Podcast: Introducing Mindfulness to Kids & Teens
Jenn talks to Dr. Gillian Galen about ways to introduce mindfulness to children and adolescents. Gillian provides tips and tricks to make mindfulness practices more second nature to the whole family, and answers questions about how mindfulness can make a positive impact on our kids and ourselves.
Gillian C. Galen, PsyD, is a senior child and adolescent psychologist specializing in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). She has extensive experience diagnosing and treating adolescents and young adults who struggle with emotion dysregulation, anxiety, depression, trauma, and self-endangering behaviors, such as self-injury and suicidal behaviors. Dr. Galen has a particular interest in the use of mindfulness and yoga in the treatment of borderline personality disorder and psychiatric illnesses. She is the co-author of the books “Mindfulness for Borderline Personality Disorder: Relieve Your Suffering Using the Core Skill of Dialectical Behavior Therapy” and “Coping With BPD: DBT and CBT Skills to Soothe the Symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder.”
Jenn: Welcome to Mindful Things.
The Mindful Things podcast is brought to you by the Deconstructing Stigma team at McLean Hospital. You can help us change attitudes about mental health by visiting deconstructingstigma.org. Now on to the show.
Hi folks. Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening to you. And thank you so much for joining us today, wherever you are, whatever the weather looks like there, for our chat today about mindfulness in kids and teens.
I’m Jenn Kearney. I am a digital communications manager for McLean Hospital, and I’m joined today by the wonderful Dr. Gillian Galen.
Before we get started with all the questions for today’s session, I just want to talk a little bit about how fascinating mindfulness is, because depending on who you ask what they think mindfulness is, it could be anything from like when I asked my mother, it’s focusing on your cup of coffee to really enjoy it all the way to when I asked my sister a weekend long silent retreat away from her children.
And if you’re a parent-
Gillian: That is lovely. I like that one.
Jenn: Right? And if you’re a parent tuning in, I imagine that like three days of silence sounds really nice right about now.
The nice thing about mindfulness though, is that neither concept of it is actually wrong. And that’s one of the things that I like most about mindfulness is that you can apply it in whatever way that works for however your trying to be mindful.
The nice thing about mindfulness too, is that people of all ages can benefit. Kids and teens can too, especially because they’re really stressed these days. Whether it’s navigating school, afterschool stuff, or I don’t know, a pandemic we’re still in it, so.
For kids and adolescents, the mental flexibility that they can learn from mindfulness can actually help offset some of the effects of chronic stressors being imposed on them day in and day out.
So over about the next hour, Gillian and I are going to talk about ways to introduce mindfulness to kids and teens, tips and tricks to make the practices more second nature to not just them, but the whole family.
And we’ll talk a little bit too about how mindfulness can make a positive impact both on kids and ourselves. So if you were unfamiliar with her, I am ecstatic ‘cause I have worked, I’ve worked alongside her for over two years, but I’ve never actually had the pleasure of meeting her “meeting her.”
So I’m happy to introduce her to you. Gillian Galen is a senior child and adolescent psychologist that specializes in dialectical behavior therapy with a particular use in, or a particular interest rather in the use of mindfulness and yoga in the treatment of BPD, as well as other psychiatric illnesses.
She has extensive experience diagnosing and treating adolescents and young adults who struggle with emotion dysregulation, anxiety, depression, trauma, and more.
She is also co-author of several books one, which I think is really applicable to today’s session called, “Mindfulness for Borderline Personality Disorder: Relieve Your Suffering Using the Core Skill of Dialectical Behavior Therapy.”
So, Gillian, I feel like this is like a reunion with a pen pal. Like it’s so nice. It’s so nice to actually meet you. I wanted to start by just asking you what exactly is mindfulness, and is there a difference between mindfulness for adults and mindfulness for kids?
Gillian: Yeah, so, okay. So mindfulness, it’s really about attention and I think that’s why you can have so many different definitions, right?
So I love Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition. I think it’s the most clear and pragmatic definition that you can get, which is paying attention on purpose in a particular way and without judgment. That’s it, that’s mindfulness, right?
So the beauty of mindfulness, is that anything you can do mindlessly, you can do mindfully. It’s about your intention for your attention.
So I can brush my teeth and like think about what I did during the day, or like what I still have to do, or like when my next dental appointment is, or when my kid’s dentist appointment is or something like that.
Or I can say, okay, you know what, for the next two minutes, ‘cause that’s when my little Sonicare shuts off, for the next two minutes, I’m actually going to do this mindfully. I’m just going to pay attention to brushing my teeth. I’m going to pay attention to the sensations what it feels like, what the toothpaste tastes like.
And then when my mind wanders, which it will totally to whatever thinking it will, because that’s the brain, the brain’s function is to produce thoughts, so it’ll wander to something. Then I can bring my attention back to brushing my teeth.
The goal is not like a perfectly Zen moment of no distraction with my toothbrush. It’s about being able to notice when my mind wanders and build the muscle to move my mind back. So it’s an attentional muscle.
So anything, you can do anything mindfully, but you have to decide with intention to do it. And then it’s a practice.
Jenn: So is there a difference between mindfulness and meditation?
Gillian: So yes, and I think what’s tricky about the difference, yes and no. The difference between the two, we get really confused because I think just culturally, we use them interchangeably, but meditation is the formal practice of mindfulness.
So when we do meditation, it tends to be sitting or standing or walking, and it tends to be for a longer period of time. So I’m going to sit down and I’m going to meditate for 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, a retreat.
Or mindfulness is those day to day activities that I can choose to do with intention to build my attentional muscle. So we’ve got the informal practice which is mindfulness, and then we’ve got the more sitting down formalized practice of meditation. But your brain is working in the same way.
Jenn: So what are some of the benefits of kids practicing mindfulness?
Gillian: Yeah, I mean, mindfulness is a very in vogue thing. There’s a lot of interest about mindfulness. There’s a lot of research about mindfulness.
So in general, like if you looked at a lot of the research, what they’ll say, which is really cool and actually not very different than adults. We’re working on rewiring our brain when we practice mindfulness.
So the studies will show that you have improved attention, so you have more ability to focus your attention, which makes sense if you think about it as sort of practicing a muscle of attention.
We know that there’s decreased stress, people experienced are more effective at managing and feel less stress. There’s improved emotion regulation. So there’s a greater, which also can look like decreased reactivity. So we’re able to regulate better.
We see improvements in mood. So if mood goes up, anxiety, depression goes down. There’s some interesting studies that show people that kids that practice mindfulness are more creative. They have some more creativity, they’ve got some more resiliency. There’s some studies around that.
They’ve looked at more empathy, or they’re more empathy which sort of make sense around, the more you practice mindfulness, the more you can work on being nonjudgmental, the less judgmental we are to self and others, the more compassionate and empathetic we are.
So it all kind of makes sense. And those things happen with adults too. And I think we wouldn’t think that there would be major differences, and what would happen with kids.
Jenn: So I know one of the things that I find really fascinating about kids and teens is that until your late twenties, your brain is constantly developing. One of the impacts of chronic stress and anxiety, I imagine that it would change some of your brain’s development.
So what would some of the impacts of these chronic stressors constantly being on the go, et cetera, what does that do to a developing brain?
Gillian: Yeah, I mean, so this is, when people start to live in that fight or flight zone, all of the stress hormones that they talk about with adult, increased cortisol, and this is what we hear about a lot in adults, like heart disease, what all of these things that stress does. Think about the impact of that on a brain that is still developing.
So kids that live in that fight or flight, it’s impacting things like their learning and their attention, and their ability to self-sooth and their connections with others. So these are times where we want the brain to be calm, because it’s already kids that there’s hormones and their growing, and there’s all these sort of developmental tasks that they need.
If you really have kids living in really intense, stressful experiences and environments, you’re going to impact the way the brain develops. You’re going impact their emotion regulation centers. You’re going to impact their executive functioning. You’re going to impact their focus.
When they’re not getting that information, they’re going to start falling behind, they can’t learn. When we’re in a state of fight or flight and anxiety, we don’t learn well, then we fall behind.
And then you start to see the social implications for kids that are really smart and really capable and can’t learn, and can’t focus, and can’t regulate.
Jenn: One thing I’m always curious about, and I admittedly use a mindfulness app, I use Headspace, it’s a shameless plug. I enjoy it.
However, one of the things that I can’t help but question is, if I’m trying to reduce my screen time, there’s a lot of negative connotations associated with being on a screen is a mindfulness app defeating the purpose of being mindful if it’s actually keeping you in a distracted state of mind?
Gillian: Well, it should keep you in a focused state of mind. So it may be distracted, so my feeling about apps is it’s a great gateway to mindfulness.
So when I’m trying to get people, kids and adults to practice mindfulness, this is what I tell them. I say, download an app. I say, look at things. And first and foremost, find someone’s voice that doesn’t annoy you ‘cause that’s the worst. And we all have our own thing.
So you have to find the voice. So some people love the Headspace voice. And some people are like, I can’t, it’s like nails, I can’t stand it, I can’t even pay attention, it’s so annoying.
So, like remove the barrier of the voice and shop around. I tell people to look at Headspace, Calm, 10 Percent Happier, Buddhify, Insight Timer. There’s lots of really great apps out there. Find one that works and plug yourself in and you don’t have to do anything.
What I usually ask people, I’m like, give me 10 minutes of your day, plug in to any of these. Some you have to pay for and subscribe, some are free, do whatever works. And they will tell you what to do. Let the app tell you what to do. Because the app is just going to tell you where to put your attention.
So it’s no different than me saying, I want you to focus on the quietest sound in the room. I want you to go for a walk and focus on your footsteps. I want you to focus on your breath and I’m going to tell you how to count it. It’s just that, I’m not there with you all the time.
So if in the beginning you want to create a habit, that’s what we need to do. We need to remove as many barriers as we can.
And if it’s helpful to say, my watch is going to ping me at this time of day, and I’m going to turn on the Headspace app, and I’m going to sit for 10 minutes, and all I have to do is follow his directions, I think it’s a great way to start mindfulness.
Typically what happens is, after you do the apps for a period of time, you may have figured out the kind of practices that you like the best. And you may say like, oh, I think I don’t need the app anymore.
Other people are going to use the app for years and years and years. I’ve no problem with mindfulness apps.
Jenn: Perfect, so one question that we’ve gotten a few times is how early can I start teaching my children mindfulness practices? And a question to piggyback off of that is should these practices evolve as they get older?
Gillian: Yeah, I mean, I don’t do too much mindfulness with really little kids because you need an attention span.
And like, we don’t need to, asking like, we’ve all tried it, anybody that has kids that tries to like ask a little kid to pay attention longer than their brain is capable of knows what happens. They stop paying attention.
And you can even see it, you can even see it when kids are watching TV, even though all of the stuff that’s coming in and all the oxytocin from the TV, at some point, little kids are done. They get up and they go do something else.
So when you’re really little, like before age, it starts to change. I’m starting to see it a little bit in my four-year-old. But up until four, your brain is wired to live in the present moment. It’s amazing, what we call is like, they don’t have the capacity to live in what we call secondary emotions.
So a primary emotion is that neurological event that happens for all of us. Input comes in and it triggers something, and our brain through a series of events, produces an emotion. That emotion has a function, it motivates action, it communicates to ourselves and it communicates to others.
When you’re a little kid, that’s what happens like over and over again. It’s just that very organic. So we think that we’re distracting them, but like, they just kind of get over things. Like one moment, they’re sad, and then they’re excited about something and then they’re really mad, and then they’re happy again.
That’s how an emotion runs its course like it lasts from 20 to 60 seconds, and then it moves on. When you start to get at about age like four and five, you start to be able to think about your emotions. Before that, you can’t think about them. You’re just present. You’re just literally in the moment.
When we get older and the brain starts to get more connections, we start to be able to think about why do I feel sad all the time? Or like, and then you start to like, I’m so mad at like, my mom gave my brother this.
Okay, well, the little kid will just get mad, but once you hit four and five you start to think that’s so unfair and nobody, I never get anything. So now we have, I’m mad, right, at my brother and I’m mad at my mom, and then I’m going to do something that I’m going to feel embarrassed about.
And this is where you begin to think, oh, it could be kind of interesting if we could just kind of work on staying in that present moment, in that present emotion and not doing things that inadvertently make us suffer, which is what we all do all the time.
So if anybody ruminates, it’s because we’re letting our attention get pulled and it’s getting pulled and we’re looping and looping and looping. If you have the capacity and strong mindfulness practice, you can notice, wait a minute, I need to move my attention somewhere else. This isn’t helping me.
So, I think in general, like mindfulness tends to start with, I don’t know, I probably wouldn’t do it with kids under five really and expect too much.
But I think what is really cool that we’ll do with little kids, which is kind of priming is like a lot of preschools will do things like yoga and they’ll teach them to take deep breaths and they’ll pair things like movement and breath as a way to regulate your emotions.
So I’m not sure it’s mindfulness in the most complicated sense, but you can work with kids being focused and shifting their attention. We do that all the time, like, oh, you’re upset, let’s go try something else and see if it’ll make you feel better.
So I don’t think there’s really formal mindfulness practice. It does start in preschools and you’ll see, kids will start doing things like yoga and they’ll do different kinds of games as they’re developing attention.
They don’t have a long enough attention span until they’re, I know realistically, I mean, I think right now my seven year old could get sort of mindfulness that’s in the form of a game, but the concept of paying attention to my breath, and then when my mind wanders, moving it back, isn’t going to happen when kids are really little, they don’t have the wiring to do that.
You have to do more activity-based practices so they learn to just pay attention and sustain attention as opposed to deliberately move their intention until they’re older. That’s a long-winded answer to your question.
Jenn: No, it’s a great answer. I have two nieces and one is four and is starting to get into that whole like, if she gets an emotion, sometimes she like really holds onto it. So when she’s around me and she gets mad, I’m like, what does that feel like?
And she gets all like scrunched up and everything. And I’m like, how does it feel if you let it go? And she just goes like, ah, and it’s all theatrical and everything, but it’s, I mean, it’s helpful to teach kids to like, to start letting go of what they’re feeling as they’re feeling it.
Gillian: Yeah, and with mindfulness, you really have to like meet people especially kids like child, you have to meet them developmentally where they’re at.
And kids brains and attentions, way back, many moons ago, when I was doing my dissertation on a yoga intervention and with kids that had lots of different, like sort of a diverse emotional difficulties and behavioral difficulties, I came across a study where they were using yoga with latency-aged boys who had ADHD.
And my feeling is that if you could get those using yoga to help those kids build those attentional circuits, that’s the kind of mindfulness, it’s going to be active, it’s going to be games. It’s going to be trying to figure out how do I sustain attention for periods of time.
Jenn: So I know you’ve mentioned the experience you have with mindfulness and yoga. Are there ways that we can incorporate mindfulness into other exercises of things like yoga or walking or other what I like to call it, slow movement, does it do it for us?
Gillian: Yeah, totally. So again, you go back to this idea that anything you can do mindlessly, you can do mindfully. So, I have friends and patients who were really avid runners, but it turns out they actually weren’t running mindfully.
So we could run mindfully, and you can use that as your practice. And if that’s more accessible to you, the beauty of mindfulness is there are so many different practices. You don’t have to sit and meditate quietly, and just work on your breath.
There’s a lot of things that you can do. I have a friend that will go for a run for an hour, and that is also of a mindful practice. And she doesn’t put on headphones. What she does is she simply focuses on the sounds of her feet hitting the ground. So she’s so aware.
And then when her mind wanders to whatever’s going on in the day or something that’s bothering her, she goes back to the feet, back to the feet, back to the feet. It’s a great, and that works for her much better than sitting quietly in a room.
I mean, I think this is what I try to work with people. You got to figure out if you want to practice mindfulness, it doesn’t have to look exactly the same. And sometimes what happens is some people just need a more active way to capture their attention. They need physical movement, or they need something other than their breath.
And if you do that enough and you build that muscle, you will be able to sit down and meditate in time. It’s just about, you have to figure out how to build that muscle sort of initially, then you can start doing different kinds of practices.
Jenn: For teens specifically that are better getting started on mindfulness. I know one of the things that can start popping up when you’re a young adult is rumination. Somebody makes fun of your shirt. You get a jelly donut on you.
Something that happens early enough in your day and has enough of an impact that you’re just going to hyper focus on that. What exercises would you recommend to a teen to help start pulling them away from that ruminating aspect?
Gillian: So the tricky thing about mindfulness is that you need to practice it when you don’t need it so that when you need it, it’s there. This is the challenge.
So I like to think that the practice of mindfulness, it’s kind of no different than if you lift weights. So if I decide, okay, I’m going to go start lifting. I start low, like I can’t lift very much. And I continue to work out and the muscles get stronger.
And then when I need to move a large piece of furniture in my house, I can pick it up. I can do my side of it as I have to move the dresser, wherever I have to move it. So you have to practice it, like learning how to meditate in the middle of a rumination is just not going to happen or trying to shift your attention in the middle of that rumination.
Now, if you’re someone that’s like, oh, I ruminate and it’s really, it just takes over my attention, I can’t pay attention in class. I can’t get my homework done. I just get, so I can’t sleep and then I’m more tired the next day.
So, I do dialectical behavioral therapy. The core skill is mindfulness, which is great. So I deal with rumination and people getting stuck on rumination all the time.
We have to build that muscle so that you then can, notice number one, one of the problems with rumination sometimes is that people ruminate for a really long time before they notice they’re ruminating.
It’s like, oh my God, I’ve been up, I can’t sleep and it’s been an hour and I’m stuck. So the first thing is to have the mindful awareness that you’re ruminating. And then you start to think about, okay, DBT, we call the skill, turning the mind. So I’m aware that I’m ruminating and I need to turn my attention.
And then there are so many things we can turn our attention to. It just depends what you need. So what I have found is most useful around ruminating is because ruminating is so focused on thinking, you need to be able to put your thinking somewhere else.
So it’s really difficult to say, like, okay, I’m just going to focus on my breath ‘cause you’re going to get pulled. You’re going to get pulled. And the more emotionally laid in whatever the rumination is, the stronger the pull for your attention. So you kind of need to like really pull it.
And so what I have found can be useful is doing a mindful activity with your thoughts. So I’m going to do a Sudoku. I’m going to do a crossword puzzle. I like to do, I personally, if I get caught ruminating, I have to a mindfulness practice that I tend to do, which is I take a three letter word like hat, and I have to make the next word begin with the last letter.
So then I might say top, and then I might say Pit, and then I might take tan, and then I might say knob. And because what that does is it really shifts my attention, but it’s active. So it’s activating my mind.
If that’s too easy for me, like I just figured out like, I’m going on like, you can do that and think at the same time, if you practice it enough. So I’ll do things like I’ll increase it to four letters and then I’ll maybe do something like, well, okay, I’m going to do a four-letter one.
And what I have to do is replace one letter somewhere in the word to create another word much harder. That’s much harder for me because I don’t do that one as much. And I do that for a period of time simply to cut the tape of the rumination. Now, my attention is completely focused on this.
If I can do that enough, I usually will get a little bit of distance from the rumination and then I can kind of step back and think about it, or I can just breathe for a second and think like, okay, like I’ve sort of separated from that a little bit, now, what do I need to do with my attention? And you can do that because you practice mindfulness when you don’t need it.
Jenn: So for piggybacking off of practicing mindfulness when you don’t need it to have it readily available when you do, how can kids incorporate mindfulness into the time that they’re spending in school and other activities that are overly stimulating like extracurriculars or being in a busy social environment?
Gillian: So the trick with mindfulness and kids is how you sell it to them. And I work with a ton of parents that say, like, I do mindfulness, and it’s the core DBT, and I cannot get my kid to do it. So tell me, Gillian, how do I make my kid do mindfulness?
You don’t, you don’t. So you have to get kids to buy in to mindfulness and figure out like, and some kids will buy in and they’re like, yes, this is great. Other kids, it takes just a lot longer to do it.
The nice part is that they are actually doing more mindfulness in schools. Elementary schools and some middle schools are starting their day with mindfulness two or three minutes. Teachers are incorporating different mindful activities.
And you can also do more mindful games, like attention games with kids. If kids see parents doing mindfulness, they’re much more likely to do mindfulness. Because they’ll say, well, mindfulness is hard and it’s boring and you’re not doing it.
So if you can make it a family activity and if you can model it, it’s great. Remember that it’s about paying attention and in certain ways, so you can take that three letter word game and you can do it at the dinner table and you can do it in the car. That’s an attentional practice.
So everybody has stuff going on in their mind, but what you’re asking them to do that’s a fully participate mindfulness. I’m saying, I know you have lots of stuff going on in your mind, but we’re all going to spend three or four minutes fully participating in this. We’re going to clear our mind. And all that stuff.
I would tell people, don’t worry about it, it’s all there. All the rumination, all the stuff that’s spinning around in your mind, you can go back to it later, maybe in a more effective way. But I think parents modeling mindfulness practicing those kinds of activities together, even breathing together, gratitude practice.
So I do a little gratitude practice with my kids every night, which is really actually kind of funny. Sometimes they use it to dig at each other, it’s actually kind of funny. But I have a seven and a half year old and a four year old, the two are boys.
And we do a little gratitude practice where we just take a moment, we breathe. And I just ask them something that they were grateful for. And that’s a very short practice. But I’m taking their attention and I’m putting their attention on gratitude because there’s lots of good research on the impact of gratitude.
So incorporate something little into your family don’t make a big deal about it if it’s teenagers, because if you have teenagers that are like, this is stupid, like, come on, let’s just do this. Other teenagers you may find will be really open to, like, what do you think about doing this app together?
Like what do you think about either, in the morning or in whatever time, Monday, Wednesday, Friday after your siblings are asleep, like, what do you think about this? We’ll sit in these chairs, we’ll do it in this special space, we’ll light a candle, we’ll whatever, let’s do something mindful.
And then let’s share observations after it. Let’s say like what we noticed. Was it really hard, was it pretty easy? Was I super distracted? Was I tired? So some kids will really engage in that and that’s kind of fun and do an app together, that’s the other thing to do.
I know a couple of parents that have done via Zoom, they’ve done a mindfulness, like a couple with their kids in college or their young adult kids where they just do it together for 10 minutes. So be creative.
Jenn: I love that. Do you have additional tips on how to suggest or introduce mindfulness to teens so that they don’t immediately reject it just because it’s coming from an adult?
Gillian: Yeah, I mean, you have to know your kid. This is what I always tell parents. Like you just have to know your kid.
So some parents will be like, if I say it, it doesn’t matter if they buy into it or not, they’re going to say no. But if I do it and just sort of say like, this is what we’re doing at this time, come and join if you want to, or like, let’s try this at the dinner table, you may have a better bet.
Usually teens, if the teen isn’t interested in mindfulness, they’re not going to be interested in the research that you send them. But if they are interested in mindfulness, they will be interested in the research and the books.
If you have a kid that’s actually pretty interested in mindfulness, there are places that, now a lot of them are on Zoom, but when this pandemic opens up, if it does, which hopefully it will soon, but we’ll stay in the present moment.
They have like those little retreats that you can go to. It doesn’t have to be, I mean, a week in five days, it’s great. I went to five days in the desert, Blaise and I headed in there, it was great. We had a wonderful time, it was all for DBT providers.
But you know, you can also go to places like if you’re local, there’s a place called the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center that has like a new, it has a retreat for new retreatants and you can go for a day and they do a lot of teaching.
And the beauty of doing things in a group is, I always tell people there’s kind of peer pressure. You don’t want to be like that person that gets up. So it helps us kind of stay when we have the urge to distract or the urge to kind of not do this anymore.
And there’s also really, like Oprah has like a 30 day mindfulness challenge, which I have had a lot of teens really like, they like the idea of the challenge. Like, let’s do it together, let’s tick it off. Let’s see if we can actually like go 30 days.
And that’s been, so you make a kind of fun and a bit of a challenge. And if you do mindfulness for 30 days, you’ve really begun to establish a habit. That’s why it’s 30 days, which is nice.
Jenn: One thing that I can’t help but think of is, as someone who was once a teenager, a lot of them thrive in pot calling the kettle to parents.
So what would be some ways that we could explain the benefits of slowing down and being mindful to a teenager that’s equally as busy as we are, because I can’t help but think that sometimes if you try to frame it in a specific way, the teenager’s going to look at you and go, well, what are you doing?
Gillian: Yeah, well, I mean, I think you got to practice what you preach, especially with teens. They’re all over it when you don’t. And if you don’t practice it, you can say, I don’t practice it. Here’s what gets in the way, I wish I did. And I really think it would be great if you did. And like, I’m going to try, but I get it.
Like you’ve got to own it, that you’re not doing it. I actually talked about, I sort of sell mindfulness around efficiency is that the research is, so a lot of us multitask, we all do it. And you’re really inefficient so about 2% of the population and of that 2%, most of them tend to be women have the capacity to multitask, which means do two things at the same time.
What the rest of us do is we rapidly shift sets. So our attention is moving, moving, moving, moving which is very exhausting for the brain. So the more you’re moving back and forth, the less efficient you’re getting.
So those are the times where like, if you’ve been multitasking for a long time, and anyone’s been like on the phone and typing an email, and all of a sudden you type the email, like what you’re talking on the phone, like, it doesn’t work. That’s because your brain is getting tired and you’re less efficient.
So I often tell people if you can be one mindful and just do one thing in that moment, make your list that you’re really stressed out about like, make the list, all the things that you have to do for school and your extracurriculars and your families.
Make that list, try doing one thing in an incredibly present way, check it off and go to the next, what you will find is number one, your anxiety is lower because you’re not doing one thing while holding all these other things in your mind so that you don’t forget them. And you’re fully present, so you’re more efficient.
So you’ll find that you can check those things off more effectively, and you can also be more accepting of what you actually can do in the time that you have. So you don’t have to waste the time panicking about, oh my God, I’m not going to get it done. You can say, I can get this done tonight, and I’m going to wake up at five tomorrow morning and finish the last two assignments.
So I often will do that. I tend to tell people, particularly parents, but I tell this with kids too, the more you practice mindfulness, the more focused you’re going to be at anything you do, whether it’s sports or whether it’s school or whether it’s your relationship. You’re going feel less stressed if you put the time in, and your mood is going to be better.
And if you at all have the propensity for like a lower mood, you can practice mindfulness, which has no side effects. Versus ending up on medication or those kinds of things that maybe a lot of teenagers don’t really like, like they have a lot of strong feelings about that.
They don’t like the side effects, they don’t like the concept that you can do these things, you will be more regulated, you’ll be less reactive and your mood will be better and you’ll be less stressed, but it’s going to take time.
It’s not a quick fix, but it’s going to last you for a really long time. That’s usually my sales pitch. And I usually do reasonably well.
Jenn: We had additional questions from folks asking for more suggestions around reframing mindfulness for teens to help sell it into something that they are willing to try with or without us.
Gillian: Again, it really depends on your teen. I mean, I think you have to take the tactic of what works. For some kids, they want evidence, give me the evidence. They ask you for the evidence, you can Google tons of different studies on the impact of mindfulness.
And it’s going to be around stress. It’s going to be around attention. It’s going to be around mood, improved mood and regulation. And be really honest with them that it takes work. Like it takes work.
It doesn’t take in the grand scheme of things that much work, but they will have to put in the time, ideally it’s about 10 to 20 minutes a day, but they can, what I would do is I would talk with them about things that they already do.
Like if they run, if they play a musical instrument and I would get really curious with them about like, are they doing that mindfully already with intention. Can they build on that practice? Or if they’re not, can you take something that they’re already doing? Like an instrument or running or walking or the dishes, doing chores around the house or walking dogs, or taking care of pets. Can they work with their attention around doing those?
So, turning that already sort of established activity into something that is a mindful one. And to really talk with them about it.
Some kids like podcasts, there are some, I think I don’t have off the top of my head, but I think there’s some like mindfulness for teens podcasts, where it makes more sense to learn about it first before they kind of put it into action.
Some schools actually have clubs that do sort of mindful activities. Some kids do really well with yoga ‘cause they really like the active part of it, the movement piece of it. And they sort of in those yoga classes, they sneak in two meditations in the beginning and the end. So they just call it Savasana at the end and everybody thinks it’s relaxation, but that is a quiet space.
And if we’re doing it mindfully, that’s a great opportunity. And they usually do it in the beginning of a class sort of, as we settle in and they help you focus your attention.
And there’s a lot of mindfulness for like specific teen classes. If you have a young teen, there’s a lot of teen mindfulness classes. If you have an older teen, they may go into sort of an adult class anyways, and they could just be in a mixed class with everyone.
So you really need to know what they’re into and what’s going to work, and what helps you sell anything to them like you would try to convince them what works to convince them of things that they’re not so sure about.
If you have kids with mood disorders, I think it can be really useful to talk to them about how mindfulness could work and is that something that they would want to incorporate like in their life moving forward as a sort of protective factor for their mood.
Jenn: One thing I’m curious about is, is there the possibility to practice mindfulness while also being productive, whether you’re studying, writing, so on and so forth in a way to prevent our minds from wandering? And if this is possible, how do we get started? Asking for a friend.
Gillian: Alright, so in DBT we have what’s called the how and the what skills of mindfulness. So it breaks down what that paying attention on purpose in a particular way and without judgment.
So we have the, how do we do it? So one way that we can do it is simply observing things, this is hard because we put words to everything. So these are practices like sit down for three to four minutes and observe an itch in your body and do nothing about it. Or observe the urge to swallow, but don’t swallow up.
So those are like more sort of practices that you would do that wouldn’t relate necessarily to productivity. Then we have describe skills where we observe something and we practice just describing it in a fact-based way non-judgmentally.
And then we have fully participate skills, which practices, which are throwing, like throwing ourselves into the present moment. Like this is what I’m going to do. And when my mind wanders, I’m going to bring it back, I’m going to let go of self-consciousness, I’m going to let go of worry and I’m going to be right here.
So we have observe, describe and participate. And then we have the how do we do this? So we do those one mindfully, that is all we do.
So when I’m doing my email, I’m doing my email. When I’m sitting on the Zoom call, and this is probably the hardest thing to be mindful, you’re on a Zoom call with like a million different boxes that you’re not that interested in. And you got your phone and you’re like texting and you’re shopping on Amazon.
So one, we’ve all done it, all of us have done it, so that we can do it one mindfully. Like I’m just going to be there, whether I’m observing, describing or participating, I’m just going to be there. And we’re going to do it non-judgmentally.
Nonjudgmental practice is amazing because being nonjudgmental, judgments are simply shorthand, summing up a large concept into one word. So good, bad, ugly, pretty, how something should or shouldn’t be, it takes a complicated concept and it pairs it down.
Positive judgments don’t seem to cause too many problems other than they leave out a ton of information. Like if Jenn says, “Gillian, how was your weekend?” And I say, good. You know that my weekend was good, but you have no idea what I did. Like I could have done something that you totally hated.
Go like, oh, that sounds like an awful weekend. But you got the gist of it and it’s fine. And other than you not knowing what I did, but you could follow up on it, it’s not a big problem. Negative judgments about ourselves and other people and situations tend to foster negative emotions, or they tend to enhance the very emotions that are bothering us.
So if I’m anxious and I say, oh my God, I’m so anxious, I can’t believe, I hate this anxiety. This anxiety shouldn’t be here, it’s never going to end, I can’t stand this, I can’t do it. What am I doing to my anxiety? I’m just ramping the anxiety of all by myself.
Usually out of my awareness, I’m making my situation worse. If I observe and describe it non-judgmentally, I just say, I notice anxiety, notice my heart beating. I notice my thoughts moving quickly. I notice my palms getting sweaty.
If I just observe and describe that over and over, it’s really boring for the brain. There’s kind of like no interesting drama. And so then I go back to that, like, zero to three baby in which I can let it just run its course and it might get prompted again. But it generally won’t enhance the emotion.
And then over time, I’ll be less anxious about it. So if we want to be more productive, we need to be present, we need to do things one mindfully. And if we want to manage the feelings that we have, we want to try to do it non-judgmentally because then we’re more effective at doing what we need.
So the last piece of mindfulness, is we do things effectively. We look at the situation, and one other piece of mindfulness is this idea of a lens, which is like focused attention and expanded awareness.
So I need to look at the situation, I need to think of myself and my goals. I need to expand my awareness to like the larger goals of the system. And then I need to think what’s effective.
So for me, we ask teenagers to think about, do you want to be right or effective? Because we need to really think about these and manage these goals in the present moment. But if we want to be productive, we need to be present, and we need to be one mindful at what we’re doing and knowing that like, you can’t do that forever.
Your mind wanders, but you need to intentionally say, I’m going to go to this meeting and I’m going to do it mindfully, I’m going to be fully present. And when my mind wanders, I’m going to come on back. I’m going to really work with it.
So there’s nothing relaxing about mindfulness. Sometimes you get a bonus of relaxation, it’s a very active practice in attention. And that’s often hard for adolescents and kids too, because their mind is they’re so excited, they have all these ideas and they’re going everywhere, not necessarily ruminating.
But sometimes we have to bring our attention in. So we are more productive when we are fully present in the moment.
Jenn: One of the things that just stuck with me about what you said is that, for adolescents, there’s just so much stimuli all the time that it’s hard to figure out where your attention should be going at any given time.
I can’t help but think that that’s really difficult for young adults who are college age starting or getting pretty close to graduating and entering the real world. Do you have any thing you can share about your experiences or thoughts about introducing mindfulness to college students that are already really overly stimulated?
Gillian: I think one of the problems that the kids struggle with now is like, they’re like addicted to stimulation. They’re addicted to stimulation, and we’re all addicted to stimulation.
So if you want to do a really fascinating mindfulness practice sit for maybe miserable, Jenn has that look like, oh, this is going to be torturous. So take your phone, like to take your phone, and put it next to you.
And you can see like, I do this practice all the time ‘cause I haven’t looked, but I’ve got all these crazy notifications. So put your phone next to you, just put it next to you and then sit with your eyes open, breathing for, I don’t know, three or four minutes, and don’t look at your phone. It’s really hard.
So what you’ll notice is you’ll get a notification. So like, so I noticed a notification, I’m going to come back to just being present with my phone, but what’s going to happen to you? You’re going to get a visceral response in your body, but your mind is going to do its thing. And then you’re going to feel an urge in your body to pick up your phone.
And adolescents are, this is how their mind has developed. Like their brain has developed with this constant stimulation, whether it’s phones and video games and TVs, and in a way that a lot of people that grew up before that technology didn’t have.
So one of the things that’s really hard for kids is to get over that visceral. Like, no, no, no, I need to check my phone. You don’t really need to check your phone, but I feel that I need it.
So often what helps with kids and stimulation is that when they get to a point where they decide it’s a problem for them, and lots of teens get here, I think lots of teens and young adults will say like, I need space for my… I want my phone, but I got to get off TikTok. I’ve got to get off Snapchat.
Like it’s consuming my life. Like it’s consuming my attention. And I think that’s you’re in. You’re in, is that people change their behaviors. And this is what’s painful about working with adolescents is that we probably saw that problem, like six months, a year or two years ahead of them, but it’s really hard to fight and it’s visceral.
And I always tell parents to do that mindfulness practice with your phone so that it helps you have compassion for the kids because they feel that even more than we do, ‘cause they feel everything more than we do at this point, it’s how their biology is.
So I think the key is to let kids know that there are ways to get some space from that. And when they’re ready, like you’d love to talk, you’d be happy to think about ways that you can help them do that, and that you think that mindfulness practice and getting space from some of those devices actually may be helpful.
Jenn: So is mindfulness then, is part of mindfulness experiencing delayed gratification?
Gillian: Good question. And some people are just delayed gratifiers. I mean, I guess, I think it’s how you think about it.
So like, if you think about delayed gratification, it’s like, like I’m a delayed gratifier. I’m like, no, no, I don’t want any of my birthday presents till my birthday. And you can put them in front of me and I have no problem, but my attention isn’t pulled that way.
But part of it is because I think, I know that like, it’s fun for me to do it that way, where other people are like, oh my gosh, I cannot wait. So if they wanted, right. So if you wanted, you could do that as a mindfulness practice.
And what you would do is you really build this really great awareness and you’d be like, wow, look what my mind does when I can’t move into action. And that’s mindfulness of our thinking and that’s what really can be very helpful for all of us.
Like, wow, like when I put that in front of me, like, I really want to open that. Like, I really want to buy that. Like I really, and this is where I guess you could link delayed gratification with decreased reactivity.
We can wait more. Like, I tell people the cool thing about mindfulness is that the more you practice it, the more you have the ability to sit in the space between the urge to do something and acting on it, you can just sit there and it doesn’t actually cause you that much distress.
You’re like, oh, that’s interesting, like, that’s fascinating, I really want into that gift right now. Okay, it’s just the thought. Here’s me, and here’s the thought, and that’s the mindfulness that we want to develop over time with our awareness.
And we want the kids to know…like, I noticed I really want to do this, but do I want to do it? Because if we sit in that space, then we get choice. And that’s what I always tell people. So kids that struggle with impulsivity, that’s my big sell for them is that I could teach you this, and then we could get you to be better at sitting in that space, which is what you’re telling me you want.
You want to be able to sit in the space and decide like, do I really want to do that? Is it really a good idea to do this? Do I really want to buy this or make this decision? And you’ll be able to sit being really interested as opposed to being really compelled to do something.
Jenn: So is the goal then to have, and I feel like I might already know the answer to this, but is the goal to eventually have a formal meditative practice and whatever meditation works for you or is living mindfully, like when you talked about your friend that pays attention to her footsteps, is that enough?
Gillian: Yeah, I mean, I think what happens is there’s often like a natural transition. Is that you start to live your life more mindfully and you start to crave being able to sit in quiet more.
So, anything is better than nothing from my perspective. I do think if you’re really talking about, you really want to do the rewiring.
So there’s some studies that will say, 20 minutes a day of mindfulness for two weeks, MRI pre, MRI post, you see a difference in brain, your brain, you actually can see differences. A lot of them are in your prefrontal cortex, which is your attention areas your executive functioning, and that wonderful gateway for your amygdala and your limbic system that says like, I don’t think you really want to do that.
Even though you really have that strong urge, you build that, and that’s where your decreased reactivity comes from. So, I think if you really want to do that, you really probably should do a formal, work up to a formal meditation practice.
And if people really just want to go right into the meditation practice, you can do both. You can develop a meditation practice and you can also live mindfully. And the more you do the meditation practice, the easier it is to live mindfully. And the meditation practice is a habit.
So do it at the same time of day, in the same place in your house, start at three minutes, set it, don’t use your phone or use your phone timer and turn it down because it’s kind of torturous otherwise.
But do your mindfulness practice and build up, for a while, do three minutes, then do five minutes, do seven minutes, then do 10 minutes or start at 10 minutes, start where it feels accessible so that you can be successful and you can start building that attention. And if you can get up to 20 minutes a day, that’s fantastic.
Jenn: I would be remiss. We’ve received a ton of questions about suggestions for resources, apps, et cetera. So I’m going to do a little bit of a rapid fire with you about things that you may recommend to folks.
So first and foremost, do you have some suggestions for mindfulness practices as part of a sleep routine?
Gillian: Yeah, so I tend to do the breath for the sleep routine. I mean, I think there’s a lot of different breathing exercises. Paced breathing is one of the most effective because it works on your physiology by really slowing down your heart rate if that kind of gets going.
So paced breathing is, you’re really, all you have to remember is that your exhale needs to be longer than your inhale. So you can inhale for five, exhale for seven.
Anything you want, you want a longer one, you can inhale for six and exhale for eight. The exhale longer is the one that helps with the calming of the heart rate.
There’s ladder breathing where you can inhale and exhale one, inhale and exhale two, make your ladder as long as you want, when your mind wanders, you just come back to one. I really like to do a breathing where I inhale all the way full and I say, hold it until it’s not interesting anymore just subjective.
Inhale and then hold. And then when you’re done holding, exhale all the way out, hold at the bottom until it’s not interesting anymore, inhale. So you’re not working at counting, you just get to decide, but you’re inhaling until you’re full, holding until it’s not interesting anymore, exhaling all the way empty and holding at the bottom.
And if your mind wanders, you just start back at your inhale. You can also Google like mindfulness breathing activities and there’ll be a million.
Jenn: Do you have any good mindfulness activities or resources for a ten-year-old?
Gillian: I don’t know the names off the top of my head, but if you go on to Amazon and you do mindfulness activities for kids, there is, I think there’s a deck of cards and there’s also one for adults.
I have it, it’s all the way in the back, it’s called “Mindfulness Cards,” but some of those are nice, like, so, because what you can do with the kids is that you can have them pick a card, which is a little bit more active than like reading it in a book, but there are some really good.
And then if your kid does better with books, do books, but there are some cards that you can use with just decks and it tells you what to do. Like let’s do this activity, and that’s mindfulness.
So I would look for younger kids like decks of cards, they give you sort of an interactive, like let’s play the mindfulness game as opposed to like, let’s do our mindfulness practice. But label it as mindfulness so that they know that’s what they’re doing.
Jenn: Any suggestions for resources that would show alternate things to focus on and the example that someone asked about was focusing on your feet hitting the ground.
Gillian: Yeah, so you can focus on your feet hitting the ground. You can do something called, 3-2-1, which is you focus on three things you see, two things you hear, one thing, you could pick any of your senses, like one thing you smell.
And you can do that with like five, four, three, two, one. And you can go through all of your senses. You can focus on sensations so you can drink a cup of tea. You can eat a raisin, raisins actually have a really neat texture or like a Hershey kiss. Anything you can eat mindfully.
And you can notice like tastes, you can drink things mindfully. You can listen to music and try to mindfully pick out the different instruments. I mean, really there’s like many, many things that you can do to really pay attention.
If you want an extra challenge, do anything you do habitually with your dominant hand, with your non-dominant hand. So I often will tell people, brush your teeth with your left hand for a week and just pay attention, what do you notice?
There’s a lot of attention that goes into it because you’ll find that it’s much harder. If you put your pants on with your right foot, probably people don’t even pay attention most people like which arm and leg goes in, but deliberately do the opposite.
Washing dishes mindfully is a really good one to do because there’s a lot of sensations to pay attention to. You can pay attention to the temperature, to the textures. So that’s another one that you can really pay attention to.
Hopefully that’s enough. There’s lots of them, but I mean, just think about things that give you sensations, that you can pay attention to them. Pay attention to the quietest sound in the room, which is always fascinating ‘cause you’re always focusing then on the next sound, once you found one.
Jenn: Do you have any suggestions for resources for mindful family activities at the dinner table, for example?
Gillian: I would get those decks of cards. Yeah, I would get the deck of cards because then, like you can alternate who picks, it can be sort of a family activity, you can shuffle, you can...
I would do those kinds of things. Those are always fun. And there’s probably like a deck for kids or for teens or for families, would be my guess.
Jenn: Last, but certainly not least. I know you’ve interspersed these throughout the entire discussion, but what are some of your favorite mindfulness practices or resources that you haven’t mentioned yet?
Gillian: I think because I’ve been practicing for as long as I have, I just like breathing. I feel like it’s like the most portable mindfulness practice that you can get. And I always learn new ones.
We started a lot of our groups. I start my parent groups that I ran, my parent skills groups with mindfulness practices. And there’s so many breath practices and it’s so portable that really doing breath work is my favorite.
And you really can Google, I’ll Google it sometimes. And, oh, there’s another one, and I’ll try that. And sometimes I really enjoy it and find it helpful. And sometimes it like stresses me out. I’m like, well, you know. When they stress me out, I’m like, I think I need to do that one more. Because it’s just about more practice.
So I always tell people, try to get to your breath and it’s okay if it takes you a while to get there because it’s not the most compelling pull for your attention, but it’s really portable and will be with you for forever.
Jenn: Perfect, I think that is the best way that we could end this session. Gillian, this has been so fun and so enlightening and I cannot thank you enough for taking over an hour to talk to me. So thank you so much for joining me today.
Gillian: Thank you for having me. This was so, what a highlight of my day, this was so fun.
Jenn: I’m so happy to hear that. And for anybody tuning in, this actually concludes our session. So until next time, be nice to one another, but most importantly, take some deep breaths and be nice to yourself. Thank you again, have a great day.
Thanks for tuning in to Mindful Things! Please subscribe to us and rate us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Don’t forget, mental health is everyone’s responsibility. If you or a loved one are in crisis, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day at 877.870.4673. Again, that’s 877.870.4673.
- - -
The McLean Hospital podcast Mindful Things is intended to provide general information and to help listeners learn about mental health, educational opportunities, and research initiatives. This podcast is not an attempt to practice medicine or to provide specific medical advice.
© 2022 McLean Hospital. All Rights Reserved.