Back in the days before COVID-19 where we drove places and did things like pick up the kids from school, I found myself fuming in the driver's seat of my car, parked in the driveway. Any number of things could have caused this fuming. Just a drop too much of a certain whining voice can tip it off on stressful days.
But on this day I have a tool. "I'm going to meditate for a minute," I tell my daughters. And - not that I generally believe in things working instantly or miraculously, because so often successes happen after long slogs and lots of hard work - today we do have a small miracle. "I'll light the candle!" my three-year old daughter says. She opens her palm for the imaginary candle while still strapped in her car seat. This is all the material I need. "I'm ringing the singing bowl!" I exclaim. "Dinnnnngggggg." Though no one can see me, I motion as if ringing the bowl while singing a low tone.
And then we sit. Silently. For maybe 15 seconds. A flash meditation.
Yet it is enough time for me to take a breath, slightly more deep than before, and direct my attention to the sensation of the soles of my feet, touching my shoes, in contact with the floor of the car. It is enough. The tiniest dial change away from me loosing it, and I'll take it, with gratitude.
This began with some parental aspiration, many of which seem to get forgotten and swept away in the mess of daily living when raising two young children. But one morning I had the mental space to pick up this aspiration, dust it off, and put it into action. I wanted to make meditation "special" and attractive, so my older daughter and I collected a few special things - two dried cottonwood leaves, a pipe cleaner bent to look like a small caterpillar, a bit of incense, a candle, a singing bowl. She chose each of us a pillow off the couch to sit on. We arranged the items, gave her the designated job of watching the candle, rang the singing bowl, and then just sat. For about sixty seconds. "Just watch the candle and take deep breaths," I instructed. My one-and-a-half year old daughter sat for a moment and then ranged around as one-year-olds do.
Then we put the items away, with a certain amount of three-year-old reverence. These were now special items, meditation items.
Such a little thing, a five minute window of me being the parent I truly want to be.
Will this grow into my daughters having greater self-regulation skills, greater self-awareness, more self-confidence? Who knows. But after I was able to reach out and lasso fifteen seconds of sanity in the car, accompanied by an imaginary candle and singing bowl, I've definitely decided that this is a practice worth hanging on to. I hope it inspires you to find your own.
Tips for starting a meditation practice with your children
With everyone's stress levels heightened with the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic, discussing good coping skills for panic attacks is more relevant than ever. Here are some great mindfulness-based tips from my friend and colleague Gen Morley at North Boulder Counseling.
One thing I most appreciate is when I get to help people change their relationship to their panic attacks. The reality is that we can’t always make them stop. Sometimes our best bet is to learn how to get through them better. I wrote this because I and so many people I love, know what it’s like to suffer from panic attacks. I wrote this hoping to help diminish both the suffering and taboo of panic attacks.
This is how it starts for me. My breath gets tight, I can’t focus and I can’t think. Oh no, oh no, oh no! It’s a panic attack. It literally feels like I am dying. Maybe I know what triggered it, maybe I don’t, it doesn’t really matter now. It’s here, consuming me. So, what do I do now? Panic, right? There are some other options either in addition to panicking or instead of panicking.
What is a panic attack? To understand better what those options are and why they are the best choices, we should do a quick overview of what a panic attack is. There are quite a few ways to think of it, but for brevity and clarity, let’s think of it in terms of the nervous system. A panic attack is when something triggers our nervous system into fight, flight or freeze mode. This means that the animal part of our brain is turned on high and the rational part of our brain is turned low or off. Our brain begins sending out chemical messengers that will help us run from or fight the perceived danger. This process speeds up our heartbeat, it makes our breathing get shallow and our rational brain (prefrontal cortex) turns down/off because it’s too slow for the kind of response time we need if we are being chased by a lion. If there was actually a lion or real danger, this would be a great response because the hyperarousal of our nervous system would turn us into a super fighter, runner or enable us to hide in stillness. The only problem is the definition of panic attack means that there isn’t actually a lion, but our whole body is behaving as if there is one.
Where to be the change? So, here are some options for when our body tells us something life threatening is happening and really our partner just left for milk without telling us or whatever seemingly random thing has triggered our panic. These are three steps that are generally progressive over an extended period of time that will help us have more tolerable panic attacks.
Step One: Try to notice that we are having a panic attack. This sounds simple but often our rational brain is turned so low that we can’t even see what is happening, we just feel like we are dying. Beginning to say; ‘oh, this is panic attack’ is a significant first step in easing our rational thinking back online. Maybe over time we can say ‘this is a panic attack and it will end’. The panic attack still plays it’s course, but there is a tiny part of our brain that can see that it is a panic attack and this is the part that we want to grow. Maybe we begin to watch it and find the patterns even as it is happening. Things like; ‘oh, I start out anxious and then I always get angry and toward the end I feel sad and guilty.’ Panic attacks have cycles and patterns. If we can get to know your panic attacks, this fundamentally changes our perspective of the experience. We begin to notice when the attack is over. Even say it out loud; ‘that panic attack is over now.’ At this point we are not trying to stop them at all. As this part of our brain grows, the watching and labeling part, the observer, it will make the subsequent steps possible.
Then what? Change one thing. Once we can name it ‘panic attack’ when it’s happening and we can notice when it stops, then we may be able to make some small choice during the panic attack. Still, the choice is not to skip the panic, but maybe to stand outside in the sun and wait it out, or tell our partner that we are having a panic attack or even just say to yourself: ‘I love you just as you are.’ The small change in the panic attack cycle will not likely feel momentous when it happens, but be assured, to be able to consciously change any part of that cycle is indicative of momentous change in our brain. In the beginning we may find that we can make the change sometimes and other times we can’t. Be patient, this change is slow but it is lasting. Play with change for a while. Notice how different changes affect the panic cycle, notice what is easy to change and what is harder. This skill and the information we gather is changing our brain. Literally, we are changing the neural connections and therefore the way our brain functions. It even looks different in a high resolution brain scan. These changes will make the last step possible.
Finally, Step Three: More choice. In step two we have begun to exercise choice in the panic process. Now we go for more challenging choices. Some of which could get us out of a panic attack and some of which just won’t. It takes a significant amount of learning and patience to figure out what gets us into a panic attack and what can shift it. By this point we know our panic attacks. We know the awful parts and the parts that maybe even feel somewhat bad in a good way. By becoming familiar with our panic attacks we will know what choices we can make mid-panic to make it feel a little less intense. Everyone finds different points and styles to make their panic attacks more tolerable. Some folks will be able to direct it early so it doesn’t get as bad and others find ways to dial them down mid-panic.It is impossible to say that every person who has panic attacks could someday cease to have them, but these steps can be very effective in helping us have a better panic attack. Put another way, it becomes a panic attack that is a bit more on our own terms. Imagine getting to create some requests of our panic attacks. For most of us, panic attacks are a bit less scary and mysterious when we can name them, watch them and make even small requests, if only some of the time. May we all know our panic attacks and find some space for choice.
Gen practices at North Boulder Counseling in Boulder, CO. She focuses on major transitions and anxiety, giving clients of all ages practical ways to address the issues compromising their well being. She has a present centered approach that appreciates the complexities of life. https://www.northbouldercounseling.com/
Practice of the Week
Weekly practices in mindfulness, self-compassion, nature connection, and healthy relationship habits. Themes are personal growth, committed partnership, parenting, and greater connection with self and the earth.