Mindfulness can boost the quality of our lives in numerous ways.
The question is, what is mindfulness? What does it do to spark “just being” in ourselves and our children?
Mindfulness is a type of meditation where you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. Practicing mindfulness involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress.
Living with our current COVID-19 status and knowing that schools will start online sessions only, it is perfectly natural that feelings of stress, anxiety and fear should occur.
Mindfulness is a technique to reduce these feelings, and it can be learned. It is appropriate for any age and mindfulness practice can be an especially important component of a child’s life if they suffer from anxiety. Learning about mindfulness can help a child realize that worrying is normal, and there are useful coping methods when we are worrying too much.
Teach kids to recognize and identify their own emotions. Children need to associate the word or term for an emotion with the actual experience of feeling that emotion. Encourage them to think about how each emotion feels in their body. For preschoolers, we can use tools like pictures of objects, food and music to help them develop the ability to focus their attention and stay present. A fun activity is to listen to music while also noticing the sensation of a small tone on their stomachs rising and falling with each breath. This can be entertaining as well as relaxing, and teaches kids how to be more attuned to their bodies, breathing and to the music.
When exploring what mindfulness means with teens it is important to begin with a few guidelines. Make sure they are ready and willing to give mindfulness a try. Clearly explain what mindfulness is and give examples of what it is and is not. For example, introspection or chasing things down a “rabbit hole” is not what it’s about; listening to our bodies is. Offer to practice mindfulness with your teen. Not only is it a terrific shared activity, but it models mindfulness for life as a strategy that is good for everyone.
It is important that mindfulness practice be positive; it should never be used as a form of discipline. Set a daily routine for practicing and build an environment for it. Involve everyone in the process. Share your experiences.
Start with the basics. Mindful breathing is something you can do anywhere, anytime, with any age. Imagine a sailboat that is rising and falling with the waves; with each inhale and exhale the boat rises and falls. I admit I was dubious about this simple breathing exercise — until I tried it. After just a minute of mindful breathing, I could feel tension leaving my body. I use it often as a reset throughout my day.
Another easy technique appropriate for all ages is the body scan. Lie flat and tighten every muscle in your body as hard as you can. After a few seconds, release. Then, starting with your toes and working up your body to your head, focus on each area and think about releasing the tension. Think about your toes, feet, ankles, calves, etc. For younger kids it helps to talk them through this practice. Those who are older are capable of having an inner dialog that guides them.
Mindfulness activities can facilitate the ability to manage stress and lead to a deeper sense of well-being with significant cognitive benefits. Mental skills that require attention, changing focus, planning, organizing and remembering details are enhanced. It helps with behavioral regulation, self-awareness and focus. All of this can translate effectively into creating a positive, nurturing environment that can help navigate changes and deal with the stress created by the pandemic.
The take-home message is this: Mindfulness can improve mental health by exercising attention and self-regulation. It can also lead to increased social competency. It just needs to be practiced and encouraged.
Anne Nesbit is the prevention and public information officer and a volunteer battalion chief for the Key Peninsula Fire Department. She lives in Lakebay.