Photograph by Emily Berger, courtesy Melissa Marks

Wellness

Staying Mindful in a Time of Crisis

Mindfulness expert Melissa Marks shares tips on how to keep fear out of the driver's seat.

To try to find some peace in this troubled time, I reached out to Melissa Marks, founder and Chief Mindfulness Officer of Your Mindful Edge. She specializes in coaching high performers and Type A personalities, so I wondered how she has been advising her corporate clients, many of whom have been faced with the Hobson’s choice of laying off staff or closing their business doors. I was also curious about her thoughts on how to stay in the present moment when many of us are caught up in the constant future-projecting news churn. Here’s what she had to say.

How are you coping with these unusual times? I am trying to take it one day at a time, giving myself permission to feel and even grieve. I know we are all feeling similar emotions right now, and in so many ways we are more united than ever simply because of that. While isolated, I feel a certain depth of connection to others more than I ever have before. I am comforted by feelings like these. I am meditating more than ever and trying to stick to my self-care practices, including prayer, as best I can to stay healthy.

Is mindfulness just about taking care of my, well, mind? Or does it relate in any way to my physical wellbeing as well? It’s everything. Mind and body. There is a field of study called psychoneuroimmunology which looks at the intersection of how our nervous system affects our immune system. Meditation practices have been shown to decrease depression, anxiety, insomnia, and provide a whole host of physical benefits ranging from reducing hypertension and slowing down the aging. There is also incredible neuroscience research out there that shows how meditation positively affects our brain functioning.

I take it that it’s bad to be constantly cycling through news reports online. How do I stay prepared but not panicked? Great question. It’s entirely normal, and really beautiful in my opinion, to feel compassion for one another and connected in this. News is a big part of how we do that. It can be challenging, though, to find that balance between what we feel we need to know versus knowing what’s best for us. I think it’s very important to monitor our own unique, subjective capacities to take in news. We can ask ourselves, “Is this news story serving its intended purpose, or has it gone beyond informing me now to stirring up my anxiety?” It’s all about listening to yourself, which is itself a mindfulness practice, and to recognize we have choices about how we get our news. Online sources like the CDC and Johns Hopkins University are great for more data-driven content.

A lot of people are now working around others who aren’t normally part of their work environments: parents, kids, spouses. How do you create time and space to focus inward? For that reason, I think making time to go inward is more important than ever before. In bigger households, there may be very little alone time. You may have to get creative about your physical space, but don’t forget, you can still go inward while being around others. We can be simultaneously present, internally connected, and aware and engaged with others all at the same time.

I think this a great opportunity to engage your family members in meditating together. There are a lot of great apps out there to help get you started, like Headspace and Insight Timer. Dallas is really fortunate to have amazing local meditation teachers right here. Breathe is offering donation-based daily Instagram Livestream mediations. I am grateful to be one of the studio’s teachers. Another great online local option is The Refuge. Schedule your meditation time as you would anything else. Make it a priority.

Are there ways to get kids involved in mindfulness? Parents and kids can meditate together. Families can engage in mindful conversations, mindful meals together — an unlimited number of mindful shared experiences. I have seen so many families playing outdoors together, like never before. This is a unique opportunity to connect and forge new bonds with your kids. Another local meditation teacher, Sha Roehm, specializes in working with parents and kids and is a great resource.

You often coach business people. What has been your advice to leaders who have had to make tough decisions to help their companies this week? One of the first things I’ve been saying is to be kind to yourself as you weigh these difficult decisions. This is not an easy space to be in, and it’s okay to feel a range of emotions. This is why meditation is so helpful in a work environment because it’s now more important than ever to be calm and clear-headed as we make life-changing decisions for ourselves and others.

What I’ve also been sharing is that we have to look fear squarely in the face from a clear, grounded, and centered perspective. When we react, that’s fear driving — the amygdala firing — and oftentimes that means making wrong decisions that we regret later. It’s about changing our relationship to fear. Fear shows up in different ways — it shows up as fight/ flight/ freeze. We have to make the distinction between being hijacked by fear versus acknowledging fear as a temporary state that comes and goes.   I’ve seen examples of people being silent and not effectively communicating with their teams. I’ve seen people communicate their panic without realizing it. Fear is contagious. Any leader who is largely unconscious about his or her fear may be doing more damage than realized.

A mindful perspective leads us toward creativity and innovation, something every industry desperately needs right now. We need to find a way as a society to help our overtaxed medical professionals; we have to learn how to pivot within our own industries, take what we already do and make it relevant and viable. We have to look at how we can serve others by creating new opportunities.

One of my favorite quotations is by Albert Einstein. He said, “You cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it.” Sometimes we have to accept that we don’t know the answer and humbly enter into a new space. The present moment. Our breath. Our intention to make a shift. To create the space. To get a little more still so we may hear something within us. That space for stillness may just offer the answer we’ve been looking for all along. With every circumstance, if we attune to the present moment, we find that the answers are always within us.

Now is the opportunity to listen like never before.

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