In a world filled with various stressors and conflicts, it can often be difficult for adults and children to identify effective strategies to overcome these obstacles. Various coping skills, such as deep breathing, exercise, and listening to music, can be helpful for many individuals. However, the practice of “mindfulness” can add an extra layer to these coping skills by not only teaching you what to do, but also how and why you’re doing them. Mindfulness seeks to help you pay attention to the present moment, rather than dwelling on the mistakes of the past, or the concerns of an uncertain future. It encourages you to acknowledge that what you are experiencing is challenging and overwhelming, while also recognizing your personal experiences with an open mindset of self-compassion. This will assist you in curtailing any negative self-talk or feelings of hopelessness, knowing that you’re capable of overcoming those trials.
The first thing to keep in mind when discussing mindfulness is that you are not asking yourself whether your thoughts or feelings are “right” or “wrong,” but whether your current patterns of thinking or actions are helpful in addressing the situation at hand, and whether they are helping you and your loved ones make progress. It can be automatic for any of us to get lost in our thoughts, replay negative events, and overthink scenarios that are oftentimes unlikely to ever happen. For example, if you get a call from your child’s school that they were sent to the principal’s office for being disruptive in class, it can be a natural reaction to get frustrated with your child, and possibly your child’s school. You might dwell on thoughts such as, “Didn’t I teach my child how to behave appropriately?” or “Shouldn’t my child’s teachers know how to handle these situations?” or “Is my child always going to be like this?” Each of these questions are completely valid in a stressful situation. However, the next step would be to ask yourself whether continuing to ask these questions help you and your child learn and move forward, or dwell and remain stuck.
Defusing the Situation
A common mindfulness practice is meditation, which can be impactful for many individuals, but can also be daunting to those who are unfamiliar with how to meditate or are hesitant to commit to a strategy that may seem abstract at first glance. A parallel mindfulness strategy falls under the umbrella of “defusion.” Defusion techniques can help you validate your negative thought patterns, while also letting go of those potentially unproductive beliefs. These methods help you approach these situations by providing insight into the way your body feels, what your strengths are, what to be grateful for, as well as what potential triggers may be hindering you from moving forward.
An initial defusion practice consists of becoming aware of your body and environment in the present moment, independent of external stressors and triggers. This starts with closing your eyes, if you’re comfortable, and focusing on each part of your body, starting from the tips of your toes, up to your legs, through your arms and torso, and to the top of your head. Try spending several seconds on each body part, keying into any sensations or feelings. Next, tune into what you’re hearing in your environment, such as sounds in your home or neighborhood. Lastly, focus on what you may be smelling in your environment, whether pleasant or otherwise. Now open your eyes and become aware of how your body feels and what you’re thinking about. It’s very possible that you continued to have some invasive thoughts during that practice. The goal is that even if you’re having such thoughts, you’re acknowledging that they’re there before refocusing on one of the senses you were tuned into, and recognizing that despite the external world, you and your body are grounded in the present moment.
A Shift in Perspective
Another practice entails you thinking about or writing down a negative thought or experience you are having in the moment such as, “I’m angry because my boss sent me a frustrating email,” or, “I’m irritated because my child keeps whining.” Next, think about or write down two to three positive thoughts or experiences you have had either that same day or in the recent past, such as, “I had a good night’s sleep,” or, “I had a fun weekend with my family.” Seeing the contrast between your current negative thought pattern in comparison to your positive thoughts can help defuse how threatening the negative thoughts may feel and also force you to focus on the positive aspects of your life, rather than purely the negative. If possible, try keeping a list of these thoughts on a regular basis, and even review past entries. It can help shift your perspective by seeing that while the current situation may be burdensome, the positives will frequently outweigh the negatives.
Keep in mind that one size doesn’t fit all, so it may take some experimentation to see which mindfulness technique works best for you. And just like with any skill in life, mindfulness takes consistent practice to forge positive change, such as by proactively committing to these strategies every night before bed. Remember that mindfulness practices aren’t meant to eliminate or cure any negative thought patterns, but rather reframe how you’re perceiving these thoughts. They can help you have the perspective that you and your loved ones are capable of living a rich and meaningful life by viewing your challenges not as problems, but as opportunities to learn and grow.
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Pasha Bahsoun, MA, BCBA, Director of Family and Clinical Services
Pasha Bahsoun developed a passion for implementing various approaches to educating individuals with special needs as a result of his work at UCLA and Columbia, including through social skills training and the use of educational media, as well as developing a passion for supporting parents and caregivers in the implementation of treatment plans. Pasha has worked with a variety of individuals across age groups, diagnoses, modalities, and settings for the past decade and a half, and collaborated with other educators and service providers. He has developed a social skills curriculum and had the opportunity to present his research at two international ABA conferences in 2019, titled, “The Value of Curriculum-Based Social Skills Training.” He has worked in the realm of education and mentorship in some form for all his life including as a martial arts instructor, personal trainer, camp counselor, drum major, trumpet section leader, and behavior therapist. He also has a passion for writing and has had the opportunity to write articles on the topic of education and developmental disabilities for various organizations as well as for leisure.