Have you ever noticed that when left to it’s own devices your mind will wander in a thousand different directions? The mind is inherently…unmindful. Our brain is constantly scanning the environment for threats and often sees “threats” where there are none. The power of mindfulness is that it can help us calm the brain enough that we can think more quickly and truly assess situations. In fact, Mindfulness is so powerful that it can help improve the mental health of your entire family!
The Definition of Mindfulness: A Quick Refresher
Mindfulness has been discussed in previous blog posts on this site such as this blog post on teaching mindfulness to children. But I wanted to revisit the definition really quickly to make sure we’re on the same page. The definition of mindfulness I typically use is “paying attention to the present moment in a non judgmental way.” This definition is simply enough that most people can understand it, but captures the essence of mindfulness. As you read the following examples of how I use mindfulness with different populations in my own private practice keep this definition in mind.
A Mindfulness Activity for Children With Anxiety
As an anxiety therapist myself, I often work with children who have pretty significant moments of heightened awareness or distress. Their mind gets going a million miles a minute and they describe having thoughts that get “stuck” in their head. Therefore, we need quick and easy mindfulness activities that will distract their “stuck” mind. These thoughts that are stuck are almost always negative. Therefore, I love activities that encourage them to instead focus on the positive.
A quick, simple mindfulness activity for an anxious child’s mind is to think of 3 things they are grateful for. The next time your child seems “stuck,” nervous or worried try asking them to think of three things they are thankful for. The first few times this might catch them off guard. In fact, they might fight the request. But over time the goal is that your anxious child will learn to quickly refocus their mind on something positive. I’ve seen it work wonders for children and it only takes a minute or so to guide your child through the process!
A Mindfulness Activity for Teens with ADHD
Teenagers with ADHD often struggle to pay attention in class. It’s not that they don’t want to pay attention, it’s that their mind wanders frequently almost beyond their control. When a teenager comes to me for counseling and ADHD is making school difficult for them, we often spend a great deal of time on various mindfulness exercises. I want them to have lots of different ways to refocus their mind in school. We use the MUSE headband to teach meditation, practice mindfulness of thoughts so they notice their mind straying more quickly and often use sensory items to help focus their attention on the present moment.
However, the activity I wanted to share with you today is a simple one. This one only takes a moment and doesn’t require a teenager to have anything with them except their own hands. It’s this simple…touch each finger on the right hand one at a time to the right thumb. Press the thumb and each finger together tightly noticing the tension. Then let go slowly and move to the next finger. When each finger has been touched together with the thumb, move on to the left hand. The key is to pay full attention to what you are doing. This is something a teenager can do underneath a desk or in an otherwise unobvious way. Teens are generally big fans of mindfulness activities nobody else can tell they are using, so this is a great one!
A Mindfulness Activity for Anyone Overwhelmed by Traumatic Stress
When someone is feeling overwhelmed by a stressful situation or held back by a past trauma, they often experience anxiety or panic attacks. When someone comes in for counseling for trauma, they are often experiencing nightmares, flashbacks or panic attacks. I typically teach some sort of grounding mindfulness activity within our first 1-2 trauma treatment sessions. This way, you immediately have a way to calm their nervous system.
A basic grounding activity uses the 5 senses. The next time you are feeling particularly anxious, try noticing the following:
- 5 Things You Can See: Look for and silently name 5 things in your line of vision. Seek out things that you don’t normally notice. Even if you are in a space that you spend a lot of time there are always small things you can notice-a mark on a wall, a string on the floor or the shape of a light fixture.
- 4 Things You Can Feel: Notice the feel of your coffee cup in your hands. The feel of your foot making contact with the floor. Perhaps you feel a chair supporting your back. Can you feel clothing touching your skin?
- 3 Things You Can Hear: This can get more difficult so listen closely. Notice the sound of a heater/air conditioning system. Can you hear nearby traffic? Birds singing outside? Maybe someone is talking elsewhere in the building.
- 2 Things You Can Smell: Often there’s one smell that’s easy to notice and the second is more difficult. If you don’t notice a second smell, look for something around you that would smell different. Maybe your hands if you’ve recently used lotion or pick up your coffee cup for a moment.
- 1 Thing You Can Taste: Try chewing a piece of gum or taking a sip of the coffee you smelled a moment ago.
If moments of panic overwhelm you frequently, consider keeping items you can use for grounding in a “anxiety kit” you can keep in your car, purse or near your bed. You might have strongly flavored mints for taste, a stress ball for touch, a couple essential oils for smell, a paper to wrinkle for hear, or pictures of loved ones for see. Just keep these items somewhere that you can access them quickly when needed.
A Mindfulness Activity for Couples
While it’s great to develop a mindfulness practice on your own, practicing mindfulness on a regular basis with your partner can help the two of your feel closer. There are small things you can do when you are having moments of conflict such as taking a deep breath, naming things you like about one another or taking a break to do something calming together before resuming stressful discussions. However, it’s also good to practice mindfulness together when you are already really calm.
One fun mindfulness activity a couple can do is to practice being mindful of smells. If you have essential oils at home, you can take turns choosing an essential oil, over with with your hand and hold it out for the other person to smell. The second person then guesses the smell. If you don’t have essential oils, you can still do this activity! Each person secretly gathers three items from around the house that smell different (shampoo, coffee grounds & toothpaste for instance). You then take turns closing your eyes (blindfold if you worry the other person will cheat!) and letting your partner offer you the various items to smell. You then try to guess what your partner has asked you to smell.
The Family That’s Mindful Together…
In my family of four, we often practice mindfulness together. When we’re stressed, someone will point out that we need to refocus. As parents, my husband and I start by naming our own emotions to model emotional expression for our kids. We quickly move to asking what we as a family can do to refocus our minds. One of our favorites is for each person to name 3 positive things that happened that day. Or we may just take a few deep breaths together. Sometimes it’s more of a sensory exercise such as playing with play doh together taking the time to describe how feels in our hands or the color each of us is using. We also love essential oils and will sometimes take turns holding a bottle and letting the other family members guess which oil they are smelling.
Over time, I’ve found that the more my family practices mindfulness together the more connected we feel to one another. Our family is far from perfect. We face the same difficulties other families do-health problems, death of loved ones, our son acting out. Having those feelings of closeness and the ability to reconnect to one another has been a powerful way to ground us in those difficult moments.
Counseling in Houston, TX
If any member of your family is looking for counseling in Houston or Katy, TX I highly recommend Brittani Persha Counseling. As a Houston Family Counseling Center, they focus on helping all members of your family find mental wellness. They offer everything from couples counseling, to parent counseling services, therapy for teenagers, help for ADHD or Child Therapy for a wide range of concerns (childhood anxiety, depression, behavior problems, adoption adjustment and more).
About the Guest Author
Jessica Tappana is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She owns a group counseling practice in Columbia, MO and is a consultant to therapy practice owners around the country. While she has experience treating a wide range of mental health concerns, Jessica now almost exclusively treats teenagers, post traumatic stress disorder and severe anxiety. She’s passionate about the power of effective mental health treatment. Through speaking, consulting and blogging she wants to help as many people as possible find quality counseling services.