Listening to other people’s anxiety is also extremely helpful to them. When we tell other people about our anxiety, if they don’t freak out as a result of it, we get more calm because part of our mammalian brain thinks, “If things do get worse in the way I’m worried about, at least I’ve got someone else in my herd, and they’ll fight alongside me or at least distract the predator so I can get away.” When you give people your ear, you’re giving them potential support. Your potential support calms them down, and it actually does make you more likely to help them later, so it is true potential support.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dave Wolovsky.
Dave Wolovsky is an Aliveness Coach with a master’s in Neuroscience and Education and a certificate in Applied Positive Psychology. He grew up in Brooklyn and was home schooled until 8th grade. He is also a Tai Chi Teacher (now online through Zoom)
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?
Istarted on the mind-body growth and positive psychology path after having life-changing knee surgery in early 2013. I felt a renewed sense of possibility about my body, and with it, my ability to enjoy life. I spent about one full year on crutches and another three years with repeated, worsening injuries all over my body. I made mistakes because I was scared, and some part of me didn’t believe I could take control over my life. Since then, I’ve had many different education-related jobs, but the whole time I’ve also been developing my coaching framework and techniques with a small group of clients. About a year ago, I arrived at Aliveness. Put simply, Aliveness is the feeling we have when we notice that we’re alive, and we feel like it’s generally a good thing. What fascinates me most, and what I help people do, is find ways to reliably access their Aliveness.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
The most interesting thing is maybe a little basic. One day I woke up and realized that in order to have the life I wanted, I needed to actually take my own advice. I had done so much research and solved so many problems in theory, but I was still unable to consistently put it all into practice. That’s when I started the Slow Growth Podcast. For me, it was a personal project to ensure my own integrity. Slow and steady always wins the (big) race. I realized I had to do things more slowly than I wanted to in order not to hurt myself, both physically and mentally. Rushing is the cause of all injuries. It’s why our society is plagued with depression and anxiety. They’re mental injuries that result from an inability to stop rushing in our minds. We all think we need to be somewhere already, and we’re all late because that somewhere is never “here.” This is what I mean when I talk about Aliveness. When we feel Aliveness, we remember that life is about noticing we’re alive. We have no evidence that it’s about anything other than itself. So my life is about being the most “me” that I can be, while I am indeed me, and your life is about being the most “you” you can be, while you’re you. We can’t figure out what the most “us” actually means if we’re constantly nursing a belief that we’re unworthy of enjoying life in this body right now. The slower we go, the more truly relaxed we can be (rather than numb). The more relaxed we are, the more we can feel life as it’s happening. What else could we possibly be here to do?
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Leaders need to honor their own Aliveness and that of the people around them. Each person’s life is big. It’s bigger than work, bigger than education, bigger than relationships, bigger than health. Life is all of these things, and Aliveness is what we feel when we remember that life is big. Life encompasses all parts of us, and the healthiest version of it is when those parts are dynamically balancing each other out. I like the image of a braid. We’re made of three types of relationships: relationships with ourselves, with others, and with our goals. Those need to be woven together into a braid. We work a bit on our self care (relationship with self), then we work on relationships with others (friends, family, spouse), and then we work on our goals (business, creative projects), and then we repeat. It’s not in a specific order, but it does need balance to bring us full Aliveness. Whenever we focus too much on one strand and neglect the others, all of our relationships weaken. Our connection to life and opportunities to feel full Aliveness get reduced. Leaders need to remember that whatever they’re leading is not their whole life. The more they take care of the other parts of their life in a balanced way, which includes being a follower in certain ways, the more positive energy they’ll generate and put into their work. This is also what they should encourage for their employees or followers, to treat their own lives as big.
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?
I have a few. The first one that comes to mind easily is Design in Nature by Adrian Bejan. It’s a groundbreaking work about discovering a new law of physics called the Constructal law. The law links living organisms with the dynamics of the nonliving world, like river formation and weather patterns. To me, it answers a fundamental question about what cognition is. I wrote my grad school thesis on the topic, so I won’t go into it here, but needless to say, I think it’s profound.
Another source of inspiration for me has been the lectures of Alan Watts on Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. I have been working hard to brainwash myself into having religious beliefs because they’re so good for life satisfaction and well being, and Alan Watts has helped me immensely in forming some beliefs that I really like.
There’s also Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix. It’s a book on couples therapy, and it is brilliant, insightful, and very practical. It has helped me personally in my relationship, and it has informed my whole coaching framework.
Lastly but not leastly is Dr. Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. It’s a necessary read for anyone on the personal growth path. Dr. Brown’s research on shame, vulnerability, and empathy, are life changing just to hear about (but even more to practice applying).
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?
Mindfulness is the state of being awake to the full experience of a given moment. Every moment of every day, we’re experiencing a thousand difference sensations, thoughts, and emotions. We can’t possibly attend to all of them, so the brain filters out 999 of them, and we focus on just one, maybe two. Practicing mindfulness is a way of expanding our ability to notice the other things that make up the fabric of our conscious experience. It is a state of remembering how big our little life is.
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?
The practice of mindfulness is really difficult. I took a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction class and remember it being one of the most crazy challenging experiences in my life. You hit this moment where you’re like, “I don’t want to listen to all this insanity going on in my head!” When you really stop to listen and tune in to life itself, you realize that most of what you think is “real” happens to just be noise in your own mind, and that’s terrifying because you can’t solve a problem that’s embedded deeply within you.
But of course, you can solve it, and the way to do it is by simply not trying to solve it. Either you can hate reality and promote your own suffering, or you can decide to let reality be what it is and love yourself and the fact that you’ve alive anyway. If you listen inwardly enough, you can’t help but start to love the inner madness, and that naturally starts to reduce it because madness is a (misguided) strategy to gain acceptance and connection.
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.
1) The first step is to try to figure out what exactly your anxiety is about. This is crucial because anxiety feels global. It’s also narrows our attention, so if we don’t know what it’s really about, then we flit from threat to threat, focusing on each one as if it will be the end of us. The more detailed you can get about what you’re worrying about, the more you can shrink it from a global mental state to a local mental state. To do this, it can help to talk aloud to someone else, or even just to yourself. Hearing yourself go into the details about what’s making you anxious can be extremely empowering because you start to realize that what felt like the world collapsing was really just fear of a specific event. And if it IS about the world literally collapsing, then hearing yourself go into those details can still be helpful because you might realize, “Hey, I have no control over that, so I might as well use my energy for something useful and enlivening right now.”
2) It helps to limit your time spent consuming random internet news noise. As alternative random internet noise, watch humor videos and stand up comedy. The great thing about comedians is that they cut right through anxiety and deliver deep honesty that gives you a feeling of connection and a healthy physiological response: laughter.
3) Speaking of physiology, anxiety, even though it feels like a mental state of mind-racing, is extremely rooted in physiological responses. Increased heart rate, shallow and faster breathing, maybe even sweating. These are physiological threat responses, and to counter them, the best techniques address the body directly. Take physical action to change the brain’s state and the body’s chemistry. Exercise. Since anxiety is a high arousal state, go with that. Rather than trying to calm down, have your body meet your mind where it is and rev up the health. Doing a short cardio workout on Youtube, or any kind of workout, is the simplest and most effective tactic. It increases the release of endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, which reduce the stress in the body that’s built up from being in an anxious state. Exercise also creates a positive feedback loop because when your body starts to feel better, your mind calms down, which makes your body feel better. Exercise is also a simulation of the kind of “fighting and escaping” physical activity that overcomes threats. A workout is basically wrestling against gravity itself, and you usually win. Winning increases serotonin and makes you feel more emotionally stable.
4) There’s an exercise I find very helpful for myself and with coaching clients. I call it “The Emotions Game.” It’s basically a type of mindfulness where you pay attention to your thoughts, and you pick out the emotions associated with each thought. You start with the four basic emotions: happy, mad, sad, and scared. It’s a way to keep the mind from latching on to any specific thought and getting “pulled under” by the strong currents of the mind. You sit and let your mind go. You look at the thoughts and sense inwardly, into your body, to determine, “What emotion does this thought make me feel?” Start with 1 minute at a time. Set a timer. Do it 2 times per day. See how you feel after two weeks. One possible pitfall is the “I can’t believe how angry I am” phenomenon. This is what has happened to me. While playing The Emotions Game, I realize that all of my thoughts are making me angry (for you it might be sad or scared). My reaction is to get angry at how angry I am. “Why can’t I just have normal thoughts?” I yell at myself. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch that and treat it like all the others. “This thought is making me mad,” and I’ll keep monitoring for the next thought.
5) Start a creative mini habit related to something you deeply care about but don’t get enough time to do in general. Everyone has something creative that they’ve loved to do since they were young. That stays with you, but it gets covered up by discouragement of our creativity and encouragement to think about things that are “serious,” like how to maintain a low level of chronic stress, which is sometimes referred to as “being an adult.” The creative urge inside you is alive. It’s not something anyone else taught you. It’s an essential part of your unique Aliveness. When you give it energy, it gives more energy back. If you give it 2 minutes per day, it will give you more than 2 minutes worth of positive energy in return.
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?
1) The number one thing we can do to support those around us is to share our anxiety from a place of strong vulnerability. What does this mean? It means you say you’re anxious, and maybe you even say what you’re anxious about, but you say it with a simultaneous tone and message of not having to solve the problem now. Something to the tune of, “I’m feeling pretty unnerved by this whole thing, but I know it’s here to help me take positive action to improve the parts of my life I can actually control.” This kind of vulnerable sharing with positive, hopeful tone is authentically inspiring and is good for both speaker and listener.
2) Listening to other people’s anxiety is also extremely helpful to them. When we tell other people about our anxiety, if they don’t freak out as a result of it, we get more calm because part of our mammalian brain thinks, “If things do get worse in the way I’m worried about, at least I’ve got someone else in my herd, and they’ll fight alongside me or at least distract the predator so I can get away.” When you give people your ear, you’re giving them potential support (regardless of whether you actually plan to help them in a worse situation). Your potential support calms them down, and it actually does make you more likely to help them later, so it is true potential support.
3) There’s a type of situation called a “high quality connection.” This is when two or more people share a positive emotional experience. You’ve had plenty of these with the people in your life. It can be soothing and energizing to reminisce about these moments. Make a surprise call to a parent or a friend whose friendship has been on the back burner for a while, just to remind them about a positive moment you shared. You can also write it down and deliver it as a voice message in case they don’t pick up. “Hey, I just called to say that I’m thinking about you and the time that we…[insert shared positive experience here]. That was amazing. I hope you’re doing well.”
4) Share the sources of positive energy you’re using while at home. Do you watch funny videos or follow along with Youtube workouts? Do you dance to your favorite songs? Do you watch inspiring TED talks? Tell someone about it! Choose a friend or family member who’s into the same thing as you, and send them a link to your energy source. Ask them for some of their own inspiration for your good energy tomorrow.
5) Physically touch those you’re living with. I know we’re not getting within six feet of people these days, but there’s the person or two you live with and can’t avoid. Take advantage and do something physical and fun with them in your living space. This can be hugging, high-fiving, massaging, working out together and maybe assisting each other in stretching, or just sitting on the couch close to each other. Fun, consensual physical touch is soothing. It boosts dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, which are all good for producing virus-fighting immune system proteins. We’re staying away from almost everyone to stop the pandemic, but if you’re already close enough to someone that you’d both get the virus anyway, as long as you don’t have symptoms and are taking the CDC’s recommended precautions, give your body a strong reason to feel connected and safe, and physical contact is number one in that category.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
Mindfulness meditations abound on Youtube. I would say a good way to start is simply to search “Mindfulness meditation,” and find a video with a voice you like. Listen to that meditation once a day until you get bored, then find another video with a voice you like and repeat the process. Other than that, the real deep way to become more mindful and serene is to brainwash yourself by listening to as many people as possible telling you the things you want to believe. For me, I always come back to Alan Watts. He always reminds me of the deep spiritual/religious beliefs I want to believe, because they make me more mindful and serene, but I have a hard time keeping them in mind every day. I need him to keep telling me. And then I tell other people and remind myself and solidify my beliefs more. And then I listen to other things (audio books, podcasts) to see what resonates (or is at least congruent) with what he’s saying so that I get more and more people telling me things that I want myself to think. This is how you brainwash yourself. The first step is to explore the internet for people who are telling you empowering beliefs that you want to believe but don’t really believe yet.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Alan Watts said, “We thought of life by analogy with a journey, a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end, and the thing was to get to that end. Success or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing, or to dance, while the music was being played.” This quote summarizes what I find to be my own biggest challenge in life: to remember that life is nowhere but here. There is no end that I’m trying to get to that can possibly make me more alive than I’m already capable of feeling right now. Aliveness can come from every corner of my life. That is what Watts means by “singing or dancing while the music is playing.” The music is playing. Can you hear it? Can you feel your Aliveness right now underneath it all?
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 movement would be about Aliveness (surprised?). We are constantly being pulled in a thousand directions, each one promising a better life than we already have. Everyone has their pains, their traumas, their disabilities. Everyone has dealt with disease and death close at heart, and if not yet, we all will. Aliveness is all we really ever have, and it encompasses all of the relationships in our life. If we attend to one relationship and give it more Aliveness, all of our relationships benefit, which means that we, as a whole being, benefit. Every single moment we’re breathing is an opportunity to feel life, but it’s hard because the brain only notices contrasts, and we breathe a lot. Whenever we choose to do something different, we’re reminded that our life is big, that we don’t have to be stuck because we can find energy in every corner of our life. That energy spreads through our whole system and comes back to us through our relationships with the world. My movement would be about reminding people of this, empowering them to maintain an awareness of their big life and the Aliveness woven into every part of it.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
They can find my free email-based course or sign up for a free mini-coaching session at www.effortwise.com. I’m also on Twitter @effortwise and on LinkedIn as David Wolovsky. They can also read articles in my publication on Medium called “Neuroscience of Aliveness” (my Medium username is @davewolovsky). For anyone in the world of research, you can also find me on ResearchGate.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!