Dear Friends of Full Access,
In our community, we place a great deal of importance on quality caregiving. Recipients of care seek support that is empathetic and skilled. The individuals we serve may need occasional support or require constant monitoring to ensure their safety and well-being. For people with higher needs, caregiving can be demanding both physically and emotionally, making the quality, patience, and resilience of the caregiver a high priority. This kind of high-demand responsibility can lead to burnout for both the caregiver and the recipient of care, particularly if it is a long-term relationship, as with a parent and child. According to Stress, Portrait of a Killer, chronic stress can lead to lifelong damage to the body, including the immune, cardiovascular, and nervous systems, as well as to our DNA. With this in mind, finding ways to stay healthy and resilient is important to sustaining quality care over the long term. One approach to cultivating resilience is a regular mindfulness practice. Recent evidence has shown that mindfulness training, for both paid and family caregivers, is associated with increased work satisfaction, improved interconnectedness between caregivers and recipients of care, and a reversal of many physiological and psychological indicators of stress.
What is Mindfulness?
There are many variations on the definition of mindfulness. Some use flowery, inspirational language; others operationalize mindfulness into its measurable components. Jon Kabat-Zinn, developer of a technique called: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), defines it as: “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” . Applying mindfulness to parenting, Nyanaponika describes it as: “the application of ‘bare attention’ to what one’s children do and to one’s spontaneous response to their behavior” . Regardless of the framing, all definitions contain the same basic components: patience, present-moment focus, absence of judgment, and acceptance of things as they are . The idea is to remain objective and observant without allowing our thoughts and emotions to interfere with our reactions, attitudes, or behaviors, to relate to others with compassion and empathy, and to experience life without concern for expected outcomes or rewards.
I first became interested in mindfulness as a therapeutic technique while studying psychology at the U of O. I read several papers indicating a link between a regular mindfulness practice and reduction of measurable symptoms associated with stress, anxiety, and depression. From there, I wondered if mindfulness training has been studied in association with caregiving in the disability community. I came across an article describing a study in which mothers of children with disabilities participated in a 6-week mindfulness training. At the outset, 85% of these mothers experienced significantly heightened stress, 48% were diagnosed with depression, and 41% had extreme anxiety. After 6 group training sessions of 1.5 hours each, participants experienced reductions in stress, anxiety, and depression, healthier sleep patterns, and increased life satisfaction, with particularly strong effects for depression and anxiety . As I dug deeper, I found several studies conducted with both group-home caregiving staff and parents who provide full-time caregiving for their children. In a 2006 study, after 12 weeks of two-hour trainings, group home behavioral interventions decreased by more than 50% across 4 houses, and the use of physical restraints decreased by almost 100% . Another study, conducted with parents of autistic children, measured results during a 3-month mindfulness parent training program and 1 year of practice. The children of these parents showed a 51-94 % reduction of aggression and self-injury . These studies also found increases in work satisfaction for professional caregivers and improved assessments of these caregivers by the parents of those in their care . As you can see, the effects of this type of practice not only apply to the practitioner of mindfulness, but also the people they interact with and care for. This piece of information is profound: just by practicing mindfulness, people are improving the quality of their relationships with, and reducing suffering and discomfort for, the people in their care.
In part 2, we’ll look at the hypotheses and neurological evidence for why mindfulness has such positive effects and share some tips for how to develop your own practice.
1. Hwang, Y. , & Kearney, P. (2014). Mindful and mutual care for individuals with developmental disabilities: A systematic literature review. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 23(3), 497-509.
2. Singh N. N., Lancioni G. E., Winton A. S. W., Fisher B. C., Wahler R. G., McAleavey K., Singh J. & Sabaawi M. (2006b). Mindful parenting decreases aggression, noncompliance & self-injury in children with autism. Journal of Emotional & Behavioral Disorders 14, 169–177.
3. Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Winton, A. S. W., Curtis, W. J., Wahler, R. G., Sabaawi, M., et al. (2006a). Mindful staff increase learning and reduce aggression in adults with Developmental disabilities. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 27, 545–558.
4. Dykens, E.M., Fisher, M.H., Taylor, J.L., Lambert, W., & Miodrag, N. (2014). Reducing distress in mothers of children with autism and other disabilities: A randomized trial. Pediatrics, 2, e454-e463.