In my last post I introduced the topic of mindfulness and mentioned some of the research that supports it’s endless benefits. I even called mindfulness the foundation of all effective parenting, which is a pretty bold statement, but I truly believe it.
Today I’m going to talk a little bit about when and how mindfulness comes in handy. I’m not talking about the relaxing and alone morning you have set aside to meditate (that’s awesome though if you have been able to do that!). I’m talking about the not so smooth moments. The moments that you feel like you are going to lose it. The moments that you do lose it. The moments that are hard and scary. But before I do that, let me first introduce another concept, called the fight or flight response, which is this…
The human race would have not survived without the fight or flight response because it has kept us safe from danger. You probably have seen this response in your pet animals. When their sense of safety feels threatened, they either run away or get ready to fight. Physical safety is important. But EMOTIONAL safety is just as important, and when that feels threatened in us, we will go into fight or flight. When we have a difficult interaction with another human, or even ourselves, and that interaction causes us to feel sad, angry, alone, unloved, ashamed, or any of the not so comfortable emotions, we feel unsafe.
Here are some examples of times that your emotional safety has been threatened and you have gone into fight or flight mode:
You ask your child to turn off the TV and come eat the dinner you have worked hard to make. They don’t listen to you, making you feel unimportant and unappreciated. You respond by yelling at your child.
Your partner comes home from work, and he/she is in a bad mood for no apparent reason, You ask them to help out with a chore, and they snap at you. You respond by either freezing, walking away crying, or yelling back.
You have to present on an important topic at work to your team. You are very nervous. After the presentation is done, your boss begins challenging you in front of your coworkers about some of the materials you presented on. Your mind goes blank, and you wish you could just run out of the room and never return.
How is mindfulness related to the fight or flight response?
Mindfulness helps calm down your brain and body and brings you out of the fight or flight response mode so you can decide how to best act, rather than react to the situation. I had a supervisor who always said, “Act, don’t react” and that really stayed with me. Here are the step:
Know your triggers. Mindfully observe what are the triggers that easily put you into the fight or flight response. Is it when you feel unloved? Is it when you feel ashamed? Which people or situations in your life can trigger you into a fight or flight response? The best way to get these answers is to sit down AFTER you have had a fight or flight response and think about what happened.
Form a friendship with your breath. The closer you feel and know your breath, the faster you can use it when in fight or flight response. Most of us don’t even pay attention to our breathing. But it is the main active tool we have that can calm the heart rate down and reset the brain.
Seek a sense of safety from within, rather than others. The more you are able to make yourself feel loved, the more you have self-compassion, the less others can threaten your sense of safety. This is hard to do, because most of us never learned it. The progress in this is slow because you are rewiring your brain’s relationship with yourself, but it is extremely worth it.
Better understand why it is important for YOU that you do not go into fight or flight mode or that you calm yourself down from it. Why is it important to you that you act rather than react? Is it because you want to be in more control of yourself? Is it because you want your children to learn effective behaviors when faced with challenge? Do you value positive and effective family interactions?
When triggered, use mindfulness techniques to calm down. Focus your attention back to what you are doing in that moment (e.g., cooking, driving, cleaning), or how you are feeling or thinking (e.g., “I am noticing that I feel scared or sad, or this interaction is making me feel hurt”). Let go of what happened previously or what you wish would happen later (e.g., let go of “if I do X than my child/partner will do Y”), and focus on accepting what is happening in that moment without trying to change it. Take deep breaths. Tell yourself you are loved, and that you will be okay. Ask yourself what would help make the situation better, even if that action is difficult for you to do.
Most of us know a descent amount of effective skills to use when in difficult situations with our children and family. The problem is that we cannot access our skills in those moments because of the fight or flight response. Mindfulness allows us to access and use the skills we have. Also, depending on what we have experienced in life, especially if we experienced ongoing difficult things during childhood or if we experienced something traumatic at any point in life, we will be more likely to be triggered and we will have a harder time calming down.
If this is you, try to have compassion and understanding of how your mind and body work. If you feel that you need additional support in this area, seek therapy and allow someone to help and guide you on this journey. I promise you that every minute and penny will be worth it. I know I didn’t explain how to use mindfulness during every day interactions to make them more meaningful and positive. So look out for the next post! Thanks for reading, and hope you have a more mindful day!