It is a recurring theme in many people’s nightmares: that traffic signal ahead turning yellow and then red, costing what seems like a small eternity in the attempt for people to get where they need to go.
The dream can include cursing and fuming. But a practical remedy to consider is what Christopher Willard does when he’s on the road with his 4-year-old son.
“I’ll just kind of ostentatiously say, ‘Oh, no. There’s traffic. Let’s take some deep breaths,’” he told audience members during his recent talk at Washington Elementary School in Mt. Lebanon, describing what he calls a “7-11” breathing exercise, counting to seven to inhale and 11 to exhale.
The result is a calming effect on both driver and passenger.
“Now, whenever we’re in traffic and there’s a red light, my son’s in his car seat in the back seat and he’ll say, ‘Dad, Dad, Dad! There’s traffic. Can we do some deep breaths?’”
Breathing techniques represent a key component in the concept of mindfulness, Willard’s field of expertise as a practicing psychologist, educational consultant and Harvard Medical School instructor. Following a presentation on the subject to start the 2018-19 school year in Mt. Lebanon, he returned at the conclusion for a follow-up talk, “Making Mindfulness Stick With Kids and Adolescents.”
“A lot of therapists spend their time treating anxiety and depression,” he said about his experiences with youngsters, “and that’s really interesting to me. But what I’d really love is to put myself out of business in that work and spend more of my time preventing those things.”
And his belief is teaching people of all ages how to be mindful – focusing awareness on the present, rather than dwelling on the past or contemplating the future – can go a long way toward alleviating stress and everything related to it.
Of course, he emphasized, that doesn’t mean perpetually ignoring the likes of making sure work is done properly and bills are paid on time.
“We don’t want to get stuck in one or the other, and what mindfulness does is it actually builds a shortcut. It builds a new path in our brain so that we can go from the ‘worry’ mode into the ‘being’ mode,” he said. “And that’s really helpful. That’s where the magic can happen.”
During his presentation, Willard led audience members in some exercises to illustrate how mindfulness can be achieved.
“I’ll just invite you to bring to mind maybe one of your favorite places, a place where you feel safe, a place where you feel relaxed. Pretty soon, even in your favorite spot, you probably notice yourself getting distracted: thoughts, worries.”
Work on clearing those out of mind, he said, and it will be easier to more fully appreciate and enjoy the moment.
“This was a visualization practice, and you can do something like this with your kids or you can do it yourself,” Willard said. “With kids, especially when they’re younger, we want to make this stuff a lot more concrete, because they can’t always focus on their thoughts in quite the same way. So maybe it’s asking them to draw a picture of their favorite place. It can be an imaginary place. It can be Hogwarts from Harry Potter.
“And then notice each distraction or worry that comes up,” he continued. “Draw that. Write about it on a piece of paper, and very literally set it aside until they are able to clear out a space with their feelings.”
Most effective in helping youngsters with such exercises are parents who practice what they preach, so to speak.
“The best way to create stressed-out, miserable kids is to surround them with stressed-out, miserable adults. It’s just that simple,” Willard said. “So probably, if that’s true, the best way to create more mindful and compassionate and present kids is to surround them with more mindful and compassionate and present adults.”
Among the books he has written are “Growing Up Mindful: Essential Practices to Help Children, Teens, and Families Find Balance, Calm, and Resilience” (2016) and the recently published “Alphabreaths: The ABCs of Mindful Breathing,” an illustrated guide for youngsters.
What they learn today, he said, can help them navigate their futures successfully.
“No matter how hard we try to protect our kids, they’re going to get hurt. They’re going to get rejected for college. They’re going to not get that job or that internship they want. They’re going to have a breakup. They’re going to get a B-minus,” Willard said.
“At some point, we’re going to have to give them the skills to manage it themselves. And that’s what mindfulness really offers them.”
For more information, visit drchristopherwillard.com.