Feeling stressed? Try mindfulness. (It's easier than you think)
“Breathe in calm. Breathe out stress. Breathe in peace. Breathe out tension.”
I repeat this mindful meditation silently to myself about a dozen times as my five year old demands to use my phone. We’re in the car heading out to dinner. Lately, my husband and I have been trying to restrict the use of devices on short car rides. The key word is trying.
My daughter persists. The volume of her voice steadily increases as if I sat on a remote. The muscles in my neck and shoulders tense. It takes enormous effort to bring my breathing back under control.
In the past, I would either yell or cave in just to get a few minutes of peace and quiet. This time, I repeat the calming mantra to myself. Eventually, she stops.
Mindful meditation is something I do every day. It helps me regulate my emotions so I can teach my kids to regulate theirs. It’s not something I started doing overnight. It took several years of consistent practice. I started with 5 minutes a day of deep breathing and meditation and worked my way up to 30.
During that stressful car ride, I continued breathing in and out to calm myself down. I was then able to respond with kindness to my daughter’s demands while setting limits at the same time.
When we react to our children’s meltdowns with frustration it further fuels their emotions and increases everyone’s stress. So what was different this time? Instead of reacting with my own stress I calmed down first so I could respond compassionately. I kindly said, “Using the phone is fun but right now we are going to dinner. We’re almost there. Let’s play a game. What do you hear? I hear the rain splashing on the window. What do you see? I see leaves blowing in the wind - yellow, orange and red.” By the time we get to the restaurant she is calm and so are we.
This is a technique I call breathe first, speak second. It’s not something I’m able to do every time but with practice it’s becoming my new automatic response. We were then able to enjoy our meal together. In the past, we would be eating cold food out of to go boxes and dealing with tantrums (adults included).
I also use mindfulness to manage other difficult transitions in the day. Getting ready for school, turning off screens, and bedtime are challenging times for both kids and parents. It can feel like we’re being pulled in many different directions making it difficult to stay calm. Adding mindfulness to our routines helps us stay grounded and focused. Even 10 minutes of my undivided attention can make things much easier.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a famous Buddhist monk and peace activist, states, “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.”
Why should we practice mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the practice of being present in the moment without ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. It’s being aware of our experience without judging it as either good or bad. It’s also about bringing compassion into the moment so if it feels overwhelming we can respond with kindness instead of reacting harshly. It allows us to be present in both body and mind, no matter what is happening around us.
Mindfulness is an experience of getting to know yourself better. You notice what types of thoughts, feelings and body sensations you’re having. For example, you might notice how much tension you hold in your body. You might also notice negative thoughts that fuel feelings like anger, resentment or anxiety. Becoming aware of these experiences helps us rethink our beliefs and let go of tension before it gets worse. It helps us respond in a way that promotes positive change without negatively impacting our relationships.
What types of mindfulness are there and how do you do it?
Mindful meditation can be done in silence or using guided instruction. Some people like to listen to nature sounds while others prefer relaxing music. Traditional Eastern meditation practices are done in silence. During this time you focus on your breath as you sit with your thoughts, feelings and body sensations, even if they are difficult. You begin to notice them come and go.
Mindfulness meditation has helped me learn more about myself and what keeps me stuck in stress reaction mode. I’ve learned that when I’m stressed, others feel it too, especially my children.
There’s a workshop I run calledStop Stressing, Start Connecting. In it we practice a meditation called “the hug.” Here’s how it works. Close your eyes and picture someone you love but have had a recent disagreement with. Maybe there are lingering feelings of irritation or anger towards this person. Imagine this person standing in front of you right now. Notice what makes this person special and focus on an aspect of them you love or admire. What is their strength? Now imagine you are hugging each other. Notice how if feels in your body. What types of feelings are you having? Did you notice a shift? Now imagine this person 200 years from now. What’s happening?
This is a loving-kindness reflection that Thich Nhat Hanh introduces us to in his book,How to Fight. The reality hits us that our time with our loved one is limited. When we reflect on this we begin to feel gratitude for the time we have with each other.
This week add one mindful activity into your everyday life. Eat a meal with your full attention or spend five minutes a day in quiet contemplation. Give your undivided attention to your kids during dinner. Turn off devices and have a conversation instead. Try this for seven days and see if you notice any changes.
Sofia Reddy is a licensed clinical social worker and Bay State mom of two rambunctious children. She started blogging about mindful self-care to stop stressing and start flourishing in 2011. She believes having a daily mindfulness practice helps manage the daily stresses of raising a family and is passionate about sharing this practice with others. For more information visit her at www.sofias-sanctuary.com.