Mindfulness Matters - kids' relaxation coach Zara Simmonds explains why

While Doodle & Calm's focus is on mindful colouring for kids, we thought it would be great to hear from a professional who teaches mindfulness to young people. Who better than Zara Simmonds, whose relaxation and meditation practices have helped many children and families through the troubled times of Covid.

“Mindfulness is a way of befriending ourselves and our experience.”

Zara

Hello I’m Zara Simmonds, a Richmond-based Mindfulness, Resilience and Relaxation Coach helping people of all ages feel less stressed and anxious.

When Doodle & Calm asked me to do a guest blog, I jumped at the chance, so welcome to my first article.

My specialism is families and children, and I’m privileged to be able to work closely with local schools, charities, community groups and privately, helping people learn to self-regulate when they are struggling or feeling overwhelmed. My work has been especially needed this past year.

I like to think of myself as a Wellness Warrior – which sounds pretentious, but I’m passionate about mental wellbeing and am on a mission to make Mindfulness accessible in schools and the wider community.

My approach to what I do has always been to make everything I teach easy to digest so that it’s not deemed ‘other’ or ‘alternative’, but easily assimilated into everyday life.

Mental health gets a bad press and admitting to needing help has always been a stigma, which is hugely obstructive. We all need and deserve good mental health. With the rise of the self-care industry there’s also been a school of thought that considers looking after your mental wellbeing an indulgent luxury which is equally damaging. As we’ve seen from the fall-out of the pandemic it is an extremely important and vital field of work - and practices should be used even if we think we are in good health.

Mental wellbeing really should become part of the school curriculum as its fundamental to our existence.

Leaving TV for a more mindful channel 

I retrained out of an intense job in television broadcast over six years ago, where I was juggling a frantic lifestyle. As a mum of three young people (13, 16 and 22) I’ve seen first-hand the growing need for us to arm kids with the tools needed to cope when life gets hard.

I love being able to share the skills I have; teaching others that very simple exercises and a different way of thinking can be hugely beneficial and life-changing. Understanding the link between our mind and the body is key. Having ways to keep the brain’s natural alarm bell, the amygdala, calm and under control is essential for wellbeing. When the amygdala takes over we can’t think straight and our body is flooded with cortisol and adrenalin. Hence the phrase 'fight, flight or freeze’ when we are under threat.

That part of the brain is designed to keep us alive and is a necessity for survival, but it also fires off when faced with perceived threat as well as real, so when we are under the constant pressure that modern day life presents us with, it’s firing off a lot!

We can’t always change what life throws at us, but we can change how we respond.

By learning to respond to situations not react, we feel less overwhelmed and can recognize there’s an issue and deal with it. The work I do helps you recognize when you are starting to feel stress before it takes over, and strategies to ground yourself if you are already highly agitated. We work on living in the moment and letting things go, as cognitive behavioral psychotherapists agree that by holding on to the past or worrying about the future, you’re likely to struggle with low mood and anxiety.

Mindfulness really helps you live in the moment. It can be difficult to let go but the more you recognize you can’t change situations, the more you start to adjust and live for today. Techniques also include learning ways to relax through breath and meditation, simple ways to distract the mind and methods to ground oneself through connection and positive thinking.

I do a lot of relaxation in my classes as it’s so important to learn to decompress and pause. Every session ends with a meditation, no matter the age group. My own children listened to visualisations and calming music to aid sleep as babies, and it works!

Meditation is often poo-pooed, but it can be a powerful tool for people experiencing stress and anxiety. You can do it anywhere and anytime - it doesn’t actually have to be the full-on legs crossed, spiritual ‘experience’ for you to be able to pause and reset. A simple body scan to check in on how you are feeling can do wonders! You are never too busy or stressed to meditate, it’s always invaluable!

All my family do it, and we’re quite low-key about how and where we do it, but all appreciate how much it helps clear our minds.

Good mental health through mindful colouring

Bite-size chunks of meditation

Meditation is often poo-pooed, but it can be a powerful tool for people experiencing stress and anxiety.

You can do it anywhere and anytime - it doesn’t actually have to be the full-on legs crossed, spiritual ‘experience’ for you to be able to pause and reset.

A simple body scan to check in on how you are feeling can do wonders. No matter how busy or stressed you feel – finding just a few minutes in your day to meditate can be enough.

At the end of this blog, I've included a sensory exercise that can be practised anywhere and helps in grounding runaway thoughts when anxiety takes hold.

Children and mindfulness: letting go of the ‘nasties’

Humans have thousands of thoughts a day – that’s a lot of processing! The trick is to try and just let these go, but humans love a negative ‘loop’ and attach emotions and feelings to their thinking. We aren’t our thoughts! People often forget this.

To understand about thoughts, emotions and the brain is really empowering and it’s great to learn these from a young age. In my sessions with children we do a lot of talking around ‘big’ emotions, talking about all the ‘nasties’: anger, fear, sadness, worry etc.

We discuss how important and valid these are, as long as they don’t dominate or control us. We explore the fact that we need the whole spectrum of emotions, as this is what makes us human. In this digital age we tend to see the world in black and white, happy or sad; all the different nuances in between are forgotten. Human life is having countless emotions - that’s normal. I’d worry if someone was always happy and only happy, just as I would worry if they were only sad. 

Mindfulness colour for kids

[Photo: Matthew Henry, Burst]

Openness, communication and post-Covid work 

In the past year my work moved completely online, as new and old clients faced unimaginable uncertainty and fear in this most challenging of times and needed reassurance and guidance. It has been hugely rewarding to be able to help people find some space and peace during this unbelievably difficult period – I offered free sessions to all my previous clients as soon as I had the head space myself to be able to do so.

I’ve been teaching mainly on Zoom, but also through Google Teams and even Facetime – if clients have wanted help, I’ve supplied it and worked around any technology they may or may not have had! I’ve successfully led sessions on everything from combating anxiety for parents of children with Special Needs during Lockdown, with relaxation groups designed to develop positive thinking, and workshops centered around how to be resilient for staff and pupils across a whole school.

With Covid restrictions lifting in the UK, I think now more than ever, we need to support our children and give them the means to feel more confident and safe.

Through open and honest conversations, they should be encouraged to talk about everything they’ve witnessed and been through. They may want to discuss any worries that returning to ‘normal’ life might flag for them. As parents and teachers we should give them the tools to manage these worries as they arise, help them understand that sadly life can be complicated and unexpected, but by using positive thinking, promoting self-esteem and using mindfulness practices they can get through all that life throws at them. 

It’s safe to say we’ve all had an incredibly tough year – we’ve been exposed to unprecedented stress and fear, and many of us are still trying to process what we’ve been through.

As the world moves towards normality, many of us may be facing serious social anxiety as life pings back to its frantic speed, whilst others may feel excited about embracing their old lives. No one attitude is correct. We need to do this at our own pace, as we adjust after the most challenging of years.

Let’s try to be even more mindful and considerate as we respect each other’s emotional as well as physical space in the coming months.

Through open and honest conversations, they should be encouraged to talk about everything they’ve witnessed and been through. They may want to discuss any worries that returning to ‘normal’ life might flag for them.

As parents and teachers, we need to reinforce that life events can be complicated and unexpected but by using positive thinking and promoting self-esteem and mindfulness practices they can get through it. 

As the world moves towards normality, many people may be facing social anxiety as life pings back to its frantic speed. Many of us are still trying to process what we’ve been through while others may be excited about embracing their old lives.

No one attitude is correct. We need to work at our own pace as we adjust to life post-Covid. Let’s try to be even more mindful and considerate as we respect each other’s emotional as well as physical space in the coming months.

Zara x

Zara’s '5 Things' Grounding Exercise 

Concentrating on one sense at a time can be calming and helps clear the mind. Try this simple grounding technique at home with your kids:

Get comfortable. Close your eyes. Take in a deep inhale and a slow, steady exhale. Do this two more times.

Now open your eyes.

  • Name 5 things you can SEE
  • Name 4 things you can TOUCH
  • Name 3 things you can HEAR
  • Name 2 things you can SMELL
  • Name 1 thing you can TASTE

See how different you feel once you’ve paused, reset and reflected in the present moment.

Find out more information about Zara at zarasimmonds.co.uk and if you’d like a session you can book direct via calmwithzara@hotmail.com