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Dr. Blake Gurfein: “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”

Laughter can lighten any situation and has been shown to potently reduce perceived stress. Find ways to laugh with those around you. This can be through telling a funny story, watching a hilarious video clip, or playing a game like charades. Figure out whatever it is that makes you laugh and seek it out regularly. […]

Laughter can lighten any situation and has been shown to potently reduce perceived stress. Find ways to laugh with those around you. This can be through telling a funny story, watching a hilarious video clip, or playing a game like charades. Figure out whatever it is that makes you laugh and seek it out regularly.


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

Dr. Blake Gurfein is a neuroimmunologist, University of California San Francisco (UCSF) faculty member, and medical device entrepreneur. His research at the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine involved studies on the biological basis of stress reduction practices like meditation. Blake currently serves as the Chief Scientific Officer for Tivic Health, a Bay Area health technology company developing bioelectronic therapies for chronic conditions.


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?

Mycareer path has been unconventional but ultimately driven by my commitment to creating new therapies for patients in need. I trained in neuroscience as an undergraduate at Brown University and a doctoral student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. To unite my hard science background with my fascination with integrative approaches to healing, I took a postdoctoral fellowship and later joined the faculty at the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. It was at UCSF that I studied integrative approaches including mindfulness meditation, qi gong, and acupuncture with the support of a National Institutes of Health research grant.

The second chapter of my career path led me away from academic research and into industry as an entrepreneur focused on bringing novel non-invasive device therapies to patients with unmet treatment needs. Though it wasn’t planned, my training and research into eastern philosophy, stress reduction, and wellness became an essential foundation for creating balance and sustainably coping with the pressure and uncertainty inherent in entrepreneurship.

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

In medicine, getting a new treatment to market is assumed to take a very long time because of the challenges associated with conducting clinical studies and getting through FDA review. At Tivic Health, we developed a handheld bioelectronic device treatment for sinus pain. We were able to conduct a pivotal clinical study at Stanford University and get FDA clearance in a twelve month period. This demonstrated to me that with the right team, preparation, and perseverance you can achieve more than you might expect.

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

There is so much to say on this topic, but let’s start with foundations — communication, expectations, and kindness. It is critical for leaders to lead by example and embody these foundations. Practice transparent and effective communication in both one-on-one and group settings. Establish clear expectations (personal and professional) and speak up when expectations are not feasible. Be kind — kindness and compassion go a very long way toward building strong teams that can persevere.

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 am a big fan of Eckhart Tolle. A New Earth is a book that I have read and re-read over the years. Eckhart is so skillful at deconstructing the illusory nature of thought and helping you see how the ego is both silly and counterproductive.

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 fully bringing your awareness to the present moment and gently observing what is — thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, environment.

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?

Becoming mindful can be accomplished in a number of ways from checking in with yourself frequently throughout the day to embodying mindfulness during mealtime. One of the big advantages of developing mindfulness is that it can limit the amount of time that you spend ruminating on the past or worrying about the future.

Mindfulness meditation, a type of sitting meditation practice, is one of the most effective ways to become mindful. It has been extensively researched and has been found to have impressive beneficial effects on both physical and mental health. For example, mindfulness meditation has been reported to alleviate anxiety and depression and this has been tied to lasting changes in brain structure and activity in areas that process psychological stress such as the amygdala. Other research has shown that mindfulness meditation can reduce loneliness and even lessen chronic inflammation associated with stress.

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.

Reduce Consumption of News

It is important to stay informed about current events including the COVID-19 outbreak, however getting incessant alerts, scrolling through your news feed, and keeping television news on all day will send anyone into a panic. Unfortunately, many media outlets use fear and emotional turmoil to keep us coming back. Try to set a healthy boundary around when and how long you will consume news each day and stick to fact-checked reputable news organizations. I limit myself to 30 minutes or less per day of news consumption.

Practice Mindfulness

Whether you have experience with mindfulness or not, now is a great time to build some dedicated mindful time into your day. This can look like checking in with yourself a few times per day to observe how your body and mind are feeling, experimenting with walking meditation, or trying out a guided mindfulness meditation. I would recommend choosing a dedicated time each day (as little as 5 or 10 minutes will do) and try a guided mindfulness practice using one of the many great apps like Calm, Insight Timer, or Headspace. I tend to enjoy practicing at night before bed and find it enhances the quality of my sleep.

Keep Moving

Exercise has been shown to reduce psychological stress and elevate mood. Try to do some form of physical activity every day. Go for a walk or run, take an online yoga class in your living room, or do some jumping jacks. But, please heed the instructions of your county if exercising outside (e.g., keep 6 feet away from others). After a good run, I often feel significantly more clear-headed and relaxed.

Stay Connected

Many of us are feeling isolated because of shelter in place orders or because our normal routines have been disrupted. Take advantage of the many ways you can continue to connect with your friends, family, and colleagues. Write an email, pick up the phone, or videocall. Try to interact with your community on daily basis to alleviate loneliness and bolster your sense of community support. Speaking with a therapist is another great option to ensure you have an outlet to talk about how you are feeling on a regular basis. I have a standing weekly video call with four close friends and we spend an hour catching up, talking about ways we are getting by, and laughing.

Acceptance

During difficult times, it is easy to fall into a perpetual state of resistance or dismay about what is happening in your life or in the world. Identifying the challenges or issues that are completely out of your control and practicing acceptance of them, even for brief moments, can be a great source of relief. As you stop resisting what is out of your control, you’ll instantly have a greater sense of peace and your internal resources can be directed toward addressing what you can change to improve your situation. I recommend a great book on this topic written by Dr. Tara Brach aptly called Radical Acceptance.

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?

Listen and Validate

Talk to friends, family, and colleagues with an emphasis on listening carefully and validating their feelings, worries, and concerns. Bonus points given if you can summarize what they are sharing to demonstrate you are understanding them.

Check-in More Frequently

When you come to realize someone, you care about is in distress, reaching out more often to check-in shows that you care, and you are available to help. This can also alleviate a sense of isolation and loneliness in a difficult time.

Share Constructive Ways of Coping

If you find your stress levels are reduced via a useful technique like one of those mentioned above, talk about it and share why you think it’s helpful. You can also offer to try out stress a management technique together.

Laugh Together

Laughter can lighten any situation and has been shown to potently reduce perceived stress. Find ways to laugh with those around you. This can be through telling a funny story, watching a hilarious video clip, or playing a game like charades. Figure out whatever it is that makes you laugh and seek it out regularly.

Protect Yourself

It is a great service to take care of those around you, however you have a responsibility to take care of yourself as well. Have a clear intention not to be swept up in fear and anxiety that others may be experiencing while you reach out and offer support. If you find you are feeling down after an outreach, try to come back into balance and reassess the ways you can help those having difficulty.

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

Stress management is increasingly becoming an invaluable skill set. I like this page on stress reduction approaches as a primer on some great techniques: https://www.verywellmind.com/tips-to-reduce-stress-3145195

Additionally, if you are interested in trying a guided meditation, I recommend the Calm app, Insight Timer, or Headspace. Headspace is currently offering a free 10-minute meditation exercise here: https://www.headspace.com/meditation/10-minute-meditation

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

Once we recognize that all things are impermanent, we have no problem enjoying them. In fact, real peace and joy are only possible when we see clearly into the nature of impermanence.

– Thich Nhat Hanh

Through both teachings and experience I have come to understand that change is the only constant in life. This is especially true in entrepreneurship where the pace of change can be dizzying. My perspective is that suffering is alleviated to the extent that you can befriend and accept impermanence.

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. 🙂

Short term: Universal Basic Income. Long term: Empirical evidence that we are not separate individuals but all connected as one.

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

I frequently post on LinkedIn and Twitter (@bgurfein).

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

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