Mindfulness means putting the oxygen mask on yourself first: study

A new study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health says mindfulness can make a big difference to caregivers of adult children with developmental disabilities because it reminds that them looking after yourself is a critical part of helping others.

'We have to take care of ourselves,' says Toronto mother of son, 25, with autism

Lee Steel, mother of a 25-year-old son with autism, says mindfulness taught her to put the focus back on herself. (CBC)

Before Lee Steel took mindfulness training, she sometimes felt like a cup filled to the brim.

If one more thing happened — one extra drop — the Toronto mother of an adult son with autism said she felt she would spill over.

She said she didn't feel patient. She couldn't be attentive. And she believed she kept overreacting.

But after participating in a mindfulness study by Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Steel told Metro Morning that she feels better able to manage her stress. 

"We have to take care of ourselves," she said Tuesday. "We have to put the attention back on ourselves."

According to the CAMH study, published on Tuesday in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, mindfulness can make a big difference to caregivers of adult children with developmental disabilities and mental health needs.

It reminds caregivers that they can't properly look after someone else until they take care of themselves.

A group of caregivers, as part of a study done by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, talk about their experiences. (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health)

The study was published on National Family Caregiver Day.

Mindfulness offers caregivers a tool that, by being in the moment, can help manage their own stress, fear, anger and feelings of being overwhelmed.

Among other things, mindfulness helps its practitioners learn to focus on the present — and not to worry so much about what will happen to their children when they are no longer able to care for them.

Mindfulness and support

The study involved parents who had spent years caring for adult children. The study separated the participants into two groups: one attended a weekly support group, the other was trained to practise mindfulness.

It found that the parents who learned mindfulness reported lower levels of stress and depression than the parents who simply attended the support group.

Steel was placed in the mindfulness group. There, she learned short stress reduction techniques like focusing on breathing for three minutes. 

"It was basically to bring my attention back to the present moment, instead of where I usually am, which is either in the future or the past."

Steel said she was often preoccupied with concerns that her son, now 25, no longer has school to keep him busy and needs meaningful work.

Dr. Yona Lunsky, a CAMH clinician scientist who studied the caregivers, said mindfulness helps caregivers 'cope with ongoing stress that can't in itself be immediately resolved.' (YouTube)

Mindfulness can help parents become healthier

Dr. Yona Lunsky, a CAMH clinician scientist who studied the caregivers, said the best way to think about the findings is to remember what flight attendants tell passengers on airplanes: put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put one on your child.

"If they don't put the oxygen mask on, they can't help their kids," Lunsky said in a news release about the study. It "helps them in terms of their interactions with their children and it also helps them cope with ongoing stress that can't in itself be immediately resolved.

The study's author said she believes that for parents of adult children with development disabilities mindfulness can help them become better, healthier caregivers.

Some parents who participated in the study are still organizing mindfulness meetings among themselves, she said.