Two years ago, I was in Canada visiting family. I was staying at my Aunt and Uncle’s cottage, and during the downtime I thumbed through a stack of Macleans magazines and came across this article about mindfulness practice in the public school classroom. It wasn’t the first time I had come across mindfulness practice and children. A few months earlier I had seen a call for autistic teens to participate in a mindfulness study at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
I decided I needed to know more about this mindfulness business since I continued to see more articles on mindfulness associated with the spectrum, so that fall I decided to take a class through NDSU to see what it was all about. There was a lot of information to process in that 6 week class, so I boiled it down to a few points that would help both J and me react to the stresses in our lives more appropriately:
- “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” (It is not as much the pain itself, but our own reaction to it that causes our suffering)
- We see that all “problems” come down to the same basic issue: wanting things to be different than they are. Mindfulness helps us to develop the awareness to be able to accept the things we cannot change and to take skillful action to change the things we can. (“It is the way it is”)
- Each moment, each breath, is a chance to begin anew. (We learn to handle things “one moment at a time.” Being present with “just this breath” can be grounding and calming.)
As you can see these are great tools for approaching anxiety. I felt like J could really benefit from mindfulness practice. But the big question was, “how do I translate this to him in a way he would understand?”
I started with “the body scan”—an exercise where you find your breath and then check in with the different parts of your body to see what you’re feeling and where the tension is. If you’re familiar with yoga, it’s sort of like “shavasana” or “dead man’s pose.” It’s really calming and relaxing. It’s almost a reset button for your entire body. It’s probably one of the most basic and easiest mindfulness activities you can do.
The hard part of mindfulness is that it’s all about the practice. Practicing those skills when you’re calm so that when you’re elevated and stressed or in that “fight or flight” mode you can access those skills to weather the storm a little better.
Luckily, J really gravitated to the body scan. He loves touch; he loves being connected with his body. In fact, we tried the Wilbarger approach through OT to help J process sensory input better. It didn’t do anything for his processing, but he loved it because he loved being in contact with his body.
Unfortunately the body scan doesn’t always work for J in the moment. Sometimes J is just so elevated stress-wise it’s hard to get through. But many times it is successful in helping him calm down.
We had one of those moments Thursday night.
Thursday night, at around 10:00, J came stumbling out of his bedroom. Steve and I were downstairs watching TV, and I heard J’s voice from upstairs.
“Mom, my stomach hurts! I want it to go away now!” he announced.
Steve went upstairs and gave J two tums and sent him off to bed.
About half an hour later, I hear J rustling around upstairs and so I checked in on him to see what was going on.
“I want it gone now!” He was getting panicky, pulling at his shirt. “I want my stomach gone. I want it to go away!”
“It’s okay,” I tried assuring J. J never gets sick. I can count on one hand the number of times he’s puked in his life and he’s definitely not used to getting sick. But with J’s panicked behavior and exhaustion, I had no real idea what sort of pain he was in or if it was “legitimate” pain or not—you know, something that would lead to something more serious like appendicitis or a kidney stone—something that family members (including me and Steve) have ended up in the ER for.
I pressed on his stomach in the areas where I thought kidney or appendix issues would produce a yelp or big reaction and nothing. That was good.
“It’s just a stomach ache, it won’t last forever,” I tried reassuring him.
“How many minutes!” He demanded. “How many minutes until it’s over!!!” he yelled, getting more panicked.
I put my hand on his forehead. He was hot, and really sweaty.
“No, NO, I don’t have a fever. I don’t!” He insisted. This got him really agitated. Right now “fever” is one of those words. One of those words that triggers the worst kind of meltdowns.
“No, nothing like that,” I said, avoiding the word altogether. The last few days we’ve been trying to practice “handling” the word. I wasn’t going to press that now.
But J looked green. Really green.
“You need to throw up?” I asked.
He nodded and I led him to the bathroom. As soon as we reached the toilet, he let it all out.
“Does that feel better now?” I asked.
But it only seemed to make things worse. “I want the stomach ache to be over. How many minutes? HOW MANY MINUTES?”
His anxiety was escalating. “I don’t have a fever. I don’t have a stomach ache. I want this to be over!” He was tired—beyond tired, which was just fueling the anxiety. I also knew that if we couldn’t get the anxiety calmed down, we could end up in an endless cycle of panic, stomach pain, and vomit. I knew I was getting anxious myself. He was stressing me out. We needed to reset.
“Let’s go back to bed,” I said. “Let’s do a body scan.”
I set my phone beside him and played the app for him. Usually a body scan can calm him but it rarely works when he’s in full throttle anxiety mode, and J was SO worked up. But almost instantly he calmed down. His breathing fell into a steady rhythm. The woman on the app led him through an awareness of his feet, toes, legs, arms, hands, fingers, and stomach. Yes–the stomach that was causing all the problems. He seemed okay with it and J lay on the bed calm, his eyes closed. Within minutes after the body scan was over, he fell back asleep.
Thursday night was a good reminder of the importance of keeping up that daily practice. Normally, we practice a body scan every night, but the last month of school and the first few weeks of summer, we haven’t been as vigilant on the daily practice. I’m just glad that he remembered how to settle back down into the meditation when he needed to.
Here is the app J uses for the body scan (there are other meditations on the app—J only uses the body scan). It’s free. And it’s nice to have it on your phone at a moment’s notice. We’ve had to find quiet public places and use it in a pinch sometimes. There’s plenty of apps out there. This is one of the first we tried, and it seemed to really click for J.
It’s not one of those solutions that instantly solves everything. I know mindfulness may sound even a little hippie frou frou. But so far, along with J’s medication, this has been hands-down the most successful strategy we’ve had in helping J through those anxious times. It doesn’t guarantee an absence of meltdowns or the ability to handle everything that comes his way. Sometimes it’s only enough to take the edge off of a twenty-minute meltdown. But it’s a start.
There are times where I feel like all the work we put into J isn’t paying off. I’m impatient. I want him to be able to manage his emotions now. I want the epic tantrums to disappear because they can be really awful to go through with him. Then I remember that there are adults (including myself) who struggle with managing emotions on a daily basis. The one thing (the only thing) I can really control is to choose to keep moving forward. To keep trying.
And every once in a while I get a success moment like this. 🙂