Occupational Therapists like myself work with individuals of all ages, from the first day of life to the last. We help individuals
In a society that’s continually becoming more in tune with the benefits of self-care, the term “mindfulness” has become a popular buzz word for both mental health professionals as well as the general public. While occupational therapists don’t provide typical counseling services like licensed counselors, social workers, or psychologists, OT’s are embracing mindfulness as a beneficial concept to intertwine into conventional therapeutic intervention as part of a more holistic approach.
Ability to be fully present [and] aware of where we are and what we are doing.
It may come as a surprise that occupational therapy actually has a strong background in mental health, and though the quantity of mental health OTs has declined, the field continues to assist with mental health treatment. Occupational therapy has prided itself on encompassing a more holistic approach to therapy, treating an individual as a whole in regards to how changes in ability level (from injuries, etc.) affect an individual’s completion of necessary and desired functional tasks (occupations). So, it only makes sense that a relatively new practice, defined by mindful.org as the “ability to be fully present [and] aware of where we are and what we are doing”, would supplement a profession that focuses on the act of “doing”. As yoga and tai chi have also become more commonly incorporated into therapy, mindfulness and meditation, especially in regards to regulated breathing patterns (as therapists, I feel we are forever telling our patients to stop holding their breath), will continue to be accepted by therapy professionals.
So how does mindfulness fit in to the occupational therapy scope of practice and how is the concept used therapeutically? Like many interventions, how mindfulness is presented during an OT session depends on the patient population. Pediatric OTs are extremely creative and have found the most interesting ways to teach mindfulness concepts to children. These mindfulness principles are becoming increasingly popular when working with children on improving self regulation skills, sensory processing difficulties, and attention difficulties. The Pocket OT lists a variety of suggestions for therapists working with children, including activity completion in slow motion to focus on the various components involved in the task, as well as discussing general “thankfulness” with kids. Parents of children with autism also report benefits of including mindfulness techniques in pediatric intervention. This article from the Washington Post describes one mom’s positive experience incorporating mindfulness into her son’s daily life. Her story is just one of the many accounts of mindfulness being used in conjunction with traditional occupational therapy methods to help treat pediatric patients.
Therapy for adults often has a different appearance from that of children, and specific diagnoses can also alter the clinical presentation of mindfulness. Covalent Careers comments that using mindfulness during neurological intervention “has helped decrease [patient’s] worry and concern about the future.” Aside from neurological treatment, occupational therapists are often seeing patients with varying levels of pain. Herb Benson, MD, director of the Benson-Henry Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School states that over 60% of all doctor’s visits in the mind-body stress-related realm are because of pain that’s poorly treated by drugs and surgeries. Pain may result from an orthopedic or muscular injury, but also commonly originates from injury, compression, irritation, and/or inflammation of nerves. No matter the origin, mindfulness can positively impact pain by teaching improved body awareness, acceptance, and acknowledgement of body sensations, and deep breathing which improves the body’s ability to fully relax from a state of tension and potentially heightened muscle contraction.
As an occupational therapist treating adults with neurological diagnoses, what strikes me as most interesting and impressive are the OTs who are fully embracing the holistic approach and providing private services using mindfulness principles as their foundation. As mentioned previously, pediatric occupational therapists are probably at the forefront of establishing these practices, but companies such as Mindful Occupational Therapy Services are setting positive new examples for occupational therapy’s role in mindfulness education. And support for mindfulness as a therapeutic intervention is constantly growing. Pesi Rehab, a popular continuing education provider, lists countless mindfulness continuing education opportunities proof that it is here to stay. Occupational therapists more interested in advancing their practice skill can even apply for the newly-developed advanced certificate in mindfulness-based health and human services.
Occupational therapists are interested in promoting optimal health in all their patients. We don’t just address the symptoms an individual is experiencing; we are a key component in helping someone learn how to keep living their best life. With empathy being one of the most crucial skills an occupation therapist must possess, we’re not only hearing complaints of symptoms; we are the empathetic ear an individual can trust to truly listen to their troubles and care about how they’re feeling. If mindfulness can help improve coping strategies in any way, I plan on incorporating it into my best practices and hope occupational therapists around the country are doing the same.