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Easy Tricks To Teach Kids How To Deal With Stress Through Mindfulness

But experts say if you want to teach your children to be mindful, you have to be mindful, too.

The back-to-school season brings its own unique stressors to just about everyone: young children starting school for the first time, older kids dealing with longer days and social pressures, teenagers who have to make decisions about their futures, and of course to parents who might also feel overwhelmed. But researchers at Vancouver’s Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre have suggested strategies to deal with back-to-school stress.

“Mindfulness” has become a bit of a buzzword recently, along the lines of “radical wellness” and “living your best life.” But beyond the context of GOOP, there’s a lot of value in the idea that we could all focus more on the present moment.

The basic tenet of mindfulness is the idea that stress and pain is often the result of thinking about past regrets or worrying about the future, and that can be combated by coming up with strategies that focus on remaining in the present moment. HuffPost Canada spoke to Dr. Dzung Vo, an adolescent medicine specialist and pediatrician at British Columbia’s Children’s Hospital, about how kids can implement those strategies.

“I define mindfulness as paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and with unconditional love,” Dr. Vo says. “It’s not meant to be something that you succeed or fail at, it’s more of an intention and an attitude that we orient ourselves to when we practice being in the present moment.”

Studies have shown that mindfulness can reduces stress and anxiety, improve attention and memory, and encourage empathy and monitor your emotions. It’s also been shown to be beneficial physically by lowering blood pressure and heart rate. And new research is currently underway to determine whether it can be a helpful tool to fight against depression.

Vo’s pediatric practice focuses primarily on teenagers, but he says there are effective strategies that can help just about every age group understand their feelings, process their reactions, and live a healthier emotional life.

Babies and toddlers
By far the most important factor in teaching very young children to be mindful is to have a parent or caregiver who is mindful themselves.

“What we know from neuroscience is that the parent’s own mental and neurologic state has a profound influence on regulating the child,” Vo told HuffPost Canada. “If the parent or caregiver can be mindful, present, attentive, and attuned with unconditional love and presence, then that will affect the child in very deep and healthy ways.”

One of the principles of mindfulness is approaching a subject with “beginner’s mind” — a sense of curiosity and presence you might use if you were trying something for the first time. This is something young children generally do anyways. “Kids are actually pretty naturally in the moment, so it’s not too hard to do,” Vo says.

Studies have shown that mindfulness can reduces stress and anxiety

School-age kids
Vo suggests adding brief mindfulness exercises into the routine of slightly older children, maybe at bedtime or when they get home from school. One idea is to get them to lie with a teddy bear on top of their belly and ask them to slowly breathe in and out, he says. Watching the teddy bear go up and down with their breath will put them in tune with their bodies, and put them in a state of calm.

Another useful activity can be to sing songs with lyrics that remind kids to think about where they are and how they feel — he suggests “Planting Seeds” by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. “As kids go through their day, when they need a mindful moment, they just sing the song,” he says. “Singing it actually is a practice, because it cultivates that mindful attitude.”

Crafts and artwork, approached with the “beginner’s mind,” are another helpful way to practice mindfulness. Vo suggests gently guiding children to be curious and really focus on their surroundings and what they might be engaging in.

“Maybe they’re drawing a flower in front of them,” he says. “Encourage the child to really pay attention to it by asking them: What are you seeing there? What are you noticing? What are the colours? What are the shapes?”

It isn’t particularly important that children understand the idea of mindfulness, he says.

“It’s more important to have experiences than to talk too much about the concepts.” And again, he stresses that the most important way to teach mindfulness to kids is the mindful presence of the parent or caregiver.

Teenagers
In his sessions with teens, Vo will often get them to try out their “beginner’s mind” by slowly eating one single raisin. “That might seem very simple and boring, but when you bring curious attention to it, you find experiences that seem tedious or boring may be quite interesting, or quite relaxing, or quite enjoyable in ways that we hadn’t considered when we go through them in autopilot mode.”

Many teenagers will bring what Vo calls “informal meditation” to a wide variety of day-to-day activities: breathing deeply and considering their senses while walking the dog, or waiting for the bus, or washing dishes. It can particularly help before a stressful situation at school — right before writing an exam, for instance.

There isn’t a lot of research on the benefits of mindfulness for teens, but Vo says that he believes that’s the time of life when those practices would be most beneficial.

Studies of adults have demonstrated that mindful practices can actually change the parts of the brain linked to memory, self-image, and emotional regulation. Because adolescent brains are changing quickly and profoundly, Vo says he thinks the effects would be even more significant. One of the biggest adolescent brain changes involves the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and executive functioning, which develops throughout the teenage years up until the early 20s. It develops through focused attention and concentration, he says, which suggests that the more that they use these neurologic pathways to help regulate their brains, the stronger those connections will get.

By Maija Kappler                 08/22/2018
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Connecting the Dots Between Physical and Emotional Health

There’s a link between your emotional health and your physical well-being, so take time to nurture both.

To be completely healthy, you should take care not only of your physical health, but your emotional health, too. If one is neglected, the other will suffer.

What’s the Connection Between Emotional and Physical Health?

There’s a physical connection between what the mind is thinking and those parts of the brain that control bodily functions. According to Charles Goodstein, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University’s Langone School of Medicine in New York City, the brain is intimately connected to our endocrine system, which secretes hormones that can have a powerful influence on your emotional health. “Thoughts and feelings as they are generated within the mind [can influence] the outpouring of hormones from the endocrine system, which in effect control much of what goes on within the body,” says Dr. Goodstein.

“As a matter of fact, it’s very probable that many patients who go to their physician’s office with physical complaints have underlying depression,” he says. People who visit their doctors reporting symptoms of headache, lethargy, weakness, or vague abdominal symptoms often end up being diagnosed with depression, even though they do not report feelings of depression to their doctors, says Goodstein.

While unhappy or stressed-out thoughts may not directly cause poor physical health, they may be a contributing factor and may explain why one person is suffering physically while someone else is not, Goodstein adds.

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How Exactly Does the Mind Affect the Body?

There are many ways in which the mind has a significant impact on the body. Here are a few:

  • Chronic illness and depression Depression has been shown to increase the risk for chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes, according to an article published in 2013 in the Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders. A review of studies on diabetes and depression, published in August 2015 in the Canadian Journal of Diabetes, found that depression put people at a 41 percent higher risk for the condition. Researchers aren’t yet clear on how mental health influences physical health, but according to a study published in September 2017 in the journal Psychiatria Danubina, it may be that depression affects the immune system, and that habits associated with depression, such as poor diet or lack of physical activity, may create conditions for illness to occur.
  • Depression and longevity According to a review published in June 2014 in World Psychiatry, many major mental illnesses are associated with higher rates of death. Another study, published in October 2017 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, suggests that those with depression may have life spans from about 7 to 18 years shorter than the general population.
  • Physical symptoms of emotional health distress People who are clinically depressed often have physical symptoms, such as constipation, lack of appetite, insomnia, or lethargy, among others.
  • White-coat syndrome This is a condition in which a person’s blood pressure increases the minute they step into a doctor’s office. In white-coat syndrome, anxiety is directly related to physical function — blood pressure. “If you extrapolate from that, you can say, what other kinds of anxieties are these people having that are producing jumps in blood pressure? What is the consequence of repeated stress?” asks Goodstein.

And on the other hand: “Those individuals who have achieved a level of mental health where they can manage better the inevitable conflicts of human life are more likely to prevail in certain kinds of physical illness,” says Goodstein.

How Should You Care for Your Emotional and Physical Well-Being?

It’s hard to do, but slowing down and simplifying routines can go a long way to strengthening your mental and physical health.

  • Eat right. A healthy, regular diet is good for the body and mind.
  • Go to bed on time. Losing sleep is hard on your heart, may increase weight, and definitely cranks up the crankiness meter.
  • If you fall down, get back up. Resilience in the face of adversity is a gift that will keep on giving both mentally and physically.
  • Go out and play. Strike a balance between work and play. Yes, work is a good thing: It pays the bills. However, taking time out for relaxation and socializing is good for your emotional health and your physical health.
  • Exercise. A study published in October 2017 in Reviews in the Neurosciences shows that exercise improves your mood and has comprehensive benefits for your physical health.
  • See the right doctor, regularly. Going to the right doctor can make all the difference in your overall health, especially if you have a complicated condition that requires a specialist. But if your emotions are suffering, be open to seeing a mental health professional, too.

Total health depends on a healthy mind and body. Take time to nurture both.

By Madeline R. Vann, MPH
Medically Reviewed by Kathryn Keegan, MD
11/14/2017