Mindfulness is a word that has recently gained attention due to the pandemic and the stressful times that we are currently living in. We are looking for ways to ease stress and help students with learning differences find ways to improve their lives during these trying times.
by Lori Stottler, LMHC
Clinican, CIP Brevard
College Internship Program
As a practitioner specializing in positive psychology, the resurgence of this word - and the renewed interest in the practice of mindfulness - is very encouraging. However, the word mindfulness is thrown about casually and when working with students who have learning differences, we don’t always understand the concept of what mindfulness is and how we can apply it to positively enhance our lives.
There are many definitions of mindfulness. For example, mindfulness can be an act of paying attention, on purpose, to all the elements of our experience with an attitude of open acceptance, non-judgment, and compassion. On a very simple level, we all know that slowing down in this fast-paced world would have benefits for overall health and well-being. However, even after a simple definition, it is easy to get lost in what mindfulness is and is not.
When we talk to young adults with autism and learning differences about mindfulness and ask them what it is, the most popular answer is that mindfulness is meditation. In their mind, mediation may mean boredom. Mindfulness is much more than mediation and can be part of a mindful practice, but it doesn’t have to be. At CIP, we try to teach our students that there are many elements of mindfulness. If the student finds a mindfulness practice that they like you can suggest that they weave that practice into their everyday life. Incorporating mindfulness into our life has been clinically proven to lower anxiety and depression for students with learning differences.
With the holidays approaching, now is a great time for students and families to blend mindfulness into their holidays to lower stress levels and enhance the holidays by creating more vivid and personal experiences. The earlier definition provided for mindfulness focuses on the idea that mindfulness is the “act of paying attention." It is the idea of action with intention and during the holidays there are many ways to integrate intentional acts into your families’ time together.
One way to incorporate mindfulness into the holidays is with a thankful jar. This year with Covid-19 there can be a slight twist with the thankful jar. If a family is in town visiting for the holiday, you can give out 5 slips of paper to each family member and ask them to write down what they are thankful for and why. Then at dinner, you can take turns picking slips out of the jar and reading them to each other at the dinner table. This act has a way of making everyone very mindful of our family by expressing gratitude and is also a nice opportunity for students with learning differences to engage in a group activity.
Gratitude can make us mindful of our surroundings and our relationships. This year due to Covid, you can mail out the slips of paper in advance and ask that family members mail them back for a grateful jar reading via Zoom. This may be more memorable because the pandemic has already made us more mindful of our circumstances. The twist is to use mindfulness in a positive fashion to decrease stress and anxiety for students with learning differences.
Meditation is a wonderful mindfulness tool. A meditation practice doesn’t have to be a formal one. During the holidays, a simple way to meditate could be as simple as unplugging from electronic devices and finding a quiet place to spend a few minutes in relaxing breath. Holidays can bring joy but holidays can also bring stress, especially for young adults on the autism spectrum. Breathing can stimulate a nerve in our body called the vagus nerve which when activated can lower our blood pressure and heart rate. A few minutes of intentional breathing is all that it takes to turn on the vagus nerve and decrease stress.
Another mindful strategy is savoring. Families can have a savoring meal where the goal of the meal is to savor the flavors of the food. Many students with autism have heightened sensory awareness and would likely enjoy this exercise. In essence, intentionally slow down and take the time to enjoy the flavors and nuances of the food. Look at the colors of the food on your plate, smell the aroma of the foods, does the food have texture, what does the first bite (and the last bite) of food taste like. A savoring meal should take substantially longer than your average meal.
Mindfulness gives us the opportunity to focus on what really matters during the holiday season- relationships with others and enhancing our holiday experience by focusing on being here now. It’s easy for the mind to wander and to miss out on the true joys of the holiday. Practicing mindfulness lets us appreciate the present and enjoy this special time with our families in an intentional and meaningful way.