitive behaviors. This part of the brain in children is still a work-in-progress and gradually gets fine-tuned as they grow older. The amygdala (the ‘alarm’ part of the brain) located in the limbic system is located towards the lower back part of the brain and is responsible for emotions, emotional response, and motivation. This primitive part of the brain gets activated (within milliseconds) when our safety is threatened and primes our body for fight or flight, which is crucial for our survival. For eg., when we hear our bedroom window breaking in the middle of a quiet night our amygdala prepares our body in an instant for fight or flight. At such times, the alarm part of our brain acts much quicker and is more powerful than our prefrontal or smart part of the brain. There is no time to think logically – our body simply instinctively responds to the danger. Now, the amygdala gets activated not only when we face danger but also when we encounter things that greatly upset us. So when your child gets uncontrollably upset at not being able to eat that candy right before bed time, her amygdala has taken control and caused an instinctual, automatic emotional response that does not see logic. It has overpowered the prefrontal cortex and at this point no amount of logical explaining is going to help the child calm down….not at least until the emotional arousal caused by the amygdala simmers down.

What can you do to help with this simmering down? Stay tuned for my next article on ways to help with this process.

Mindful Awareness – Living in the Moment

Mindfulness is the act of gently bringing your awareness to what is happening in the present moment every time you catch your mind drifting into its own version of reality. It is the act of acknowledging the thoughts and recognizing them for what they are – JUST thoughts. It is a state of being that is free from judgments and simply accepting what is.

A simple way to start the practice of mindfulness is finding five or ten minutes every day to do mindfulness meditation. Sitting in a comfortable position, with your back straight and eyes closed tune into the sensations of breathing. Focus on your in-breath as it enters your nose descending into the belly. Notice how the belly expands. Then notice how the belly contracts as the out-breath rises to be expelled through the nose. You can also imagine breathing in wellness and vitality and breathing out any sickness or negativity. Continue to focus on this cycle for five or ten minutes.

During this activity, your mind will get distracted with thoughts numerous times. The mind is a natural wanderer, so do not be disappointed or discouraged if you have to bring your mind back to your breath a hundred times. The key to being mindful is being aware that the mind has wandered away and non-judgmentally bringing it back by paying attention to your breathing. Tuning into the sensations of breathing even for a few minutes allows the mind to pause in its often convoluted journey. There is great value in being able to pause and have the presence of mind to be aware of thoughts and impulses before acting on them. Instead of blindly reacting to situations, developing the ability to respond with thoughtfulness adds immeasurable benefits, not only to our relationships but to our mental well-being. I have found that the simple, yet profound benefit of mindfulness is in helping us understand that thoughts are just thoughts and that it is our emotional attachments to these thoughts that is the root of suffering.

So friends, heres to a week filled with clarity, understanding, peace and mindful awareness. Happy Monday!