Mindfulness and the Vermont Family Based Approach

Mindfulness with Elmo

Younger children can have a hard time understanding the language and exercises we might use to teach mindfulness to older children and adults. Instead of telling your 6 year-old to gently direct his attention to his breath, try “belly breathing” with Elmo, Common, and Colbie Caillat!

Colbie: “Put your hands on your tummy, now you’re ready to begin. Put your hands on your belly and you slowly breathe in.”

When Elmo uses his hands to feel his belly go in and out, it’s a lot easier for him to slow down and pay attention to his breath.


Why mindfulness?

Mindfulness meditation and similar techniques have become popular ways to deal with stress. They’re in Sesame Street, some school programs, and if you get the chance to meet a Family Wellness Coach trained in the Vermont Family Based Approach, you’ll hear about mindfulness from them too. This interest in a traditional Buddhist practice may seem like a fad, but there is a lot more to it.

Current research on meditation started in the 1960s and 70s, with studies on changes in physiology, first with Buddhist monks who had been practicing meditation for years, then with volunteers who didn’t have as much experience. When volunteers meditated, their heart and breathing rate slowed, they sweat less, and their blood pressure decreased. In 1976, scientists at Harvard showed a group of volunteers a disturbing video of industrial accidents. They had some of the volunteers meditate and found that meditation decreased the fight-or-flight stress response.

In 1982 Jon Kabat-Zinn spent 10 weeks training a group of patients with chronic pain to use mindfulness meditation. He hoped this training would help them detach their sensation from the emotional experience of pain–that the “hurt and suffering” would be reduced. It worked. After the mindfulness training, most of Kabat-Zinn’s patients reported much less pain, but they also reported feeling better in other ways. They had fewer psychiatric and non-psychiatric medical symptoms, and, remarkably, an improvement in mood that couldn’t be explained by the reduced pain alone.

Since Kabat-Zinn’s 1982 paper, more than 30 years of clinical studies have confirmed his results and shown improvement in a remarkable range of problems. Mindfulness has been helpful for problems ranging from emotional-behavioral problems, to heart disease, emphysema and chronic bronchitis, autoimmune diseases like arthritis and psoriasis, and metabolic diseases like obesity and diabetes. Meta-analyses (studies that combine the results of many other studies) have confirmed the benefits of mindfulness in both children and adults.

There is also good evidence that mindfulness can be helpful for people who are well. It can help people do better in school or at work, help improve relationships, prevent heart disease, and even help increase compassion!

Another group of studies has helped explain how mindfulness might work. These studies show decreased activity in a set of hormones that plays a key role in our response to stress and inflammation, with profound effects on mood, behavior, metabolism, and chronic disease. Recent genetic work has shown that meditating leads to a rapid decrease in the expression of pro-inflammatory genes, including the targets of important anti-inflammatory medications like aspirin and ibuprofen. Neuroimaging studies show changes in key brain pathways involved in attention, emotion regulation, and cognition. These three groups of findings suggest a mechanism that supports the broad effects shown in clinical studies and describe one of the most exciting things about mindfulness meditation: it has a remarkable impact on our body’s central control mechanisms. Our thoughts and behaviors can change our hormone response, the wiring of our brain, and even our genes!

So, how can you change your hormone response, gene expression, the wiring of your brain and start benefiting from mindfulness? The Sesame Street video at the top of this post can help younger children with mindful breathing — a great way to help them regulate their emotions. If you have older children or want a simple mindfulness exercise for yourself, you might try the exercise below.

What is Mindfulness?

Zinn quote

Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as the awareness that emerges through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience, moment by moment.

A simple way to start

To start, try paying attention to your breath. Take a few moments, wherever you are, to gently bring your attention to your breath. You can close your eyes, or leave them open if you’d rather. When your mind wanders, notice it, without judgment, and return your attention to your breath.

Try it for fifteen seconds, one minute, or five. You might want to find a place where you can be alone, but this exercise can be helpful wherever you are, even at the playground.

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