Reaching out to help others is also tremendously powerful for your mental health. Right now we may be sitting in our homes feeling alone and isolated. But in reality, we are all going through this together, with people all over the world having the exact same experience. As counterintuitive as it might seem, helping someone else at this moment is one of the best things you can do for your own mental health.
As a part of my series about the things we can do to develop serenity and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ariel Garten.
Ariel Garten was trained as a neuroscientist, a former psychotherapist, and is the female founder of the popular Muse meditation device. Muse gives you real-time feedback on your brain and body during meditation to guide your practice and let you know if you’re “doing it right.” Ariel and Muse have been featured in over 1,000 articles and Ariel lectures on stages around the world on mental health and the brain. She is also the co-host of the Untangle Podcast.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I’ve always been fascinated with the brain and how it works, and how we design experiences that allow people to improve their minds and improve their life. During my training as a neuroscientist, I began working with an early brain-computer interface technology that let you literally hear what is going on inside your mind. You’d place an EEG electrode on your head, and the system would interpret your brain activity and turn it into sound. We were creating audio experiences with it, when we recognized that as amazing as this technology was, the most powerful application of it was to apply it to an activity that could truly help people’s lives — which is meditation.
We all know meditation is good for you, but the fact is, meditation is also really hard to do. You sit there, you try to meditate, your mind goes blank and you don’t know what’s supposed to be happening. We recognized that if we could show people what was going on in their mind during meditation and give them real-time feedback on their brain activity during meditation, we could teach them what to do, and let them know if they’re doing it right. This way, we could make meditation accessible to the masses. So, as a result of this idea, I joined together with my co-founders Chris Aimone and Trevor Coleman. We founded this amazing device called Muse. It gives you real-time feedback on your meditation practice and is now used by hundreds of thousands of people around the world, athletes, clinicians and more to start or enhance their mediation practice.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
There are so many interesting stories that come to mind since the founding of Muse. But, at the top of mind is a story from 2014. I was speaking at the Connected Health Conference in Boston. This was just before Muse was released and I was presenting about this brand-new device that we were building. A researcher from the Mayo Clinic came up to me and said that they were interested in using our device with breast cancer patients. I was completely floored. I was just a young scientist and entrepreneur. To hear somebody from the Mayo Clinic say they want to use our device — which hadn’t been released yet — with real patients to make an impact on their life? This was an incredible feeling. So, we began collaborating on this idea and continued working together over the course of five years. Fast forward to 2019. I was asked to speak at the Connected Health Conference in Boston once again. Just before the conference began, in October, I was contacted by the researchers at the Mayo Clinic. They were about to publish the outcome of their study in a Cancer Care journal. The article would go on to say that breast cancer patients awaiting surgery at the Mayo Clinic using Muse were able to improve their quality of life and decrease their stress and fatigue by using our device during their cancer care process. This was really emotional for me, that we had really impacted people’s lives in a critical moment.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
In a work environment, the number one reason that you create burnout is that you have an unrealistic set of expectations. This includes what you expect for yourself, and what your family, colleagues, and bosses expect from you. So, I think the best advice that I can give to avoid burnout is to be really clear on what the appropriate expectations really are for you, and not having to dramatically overachieve to meet them. Perfectionism is a dangerous, dangerous thing, particularly in women, though it appears in both genders. Perfectionism and “people-pleasing” causes us to push ourselves well beyond our limits. Well beyond what’s healthy for us and well beyond what’s actually healthy for our personal and work relationships. We feel like there’s a sense of incompletion unless we achieve to this unrealistic standard — a standard that’s actually more than we can achieve — and this is a big part of what creates burnout.
The key is to stand back and reassess the situation, using tools like compassion for self, compassion for the others who are requesting things of you, compassion for those who you’re working with, self-love and healthy self-worth. Through that sense of compassion, love and worth you can create healthy boundaries, healthy expectations, and healthy goals for what we can realistically achieve. Not what we ‘feel’ like we’re supposed to do. When this happens, we’re able to be in an environment where we can thrive with the incredible skills that we have, rather than feeling like we’re never good enough while dreading what’s in front of us.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
One of the most powerful tools that I’ve experienced within the workplace is trust between you and your team. This is a lesson that I learned from Derek Luke, our CEO. I’ve learned a lot from his leadership style and the importance of trusting your team members. This includes making sure that you always have other people’s back, they’ve got your back and that you reward people for looking out for one another more than aggrandizing themselves. This has created an incredible environment where everything feels safe. Safe to be themselves, safe that they have their teammates’ best interests at heart, and that their teammate has their best interests at heart. This does away with politics. In a situation in which there’s politicking, there are people who are trying to advance their own case for their own interests. What if you had a management team that does not reward that, and instead a management team that actually rewards people caring for one another and rewards people having one another’s back? This creates a stage for trust, and team support, and articulates it and makes that tangible — it actually changes the entire character of the company and how the team can work together.
One of the specific practices that we do to facilitate this is a “gratitude practice.” Sometimes within our team meetings — whether it’s a senior leadership team meeting or an all-team meeting — we will go around and share gratitude for somebody or multiple people on the team. This allows people to feel seen and heard by one another. It builds trust and relationships across the team and also allows the leaders to see who is working together effectively.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
One of my favorite books is “Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart,” by Dr. James Doty. He is a neurosurgeon and founder of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). Dr. Doty is also a dear friend of mine and somebody who came from a very difficult background. This book talks about his life story. Dr. Doty’s mother was depressed and his father was an alcoholic, in a chaotic home in a rural area in the United States. He really didn’t imagine he would amount to much, nobody really heard him or paid attention to him growing up. When he was about 8-years-old he wandered into the town’s magic shop, filled with card tricks and rigged top hats. This is in the 1960s. There was a woman there who taught him magic. Now, the magic that she taught him was real magic. It was the magic of meditation. She taught him how to feel love in his heart. How to calm his mind. How to calm his body and how to focus his thoughts. She taught him the basis of various forms of meditation techniques. Using these techniques he was able to quiet the feelings of anger. He let go of the sensations of trauma and opened his heart to the love of his family. As a result of this mentorship, Dr. Doty was able to thrive. He became a top neurosurgeon, an entrepreneur, and a Silicon Valley investor. He ultimately weathered a lot of challenges in his life to become an extraordinary figure who leads the world in compassion research. This story is unbelievably transformational because it shares both the power of meditation and also the power that any of us can have by just seeing another person. By being there for them. Being the champion in somebody’s life who otherwise couldn’t feel confident.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious just from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
One of the key practices that individuals can do during this time to help develop serenity is meditation. In meditation we learn a set of skills that allows you to both calm your mind and calm your body — both of which are deeply needed right now. Here are some simple tips that you can practice at home:
- If you want to meditate, one of the most basic meditations is a ”focused attention meditation.” This is the type of meditation that Muse is built on. In this practice you focus your attention on your breath rather than your wandering thoughts. When a thought comes up in your head, instead of following those wandering thoughts, you choose to bring your attention back to your breath. As you do this, what you’re learning to do is to take your mind out of your negative and often repetitive wandering thoughts, and instead put it onto a neutral object so that you’re not going over the negative scenarios in your own mind. This calms your mind, as well as your body. If you are new to meditation, there are lots of guided meditations that can be used to help practice this.
- The next practice that I’d recommend is a breathing practice. Breath has the power to very quickly change your state of mind, moving you from one of “fight or flight” into “rest and digest.” One of the simplest breathing practices that you can do is to breathe in deeply from your belly. When you breathe deeply into your belly, it actually tugs on your vagus nerve. This the nerve in your body that’s responsible for triggering your “rest and digest” process. This literally counteracts your fight or flight reflex. As you breathe in from your stomach the motion of your abdomen mechanically tugs your vagus nerve, which will then signal to your body to go into rest and relaxation mode, slow your heart beat and dilate your blood vessels. You also want to take deep breaths so that your exhale is extended longer than your inhale. When you breathe in, the heart rate increases. When you breathe out, the heart rate decreases. You want to be spending as long as you can in an extended exhale so that you’re spending time decreasing your heart rate as you do this. This process signals to your body that everything is okay and the rest of it can slow down as well. One simple pattern is breathe in for four seconds — hold for four seconds — breath out for six seconds. This is a great breathing pattern that can really quickly shift your physiology from one of anxiety and fight or flight into one of rest and digest.
- Gratitude practices are also fantastic right now. Our brains naturally tend to look towards the negative and the pessimistic. But, as soon as you engage a gratitude practice, you literally engage the circuits in your brain that are associated with things that are positive. Your brain becomes trained to look for the positive, and the things that are working well. Gratitude practices are extremely powerful when you’re in a situation where you’re feeling sad or stuck. Simply looking around the room and choosing three things you’re grateful for is the beginning of a process to get yourself out of an emotionally stuck or negative place.
- Reaching out to help others is also tremendously powerful for your mental health. Right now we may be sitting in our homes feeling alone and isolated. But in reality, we are all going through this together, with people all over the world having the exact same experience. As counterintuitive as it might seem, helping someone else at this moment is one of the best things you can do for your own mental health. Acts of compassion that are selfless acts can also be selfish acts if you are in need. One of the best things you can do is help somebody else because it is bound to improve your mood, improve your sense of connection, and give you a sense of control. The fact that there’s actually something that you can do for someone is important because the sense of lack of control is a large part of what makes us feel upset and uncertain. As soon as we can take action, whether it’s for our own life or for somebody else’s life, we regain that sense of control. Putting a smile on someone’s face or easing their burden will make you feel better, and increase your sense of connectedness and overall network of support.
- One piece of understanding that has been extremely powerful to me to help me reframe my experience of anxiety, is to understand how and why your brain and body produce these anxious sensations, and when this anxiety is working for you, and when it’s not. This helps you to not get sucked in by anxiety, and be able to rise above and overcome it. When it comes to anxiety, your body and your brain are often misleading you. Your amygdala rests inside your brain, and it’s the amygdala’s job to scan for danger and warn you about it. The amygdala will identify something that it perceives as dangerous, and then it will stimulate thoughts about that dangerous thing in your mind (anxious thoughts) and sensations of warning and danger inside your body (anxious feelings). There is this feed-forward situation between your thoughts or feelings that ramp you up and make you more anxious. Meditation is incredibly key for anxiety, but it’s because it’s able to intervene both at the level of thought by getting you out of those anxious thoughts, and at the level of the body by teaching you how to calm your body. Another important key for me in this cycle is to understand what it is that your mind and body are doing. Just because you have a scary thought and just because you feel anxious in your body, doesn’t actually mean that you are in danger at this moment. Many people reading this who might be feeling anxious in their mind or in their bodies, are actually sitting in their own homes where they are- crazy as it might seem to during a pandemic- safe. You’re taking all the precautions that you need to, like washing your hands and socially distancing, yet your body and mind continue to generate these feelings. So an important key here is actually not to give in and believe your mind and body when they are hyper reacting. Yes you took the steps to wash your hands and to stay home and to do the things you need to do. Once you’ve done those things, now the amygdala can calm down and stop sending you these thoughts and stop sending your body these experiences. You actually have the ability to give yourself permission to calm down. You can give yourself permission to break the cycle because actually for you at this moment you are okay and our body and mind do not need to continually tell you otherwise.
- The final bonus tip is simple but very important. Get good sleep! One of the things that happen when you’re feeling anxious is that your sleep becomes disrupted. This disrupts your emotional regulation the next day, which actually makes it harder for you to stay calm and on an even keel. That’s why we developed Muse S. This device gives you guided meditations and real-time feedback on your body to help in a way that’s designed to lull you to sleep faster with a calm mind and a calm body. The goal is for you to have greater emotional control and less anxiety the next day, by getting a good night’s sleep.
From your experience or research what are three steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
We all have networks of individuals around us. There might be the people in our home who are with us every day and who are feeling anxious. There are our friends who may be feeling isolated and then there are strangers. There is an opportunity to connect with each of those groups and offer support. The key here is that you don’t want to burn yourself out by feeling like you need to support everybody. But, if you have the capacity to, there might actually be a lot of ancillary benefits that come from it.
- One example might be if there is a local Facebook group or an online community of people who are in need. Whether it’s donating money, donating time, simply donating positive words, there’s a lot of opportunities to help the broader community directly, one at a time.
- If you are at home with somebody, sometimes your actions can exacerbate their sense of anxiety if you’re not on the same page of what to do to keep safe. It’s really important to have a conversation with the people in your home and actually ask them about why they’re feeling anxious. Ask them about what they need to feel safe. You may be surprised that just by the simple act of listening, just by the act of them feeling heard, they feel like they have moved forward in creating more safety for themselves. This can be emotional or physical safety. If your partner is silently feeling anxious because you put the groceries into the refrigerator without wiping them down, having a conversation about what it is that they need to feel safe might lead to some very simple steps that you can both do to be on the same page and make one another feel safer.
- Another example could be to share breathing practices or breathing together. This can be really helpful. As you breathe, it’s easy to regulate somebody else’s breathing.
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?
First of all, if your anxiety is significant, don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor or mental health professional. Also, with the rise of pandemic anxiety, we are seeing increased usage of app-based psychotherapy. Online therapy apps like Resili and Talkspace connect you with therapists in your home. If you need it, use it. It can really help.
Meditation is a great way to help understand and ease anxious feelings and teach you a practice that can help in your daily life. It helps you learn to identify thoughts that could cause anxiety and learn how to move your mind away from them. Meditation also teaches you techniques like breathing to calm your body.
There are lots of great meditation resources, from apps with guided meditation tracks like Calm and Headspace, to devices like Muse that give you real-time feedback on your mind, heart, breath, and body during meditation to help you understand the process better and track your improvement, along with guided exercises. Muse also has a free SOS Calm collection specifically for pandemic stress, with meditations like “calming the mind” and “from frazzled to focus.” We also have free monthly challenges, this month is the Rest & Recharge 7-day meditation challenge.
Podcasts can also be a great source of information and help reframe your thinking. On Untangle, in this episode Dr. Stan Taktkin shares ways to relieve relationship stress during COVID and help your partner feel safe. Diana Winston shares techniques and inspiration on finding calm in uncertain times, and there are inspiring episodes on how to find more happiness, process grief, the neuroscience of anxiety, joy and more.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Before the current global pandemic, the one quote that was most powerful for me throughout my career is: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” by Franklin D. Roosevelt. This quote has tremendous meaning to me because throughout my life as I push through my fears, I recognized the degree to which fear holds you back from doing the things you want to do. Whether it’s fear of speaking to someone, or emailing them, or making a new dish for your husband because you’re afraid it’s not going to turn out well — whatever it is we’re afraid of doing — it is the sensation of the fear that we’re really afraid of. The outcome of the activity is whatever the outcome is, but it’s the emotional experience along the way- — the fear of the experience of fear itself — that makes that fearful thing so difficult to make yourself do. When I really actually understood that quote, was when I forced myself to do things that I was afraid of, and simply feel the fear, and not run away from the fear. Just sit in it. Just experiencing the fear and then ultimately becoming desensitized to it. It makes you realize, oh, all I was afraid of was the feeling of fear. If you’re no longer afraid to feel fear, you can do anything. On the other side of fear is always freedom.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
It turns out that this desire for a movement is what sparked my founding story of Muse. Chris, Trevor and I recognized that if we had one thing we could do that would move the needle for humanity and try to make people’s lives better, we would choose to get more people meditating. When you get more people meditating you have people who are reducing their sense of fear and scarcity, and the destructive actions that can come from it. People who are actively building compassion for one another. When you meditate, you live in a place where you feel connected to others and act towards others as you would act towards yourself. You live in a world where there is the possibility of flourishing and supporting one another, as opposed to cutting one another down.
Our specific movement was to make meditation tangible, actionable, science-based, and practical so that more people would do it. I truly believe that if everybody actually meditated and felt the real benefits of it — we would be moving towards world peace.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
There are many ways to follow along. Our website is choosemuse.com
You can also follow my journey with mindfulness and meditation on Instagram (@ariels_musings and @choosemuse)and Twitter (@ariel_garten and @choosemuse)
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!