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The Benefits of Mindfulness

In part five of our six-part series on Anxiety in Schools, Heather Jones, PhD, clinical supervisor at Rogers Behavioral Health, discusses the benefits of mindfulness as a way to reduce anxiety and increase awareness of your surroundings and those around you.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
Heather Jones, PhD
Heather Jones, PhD, is a psychologist working full-time at Rogers’ Oconomowoc campus, where she provides clinical assessments, consultation and supervision of behavioral specialists working in the Adolescent Center for OCD and Anxiety, the Nashotah Program, and the adolescent inpatient hospitalization program. In 2007, she completed a dual degree graduate program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, earning both a Master of Science degree in educational psychology and an Education Specialist degree in School Psychology. She received her doctoral degree in educational psychology with an emphasis in school psychology from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee in 2014.

Learn more about Heather Jones, PhD

Melanie Cole: Hello. I'm Melanie Cole. Welcome to Anxiety in Schools, a special podcast series from Rogers Behavioral Health. This is episode #5 of our six-part series where we look at anxiety and how it can impact learning. In this episode, we’re talking about mindfulness and I’d like to welcome Dr. Heather Jones. She's a clinical supervisor at Rogers Behavioral Health. Please tell us, because we’ve heard this term ‘mindfulness,’ what is it?

Heather Jones, Ph.D.: Mindfulness is essentially an awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose in the present moment and nonjudgmentally. What does that really mean? Mindfulness is really attending to something with our full attention and not being distracted by our thoughts or thinks that are happening in our environment and really doing so with a nonjudgmental stance, meaning not judging our experiences or the emotions that we might have at that moment.

Melanie: What is it not? I know that sounds like an odd question, but people think I'm concentrating on this particular task or focusing or my attention is good, but that’s not really what you're talking about, is it?

Dr. Jones: It isn't and that’s a great question. I usually use the example of it is not driving to working in the morning, drinking your morning coffee, listening to the radio station, eating your breakfast and maybe checking emails. We know that texting and driving is not something we should be doing anyway, but we often throughout our lives, and kids do this in their lives – multitasking. What we know is that multitasking is really not possible even though it feels as if we’re being effective.

Melanie: So, we’re really not able to completely multitask, even those of us who think we are, we’re really not able to do it efficiently or effectively. How do you know if you're being mindful? How do you know if you're doing too much all at once?

Dr. Jones: We know that we’re doing too much at once if our attention is being swayed by something. For example, if I'm working on my homework and I'm listening to music at the same time maybe, I might not be able to be as mindful in completing that work and attending to the contents because I might be inadvertently distracted by a song that comes on the radio or a commercial or my mom might walk into the room and that might distract my attention away from something. I think often we get in this habit of being very busy in our lives and so mindfulness for a lot of people and for kids tends to feel strange because we are just really taking a moment to do one thing at a time.

Melanie: That would certainly help many of our teens that listen to music while they're doing their homework and you don’t also feel as apparent that they're able to focus. Before we give some tips on mindfulness, what are some of the benefits of being able to do this?

Dr. Jones: There's been a lot of research around mindfulness, especially in the last 10 years or so, so we know that there is increased emotion regulation, which means people who practice mindfulness tend to feel as if they have more control over their emotional experience as opposed to feeling on a freight train with their emotions. If I feel really overwhelmed, I can't do anything else because I'm feeling in so much distress. There's decreased emotional reactivity so it allows people who tend to be more impulsive or reactive to their emotions to be able to be intentional and mindful of how they experience their emotion in their body, more cognitive flexibility, and excitingly, decreased risk of depression relapse and it also shows effectiveness in decreasing depression and anxiety, tying back into that increased emotion regulation – people feeling as if they have more control over their emotions than their emotions have of them. We know there's a strong body of literature that supports overall health benefits and improved immune function with a daily practice of mindfulness as well, which is really fascinating and exciting.

Melanie: People hear you talk about this and they say it’s certainly just like meditation, but it’s really not the same thing, is it?

Dr. Jones: Mindfulness is a type of meditation, so if you think about yoga, there's different types of meditation – reflective meditation or heart-centered meditation. Mindfulness is really a type of meditation, but the intention really is to cultivate mindful attention, so really to shift your attention to have control over your attention because whatever your attention is on at any given moment is your reality. If I am daydreaming, then that is my reality as opposed to what's happening in front of me. If I am remembering a time in my life where I was sad or embarrassed, that becomes my reality and replaces the potential for me to acknowledge that it's a beautiful sunny day outside or that there are people in front of me that I enjoy being with.

Melanie: Give us some mindfulness and acceptance strategies. How can we practice mindfulness? Talk us through what you would tell someone who’s suffering from anxiety or too much multitasking or emotional upheaval. How do we do this?

Dr. Jones: There are three different kinds of ways or things that we can do in order to be mindful. Observing, describing and participating. It is impossible, although it seems as if sometimes not, to do anyone of these things at the same time, but to draw your attention to the clouds in the sky, if you think about a very simple example, to lay in the grass and look up at the sky and just notice the different shapes, to just notice the surrounding landscape as you're driving your car on the way to school or work, to notice something as simple as how your body feels, taking a  minute to pay attention to where you experience your anxiety, your sadness in your body, to ground yourself at that moment to describe. Sometimes we have people who get stuck in what we call rumination and they tend to rehash painful experiences or think a lot about their symptoms ‘why am I so anxious, why am I so depressed, how did this happen,’ for instance. That mindfulness is very helpful in redirecting attention to the present moment. We might have them focused on how many tiles there are in the ceiling of their room or to count how many desks there are in the classroom or to go through the alphabet and find how many things in the room start with the letter A or B, just things to take control of your attention back.

Melanie: What about breathing? Does that fit in with mindfulness?

Dr. Jones: We talk about respiratory control for managing really high anxiety, so focusing on your breath and trying not to focus on that anxiety-provoking content or stimuli and to focus on taking in breath and taking out breath is another mindfulness activity that we use and practice often. That’s basically focusing on your breath. An important piece of mindfulness is that effective piece, which means that I will get distracted by that anxious thought again, I will get distracted by things in my environment, so to bring myself back when I am distracted and to focus on my breath again and focus on my breath again every time I'm distracted. I talk about that in terms of doing a cognitive pushup. I'm building strength every time I direct my attention back to what I want as opposed to what my anxiety wants.

Melanie: Wrap it up for us with your best advice about mindfulness how we can, as it were, get out of our own heads, stop with these thoughts and the multitasking and trying to do too much and being able to focus and pay attention to one thing and help with our anxiety.

Dr. Jones: It seems like a lot to sum up into a short thing here at the end, but I think to know what mindfulness is to start to practice it. It is difficult often for people to start practicing mindfulness because it is very difficult on the front end, and so it is practicing for a marathon that you need to practice every single day, practice grabbing your attention away from those anxiety thoughts and to the present moment using some of these strategies and to just stick with it because we know that it is a very effective way to help with anxiety and it’s also really important to treat anxiety as well because in the treatment of anxiety, we often have people intentionally focused on their anxious spot.

Melanie: Thank you so much for joining us. Rogers Behavioral Health is working each day to ensure that those with mental health challenges have access to the highest quality of care and most effective treatment available today. To learn more about the many ways Rogers can help children, teens, families, and schools, please visit today. That's I'm Melanie Cole. Thanks so much for tuning in.