Easing Anxiety and Gaining Mindfulness Through Curiosity
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Having a child with a chronic medical condition, especially when it involves pain, is very distressing. You are juggling medical practitioners, your insurance company, and appointment scheduling, interfacing with the school, and possibly trying to work in your own job and paying attention to your other kids and partner – all while taking care of your child in pain. It is a lot to handle!
In these blogs, we have discussed many ways to take care of yourself throughout this difficult time. We have discussed our parent CHYP chats, our Creating Bonds groups, and mindfulness in general. As a reminder – and in summary – mindfulness involves paying attention to your experience in the present as it unfolds, without judgment, and with kindness to yourself.
We have discussed how our senses are a good entrée into a mindful state because our senses are always in the present tense (I am smelling the flower right now, not yesterday!). When we're grounded in the present tense, anxiety loses its power because worries are almost always about the past or the future.
In this blog, I suggest using curiosity as yet another way to access mindfulness to help you calm your body and mind, and help you get through this challenging experience. It does not take more time out of your day to do this. You do not need to find 15 minutes to meditate.
Approaching the World with Curiosity
Remember when your child was really little and was curious about everything in the world? One of the reasons adults enjoy parenthood is because it brings them back to that state alongside their child. You can enter this state on your own, too!
Curiosity is an avenue into mindfulness that can help you take a step back to observe what is unfolding from a more neutral place. A curious mindset can elicit a dopamine boost, which elicits feelings of pleasure and joy.
As much as you love your child, it can get frustrating getting them to function, to stop screaming, to participate with the family, and so on.
But you can approach the world with curiosity and wonder throughout your day to help ease your mind and soul.
Bringing curiosity to both your own and your child’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors can help you become less reactive and have greater choice over your responses.
Curiosity can be nurtured and practiced throughout the day during moments of irritation, frustration, or upset. You can bring curiosity to feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, and each of these can help release you from automatic reactivity.
Curiosity About Emotions
- Be curious about the emotions you are experiencing. Name them (no judgment about them – just notice and name). Notice how your feelings affect your body sensations.
- Be curious about whether there are any other hidden emotions present. Are there several emotions or just one? Do they come and go in intensity or stay the same?
- Wonder to yourself if these emotions are only connected to this situation or if they remind you of past times you felt this way – they may not have to do entirely with this situation, but a past situation may be affecting your emotional response to this situation.
- Wonder what this emotion might want or need if it could talk.
Curiosity About Thoughts
Curiosity about thoughts helps to interrupt automatic and ruminating thinking, allowing you to simply notice thoughts instead of getting into knots regarding your thinking.
- Notice or acknowledge your thoughts and then just let them float away on a cloud or a bubble, with no judgment about whether they are positive, negative, or neutral. You are not pushing them away. You are simply noticing them and allowing them to float away.
- Be interested in any ways your mind is concocting a story or interpreting what is happening. Notice if you are telling yourself a story that is consistent with a feeling, even if it is not true. “This is just my mind telling me the story that my child will never recover.”
- Notice with curiosity that the facts of your situation may differ from the story your mind invents.
Curiosity About Behaviors
- Bring curiosity to your automatic inclination about how to react in a given moment.
- Without judging yourself, just notice with curiosity and kindness how this reactive behavior might make you feel. Be curious about the consequences of a particular response, as opposed to other optional behaviors.
Curiosity About the World
When you are stressed, take a minute to go outside and look at the world through a different lens. Imagine you are a small child. Ask yourself what is beautiful or interesting in this moment. Are the clouds glowing or do they have unique shapes? Are the leaves making a sound in the breeze? Are there lots of different bird sounds? When your mind views the world through the lens of wonder, you can focus on the present instead of what stories your mind is creating about the future.
Imagine you are tired and finally getting some work done after taking care of your child’s needs. Suddenly, your child is yelling at the top of her lungs, either in pain or for some need to be met. You were deep in quiet thought, and the yelling startles you.
Your first instinct may be to go on the “attack” and emphatically tell your child how they interrupted and startled you, continuing your activated state.
But if you practice curiosity, your thoughts might go something like this: “Isn’t it interesting that my body has this ancient ‘fight or flight’ reaction that responds to sudden and distressing noises to try and protect me from harm? It’s curious how my mind instantly makes up a story about this moment as my heart is racing, and how my thoughts escalate into my becoming increasingly agitated? How curious that my heart rate increases when I think these thoughts – and then these thoughts, in turn, keep my 'fight or flight’ response going.”
By just getting curious, you take a small step back from what is happening. Instead of being caught up in your thoughts and reactivity, you can start to notice them from a slightly more neutral perspective. That will allow you more freedom to choose your response, such as calming yourself (putting a hand on your heart, slowing down your exhalations, etc.). By the time you get to your child’s room, you can focus on listening to what your child’s needs are and what the screaming is really communicating.
Imagine how different your tone and words will be if you are curious instead of frustrated. And then imagine how that will impact your response. It can mean the difference between connecting with your child and escalating the friction in your relationship.
Your curiosity about what your child’s screaming could be communicating will show you that your child is not trying to make life difficult for you – life is difficult for your child, and your child does not know how to communicate that or feels that it is not being understood.
In this example, curiosity allows for the nonjudgmental, observing self to notice what is arising. Curiosity allows the parent to observe her child with compassion regarding what is unfolding in the moment, so that she is neither pushing the child’s screaming away nor getting swept up in it. Maybe your screaming child doesn’t need to go to the ER, but just needs to be understood and heard.
Empathic curiosity opens up awareness about the thoughts and feelings of others, and it can help us challenge the sweeping generalizations that anxiety brings. So, when you become anxious because your child is in pain, you will be able to notice – and set aside – the automatic thoughts that creep into your mind about how your child will never get better. Instead, you will be better able to listen to your child and help your child be heard. This will help him to heal. Anxiety promotes fear, but curiosity allows for wonder.