A Journey in Mindfulness: My Path Back to CBT and Beyond
Why am I interested in mindfulness?
The purpose of this article is to support your exploration of mindfulness as school mental health practitioner. In addition to the recognized benefits of mindfulness in aiding those in the helping professions with managing their own stress and burnout, mindfulness can often improve our skills as clinicians too. I put this out there as a result of hearing many anecdotal reports from clinicians I have worked with over the last five years, and from my own mindfulness journey, which began five years ago.
As anyone who has known me for a number of years can attest, I do not readily share details of my experiences with others. I am most comfortable listening, and working behind the scenes to offer support and ideas. Throughout this article, I will discuss my experiences, not because I believe them to be unique and especially interesting, but precisely because I have found them to be usual, and closely mirror the experiences of others. I also believe that had I been aware of these common experiences and the resulting improvement in professional skills, I would have searched out advanced training in mindfulness earlier in my career.
My Background And Beginning My Mindfulness Journey
As a young man in the late eighties, I discovered the Cognitive Behavior Therapy perspective as an Undergraduate student at Northern Illinois University. The work of Dr. Aaron Beck, who I met in 1989, explained my personal experiences and beliefs and lent credibility to my pursuit of being able to aid individuals in a therapeutic relationship. Simply put, by working with our thoughts, a change in behavior, feelings, and perspective was attainable. This was it and I was going to help everyone.
Eventually, I found my way to being a School Social Worker, where for the first ten years I worked in our High School’s alternative school. There we served forty-some young students diagnosed with Emotional Disabilities. Typically the vast majority of those students displayed their inner turmoil externally via intense behaviors. Going into this job I believed CBT to be well-suited to these individuals. If they could be shown how to change their thinking, their realities would change, right?
The reality was that due to the trauma the students had experienced, they were not able to access their thoughts and were immediately reactive to stimuli, seemingly without awareness of any thoughts. CBT was not effective and much of my work was aimed at de-escalation and helping to improve their communication and insight. Frustration on everyone’s part was a daily occurrence and I encountered burnout symptoms on a regular basis.
As a way to expand my toolbox, I enrolled in the Mindfulness Certificate Program at Governors State University. It was there that I learned how to practice mindfulness and how to integrate it into my practice. Almost immediately, I started to receive benefits from this program. I had tried to meditate before and I failed each time. When I was taught to correctly meditate and taught what to expect, I found that I had improved awareness of my thoughts, was less anxious, and had a better ability to focus on the student in front of me. I was picking up on more body language and subtle communication.
I believe that the improved focus and reduced anxiety was a direct result of practicing mindfulness and meditation.
Where The Rubber Meets The Road
As we progressed through the program I was able to gradually incorporate more into my practice and I found that most of the students benefited from doing mindfulness-based activities. There were many mistakes along the way. Perhaps the biggest was sharing my excitement with many of these students. This was short-sighted, as so many had issues with defiance and they would refuse to participate. After catching on, I would introduce activities without commentary and found they participated, and over a short amount of time were less emotionally reactive, deescalated more quickly, and became increasingly aware of their thoughts and underlying beliefs.
To further integrate mindfulness, I strategically involved several of the more influential young women in the program and would run them through Yoga (led by a Yoga Instructor who worked there) and Meditation as a “relaxation period”. They began to experience the benefits and would tell others who soon wanted to join in. Now we could work on challenging beliefs, stopping automatic thoughts, and reprogramming old messages that did not coincide with today’s reality. I was able to do Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy with the students!
Now working with General and Special Ed students, I continue to find that for many of my students, mindfulness remains a quick and effective way to achieve results. The ones who seem to benefit the most are those that struggle with emotional regulation and who are maybe experiencing stress. I have also found that high-achieving students do well because they follow directions well, often go beyond what you ask them to do, and are quite receptive to subtle changes so are more likely to continue to use mindfulness techniques.
I find that I am a much better clinician as a result of mindfulness, and not just in terms of CBT. I am more open to other ways of thinking and able to be more objective.
I am confident that my students have benefitted the most from this increased perspective.
For those of you who are interested in learning more, I have included some information below to get you started. There is a lot of great content out there, so good luck, and please do not hesitate to connect with me on our network, SSWN!