with Psychiatrist Dr. Diana Korevaar
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
- What mindfulness is
- The neuroscience of mindfulness
- How to apply mindfulness in the tough moments
- Understanding the brain and what is happening beneath conscious awareness to our emotions
- The importance of recognizing patterns of how we react to certain situations
- How to help my child coregulate with mindfulness
As a parent, we are stretched and transformed in ways that we never expected. Think about all the ways we are pushed beyond our capacity in ways that we never could have imagined. It’s important for us, as parents, to gain new skills to help us during this demanding time. If we learn the right skills, we can make changes to our life and change patterns of behavior that will impact our children also. Dr. Diana Korevaar joins us to talk about mindfulness, how our brain affects our emotions, and how to use mindfulness to coregulate yourself and your child.
What Mindfulness Is
Mindfulness is the ability to take ourselves off autopilot, which for many of us is a state of multitasking and distraction, and be aware of what we’re doing in the moment. It’s almost pulling yourself from being in multiple places at one time to centered in just one place. It isn’t even controlling our minds. It’s just being aware of what’s going through our minds.
Mindfulness is helpful for healing trauma, regulating our emotions, soothing our inner critic, and leaning into self-compassion. And since mindfulness is just being aware of what we’re doing, we can do it from anywhere at any time.
“If we’re not careful, mindfulness can be something we retreat to with an expectation it will make us feel better,” Dr. Diana said. But that’s not the role of mindfulness. If we go back to the traditional cultures that mindfulness came from, meditation was never meant to be an end in itself. The point was to step back, observe, and gain wisdom to help us understand the behaviours of our minds.
Dr. Diana explained, “It’s important to have a working model of mindfulness in our lives.” This model can be rich and varied. It doesn’t have to look like forty-five minutes of traditional meditation. There are also lots of breakthrough science that can help us weave mindfulness into our lives especially in dealing with relationships and difficult emotions.
The Neuroscience Of Mindfulness
Australia has an 8-week government-based program called Catalyst. “In 2019, they did an amazing show on the programs Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. And in an 8-week program if you’ve got a good teacher and you do the exercises, your brain changes in very predictable ways,” Dr. Diana said.
Literally changes. It’s mind-boggling. The prefrontal cortex—which is what controls the ability to be steady and ride the wave of strong emotions and to step out of little pictures and see the big picture—grows during the 8-week period.
The emotional part of the brain triggers the release of cortisol—the fight or flight response of stress which may be known to you as your temper—shrinks and gets smaller in a very helpful way in just 8 weeks. Our hair-trigger response can get smaller in about two months!
“90% of what’s going on in the brain goes on beneath conscious awareness,” Dr. Diana explained. So these emotions arise from deep in the limbic system, and they cut us off from our logic, skills, capacity to be present in the moment, and our ability to problem-solve. And this all happens beneath our awareness.
Understanding The Brain And What’s Happening Beneath Conscious Awareness Of Our Emotions
What we call conflicted developmental trauma is the trauma of growing up, so we don’t come to parenting as a blank slate. We come to parenting with all of our experiences. Those experiences are connected to feelings of “I’m not good enough,” “I’m flawed,” or “there’s something wrong with me,” and we’re not aware of these feelings.
These feelings of shame, fear, and anger can be triggered by situations, and they link to old memories. Then they’re more present in our memories. We have more access to the negative memories than the positive ones.
Eye Movement Desensitization Therapy (EMDR) is a trauma therapy that uses bilateral stimulation, like eye movement, to help someone focus in on unprocessed memories and can be more helpful than talk therapy. Opening these unconscious memories up can be helpful, because they can be where these negative feelings come from and trigger our reactions. But once we’re aware of the cause and the feeling, we can reframe the narrative.
Recognizing Pattern Reactions To Certain Situations
If we recognize irritability as an emotion, we can learn how to ground ourselves. We can do this by having a chat or writing down the times we notice we’re getting irritable because those unconscious emotions are being triggered. What’s your biggest time of reactivity? Is it dinner time? Or a weekly conversation with your father? This is going to be different for everyone, but if you take notes of the situations that make these negative emotions pop up, you can prepare for it.
“Because a lot of it is repetitive, we can predict a lot of this,” Dr. Diana points out. Emotions are connected to our tone of voice, facial expressions, and even our breath. If we can go into a situation with slow breathing and a calm inner voice, that can help us from being dragged into these old memories and experiences and we can retrain our muscle memory.
This isn’t something that’s going to be solved overnight, because other people are reacting with you. If you can go into it with a different facial expression and different mental voice, you can get some distance from the situation. “You can use your body in so many ways to trigger different emotions,” she told us.
Circuits that fire together wire together. It’s so important to understand that our brains have formed over time and that these patterns within our family are what’s at play here. We aren’t flawed, and there is a way to approach this differently.
When we assume we’re flawed, we tend to feel helpless like there’s no hope for the situation to change. But with the understanding that it isn’t our fault comes with the curiosity to explore the situation. We are taught at every corner not to trust our bodies. Diet culture teaches us not to honor our hunger, and there are lots of times throughout life we’re taught to disconnect from parts of ourselves.
Noting and being curious has helped me tremendously, and I do it out loud in front of my kids. It’s also a heads-up for them. “Mommy is feeling frustrated right now.” “Mommy’s brain feels like it’s rattling around in her head from all of the questions right now.” Just expressing it for myself is soothing for me, because it’s validating my own experience. We’ve been taught to invalidate our experiences.
We do all of this learning to attune to our children and what their cries mean, what they need, but we don’t do that for ourselves!
The compassion system—or the soothe and connect system—works on oxytocin and endorphins. It’s almost like our own opiate system. “There is pretty much nothing in our natural lives that activates this system unless you can imagine cuddling a baby or a pet,” Dr. Diana said. We can use imagery to activate that circulatory.
Compassion is often misunderstood. It’s often mistaken for weakness, but life is complicated. Activating this circulatory system can really help us through it.
To bring compassion, we really need 4 attributes: courage, strength, wisdom, and kindness. We often think self-compassion is about kindness, and if I’m too kind to myself I’ll get slack. That isn’t really true and need to focus on compassion as wisdom, courage, and strength to endure a situation.
I’ve done quite a bit of research on self-compassion, because we’ve been talking about it a lot in my Mom Freely mentoring community. When we’re not taught to weave in self-compassion and soothe ourselves the way we would our child, the inner critic becomes this default that we go to.
Even practicing mindfulness, we’re going to snap again one day. It happens. And self-compassion is so important for being able to repair relationships after it happens.
Applying Mindfulness In Tough Moments
It’s about recognizing the situation. “It’s helpful to really listen to the tone of our internal voice,” Dr. Diana said. If we can imagine a wise mentor telling us to slow our breath we can open up space. Focusing on slowing your breath down has immediate physiological effects. And if you think about a mom using this with a child, they will notice. That gives you a chance to say, “This is hard, isn’t it?”
“The mind is a great simulator,” Dr. Diana said. And that’s awesome because it opens so many doors. If one technique doesn’t work, we can try another. At a quiet time, replay the scenario in your mind. Imagine the kid having a meltdown and now look at yourself towering over the child with your hands on your hips. And think about what you can do the next time it happens. Maybe you can just sit down on the couch, and say, “That was difficult.” You’re really removing yourself from the emotions, so the limbic system isn’t activated.
We’ve talked about finding a pause and recovering, but this kind of mommy rage can also be connected to postpartum anxiety or postpartum depression. We all have these negative emotions floating around in our brains from years of experience, and we all snap sometimes. But if you feel like you’re constantly angry, or unable to feel happiness, it might be time to talk to a doctor. In some cases, medication might be needed to help you regulate. And that’s okay.
How To Help My Child Coregulate With Mindfulness
We’re all like sponges. We’re all picking up on the emotions all around us. Dr. Diana once worked with a mother who was trying to work on her anger. The mom found focusing on her breath and just breathing throughout the day very helpful. One day, she sat down on the couch next to her four-year-old and said, “Gosh! I am so mad. I just need to take a breath.” A week later the four-year-old flopped down on the couch and said, “I’m so mad. I just need to take a breath.”
Learning to regulate our emotions for ourselves is modeling for our children. It’s the best way to teach them how to regulate their own emotions. “For our children to see us angry, scared, mad at ourselves is actually really important, and then to observe what we are doing and how we make sense of it,” Dr. Diana said.
If our child has a bad day at school and we try to fix it for them, that’s going to be of minimal help to them. But if we let them talk about how they’re feeling and name their feelings—name it to tame it—it’s going to be much more helpful to them. And it prepares them better for the world.
Remembering the elements of compassion is also important in teaching children how to regulate. “If your friend won’t talk to you on the playground, it’s going to take courage to smile at her, isn’t it?”
If you’re having a hard time implementing these practices, or you still need more help dealing with mommy rage, I’ve created a course on everything you need to know about how to keep calm as a parent. You’re not alone. I went through this too!
Dr. Diana Korevaar is a psychiatrist and a mother of 4 adult children and a granddaughter. Diana has worked for 20 years as a perinatal psychiatrist, helping parents find ways to emerge from the unavoidable challenges of pregnancy, parenting, and relationships, with greater strength, wisdom, and happiness.
In Diana’s work with patients and in her book “Mindfulness for Mums and Dads”, she explains how these skills can be used in everyday life, helping to build emotional resilience and strengthen connection in relationships. More recently Diana has become involved in research into “psychedelic assisted psychotherapy” for treatment resistant depression, anxiety, and PTSD.