Mindfulness allows people to be attentive to the here and now. With a certain level of coaching, the mindfulness process can create an attitude of acceptance and calmness, allowing individuals to stand back and examine the situations they enter with reason and control. Psychology doctoral candidate Kim Gilroy believes these mindful processes can ultimately help people, especially those with developmental and cognitive disabilities, to take control of their emotions and function better in mainstream society.
Gilroy, who will complete her PhD in clinical psychology this spring, began her work with mindfulness as part of her work for her master’s in counseling psychology at Lesley University, where she worked with mentally ill patients who were being treated to regulate their emotions. “Practicing mindfulness was so important to these individuals because it helped them learn to relate to other people,” says Gilroy. “I started to wonder how mindfulness could be used by people who were not necessarily mentally ill to help them regulate their emotions.”
The students Gilroy currently works with at George Mason University are not mentally ill but rather adults with significant problems such as developmental and intellectual disabilities or brain injuries. “Teaching students to regulate their emotions and behavior is critical because it allows them a level of independence,” says Gilroy. “There are skills such as decision-making and controlling one’s anger or frustration that other people might naturally pick up on. Students with these disabilities may need to be explicitly taught these skills in order to apply them.”
Each of Gilroy’s sessions with the students begins with mindfulness practice consisting of breathing exercises and intentional actions meant to bring them into that particular place and moment and not drift off to other thoughts. “It’s natural for our minds to wander,” says Gilroy. “It’s bringing them back to where we are in the present that is the challenge. When helping people to do this, you just have to be nonjudgmental and encourage people to keep trying.”
Many people both with and without disabilities employ mindfulness practices to separate their worries and preoccupations from events occurring in the present. The process allows individuals to acknowledge their real feelings without fear of being judged, and put their full efforts into effective decision-making in both simple and complicated situations. Gilroy practices mindfulness herself in a variety of situations. “If I’m upset and I’m at work, for example,” says Gilroy, “I can walk myself through a situation, remembering that I have choices and not allowing my stress, anger, or frustrations to dictate how I am going to choose to act.”
While Gilroy’s sessions are still in progress, several of her students have expressed their satisfaction with the way these methods have helped them negotiate daily functions such as shopping in a store. One of Gilroy’s students reported that when he was very frustrated, he could use mindfulness to focus on the task at hand rather than allowing himself to become distracted. “The fact that he could take something abstract that we learned in class and apply it to a real situation is incredible,” says Gilroy. “Being mindful in a classroom is one thing. The real challenge is being mindful in daily life. Integrating these skills is key to the students’ progress.”
Gilroy believes that the results of this research could greatly influence the way people approach skills instruction for individuals with disabilities. “I hope this study shows people that it is not only possible for individuals with disabilities to use the same process that many others use to regulate their emotions but that there are a variety of methods that countless individuals use that, with adjustments and accommodation, can be used to great advantage by people with disabilities to take control of their lives.”