Caregivers often report feeling overwhelmed by their child’s situation, and experience high amounts of stress because of it.
The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course aims to help people develop mindfulness skills to cope with stress, and has been shown to reduce mental and physical health symptoms for groups ranging from stressed out healthcare providers to people with illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.
A team of researchers based at the University of California, Los Angeles, investigated if the MBSR course can help people who care for children with developmental disabilities—meaning, disabilities like autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disability, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy.
In the study, published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, parents and caregivers of developmental disabilities attended a weekly two-hour class over a period of eight weeks, and one four-hour silent retreat.
They specifically learned meditation practices, like awareness of one’s breath, the body scan, and lovingkindness meditation. They also learned about mindfulness and stress theory, and had group discussions covering topics such as feeling compassion for the self as a caregiver. The caregivers also had homework, practicing mindfulness meditation practice for 30 minutes every day at home.
Immediately following the course, a survey found the caregivers had higher levels of mindfulness, well-being, self-compassion, and perception of their physical health. Perceived levels of stress, and importantly, stress specifically related to their role as caregiver, also decreased significantly. What’s more, these changes remained when the caregivers filled the surveys out again two months later.
Why? The researchers speculate that mindfulness practices could be helpful for these caregivers because they encourage a nonjudgmental interpretation of their child’s situation, and increased acceptance of their reality. Mindfulness practices also help people observe their thoughts and behaviors with less reactivity and judgment, which could enable caregivers to better respond to the emotional and physical difficulties they encounter.
The researchers also think that this program was particularly successful because of the role that the community had in designing the program. Past research has shown that empowering families leads to less stress and more resilience; enabling families to have an active role in creating the MBSR program likely enhanced its effects.
“By focusing on the fact that families and communities are producers of health and health care, not just clients or consumers, it empowers families and communities to co-create health interventions,” write the researchers.
This study demonstrates that an eight-week mindfulness course to reduce stress and increase the well-being of people who care for individuals with developmental disabilities is feasible, but more studies are needed to confirm these findings. Future studies, the researchers write, should also compare people who participate in the course to a control group that does not, to make sure the mindfulness course was the cause of the changes in well being and stress.
Finally, the researchers think that future research could explore if the benefits of mindfulness for caregivers improves the quality of their care—and in turn, beneficially impact the child they care for.