In this follow-up to last month’s column on mindfulness, in which the evidence base makes a compelling argument for incorporating mindfulness into our list of healthy practices for youth brain development, the challenge of implementing mindfulness “prescriptions” in practice is considered in more depth. As a reminder, a working definition of mindfulness was offered as, “the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”1
An important piece of prescribing, either pharmaceuticals or health-promoting practices, is sharing the risks, benefits, and alternatives to the recommended treatment. Last month’s article considered the potential benefits of cultivating a mindfulness practice. Few risks have been well-documented, particularly in the pediatric population. While some case reports describe adults having profoundly disturbing emotional reactions,these are in the context of intensive meditation experiences (think 10-day silent retreat).2 While there is not evidence of harm in youth, the lesson to be learned from adult experiences may be to consult with an advanced teacher if a patient chooses to become intensely involved in any meditative practice.
More frequent perhaps is the concern from parents and youth that mindfulness is “too New Age” or “too soft.” My hope is that the behavioral and neuroscience evidence discussed in last month’s article can help combat this misbelief. In broad strokes, mindfulness builds the brain’s executive control functions (impulse control, focus, judgment, self-regulation) subserved by the prefrontal cortex while quieting the fight-or-flight, fear-learning circuits seated in the amygdala. This fosters a greater capacity to be in a calm and emotionally regulated state, with less time spent reacting to danger signals when in a generally safe environment.
Bringing mindfulness practices to your office practice could occur anywhere along the spectrum from integrating some mindfulness moments into your standard physical exam to collaborating with an experienced mindfulness or yoga instructor to offer individual and group support to patients and families. My focus here is on simple practices and tools to begin introducing mindfulness to families.
A key component is clinician and caregiver buy-in. Developing your own practice, even if it’s simply three mindful breaths before entering each patient exam room, goes miles in terms of your being able to speak genuinely about the benefits and challenges of mindfulness in a relatable way. Similarly, the more kids see their families practicing and supporting mindfulness, the more likely they are to develop their own routines.
Legitimizing mindfulness practices with a “prescription” also can add to success rates. Considering diaphragmatic breathing as a foundational technique, the following prescription can be printed on cards and reviewed briefly in a visit:
In a physical exam, the following might work: When you place your stethoscope on the chest and back to auscultate the lungs, instruct the child to “place a hand on your belly and take a deep breath into your belly button so that your hand moves out. Keep taking slow, deep belly breaths while I listen.”
This breathing technique activates the parasympathetic nervous system, quelling the fight-or-flight response that may contribute to anxiety, aggressive reactivity, and interfere with sleep. Prescribing five of these belly breaths before bedtime is a good beginning, increasing frequency and duration over time as the practice becomes routine, then adding the “bonus” techniques. Introducing abdominal breathing also makes a good opportunity to ask the child about sources of stress in their lives.
For the distracted or stressed-out youth, focus is key. Those children who seem to be always multitasking or never sit still may benefit from cultivating a focus practice. It also may help still the mind before bedtime. A mindfulness prescription for focus is as follows:
Alternative options for focus objects include watching the secondhand on a clock, balancing a peacock feather on a fingertip, listening to a bell or chime until it can no longer be heard, watching a sand timer until every grain falls.
In a physical exam, the following might work: During the neurologic exam for cranial nerves (eye movements), direct the child to focus on your finger. Hold it still for 10 seconds, gently reminding them to keep their focus on your finger if needed. Then, as you move to each quadrant, move slowly and stay in each quadrant for 5 seconds. Encourage them to “keep your focus on my finger.”
After practicing a focus exercise, inquire about the patient’s focus during school, homework, and activities. Suggest making the focused breathing, or an alternative focus activity, part of the daily routine. Parents are encouraged to participate alongside their children.
Depending on the amount of time you have in the visit, your mindfulness intervention may simply be how you conduct the physical exam. With more time or a child or family who seems to have an indication for prescribing mindfulness (stress, anxiety, inattention, insomnia, etc.), a more didactic approach toward mindfulness techniques accompanied by a specific prescription may be in order. Developmentally, clinicians in our practice have found that hands-on activities and games can help involve younger children, while teens can get into one of the apps developed to facilitate mindful practices. (See Online resources.) Diagnostically, more hyperactive or distractible children may mesh better with movement-based practices. Depressed or anxious children may enjoy quieter activities or benefit from small incentives to increase motivation. Children with traumatic histories may benefit from a slow pace, keeping their eyes open and looking at the floor rather than eyes closed and avoiding physical contact initially.
Methods of meditation and mindfulness exist in most every philosophical and religious tradition, but the neuroscientific value of these practices is a more recent take on these wisdom traditions. As we follow the growing research literature on mindfulness, consider incorporating this “new” prescription into your toolbox of healthy practices for the developing brain.
Dr. Rosenfeld is assistant professor in the departments of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Vermont Medical Center and the university’s Robert Larner College of Medicine, Burlington. He reported no relevant disclosures. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness . (New York: Bantam Books, Penguin Random House, 2013).
2. Rocha, Tomas. “The Dark Knight of the Soul.” The Atlantic. June 25, 2014.