How Can Mindfulness Help When You Have a Preemie?
Mindfulness is a hot topic these days, gathering attention far and wide. Big businesses such as Google recognize the value of mindfulness training, people of all faiths and walks of life are incorporating mindfulness into their daily lives as a way to find balance, to regain some calm, and lighten their load.
So what exactly is mindfulness, and what does it have to do with the NICU?
According to Mindful Magazine:
Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.
Basically, mindfulness means bringing awareness to this very moment, without judgement or attachment, just being present. Here is another excellent PDF article entitled "What is Mindfulness" that helps explain it really well.
The most basic mindfulness practices involve focusing attention on your breath, as a way to concentrate on the present moment. It involves allowing your thoughts and feelings to arise, which they will certainly do, without either clinging to them or pushing them away, but just letting them take their natural course. Becoming distracted is inevitable, but that's okay, because the process is about being willing to notice where your thoughts take you, and then bringing your attention back to the present. I want to encourage you to read this article by Michael Stanclift, N.D. because, as he says, he "can describe what's going on in plain English to help you understand, and maybe have a new appreciation for mindfulness " but he also has a clear scientific explanation which I appreciate greatly.
One thing mindfulness is NOT...
it is not about just checking out or making yourself feel happy or forget your reality. As Stanclift points out, "A mindfulness practice isn't about being in a blissful mood all the time, it's about being in touch with reality, and accepting that reality. And accepting isn't the same as liking."
Can you relate?
When your baby is in the NICU and you certainly don't feel like being blissful, don't worry, mindfulness is still a very valuable practice. Just being, really being, with your situation can be incredibly healing. Research is showing it can help with PTSD, which is something the NICU can create for many families. Research shows it can help with depression, which is also something the NICU can create for many families.
It's free, it's pretty darn easy because it's hard to do it wrong, so why on earth wouldn't you give it a try?
Many practices that promote mindfulness resemble meditation, although there are many ways of doing it. I'll share with you three basic mindfulness practices that can be used under any circumstances, and then I'll also share with you three practices I've created for my parents to try out while they are in the NICU. Give them all a try!
Basic meditation instruction (how I learned it way back when):
Sit comfortably, with an upright position. You can sit on a cushion on the floor with your legs crossed, or you can just sit up in a comfortable chair. Imagine the crown of your head lifting up towards the sky, but feel your body grounded into where you are seated. Be aware of your surroundings, feel your body and what is holding it up. Close your eyes, or soften your gaze if you prefer to keep your eyes open (I'm an eye open kind of gal.) Take a few nice deep breaths, and then focus your attention on your breathing, allowing it to return to a normal, comfortable rate. Notice your in breath, notice your out breath. Feel your lungs fill, feel them empty. Just keep returning your focus to your breath. When you notice thoughts arise, allow them. See them. Acknowledge them ("I'm judging" or "I'm angry" or "I'm thinking about my list of errands" or whatever comes up. Stuff always comes up, even for the most practiced meditators!) Notice it and label it, see it for what it is. Have a little fun seeing just what crazy stuff runs amok in your brain! Then, when you realize you've lost your focus on your breath, bring your focus back to your breath. That's it. Do this over and over. Keep focusing on your breath, notice that it's hard to keep focusing on your breath, see the thoughts that get in your way, label them and then let them go on their merry way so you can go back to focusing on your breath. (I like to label the thought, for example "thinking about work again!" and then I imagine lovingly placing those thoughts onto a passing cloud and watching them float away. When they've floated away, I can re-focus on my breathing.) Repeat. For as long as you can. Start simply, with perhaps 5 minutes. If you can do 5 minutes your first time, CONGRATS! Don't beat yourself up if even those 5 minutes are difficult. If you feel antsy, annoyed, totally distracted, way off track, don't worry about it. Just beginning to recognize what's going on in your mind is exactly what you need to be doing. That IS mindfulness training, and you're doing it perfectly. See if you can work up to 15 minutes, maybe a half an hour.
This is one very easy beginner's mindful practice which I enjoy, and it comes from Elisha Goldstein in this article in Mindful magazine (please read it in entirety to get the back story):
"What if, once an hour, you brought your life back to what is happening right now? Elisha Goldstein offers this practice:
- Body – Notice how it is positioned, if there’s any tension anywhere.
- Emotions – Are you angry, frustrated, calm, happy, sad, stressed?
- Thoughts – Are you worrying, stewing, or rehashing? Are you stuck in the past or future?
- Location – Where are you?
Just take these four steps and then breathe. You’ve done it."
Three NICU-Specific Practices
Find a place to sit comfortably within the NICU. Sit quietly, and take 5-10 deep breaths, focusing on breathing out all your tension. When you feel ready, turn all of your attention to the noises in the room around you. Most likely, there are many. Alarms. Ventilators. Staff conversations. Other babies crying. Other parents talking. More alarms. Background hospital noises. Try your best to just sit, and listen. As long as you can, just sit and listen. Now, notice how these noises make you feel. Tense? Angry? Annoyed? Worried? Hopeless? Try not to judge yourself for having these feelings, just notice them. Be kind with yourself - it's totally understandable for these noises to upset you. But during this mindfulness practice, try to let go of your feelings about these sounds and just hear them. Just...... hear...... the sounds. When you notice the feelings associated with the noises, try labeling the feeling ("I'm angry" or "I'm so annoyed") and then let go of the feeling, just go back to hearing. Notice the quiet times. Notice how you feel during those quiet times, and again let go of any judgement about the way you feel. When you notice your mind wandering, let the next noise bring you back to being mindful of only the noises. Notice what it feels like to just be present with all the noises, see if you can use the noises to keep bringing you back to just listening, not getting distracted by other thoughts.
BABY & ME
This is my favorite one, and it can take up a good long time, so it's great for when you have a bit more time to do some mindfulness practice. If you've ever had anyone talk you through a toe-to-head relaxation, you get the idea. Here's what to do: get comfy, a place where you can see baby but you don't need to be touching for this one. Begin from your baby's toes and work your way up to the head.... Focus your attention on baby's toes, just see baby's toes, allow your attention to pause there and then bring your attention to your own toes. Notice how they feel, notice if you end up wiggling them as you think of them. Try to keep your attention just on your toes and your baby's toes. See how they're similar. Imagine how baby's feel. Stay with focusing your attention on toes for as long as you comfortably can. Now, I don't mean just look at the toes while your mind is thinking about a million different things. I mean bring all your attention to just toes, yours and your baby's. That's hard to do, and when you get distracted, just go back to the toes. And then when you're ready, begin moving your attention up your body - notice your ankles. How do they feel? Notice baby's ankles, notice any feelings that come up. Continue in this manner, going as slowly or as quickly up the body as you like.... next the calves, knees, thighs....hips, belly, lower back, upper back.... shoulders, arms, elbows, wrists, fingers....neck, face, mouth, scalp.....
Naturally you may have difficulty at certain places. Your baby may have an IV in a foot, or a tube in her mouth, or in her chest. Your baby may be placed in what looks like an uncomfortable position. When you notice discomfort rising in your mind when you focus on a particular area, be kind with yourself and let yourself feel whatever comes up. But recognize it as just a feeling, know it will pass. Label it, and without attachment place that thought aside and re-focus on whatever body part you're on. When you're ready, move on to the next body part. Because noticing what arises in your mind, and then observing it with kindness and letting it go are all great practices in mindfulness training.
We begin the practice by taking on the suffering of a person we know to be hurting and who we wish to help. For instance, if you know of a child who is being hurt, you breathe in the wish to take away all the pain and fear of that child. Then, as you breathe out, you send the child happiness, joy or whatever would relieve their pain. This is the core of the practice: breathing in other's pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness. 
I love this for preemies at any stage of life. If your little one is suffering in any way, you can spend 5 or 10 minutes just quietly breathing while concentrating on these healing, positive wishes.
I hope these mindfulness practices can bring you some comfort, and a sense of purpose. I hope you gain some relief and some empowerment by actively encouraging your own health and well-being during this difficult time.
If it's hard to keep these in your mind, you can grab a print version of these instructions to take with you & read when you want to give it a try. And let me know if you have any suggestions for new practices that work well for preemies! I personally respond to every email received at Hello Preemie and LOVE hearing from you!