Is there anything parents can do proactively to improve our physical and mental health? As a clinical social worker and a mom, I think about this question every day. I often tinker with different tools or ideas to de-stress as I balance the work I do with raising my family here in Washington.
Like many parents, my own default is set to push through the pain of deadlines, chores and other challenges.
Crossing items off an endless to-do list sure does keep the mind and body busy. But though it might give some short-term relief, constant business does not do much to address the daily stress in our lives.
Another recent study of mindfulness-based practices by William R. Marchand of the George E. Wahlen Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the University of Utah has more encouraging news: Engaging in mindfulness can promote resiliency in mind, body and spirit.
Mindfulness does not have to be a structured or formal event with you sitting cross-legged in complete silence on top of a cushion. Rather, we parents can, as Susan Greenland writes in her book “The Mindful Child,” think of ourselves as “householders,” a classic Buddhist term for laypersons. Parents hold the house or home together, so we might need to get creative about how and when we experience mindfulness.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction program of medicine, defines mindfulness as awareness that emerges through paying attention, in the present moment and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience.
Below are some parent-friendly ways for “householders” to start incorporating mindfulness practices in our lives everyday. Trying any one or all of these ideas is guaranteed to make a difference in your life.
1. Start by noticing what you are feeling at any given time. For example, if you are running late for an appointment: Take a moment (even while you are rushing) to locate where in your body you are holding your stress. Is it your jaw? Your stomach? Your neck? Once you isolate where you are tense, try to breathe into it. That is mindfulness.
2. Sometimes saying a word to yourself that describes how you feel at a particular moment can also help. For example, dropping your child off for his first day of preschool. You might have a whole host of feelings about this event. A part of you might be happy to have some time for yourself, but another part might be worried that your son will have a hard time being away from you. Noticing and naming the emotions you are experiencing is also practicing mindfulness.
3. Key to this whole practice is welcoming without judgment whatever you are experiencing or feeling at any given moment. It might feel counterintuitive, but accepting all of your thoughts and emotions (without pushing them away) will actually help you let go of stress and feel more grounded and more awake in the world.
Below are some mindfulness resources to help get you started:
“Mindful Motherhood” by Cassandra Vieten (2009, New Harbinger)
“The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems” by Ronald D. Siegel (2010, the Guilford Press)
“Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time” by Rick Hanson (2011, New Harbinger)
“Mindful Parent, Happy Child” by Pilar Placone (2011, Alaya Press)
Jennifer Kogan is a clinical social worker in Northwest Washington who works with parents.