Saturday, September 20, 2014

A New Study: Mindfulness for Mothers of Severely Disabled Children ...

Mindfulness is like that - it is a miracle which can call 
back in a flash our dispersed mind and restore it
to wholeness
so that we can live each minute of life.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Are you caring for a child with severe disabilities? Family caregiving can be hard work at the best of times but caregiving for a child or adult child with a severe disability takes an extra toll. Mothers of children with autism or other neurodevelopmental disabilities report high levels of stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, chronic sorrow, depression, and anxiety, all of which can have an impact on your wellness and resilience and on the way you care for your child.

A new study in the journal Pediatrics suggests that both mindfulness and positive psychology techniques can help to reduce your stress. Researcher, Elisabeth Dykens, and her colleagues randomly assigned 243 mothers to a six-week group treatment program employing either mindfulness techniques like deep-belly breathing or to a group using positive psychology exercises focused on building virtues like gratitude and patience. Trained mentors who also had children with disabilities led the weekly hour-and-a-half sessions. The mothers completed mental health assessments before, during and up to six months after the study. 

Before the study, 85% of the mothers reported significant levels of stress. Forty-one percent suffered from anxiety disorders and forty-eight percent were diagnosed as clinically depressed. (Chronic sorrow was not assessed perhaps altering the number seen as depressed.) 

In the mindfulness group, mentors used the Mindfulness-Bassed Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn to teach breathing awareness, movement and meditation techniques. The specific techniques taught included breathing exercises, self-observation without self-judgement, loving-kindness meditation and Qigong (an ancient Chinese health care system integrating gentle movement, breathing techniques and focused attention) among others.

The positive psychology group learned techniques for dealing with feelings of guilt, worry, and pessimism. The techniques included exercises for identifying character strengths and fostering gratitude, forgiveness, grace and optimism.

Both treatments worked. Participants reported fewer feelings of anxiety and depression and fewer unhealthy parent-child interactions. Mothers slept better and experienced greater life satisfaction during and after the six week groups.  Some continued to improve over time.

Some differences were also noted in the effectiveness of the two groups. The mindfulness group showed more immediate improvement in anxiety, depression and insomnia, possibly due to the immediacy of the autonomic nervous system shift from fight-flight-freeze response to relaxation response. The positive psychology group, on the other hand, took longer to show results but the improvements in life satisfaction and depression were greater.

The study concluded that because both groups saw significant improvement, programs integrating both meditation and positive psychology should be developed.

I think this study provides evidence of a hopeful and practical means of calming the nervous systems of family caregivers, building resilience and improving quality of life. But many of you will look at it and say, "So, who has time to fit this into my already crowded day?!" And you will be right. Few caregivers can "find" the time for new practices like these. It will be more a matter of "carving out" time - giving up something else in order to make room, doing two things at once (eg meditating for the 20 minutes it takes to cook your potatoes), or asking a friend to be with your child as you practice.) However you do it, I think the benefits of adding practices like these to your life might just be worth a try...

*** Caveat:

Please remember that there are those who should not practice mindfulness meditation without first being assessed by their family physician or therapist. They include those who:

  • have a history of mental illness or posttraumatic stress
  • with thoughts of suicide
  • misuse alcohol or other drugs
  • are in the first year of addiction recovery
  • are troubled by trauma triggers
  • have difficulty maintaining a strong sense of self when quiet or alone.

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