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Mindfulness: The Secret to My Energy and Leadership in Stressful Times

Elizabeth A. Davenport, Scientific Leader Cell and Gene Therapy Cell Process Development, GlaxoSmithKline

The timing could not have been worse. I was starting a new job, only to discover I literally was sick and tired. I suddenly realized that my personal energy bank had been overdrawn over several preceding years. Serious illnesses and deaths of close family members, transition to an empty nest, increased work pressures and finally a career change had overtaken me and left me feeling drained. This was not the way I wanted to start my new job.

We all know that life does not always go according to plan. My “plan” is generally one of positivity. I pride myself on being a vibrant, animated and lively force in both my own life and the lives of others. When this “plan of positivity” went awry, I was thrust out of my comfort zone. However, major life changes happen whether we choose them or not, and sometimes those stressors travel in packs, which only further tests our stamina. I needed some new tools for these tough times.

Mindfulness, an Energy Enabler

My first step was to do some research. A quick search on the Internet confirmed that I was not alone in my experience. A recent American Psychological Association survey found that women, on average, are more stressed than men. In a Dartmouth publication, I learned when one experiences multiple stressors simultaneously, one’s likelihood of illness in the near future increases. Listening to music, exercising and praying were listed as common coping strategies to reduce stress. Mindfulness and yoga were listed as coping strategies on the rise.

I had learned a little about the benefits of mindfulness through yoga. Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on the present moment. It is an appealing addition to other stress-reduction techniques because it is portable, free and confidential, and regular practice is thought by some to have immediate and long-term positive impacts.

I decided to give it a real go. To get started, I found some guided meditation apps and YouTube videos online. I like that mindfulness begins with a focus on the breath. In my practice, I also observe my thoughts and emotions without judgment. I end by noticing physical sensations, which are clues to where I store my stress.

After several years of practice, I am now armed with an improved acceptance of my present moment, and when I start to feel stressed out, I consider which of my reactions might be draining or preventing me from replenishing my energy. The fun part has been developing “mindful experiments,” where I make small changes to my ways of living and working while mindfully observing the impact on my definition of a life well-lived with energy and purpose. For example, I discovered that a short brisk walk is a fantastic, energizing break, and I feel better after eating a healthy breakfast. Because I observe the impact in real time, when I see a positive impact, I am motivated to embed the change.

Impact of Mindfulness on Team Energy

As I have expanded my use of mindful practices, I have become more confident that I can make changes to my approach to maximize my energy during periods of high stress. I also discovered a subtle and wonderful shift that occurred in my leadership approach.

Namely, I have discovered that by using my inborn strengths, I release energy to invest in identifying the talents in others. I’m increasingly aware of both individual and team energy and the importance of removing obstacles so the energies of team members can synergize. Relying on the simple tools that I know bring people together and create positive energy in a group, I can establish a community culture—whether it’s with the home, life or work team—that is built on trust and respect and gives us the courage to tackle difficult goals together.

I’ve emerged from my low-energy period with a refreshed and renewed outlook. Mindfulness in combination with feedback helped me to understand that my friends and colleagues value my energy, enthusiasm and my belief in people. This is what I love to do and what I want to be known for, so I am motivated to keep that spirit alive.

I am better equipped to establish a community culture built on trust and respect that gives everyone the courage to try to tackle difficult goals. When we succeed, we celebrate our successes; when we fail, we comfort each other, dust ourselves off and have the energy to try again.

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