With the threat of coronavirus constantly looming in our daily lives, many people have been left feeling a loss of control and finding themselves living in a state of perpetual anxiety.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way, according to Dr. Kristen Race, founder of Mindful Life and the author of Mindful Parenting. All of Race’s programs are rooted in the science of the brain with influences from the fields of mindfulness and positive psychology.
“Through some simple mindfulness and brain strengthening, we can put the lion’s share of our focus and our attention onto things that we can control,” says Race. “We can actually calm our nervous systems. We can engage in practices that stimulate our prefrontal cortex, that ‘smart state,’ and we can create systems and routines to stay in that smart state as much as possible, despite all of our current stressors and our current circumstances.”
As the host of YPO’s Vitality podcast series, I recently spoke with Dr. Race about how we can become more resilient to anxiety and fear through mindfulness, especially in times of crisis. Here’s what she had to say.
Race says it is important for leaders to acknowledge the anxiety that so many of us are feeling and to realize the crucial role it can play depending on our response to it. Anxiety can be productive, or it can just add to suffering, says Race. “We have an anxiety response for a reason. It’s about survival. It’s a survival mechanism.”
Use P.B.R. for a better response
Even before COVID-19, Race says she practiced something she calls “P.B.R.” on a regular basis, sometimes “dozens of times a day.” P.B.R. stands for pause, breathe, and respond with intention. When Race feels herself getting triggered or anxious or that her alarm response is starting to go off, she pauses and takes a few deep breaths.
Taking 10 or 20 seconds to pause, taking a breath and choosing a response can be the difference between escalating a stressful situation and calming a stressful situation. ”
— Dr. Kristen Race, Founder Mindful Life share
“The reason for these breaths is when we’re stressed and overwhelmed, we only breathe in the top quarter of our lungs,” she explains. “By taking some slow, deep breaths, we bring our sympathetic and our parasympathetic nervous systems back into balance. This tells our brain that it’s OK for our prefrontal cortex to come back online. And this allows me to choose a response that can lead to the most positive outcome.”
Taking 10 or 20 seconds to pause, taking a breath and choosing a response can lead to an entirely different outcome and be the difference between “escalating a stressful situation” and “calming a stressful situation,” says Race.
Widening one’s window of tolerance
We all have what Race likes to call a window of tolerance. “If you picture a window frame, everyone’s window of tolerance is a different size, and it’s a different size based on the situation,” she explains. When we are in that window, we are comfortable, and our prefrontal cortex is working well. We respond to situations effectively and feel at ease. But once we are outside of that window, we become uncomfortable, reactive, impulsive, maybe even confrontational. “Based on different situations, we all have different windows of tolerance,” says Race.
Tolerance windows vary from person to person. Part of that is determined by how we’re hardwired – but not all of it. “What we can do, through mindfulness and through micro mindfulness practices, is we can widen that window a bit so that we can get to the edge of our comfort zone and still access our prefrontal cortex,” says Race, “that part of our brain that is so important for our jobs as leaders.”
If we can identify our own windows, we can then come up with widening techniques, says Race. Once we are aware of our anxiety triggers, we can adapt a formal mindfulness practice to help widen our comfort zone, “bringing awareness to the present moment in systematic ways on a daily basis,” says Race. Examples could include a daily mindful breathing meditation, a daily body scan, a meditation. “It’s like physical training and conditioning for your prefrontal cortex,” she says. “It makes that part of your brain stronger, more efficient, easier to use, and it increases our awareness.”
How to manipulate our breathing
In addition to P.B.R., we can learn to manipulate the way that we breathe. By doing this, we can trick our nervous system into thinking that everything is okay. By lengthening our exhalation, we can trigger a relaxation response in our brains. When we are stressed, our inhalation becomes the focus, says Race. “I tell people to take what I call relaxation breaths. Inhale to the count of four, exhale to the count of six.”
Rather than having separate practices for this, Race suggests doing micro ones throughout the day to keep that prefrontal cortex stimulated. She uses washing hands as an example, something we are all already doing multiples times throughout the day. Race suggests taking the 20 seconds to do two or three rounds of relaxation. Inhale to the count of four as you wash; exhale to the count of six. Doing that while washing your hands is going to stimulate that prefrontal cortex and keep the stress at bay, she explains.
I set the intention for the day, asking myself what I want to be in the world. I write it down in my planner. It sits right next to me; I use it as my compass throughout the day. ”
— Dr. Kristen Race, Founder Mindful Life share
Importance of a morning routine and intention
It’s easy to wake up and reach for your phone and dive right into the headlines and the long list of new emails that have collected overnight. For Race, that isn’t the way she wants to start her day, and she doesn’t suggest it for anyone else, either.
“One of the things I feel like I have the most control over is my morning ritual,” she says. “That ritual sets the tone for my day. And often my day can go in a number of directions after that morning ritual based on the circumstances right now.”
Race’s routine involves going downstairs, brewing her coffee, and spending three to five minutes paying attention to her breathing. “It’s like doing that warm up, jog while you’re training for a marathon. It sets the tone for my day,” says Race.
After that, she identifies her three priorities for the day. “I do this before I look at my phone, before I jump into my email. It allows me to identify my priorities before I’m immediately thrown into reacting to everyone else’s priorities.”
Finally, Race sets an intention for the day, asking herself how she wants to be in the world. It can be many things, she says, but whatever it is, she writes it down in her planner. “It sits right next to me all day long. And it’s this compass that I can just come back to again and again throughout the day.”
One thing many top leaders have in common is a morning routine or morning ritual, says Race. By having one, even a simple one, we can avoid stimulating the alarm mechanisms in our brains and having to counteract them all day. “If you can wake up and you can do something that is stimulating for your prefrontal cortex, it sets the tone for a completely different day,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be a meditation, but I just ask people to be intentional about how you want to start the day.”
The YPO Vitality podcast is hosted by Lizanne Falsetto and is designed to help high-performing business leaders and their spouses and partners improve the quality and longevity of their lives through immediate and actionable whole-life wellness strategies. In each episode, Falzetto provides content with exclusive expert advice and insights with some of the biggest names in health and wellness. YPO members can check out the Vitality podcast series on the Source.