A Mindful Map of Healing
Written by Mike Giresi,
in Section Latest Articles
Clinical Focus Weeks are a central part of our therapeutic curriculum. The format is simple: each week we tackle a new concept or emotion, and approach it from multiple angles in experiential and psycho-educational therapy sessions. We use things like paint, blocks, and magazines, self-defense gear, role playing, cinema props and a range of activities.
In large and small groups, our clients can explore complex topics in a safe and non-judgmental environment. They’re able to share as openly and honestly as they wish, and can get support from their peers, and compassionate feedback from our clinical team.
Our goal is to help adolescents learn how to see themselves more clearly in real-time: to explore how their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, physical sensations in their body, and their behaviors affect their relationship with themselves and their environment.
The purpose of Clinical Focus Weeks is to help our adolescent clients explore their relationship with an emotion or concept. An individual’s relationship with an emotion determines essential things—how he understands his own identity, how he understands the world around him, and how he sees himself as part of (or apart from) his environment.
Teaching him to track his inner world is something we believe helps our clients maintain lasting healing as they move out of their childhood years and into adulthood.
Feeling lost in a pattern of behavior
A trigger—that is, a person, place or thing that causes an immediate emotional and physiological reaction—can cause teens to react in ways that feel baffling or disproportionate to their families.
To an outside observer like a parent or a teacher, when a teenager reacts in an extreme way by lashing out or shutting down, it’s impossible to see the storm of thoughts, feelings and memories that are whirling around within him.
But an extreme reaction on the outside belies an extreme reaction on the inside. Something about this trigger caused him to feel something that was utterly intolerable perhaps anger, sadness, fear, guilt, or shame. His reaction is self-preserving and self-protecting, and shields himself from one feeling with another. It demonstrates that something feels deeply threatening, and his only way of coping is a pattern of behavior he feels powerless to stop.
“I hate you! You’re ruining my life!”
Teenagers have a reputation for being dramatic. When an adolescent is unable to distinguish between different types of triggers, everything might actually feel life or death.
Let’s unpack the two main types of threats that can trigger us. The first is a threat to safety, or a life threat. This is an actual threat to someone’s life or physical safety. A swift reaction is necessary and appropriate when a child feels like their life is in danger. The second is a threat to security, or an identity threat. This is when a child’s sense of self comes under attack, and is often related to social, emotional, relational or psychological stimuli.
For very young children, safety and security are the same thing: they are so vulnerable that any threat can put their life at risk. A threat to their sense of security such as neglect or abandonment can be just as life-threatening as a natural disaster.
A threat to an adults’ internal sense of security—their emotions, identity or social status—is not a threat to their safety. While such triggers can still be extremely uncomfortable and cause a reaction, an adult knows that life-preserving measures need not be taken.
The ability to differentiate between life-threats and security-threats are one of the biggest parts of growing up. Through life experience adults develop emotional maturity and perspective that helps them navigate a daily minefield of triggers.
Teenagers who aren’t able to distinguish between these two types of threats, or who aren’t taught how to see the distinction, run the risk of getting stuck in self-destructive patterns that will repeat throughout their adult life.
One of the ways we help our adolescent client is by teaching him how to identify and distinguish between these two types of threats. We help him become aware of what he’s reacting to in real time, and what his emotions are trying to tell him in that moment.
Mindfulness can help a teenager bring attention and focus to what is driving his emotions and what that signals is going to give him a better sense of control and agency over how he reacts. Through mindfulness he can learn to use his emotions as a compass to direct his thoughts and physical reactions.
Exploring how an emotion feels in his inner world, in the context of his thoughts, feelings and memories, can help a teenager connect with himself, validate himself, and understand the experiences that trigger this pattern. This can help him separate life-threats from identity-threats, allowing him to see himself more clearly and track his inner world.
Mindfulness will not stop him from feeling triggered—not as an adolescent and not as an adult—but it can bring awareness and a sense of grounding into his body, allowing him to stall his response long enough to see other choices available to him.
Clinical Focus Week: Triggers and Choices
A child who feels triggered by a security-threat is reacting to his own thoughts, feelings and memories, rather than the cause of the trigger. He feels overwhelmed in his inner world, and uncomfortable in his physical body as he experiences things like elevated heart-rate, tensed muscles, and rapid breathing. His urge to shut this feeling down is undeniable.
The purpose of Triggers and Choices Week isn’t to teach your child to deny or dismiss his feelings—rather to develop an awareness and curiosity about his emotions, his thoughts, the sensations in his body, and the context in which he feels this way.
Helping your child develop mindfulness to cope with triggers creates a habit of pausing to take an inventory of his body—he builds a list of places that hold frenetic energy—and considering if his inner world and his outer environment match the tension he feels, and how.
Mindfulness is a connection he can build between his mind and his body, an awareness that bridges between how he feels emotionally and how he feels physically. In spending a moment exploring his awareness of his inner and outer world, he’s delaying his reaction and giving himself a moment to make a decision about how to act instead.
One of the exercises we do is The Body Map of Emotions. We guide clients through a worksheet that includes a list of emotions and the outline of a human body. Together with a partner he explores each emotion with statements like “I feel angry when…” or “I feel sad when…” or “I feel afraid when…” and describe something from his past or present that elicits that emotion. His partner thanks him for his share and responds with his own experience of that emotion.
The pairs then reflect on where in their body they felt that emotion and how it felt; they’ll use their body map worksheet and a colored pencil to illustrate that emotion. Creating this inventory of what happens in his body (for example, elevated heart rate, shallow breaths, tensed muscles) can help him see what his stress response feels like so that he can learn to be attuned to when he has been triggered, before it registers mentally.
This exercise helps our client create awareness and context of his emotions, how and when they manifest in his body. This is key to helping him to own his emotion rather than be owned by it.
A child who acts out or acts in in certain situations can learn to connect with his mind and body in the moment. An awareness of how he’s feeling won’t negate the trigger or stop the feelings, but it can curb his acting-out or acting-in and empower him to express how he’s feeling in words instead.
A moment of pause, a lifetime of self-care
Triggers can start a chain-reaction of thoughts, feelings and actions that your child feels powerless to overcome. He may not even be aware of his behavior and how it is problematic.
The Triggers and Choices focus week gives him back his power over himself. Your child is shown how to rebuild his connection with his inner self, his emotions, his thoughts, and his memories. He learns valuable strategies for how to process these with curiosity, love and self-acceptance, as well as how to express himself to his peers and trusted adults in a meaningful way. And he learns tactics for coping with the physical manifestations of his stress when he’s triggered, which can help him mitigate his reactions.
The biggest difference between reacting to a trigger and making a choice is time. Through the practice of mindfulness, a knee-jerk reaction can transition into a thoughtful and self-loving choice when an adolescent has an opportunity to slow down.
Mindfulness is a tool that will help him while he’s at Family First Adolescent Services, and that with practice will help him to be a more thoughtful and self-loving individual at home, with this family, at school, and out in the wider world.
Together, we can support a parent’s role in their adolescent child’s emotional development, through experiences that support his growth, maturity and ability to differentiate between life-threats and security-threats. We can support a teenager’s growing up, helping their emotional and psychological maturity track alongside their physiological growth.
After reading this article, how do you feel about your own patterns of trigger-and-reaction? Do you see yourself acting in ways you don’t understand when you feel under duress? Are you aware of behaviors that you wish you could change but feel powerless to overcome?
Mindfulness can open doors to lasting and sustainable healing, because it uses the best toolset we have—our own mind and body—to create space for self-love.
Call us to learn if Family First Adolescent Services is right for you and your child (561) 328-7370.