Occupational therapists- I share my top ten tips for practicing mindfulness with your patients of any age and practicing it yourself in this little free guide! Sign up here and this freebie will go straight to your inbox.
So it’s no secret that mindfulness has become a bit of a buzz word in the past few years. There are a tons of articles, videos, and research on this topic. Before you keep reading, I want to be completely honest with you- I’m not jumping on this train just to jump on the train and be cool. Mindfulness and meditation saved me during my deepest struggles as an occupational therapist.
During my stressed out and burned out days, I went through this cycle of constantly spiraling downward from Sunday night through Friday afternoon and experienced a ‘pseudo’ spiraling upward on the weekends, only to come crashing down again. The scary thing about that period was that I thought I was in control. I mean, of course I would think that. I chose everything I did and dealt with the consequences, perpetuating my own internalized hell for years. I thought I was doing the right things- putting up with anxiety during the week and living it up with yet more anxiety on the weekends. But guess what? The CEO was hardly ever making the decisions; rather, the alarm center was in charge for basically everything.
The Alarm Center of the Brain
My alarm center (aka, the amygdala) ran the show- alerting me for non-emergency situations, enforcing my perceived anxieties and stressors, and kept my mind and body constantly ‘on.’ This was even affecting my sleep quality. I went to sleep stressed, woke up stressed, stressed about ‘what if’s’ at work and continuously replayed mishaps in my head from the day, debating internally what I could have done better. Nothing was truly an emergency. I allowed my alarm center to make everything look like an emergency- not just in my brain, but also in my body. I experienced tightness in my chest, heart racing, and shortness of breath multiple times a day for ‘no reason.’ Looking back into the past and forward into the future, did I ever hit the pause button?
The CEO of the Brain
The CEO of the brain is your prefrontal cortex. Have you taken anatomy and neuroanatomy (if you’re in healthcare, then that’s a rhetorical question)? I remember dissecting brains many years ago in occupational therapy school, but I didn’t pay attention to how my own brain was operating.
Anxiety tricks your brain into thinking that you can predict the future. Do you realize that you are constantly creating stories in your head and labeling situations and events, which in turn shapes your beliefs and perceptions? When you give away your power to your amygdala, you allow intense emotions and anticipated fears become the basis for your decision-making and how you show up to the world. (2)
Your amygdala favors dealing with stressors in the short-term instead of creating long-term solutions to stressors. Now cue your prefrontal cortex. Most of us automatically operate in an amygdala-governed space because we live in the 21st century. Here are some common examples of events that light up our little amygdalas:
- Seeing the latest news headlines
- Checking social media and comparing ourselves to other (keeping up with Joneses)
- Waking up late
- Spilling coffee on yourself
- An angry boss, co-worker, or employee
- You forgot your lunch at home
- The train is late
- Someone cut you off in traffic
- Your patient said they don’t want to work with you
- You think about a dreaded appointment coming up next week
- You’re still freaking out about that incident from months ago with your coworker
- People are coming over and you’re stressing about having too much food
… the list goes on, and on, and on. Everything can be and will be perceived as an emergency if you allow it. Here are some interesting facts about the amygdala:
- It is a cell complex involved with processing psychological stressors and coordinating physiological stress responses
- Greater reported mindfulness has been associated with reduced amygdala volumes and task-based amygdala activation
- Mindfulness meditation training decreased amygdala activity relative to a well-matched comparison relaxation treatment without a mindfulness component; these findings agree with previous studies suggesting that mindfulness alters amygdala structure and function (1).
Why is this so important? We want to lessen our amygdala reactivity to allow our prefrontal cortex is actually do its job. So how do we actually let this rational part of our brain do it’s thing?
The Role of Mindfulness
Mindfulness acts as the brake for your emotionally-driven amygdala. It isn’t magic (although it sort of is) it’s just becoming aware of the moment. This awareness gives you insight that you were completely missing out on before. Having moments where you can just view them for what they are, without judgment allows your CEO to step in. Your prefrontal cortex is there to respond to those stressors listed above. When your amygdala reacts to those stressors, you either a) fight b) flight or c) freeze. Fight doesn’t always mean aggressive; fight can be people pleasing out of fear. Fight is just the action.
What if you responded to situations from a place of control, calmness, and strength? You can’t necessarily change the things that happen to you. When your partner forgot to pick up the items at the grocery store and you become angry, how do you react or respond? Do you initially just blow up and start cursing the world, or do you take a moment to let it sink in, take some deep breaths, and simply ask what happened?
Mindfulness is the tool that has saved my life. I practice mindfulness during my morning meditations, I practice it during any time of the day I can, and I have implemented these strategies with some of my pediatric patients. Although based in tons of research, some people may not have caught up to the idea of this ‘new’ holistic treatment being legit.
Mindfulness allowed me to go from the not-so-hot mess I was to someone with lessened, intense emotional and physiological reactions to stress (I have more on my plate, but I am dealing with it differently) and ultimately IN CONTROL of how I show up. I used to think I was all my anxious thoughts and feelings, until I realized I was a prisoner in my own mind. Implementing mindfulness practices with my patients in the past has shown me that this ‘brain hack’ can positively impact everyone- from those with Parkinson’s Disease to those with Autism Spectrum Disorder and everyone in-between. We’re just giving the power back to our rational brain so that it can do it’s natural thing that has escaped us in today’s world.
With mindfulness moments, I have connected with my diaphragmatic breathing, connected with my body, and connected with my ultimate power- the key to my soul. Now it’s your turn!
How can you use mindfulness with yourself and with your patients like the holistic person and practitioner you are? I share my top ten tips for practicing mindfulness with your patients of any age as well as tips for practicing it yourself in a free guide for occupational therapists! Sign up and this freebie will go straight to your inbox.
Where to Start
If you’re totally new to mindfulness, take advantage of this totally free eight-week free online mindfulness training called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Even if you don’t strictly adhere to the prescribed exercises every day for eight weeks, that’s totally OK. Allow yourself to be kind to yourself with this process. I personally have not completed the full training, but have taken bits and pieces from it. If you’re like #aintnobodygottimeforthat and just give me one quick one minute exercise to start with that you can do anywhere, here it is:
1. Notice your body position without changing it. We instantly want to change our position and breathing.
2. Observe your body as it is right now. Observe your thoughts. What are you thinking? What are you feeling?
3. Now take a deep breathe and let it go. Relax the mind so that it is present without being distracted, bring awareness to the sensations of the body, the experience of the environment, or thoughts and emotions.
4. Now rest the mind without a particular focus.
1. Adrienne A. Taren, Peter J. Gianaros, Carol M. Greco, Emily K. Lindsay, April Fairgrieve, Kirk Warren Brown, Rhonda K. Rosen, Jennifer L. Ferris, Erica Julson, Anna L. Marsland, James K. Bursley, Jared Ramsburg, J. David Creswell; Mindfulness meditation training alters stress-related amygdala resting state functional connectivity: a randomized controlled trial, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 10, Issue 12, 1 December 2015, Pages 1758–1768, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsv066
2. Greenberg, M. (2016). The Stress-Proof Brain: Master your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness & Neuroplasticity. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.