As a yoga teacher, my mission is to empower as many students as I possibly can. My focus in my job is raising self-esteem and self-confidence which has built up a client base consisting of a fair number of preteens and teenagers. I have also found that when I suggest to parents that we incorporate mindfulness into our lessons, they seem resistant. They pay me to teach their child yoga, not just sit and breathe with them, right? Yes and no. Mindfulness is so much more than what many picture, and it is a great tool for children (and adults) who are dealing with anxiety.
Our minds were made to think. It’s what they do! Asking your mind not to think is like asking your heart not to beat or your stomach not to digest; you can ask, but they won’t stop doing what they are made to do. While this wandering mind is totally natural, to the anxious mind these thoughts can quickly make them believe that they are in danger. Mindfulness can be a powerful tool to remind children that they are safe and supported.
- Live in the moment
This sounds cliché, but it is the core of how mindfulness helps to heal anxieties. Most worries come from our imagination about what may happen in the future, or mistakes we made in the past. This is especially true for children who have very active imaginations. More importantly, children understand possibility, not probability. Probability is an abstract concept, and the skills to fully comprehend abstract concepts are not fully developed until mid-late teens. They know what could go wrong, but they don’t know how unlikely it is to go wrong.
Through mindfulness we come into the here and now. By bringing our attention to our body in this moment we do not have to feel overwhelmed by what could happen, because right now we know we are safe.
2. We learn to stop avoiding
Everyone has a natural instinct to feel as good as possible all the time. When we feel bad, we work as hard as we can to feel good again. We may do that by avoiding the things that make us uncomfortable. If public speaking makes you uncomfortable, avoiding a presentation at school will give you a natural high, a rush of endorphins. Unfortunately, that reinforces for you and your body that it is good to avoid everything that makes you feel even mild stress. This makes it easier, and actually rewarding to keep avoiding discomfort more and more and more. However, discomfort is part of life and often accompanies trying something new. If we completely avoid all discomfort we begin to simply exist in this world without actually living.
Through mindfulness, we learn that discomfort is an emotion, and we are entitled to our emotions. We learn to see those emotions, without allowing them to dictate our lives. No matter how angry I am, I still have a choice about how I react, and the same is true for every other emotion. We do not avoid emotions, because by slowing down to really acknowledge them, we see them as temporary states. Emotions can change in a matter of seconds, but first we must recognize that they are there, and then know that they will pass.
3. We stop judging ourselves so harshly
For those with anxiety, the anxiety can make them feel like a burden or that something is wrong with them. That is part of why anxiety and depression often go hand in hand. They feed each other with ideas that you are bad for feeling the emotions that you do or for thinking the thoughts that you do. We all have that inner voice that judges us. The voice that can criticize the way we look, the things we say, the way we perform at school or work, basically putting us down is the only thing that voices serves to do. When that judge is talking to us nonstop, it becomes easy to believe what it’s telling you.
Through mindfulness, we learn to see our thoughts differently. Our thoughts are moving through our mind all the time. They take both sides of an argument, they are often indecisive, and they are constantly bouncing from one topic to the next. An exercise I often use is to sit somewhere quiet, close your eyes, and picture each of your thoughts as a car. Sometimes the road will be a highway, and sometimes it will be a slow country road. The point is to simply see how many there are and how often a new one appears. By seeing these thoughts, we learn to stop giving our thoughts too much power.
4. Mindfulness helps us sleep
It goes without saying that sleep is vital for our health. Night time, lying in bed, in the dark, alone makes for an ideal time for all our anxieties to begin running through our head. It’s the prime time to remember our past failings as well as imagine failings we may experience in the future. With little else to distract us, those emotions and fears we try to avoid come to the front of our mind. Naturally, many with anxiety struggle to get an adequate night of sleep.
Mindfulness can be done anywhere at any time, even in bed as we fall asleep. One of the common mindfulness teachings is a body scan. Before falling asleep, focus all of your attention on your toes: how they feel, the weight of the blankets, the softness of the sheets, whether they are relaxed or not, maybe wiggle then relax them. Then move to the arch of your foot. Then your heel. Then ankle, and so on. I am typically asleep before I can get to my belly, but even if I’m not, the focus is on my body in the here and now. This is an easy way to keep those sleep-disrupting thoughts from taking over.
5. We learn to listen to our bodies
Our bodies really tell us all we need to know, but most of us have to learn how to listen. Mindfulness often involves checking in with our body which allows us to see how emotions, situations, places, and people make us feel in our body. Many emotions are felt in the body before they are consciously processed by the brain. You may notice that certain people, places, or events cause our heart rate to change, jaw clenching, headaches, shaky voice, or light-headedness. Your body is telling you that anxiety is coming, and once you know that, you can respond proactively.
This also works for the betterment of your body. Through mindfulness, you may realize that your stress is lower if you go to bed early, eat a healthy meal, or drink enough water. You may see that you sleep better if your room is clean or you shower before bed. Learning these cues from your body gives you a sense of control over your anxiety and emotions.
6. We stop giving our thoughts power
When I first ask students to focus on their thoughts they often think I’m joking. They are with me so that they can stop thinking their thoughts, right? What I seek to show them is that thoughts are just that, thoughts. Manifestations inside of our brain.
For those with anxiety, these thoughts seem real, but through mindfulness we learn to see our thoughts for what they are. A thought is just that, no more and no less. It has only as much power as we give it, and mindfulness allows us to reclaim our power. Seeing your thoughts gives you the chance to choose which ones to listen to, and which to cast aside. Like the car example, I tell my students they can choose which ones should just keep driving and which ones should pull over to stretch.