Recently, when I informed my 11 year old that he had to set aside his afterschool plans for fun with friends to attend his acting class his mouth tightened and tears filled his brown eyes. I was shocked to see this from a boy who loves this class and has never wanted to skip it. When I questioned his unusual reaction he said “I just have too much to think about. I can’t handle one more thing.” His mind was filled with the current happenings in his life, field day and other end of school celebrations, but his thoughts also went to future events. Day camp in a few weeks, his first time at sleep away camp, and the start of middle school were among the topics occupying his brain and increasing his stress. He described endless thoughts swirling in his head making it difficult to concentrate.
It occurred to me that learning about mindfulness might help him to better manage his thoughts and reduce his stress.
It’s funny, in my work as a therapist, I’m constantly teaching clients to use mindfulness skills, but I’ve never taught my own son. I broached to subject and he loved the idea.
First, what is mindfulness? It’s one of those words that’s thrown around, but many people don’t know what it means.
Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment with acceptance of the feelings, thoughts and physical sensations that may arise.
The opposite of mindfulness is MINDLESSNESS. When you go through life mindlessly, intense emotions, powerful sensations and agitating thoughts build up to the point where you can’t ignore them. It may feels as if they come out of nowhere, overwhelming you and leading you to do anything to get a moment of relief…have that cookie, smoke that cigarette, check that text. On the other hand, with mindfulness, you notice experiences in your body and mind bit by bit as they happen so you can better tolerate them.
The question is how do you practice mindfulness? In his Ted Talk, Dr. Judson Brewer, psychiatrist and mindfulness researcher, describes practicing mindfulness in three simple steps notice, get curious, let go and repeat:
- Notice: Become aware of thoughts, feelings and sensations as they happen. When you do this you will realize there is a constant stream of thoughts and sensations going on at all times. Don’t try to stop the flow. Just notice.
- Be Curious: Curiosity allows you to take a step back and observe what is happening in your mind and body just as a scientist would collect data during an experiment. The goal here to neither analyze nor avoid what occurs. Just be open to whatever comes up.
- Let go: Thoughts, feelings and sensations naturally enter our awareness, peak and dissipate. You have never had a thought, feeling or sensation that didn’t eventually go away. The key is to let it go. When you try to avoid, suppress or otherwise ignore it will keep coming back again and again.
When my son practiced being mindful of his thoughts he saw that he was worrying about many things he had no control over. As he continued to practice he was able to let the thoughts go, and he’s starting to feel much better.