Author Debra Wilson Guttas: “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”

I believe we are at a point in our society where we crave more meaning in our life. We need to have something to look forward to on Monday morning; something that is more than just a paycheck. We need to feel like we’re making a difference! Help an employee figure out what that is […]

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I believe we are at a point in our society where we crave more meaning in our life. We need to have something to look forward to on Monday morning; something that is more than just a paycheck. We need to feel like we’re making a difference! Help an employee figure out what that is and you will have an employee for life!

As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Debra Wilson Guttas.

Debra Wilson Guttas has over 20 years supporting and inspiring women in life transition, and cancer recovery, craft lives with more purpose and passion in her role as a Business and Career Coach, Reiki Master / Healing Touch Practitioner and professional speaker.

She is author of the Best-Selling books Beyond CORONAVIRUS — 7 Keys to Embrace Change and Create Your New Normal and 7 Keys to Coping with Cancer — How you can feel good AND THRIVE (from someone who’s been there). To her credit, she is also past Vice President of the Sacramento chapter of the National Speakers Association and she has presented keynotes and workshops for corporations and associations such as Hewlett-Packard, American Society for Training & Development (ASTD), Soroptomist, Society for Technical Communication and The Association of Professional Directors, just to name a few.

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?

Itall started over 20 years ago with a disturbing dream; you know one of those dreams where it feels so real? In my dream I was sitting in my car at rush hour, getting more and more frustrated because I wasn’t moving. I was so aggravated by it that finally I decided I was just going to start walking! I don’t know where I thought I was going to go or how I could just leave my car sitting on the freeway but I was determined! So I opened the door and stepped out of my car but when I went to take a step I realized I couldn’t move. When I looked down at my feet they were stuck in mud.

That startled me awake. It shook me to my core and I realized it was a metaphor for how stuck I felt in my life.

I decided right then and there that I was going to leave my work in high-tech; that I wanted to do more than just help people do their job better — I wanted to help people change their lives.

That led me to leave my job as a software instructor and get certified in human resource management where I consulted with high-tech firms like Hewlett-Packard in their employee retention. It’s also when I began my training and work as a career coach.

Around that same time, an experience with Reiki turned out to be a life-changing moment that left me with a desire to know more and from there I began to really understand and explore the Mind, Body, Spirit connection, which is the foundation of the work I have done for the last 20 years.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

In February of 2017 I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Triple-Negative breast cancer. A few weeks later I was diagnosed with a second unrelated Stage 3 cancer. Both were very rare, difficult to treat and had no genetic history.

It was one of those life events that tested everything I profess in the work I do and what I value. It was the hardest and most grueling thing I have ever gone through in my life. Over the course of 18 months, I endured three separate series of chemo with three different drugs, two series of radiation and two surgeries. All of my oncologists call me a Rock Star and would tell you that I don’t look like someone who’s been through what I have and I know it’s because of the mindfulness practices and my commitment to the wellness of my complete mind, body and spirit.

I am going on two years cancer-free and I’m happier and healthier than I have ever been in my life. I know it’s because of all the things that I do to support myself on a daily basis.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Great question! I can tell you from personal experience as well as from the work I do as a coach that supporting employees in finding a role that capitalizes on not just what they are good at, but what they have a passion for, is critical.

I believe we are at a point in our society where we crave more meaning in our life. We need to have something to look forward to on Monday morning; something that is more than just a paycheck. We need to feel like we’re making a difference! Help an employee figure out what that is and you will have an employee for life!

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?

There are actually two! The first one was The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael A. Singer. The second was My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD. Both of them enlightened me to the understanding of how powerful our minds are for either good or bad.

I was struck by Dr. Taylor’s reflection on the utter bliss she felt when her life was not filled with the incessant head chatter we all have as a result of the stroke to the left side of her brain.

Michael in his book talks about how what we think impacts how we show up in the world.

The bottom line message for me from both of them was the understanding that we all have the ability to shift how we perceive the events in our life by how we think about them. The other lesson was how important it is to just allow ourselves to be present to what is right now and let go of any thoughts of the past or our concerns for the future because neither of them matter. The past is past, we can’t change that and the future hasn’t happened yet! Our worst fears of the future are usually much worse than the reality.

The only thing any of us have control over his right now. Period.

I think that is something that we all need a lot more of, especially right now.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?

Being mindful means being present to what is; to what I am thinking and feeling in this moment. It is a practice of staying present to the now.

Questions like “What thoughts are running through my head in this moment? Do they serve me and do they matter? How does my body feel in this moment?” These are all questions and observations that allow us to connect with our minds because what we think impacts how we feel both physically and emotionally.

Our bodies are wonderful barometers of what’s going on in our head. If we are feeling stressed or anxious we are going to feel it in our body. We all experience it differently but symptoms run the gamut from feeling tightness in the chest or the belly, being short of breath, to tension in our shoulders or headaches.

I remember in my twenties when I would get a massage my massage therapist would often tell me “Debra, let your shoulders go” and I would say “I am” only to realize after how they had actually been up around my ears!

The body, good or bad, is wonderful at adapting. Over time we don’t even realize how stressed we are until we have a massage or vacation or some other relaxing event where we can compare how we feel to how we normally feel and then we realize how stressed we really are.

The more in tune we can become to the signals that our body gives us, the more quickly we can interrupt the cause of that stress and anxiety.

This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?

On an emotional level, you feel happier and more at peace. Mentally, you’ll notice you have less head chatter and anxious thoughts. As for physical, there are all kinds of benefits, not the least of which are better sleep, less tension in the body, and more energy and vitality overall.

In medical terms, there is something known as the Stress Response or the fight-or-flight response. Biologically it was meant to support us to flee dangerous situations such as being chased by a tiger! Our bodies don’t differentiate between those kinds of stressors and those we experience in our current daily life — it responds the same. Further, our bodies were not designed to be in that state of fight-or-flight for long periods of time. Over time, if we don’t do things to mediate that stress the body takes a hit. It can only cope for so long before it starts to deteriorate and that’s where disease forms.

In my practice, I have encountered so many clients who developed some chronic illness or disease after a stressful major life event such as a death or job loss. There’s a lot of science behind that as well to show the linkage between the two.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.

Another really great question. I’m glad you asked because this conversation is so important right now — so much so that I just wrote a best-selling book on the subject entitled “Beyond CORONAVIRUS — 7 Keys to Embrace Change and Create Your ‘New Normal’”.

Step 1) Allow yourself to feel. It’s really important to acknowledge and process what it is you’re feeling versus just trying to shove it down because it feels too painful.

In my twenties, I used to pride myself on putting a smile on my face to hide the pain that I had from being a child of divorce and the abuse from my stepfather. What I learned later through years of therapy is that wasn’t a very healthy approach to coping!

It’s okay to feel sad or scared or uncertain. Awareness allows you to acknowledge what you’re feeling, without judgment, and allow it to pass through you.

It’s my understanding that emotions take about 90 seconds to run through the body. If we can acknowledge what we’re feeling and just allow it to be, and breathe through it, the feeling passes.

Step 2) Pay attention to your body. Mindfulness requires being conscious of the physical signals your body gives you when it’s under stress. If you notice tightness in your shoulders, your chest or belly those are signals that your body is reacting to the emotions that are triggered by what you were thinking. Checking in with yourself throughout the day allows you to interrupt the stress response.

To support you in that physical awareness you can use one of the many mindfulness apps that are available. Some of them have a way to alert you at preset times throughout the day to stop and check in with yourself. You can also set a timer on your phone or use your calendar and schedule reminders.

To make it more of a habit, consider tying that process of awareness to something else you do such as brushing your teeth in the morning and at night or while you’re taking a shower or before each meal. The more you can make it a part of your daily practice, the more it becomes a habit that over time you won’t even have to think about. You’ll just do it.

Becoming more aware takes time. So don’t expect it to happen automatically overnight. It is like any other muscle, the more you use it the easier it gets but it can feel harder or more awkward in the beginning.

Step 3) Stay present. That means keeping your focus on what’s going on in this moment, this minute. We have a tendency as human beings to either be focused on the past, which we can’t change, or we are focused on the future and our fears around what might or might not happen. So we constantly are subjecting ourselves to things we can’t change or things that haven’t even happened which creates anxiety. If you shift your focus throughout the day to this moment, then a natural byproduct of that is less stress and anxiety.

Step 4) Monitor your thoughts. This step is related to steps 1–3 above. Your thoughts feed your emotions and your physical body. It all goes back to the concept of the whole mind, body and spirit connection. They are all interconnected. One feeds off the other.

The mind is almost like a separate entity of its own. It feeds us all kinds of thoughts and perceptions about what’s going on around us. We all view life through the lens of our experience. We are always relating the present to something else we’ve experienced which is where our reaction to what’s going on is triggered and of course in reality one doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the other!

The more we can learn to respond (a thoughtful conscious process), versus react (an almost autonomic process), the more we can begin to feel like we have a sense of control over how we feel and increase our sense of peace in the process.

When you do your check-ins throughout the day, as referenced above, check in with your head at the same time. What thoughts are going through your head?

Step 5) Find a way to quiet your mind. Finally, and most importantly, all of the above is much easier to do if you have some sort of a daily practice to slow you down and interrupt the stress response.

There’s a lot of talk, for good reason, around the power of meditation. And before you say “I can’t meditate”, let me give you some food for thought. I have had clients who are high-strung individuals or who suffer from anxiety or ADD or other issues that do in fact make it very difficult for them to sit for periods of time in stillness. It can feel like utter torture to someone like that. In fact, if you are new to meditation it may not feel very easy in the beginning.

There are many ways, however, to get to that same state without getting down on your yoga mat in the Zen position. I once had a client who told me straight out that he was an atheist and didn’t believe in mindfulness. My question to him at the time was “What is it that you do where you find you get totally lost and lose track of time?” He stopped and thought for a moment and then he responded “Oh! I play the piano!” Bingo!

Here’s the deal, any process that consumes you to the point of losing track of time, something that brings you pure joy, where you lose your thoughts about your world, imitates a very similar state as formal meditation.

The ultimate goal of meditation is to interrupt the constant stream of thoughts and head chatter. That state can be created in a number of ways, including:

Coloring books, some with intricate Mandalas, are actually being used by therapists to support patients in coping with their anxiety. It’s a fun and creative process and also quite meditative.

If being in complete quiet is enough to send you climbing the walls, consider popping in your earphones and listening to some meditative music or a guided meditation. That can give your mind something else to focus on and is quite calming.

Working on an intricate puzzle, believe it or not, can also be quiet meditative especially those that have smaller pieces with very intricate detail. Personally, I find that sort of thing taxing but some people find it very relaxing!

Other creative processes, like playing the piano for my client, painting, making jewelry and other kinds of artistic expressions that bring you joy, can also be very meditative.

One final note on meditation is that it doesn’t have to be for long periods in order to be effective. In fact, setting out with the intention of meditating for an hour a day if it’s new to you is probably setting yourself up for failure.

I’ve read that there have been some studies that showed meditating for as little as 5–10 minutes a day, if done consistently, can have an increasing impact over time even if the amount of time isn’t increased. It is the consistent practice that makes the difference, so start off with an amount of time you feel you can do consistently and build from there. Set yourself up for success!

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Reach out. During times of stress, it can be so comforting to know that we are not all alone. The simple act of calling or texting a loved one and letting them know you’re thinking about them can go a long way. When I was going through chemo and radiation, the texts from my friends and family letting me know they were thinking about me, were so supportive.

Listen actively. When in conversation with someone, whether it’s on the phone or in person, listen actively. That means focus not just on the words they are saying but the emotion behind them. Resist the urge to try and guess what they’re going to say next and instead be totally present to them in the moment.

Clarify. Part of active listening is to clarify and make sure you really understand what it is they are trying to express. When you’re in conversation, for example, if you paraphrase what you heard by asking something like “So, if I hear you right you are saying/feeling ____________, is that correct?”, in the process you will not only let them know that you are really listening but you will better understand what it is they’re thinking and feeling.

Shift the perspective. In the middle of a crisis, it can feel really hard to find your way out of the sadness, uncertainty or even sense of despair and hopelessness. You can support those you love in moving forward and in feeling more empowered by asking questions like “What would make you feel better right now?”

Put on your own oxygen mask first! This is actually a chapter in my latest book. It may seem contrary to logic, but making sure that you are taking care of you, by replenishing your own inner resources through rest and a daily stillness practice will give you more to draw from in supporting others. If you keep tapping into your own energy reserves by giving of yourself without replenishing those reserves, at some point you are going to run dry. There will be nothing nothing left of you to give. The reason the flight attendant instructs you put on your own oxygen mask first is because you can’t help anyone else if you’re passed out on the floor!

What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?

In my new book “Beyond CORONAVIRUS — 7 Keys to Embrace Change and Create Your ‘New Normal’” I provide simple and easy processes for integrating more mindfulness and serenity into your daily life.

Get Moving. One of the best ways to increase your level of mindfulness and serenity is to support your body in relieving the stress that it carries around through some sort of movement. Walking, stretching, yoga, jogging and even dancing are very therapeutic in that they move oxygen through the body and support the body in releasing toxins while producing endorphins and other feel-good hormones.

Observe your breath. Something you take with you everywhere you go is your breath. It is the simplest and easiest way to interrupt the stress response and promote a sense of serenity and calm in your life. Any time you notice tension in your shoulders or tightness in your belly or chest is a great time to stop and breathe. Breathe in deeply for three long breaths, pausing at the top of the inhale for just a moment before exhaling. The wonderful thing about this practice is that you can do it anywhere, including when you’re stuck in traffic, in a difficult conversation with someone on the phone or any time you notice your heart beating a little faster than normal. Just stop and observe the rise and fall of your belly. Some yoga instructors use the visualization of imagining there’s a ball behind your belly button that you are expanding as you inhale and collapsing as you exhale. It’s simple but very powerful in practice.

There are many other resources available, including mindfulness apps, that will support you in creating a practice that works for you.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.” Charles Swindoll

I also have one of my own “Life events are gifts that sometimes come in crappy wrapping paper!”

Throughout the events of my life, whether it was being a child of abuse, the divorce of my parents, the death of someone close to me or going through cancer, what allowed me to move through them in a more powerful way was some sort of innate ability to look for what it was I could learn from it; what was the gift that was present in it for me? That allowed me to shift from a place of feeling like a victim to a place of empowerment. No matter how painful our life experiences are, there is always something to be gained from it if we choose to look at it from that perspective.

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. 🙂

My life purpose is all about supporting and inspiring women in connecting with what it is they love and creating a life with more purpose and passion. We all came into this world with innate interests and passions and the more we can create a life that is aligned with those along with our values, the more our lives will be an expression of what brings us joy and true abundance.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

They can stay in touch with me via Instagram: conduit_for_self_healing and/or via my newsletter which you can sign up for at

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Thank you, Beau! I appreciate the opportunity to share my experience with your readers.

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