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University Advancement | May 2018  

Getting a kick out of mindfulness

Dr. Karen Milligan, Assistant Professor, Ryerson University

Dr. Karen Milligan, Assistant Professor, Ryerson University


Children with learning disabilities and mental health disorders often have difficulty dealing with daily stress. But thanks to an Integra Program at the Child Development Institute being evaluated by Dr. Karen Milligan, a professor with Ryerson University’s Department of Psychology, young people are learning how to channel their frustrations into a new activity: Integra Mindfulness Martial Arts® (Integra MMA).

Dr. Milligan is interested in seeing how Integra MMA helps children regulate their emotions and face challenges at school or in their relationships using a unique combination of mindfulness and cognitive therapy in a 20-week martial arts program.

Dr. Milligan's work attracted critical support from the Scottish Rite Charitable Foundation (SRCF), which has provided $104,000 over the last four years.

“We are proud to support research that can help adolescents with learning disabilities and mental health problems,” says SRCF President, Dr. Gareth Taylor. Dr. Milligan's research fit right into the SRCF’s mandate to fund new research to help solve puzzles of the mind, he explains.

“The reason is that mixed martial arts hooks the boys because it’s cool, it’s got some social credibility and it also gives them the experience of doing something that’s difficult—martial arts is very hard—and you have to be present,” Milligan told the Scottish Rite magazine Clarion.

“You need to figure out what your opponent is doing and you have to be flexible. You can then practice some of the skills that we’re teaching,” she told the magazine.

Dr. Milligan’s research is showing brain-based changes that suggest that children are able to direct more attention to tasks and direct this attention faster after participation in the program compared to children not participating in Integra MMA. Dr. Milligan has found that practicing mindfulness in the context of martial arts provides opportunities for youth to practice attention control, self-monitoring, and staying in the moment with challenging tasks instead of acting impulsively. Children also feel like they have achieved something socially meaningful and have a sense of mastery.

Getting youth to participate in therapy is not always an easy task, but so far the vast majority of students enrolled in the program complete it and even continue on to more advanced levels.

Dr. Milligan is currently wrapping up the results of a four-year study on the impact of MMA on about 50 children and 40 waitlist controls.

To hear Dr. Milligan share more about her research, please visit here (video).