You may have been hearing the word “mindfulness” lately. Many major news sources have featured its benefits, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, Forbes, Huffington Post, CBS, the BBC, and Reuters.
While the concept of mindfulness has its roots in two-thousand-year-old Eastern meditation and yoga practices, it started on the path to popularity in the Western world about 30 years ago, when Jon Kabat-Zinn developed his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Today it is finding broad acceptance as a way to decrease stress and make positive changes in one’s life.
The health benefits of mindfulness practice include reduced blood pressure, better sleep, improved attention, a stronger immune system, improved memory, reduced anger, healthier eating habits, and weight management. These are long-term rather than short-term benefits and come with consistent practice.
So, why does it matter to me? I spend a LOT of time explaining and teaching mindfulness to students and families because I know that being aware in the moment is the way to allow change to happen. By noticing thoughts, surroundings, and the body’s reaction, we are able to make decisions rather than acting on impulse or repeating past patterns of thinking. I use this approach all the time (seriously!) to make sure my reactions are working toward goals. I get to know myself and end the cycle of guilt, anxiety, and regret.
I also know that it can “work” and improve mood relatively quickly. The feedback I get from most students is that they like how it can be used anywhere, at any time, and that others don’t necessarily know they are doing it. They like that they feel more in control of themselves and hopeful about their future.
Of course, many students resist mindfulness practice because it feels so different from what they are used to. It does not always provide a pleasant experience, as sometimes being mindful means feeling rather than avoiding our emotions. But by noticing and identifying these responses, students become more successful at engaging their soothing and coping skills earlier, before they act on impulse.
For parents and the direct care staff who work with Grafton’s students, mindfulness can help decrease the stress response that comes with escalating emotions in response to the often taxing behaviors of students. We can model “calm” and make best choices in our responses. We can accept ourselves and what we can and can’t control in the moment. We are more able to keep ourselves and students safe. On days when our personal lives are stressful, mindfulness practice can make us more aware of this challenge and prevent it from carrying over into our interactions with students.
Any activity can be done mindfully, simply by noticing what is happening inside and outside of yourself, rather than multitasking and being distracted. I have been more successful introducing mindfulness when outdoors—most likely because of the variety of soothing physical sensations (a breeze, the warmth of the sun, etc.) that can occur.
Some of my favorite basic mindfulness skills:
- 5-5-5.This is grounding technique where you identify five things you see, hear, and feel.
- Basic breathing. Breathe naturally, noticing the sensation of your breath as it enters, fills, and exits your lungs. You can pair this with an affirming or optimistic statement, such as “I am calm.”
- Self-reflection. Ask yourself in a nonjudgmental way, “What am I thinking? How am I feeling?”
- Mindful journaling. Record worries, frustrations, or whatever you are feeling grateful for in that moment.
- Mindful music. With your eyes closed, notice which images, memories, thoughts, feelings, and body sensations you experience as you focus on a song.