Mantras are powerful for quieting and focus, and thus lend themselves well to the arena of self-regulation. The common experience of talking yourself through a stressful situation reveals the human tendency to derive comfort from repetitive, focused self-talk. “I can do this, I can do this, I can do this,” you say, as you step from the plane and open your eyes to cast a last glance over your shoulder to make sure your instructor remembered to secure your parachute.
As therapists, we realize the power of focusing on the precise quality that can promote the shift that is desired. Often the phrase that comes to a person naturally may be too negative to be effective. For example, we have a boy we work with who repeats over and over, “Shut up. I hate you…I’m sorry!”
Sometimes letting him vent with this phrase can be helpful, but more often, he becomes stuck in this negative space and attitude. Working with him to shift this to something more positive and empowering such as, “I need some space…that’s better,” allowed him to express the source of his negative affect.
With another young man, being precise about what needed to be regulated was effective. His mantra was, “I am the boss of my hands, I am the boss of my feet.” These were encouraged when he would impulsively run, grab or throw. Some other examples of self-regulatory mantras are when we use a phrase to target “stopping,” a self-regulation capacity that is often difficult for individuals with FXS.
“Stop…take a breath” and “Stop…think…now do” or “Think it, say it, do it” are all examples of how we would work on inhibition and impulse control. These are often paired with a gesture, since the verbal and nonverbal combination can be very effective. For example, with “think it, say it, do it,” we pair a point gesture to the head, the mouth, then the body, and find that sometimes we can fade the verbal to just the gesture, which teachers can often incorporate in classrooms. The “Five Finger” approach that we have discussed previously is a gesture/mantra self-regulation cueing system. The individual first grabs the thumb and says, “stop.” He then grabs the index finger, saying, “take a breath.” The final three fingers are paired with, “what’s wrong, what can I do, and now do it!”
Besides pairing mantras with a gesture, we often couple them with a visual to better facilitate learning. For example, a two-sided card with a green, or red circle, on either side, paired with “ready…not ready” is a basic self-regulation support that is visual and “mantra-ized.” We might have a “take a break” card, a stop sign, a breath sign or an individual-being-the-boss-of-their- hands photograph to pair visuals with mantras.
Finally, as therapists, we are sensitive to varying degrees of cognitive understanding and verbal expression, and find we can easily adjust the cues and method of accessing the mantra as needed.
Mantras can play a role in anyone’s learning. Choose your favorite and adopt it! And our thanks to Stuart Smalley for empowering us. As we started our writing process for this article, we adapted one of his favorites that started us off here, “we’re gonna help people! Because we’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and, doggone it, people like us!”