Irene Rodgers & Deepa Natarajan
It’s 3:15 in the morning and you’re awake and anxious. “Yes, that project is totally unrealistic and it’s sabotaging my days” you say to yourself. You twist and turn. Eyes wide open you tell yourself the night is over for you and that if you fall asleep at all, the alarm will go off anyway a half hour later. “How can I go to the office like this?” you wonder, giving yourself something else to be anguished about. “I must stop thinking, stop thinking, stop thinking…” But you’re drowning.
Too many companies have too many employees struggling with stress and anxiety-related absenteeism or illness. Too many employees feel they spend their time bouncing back and forth problem-solving impossible problems. Too many people feel inadequate to manage the conflicting priorities of their lives.
Companies acknowledge that stress related disorders entail a cost far higher than health insurance costs. Governments share this concern since stress-related illnesses now fall under reimbursed health care. So what can be done about the unacceptably high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, illness, absenteeism and the overall reduced levels of satisfaction, engagement and productivity?
Today thinking on this issue is not about time management or clarifying organizations. It’s a far more holistic and mind-set issue:
What techniques and skills can we develop in order to manage our stress levels and reinforce a positive self-image?
Let’s start by taking an inter-galactic voyage. Have you ever wondered why Star Wars has been such a colossal success? How about this: Star Wars is not an adventure movie. It isn’t even mostly about the fight between Good and Evil. Star Wars captivates us because the stories are deep-rooted, universal tales about psychological strength or anguish.
All through the Saga, the Jedi masters deal with pressure, define priorities, face multiple challenges, confront treachery and overcome change thanks to the Force. We see that the Jedi’s power resides in the Force. Throughout the saga Jedi experience how the Force is about total awareness of the present moment and if they are fully focused on that, they can do just about anything. We watch how, with training, Jedi develop heightened awareness of what is going on around them in the here and now, and thus increase their physical and mental powers.
What a skill!
Today this ability is called Mindfulness.
In the 1970’s the psychologist Ellen Langer defined Mindfulness as “the ability to quiet your mind, focus your attention on the present, and dismiss any distractions that come your way”—especially value judgments. She demonstrated that this could improve cognitive and even vital functions in adults. And the amazing thing is that we can all learn it. Does this mean we can all become Jedis? Probably not. But people who practice Mindfulness have been shown to improve their memory. They cope better with strong emotions such as stress, anxiety, and depression. They are less subject to negative thinking and distractions and therefore more effective in what they do. They are more creative and imaginative. Their immune systems are stronger and they are healthier. They have a positive self-image. They feel better and do better!!
So it’s no surprise that large companies have implemented wellness programs and increasingly important parts of these focus on developing Mindfulness.
Developing Mindfulness: 4 steps
Think back to a stressful wake-up at 3:00 AM. Your mind is overrun with “mind-chatter.” It is like those glass balls with the snow inside. The particles are in chaos, rising, falling and colliding. Bouncing ideas. Wondering what would have made things better in the past or worried about what needs to happen in the future. Feeling paralyzed and powerless.
Mindfulness techniques can help:
- Step One: Stop. Breathe. Consciously focus your attention on your breathing: in and out. Become aware that you are thinking but remain neutral about it. This neutral observation of your thoughts reduces the speed at which they flow.If you think it’s crazy that something as simple as breathing can make you more present in the here and now, just let that judging thought pass you by and refocus your attention on your breathing.
- Step Two: Observe. Grow more aware of your emotions, feelings and sensations: too hot? Too cold? Anxious? Angry? Disappointed? Perceive what is going on around you. Slowly and steadily like the crystal ball with snowflakes, your thought particles start to settle and you will begin to see things more vividly, making yourself a sharp observer.
- Step Three: Confront inner demons. Vividly observing the present, start to see your dramas and deadlocks Accept what you are thinking or feeling without value judgments. Focus more on how you “relate to” what you are feeling than to what you are feeling. Mindfulness practice will allow you to identify the dramas that result from your own self-limiting beliefs vs. those that are rooted in external reality.
- Step four: Switch from your self-limiting beliefs to your deep inner resourcefulness. Create a path for your strengths, talents, creativity and imagination to unfold. Move from “I can’t do this” to “I can”. Nurture positive internal dialogues. If you acknowledge that actions flow from thoughts, positive internal dialogues allow you to confront enormous odds and thrive in this complex world.
Do you want the power of Mindfulness?
It sounds so simple but starting off alone is generally unsuccessful. Thus ICM offers companies the possibility of creating space to allow their people to anchor Mindfulness techniques. We include a Mindfulness component in some of our programs, in particular for teams where people are under real pressure and need to develop resilience. Participants learn a range of Mindfulness techniques they can use to overcome negative mind-chatter, meet their own demons, name them, and just like a Jedi, confront and challenge, if not overthrow, them.
ICM has always believed that engaged and focused teams are the most important component of a company’s sustainability. Our projects have focused on this, whether in cross-cultural situations, or a remote context or a multi-functional one. Helping team members develop Mindfulness is another step along the same road.