Dr. Karen Weston of Arizona State University: “Find joy, humor, and awe in your surroundings”

Find joy, humor, and awe in your surroundings. Many people find success in overcoming anxiety by using the “three things” strategy. This can be particularly helpful for those who have difficulty sleeping because of all the worries running through their mind once they are lying in bed. Make an intentional practice every night to find […]

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Find joy, humor, and awe in your surroundings. Many people find success in overcoming anxiety by using the “three things” strategy. This can be particularly helpful for those who have difficulty sleeping because of all the worries running through their mind once they are lying in bed. Make an intentional practice every night to find three things from the day that brought you joy, made you laugh, or inspired you. If it has been a particularly stressful day, you might need to do some deep breathing first (“stop and breathe” exercise).

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 Dr. Karen Weston.

Dr. Karen Weston is an educational psychologist by training and works at the boundaries between education, health and mental health. She teaches graduate level courses at ASU Online — including one on positive psychology — and she incorporates resilience research into the courses she teaches. Dr. Weston’s professional experience includes extensive work with both local and state-level stakeholders on the promotion of mental health in children, youth, and families, as well as promoting mental health in the professionals that serve this population.

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?

<laughing> How long do you have?

First, thank you for having me. My backstory is a very long story. But in a nutshell, I began my career as a math teacher, gravitated to helping students and schools more broadly. I eventually landed a job at a major university running a center that focused on promoting mental health in the school setting — not just for students, but also for teachers and other staff. When I left there, I worked in teacher education for a while, but found I wanted to return to teaching psychology.

Teaching college students has been a consistent thread throughout every one of my jobs, and I really enjoy interacting with students and seeing their excitement when learning new things about human behavior. At ASU Online I have had the pleasure of working with an extremely diverse group of students, as well as an array of technological tools at my disposal to ensure that I can meet students where they are at and help them to continue to grow. It’s very rewarding!

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

I have had so many interesting experiences during my career. One that stands out happened while I was conducting a focus group of young adults who had dropped out of school, and many had been in trouble with the law, some even briefly incarcerated. All of them had struggled with mental health issues since before they were in high school. We asked these young people whether they thought there was anything that the adults in their high school could have done to help them experience academic success. One young man dryly chuckled and said “When I was in high school, all the teachers could see was a big ‘loser’ sign stamped on my forehead. If they had bothered to ask I would have told them I wasn’t a loser, I was just lost.” I come back to this experience whenever I encounter an adolescent who seems unusually difficult. It may not be that the young person is difficult, but instead that the young person has had a difficult life.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

I think that many (most?) of us go into academia with an expectation that the work is going to be stressful. Meeting the needs of the students we teach and mentor, competing for grant funding, navigating the structures for job promotion, running projects or labs, publishing research — it is a very fast-paced environment. I see that there is almost an acceptance of a life of stress, which can lead to physical and mental exhaustion and complete burnout over time.

Other than the usual advice — take time for yourself, eat healthy, exercise — I think it is very important to be purposeful about setting boundaries on work to keep it from invading every aspect of your life. We tend to look at work as a list of responsibilities and tasks that we have to carry out, but the list is unending, a literal bottomless pit for most, and frequently this feels overwhelming.

Instead, a healthier way to look at work is by framing the tasks and responsibilities as things we do during, and only during, specific times of the day. Some colleagues I know set aside two or three evenings a week that they will work if needed, but the other evenings and the weekend are absolutely off limits for work. Other colleagues have set times that they will respond to email and they avoid checking email outside of these times. We need to change our mindsets. By setting distinct boundaries, and knowing there is a clear beginning and end, we can shift our attitude toward work away from stress and burnout and toward value, enrichment, and full engagement. How you set boundaries isn’t important; what’s important is creating the space for other activities, such as activities that develop and support our interpersonal connections, one of the basic psychological needs of humans. Let’s be honest — at the end of our lives, most of us will not look back and wish we had done more in our careers. Many of us will wish we had spent more time with family and friends.

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

Positive psychology is playing an increasing role in the workplace. Whether through “transformational leadership,” “positive coaching,” or “leadership psychological capital (PsyCap),” etc., there is a focus on ensuring positive work environments for employees in order to increase positive attitudes, productivity, and overall well-being, as well as to reduce absenteeism and turnover rates. Most of these efforts involve the following actions by leaders:

  1. Foster self-determination. Introduce shared visioning, goal-setting, and decision-making; provide opportunities for employees to self-identify and build on their strengths; and give all employees an opportunity to contribute to the organization with a project of their own creation. My son works for a company in which every Friday afternoon all employees set aside their assigned responsibilities and work on something of their own choosing. Many innovative ideas have emerged from these open work sessions.
  2. Develop “growth” vs. “fixed” mindsets. Understand where employees are developmentally on their job duties and help them set realistic goals to take the steps needed for growth. If failure does occur, make sure the employee knows that it is only temporary, and they can take important lessons learned into their actions going forward. Everyone needs to feel competent.
  3. Value and recognize accomplishments. Employees want to know that the organizational leaders value the work they are doing. Recognition can be small — a brief mention in a team meeting, for example, or a donuts-and-coffee break for a team or department. Leaders often recognize outstanding performance in big ways by rewarding employees monetarily, with vacation trips or high-priced merchandise. This can build resentment among the employees who have no opportunities to earn the big rewards, usually because they are not in a “rewardable” position within the organization. Make sure that every employee receives recognition from time-to-time.
  4. Set aside time for fun. Stop the work once in a while to engage in a social activity. At one of my previous jobs, the employer would pay for a bus to take employees to a major league baseball game and arrange for discounted tickets. There were days set aside for team-building games, organized walks to the local pizza place for extended lunch breaks, and the occasional afternoon spent at the local winery (transportation provided, of course). This allowed employees to develop friendships beyond their team or department, and increased people’s sense of belonging in the workplace. The result: high employee job satisfaction.

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?

Can I name two? The first is Sheryl Sandberg’s book with Adam Grant, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy (2017, Alfred A. Knopf). Sandberg tells about the sudden passing of her husband, Dave, and the deviation from the current path (i.e., Option A) her life took as a result. It is an honest and open telling of her grief and trauma supported by Grant’s summary of the resilience research.

Sandberg shares other people’s stories, too, and the message throughout is that it is possible to recover and even grow from the devastating events of our lives. The book resonated with me because I had just lost my mother following a brief illness and was feeling lost and emotionally shattered. Although I knew all of the resilience research cited in the book, it wasn’t until reading about Sandberg’s experiences that I was able to apply the research to my own life. I’m not saying that the book immediately fixed me, but her insights allowed me to work through some of the most difficult aspects of my grief. I highly recommend the book for anyone who has experienced loss or trauma.

The second book that has had a profound impact on me is Lisa Delpit’s The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom (2008, The New Press). Before reading this, I had always thought of myself as a “multiculturally competent” educator and a promoter of social justice and equity. But this book really challenged my assumptions about education and who it serves and sometimes doesn’t serve, even when we think we are doing the best for all of our students. It was a mind-blowing and humbling read. I recommend it to anyone who is searching for a way to understand equity differences in the classroom.

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.

Yes, I just saw a recent survey conducted by the Limeade Institute of over 4500 employees from six different countries in which respondents were asked about their anxiety surrounding returning to a physical workplace. Every single individual surveyed reported anxiety! Now, more than ever, people need strategies to help them live a peaceful and joyful life.

Here are five simple steps for developing serenity:

  1. Focus on what you can control. Many people who are frequently anxious and overly stressed have difficulty regulating these feelings because they focus on far too many distressing matters in the world, most of which they have no control over. In his book, the Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, Stephen Covey introduces the concept of identifying our “sphere of influence.” In essence, we can place everything we are worried about inside a circle — the global pandemic, the Afghanistan crisis, the economy, our family’s well-being, the vacation we have planned, and so on. But only some of the things we put in the circle are things that we can control or change; this is what Covey calls the “sphere of influence,” as it represents a much smaller circle within the larger circle that holds all of our concerns. To reduce anxiety and stress, we should focus our time and energies on addressing the smaller sphere of worries. Knowing that we can make an action plan with specific steps to reduce or eliminate our concerns is empowering, and this sense of control is important to regaining our equilibrium. So, if returning to the physical workplace has your heart and mind racing over the fear of contracting the Covid virus, focus on the steps that you can take to ensure your safety. This might include asking your employer about the plan in place for keeping employees safe, exploring options with your employer for a hybrid or home-office schedule, requiring coworkers to remain distanced from your office or desk, getting the vaccination, or wearing a mask. You have the agency to control your own surroundings and keep yourself safe, no matter what others decide to do.
  2. Take a deep breath (literally). One of the most successful strategies for bringing a sense of calm to your life is to regularly practice deep breathing. This doesn’t need to be a meditation exercise — although it can be combined with meditation. Spending as little as 3 to 5 minutes a day can help you to manage your stress and anxiety and become more resilient. One of my favorite techniques is known as “stop and breathe,” and can be used anytime you feel anxious. As soon as you notice disturbing thoughts, internally tell yourself to “STOP!” with your best authority voice. Then, shift your attention to your breathing, taking slow and deep breaths into your belly. Place your hand on your stomach to make sure it is expanding with each breath, start counting your breaths with each exhale, going from one to four, and then starting over again at one. Try to keep your mind empty of thoughts with the exception of the counting. If you have trouble emptying your mind, use a pre-rehearsed visual image. When it is difficult to clear my thoughts, I always visualize lying on the beach, the smell of the ocean, the sound of the waves washing over me, and the feel of my toes digging into to warm sand.
  3. Develop an attitude of self-compassion and self-acceptance. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an expert on mindfulness-based interventions, identifies “non-judgment” as one of the nine attitudes underlying mindfulness, a practice which research demonstrates is highly effective in reducing stress and anxiety. Non-judgement is an attitude we can cultivate toward others, but also toward ourselves. Unfortunately, we are our own worse critics, way harder on ourselves than we would be on anyone else, and often quick to judge ourselves for the slightest misstep. For example, I have long battled weight loss and, at one time, was caught in a terrible cycle where I constantly felt either deprivation or guilt and shame. I have since changed my mindset, and show myself compassion, knowing I can do better the next day. Along with that I have accepted my body type — sturdy stock thanks to my Swedish ancestors — and know that I will never be a thin person. By reframing my thinking in these two ways, I am now eating healthier than ever before, gradually losing some weight, and feeling much more positive about myself.
  4. Focus on what’s right instead of what’s wrong. By focusing on what’s right, people develop better coping skills. Focusing on what’s right in our lives can foster a sense of accomplishment due to our successes, as well as a sense of gratitude for what we have. There is extensive research which shows that feeling accomplished and grateful are associated with higher levels of health and well-being, and greater hope about the future. On the other hand, focusing on what’s wrong tends to narrow our future outlook, or sends us into a deepening spiral of negative self-talk. This is very disruptive to our thinking, as it takes us out of the present, allowing room for our negative emotions to build and making it difficult for us to regulate them.
  5. Find joy, humor, and awe in your surroundings. Many people find success in overcoming anxiety by using the “three things” strategy. This can be particularly helpful for those who have difficulty sleeping because of all the worries running through their mind once they are lying in bed. Make an intentional practice every night to find three things from the day that brought you joy, made you laugh, or inspired you. If it has been a particularly stressful day, you might need to do some deep breathing first (“stop and breathe” exercise). Some people like to enter the three things in a journal so that they can revisit them later — think about the positivity contained in a month’s worth of entries! If you, like myself, don’t enjoy the journaling aspect or know you wouldn’t stick with the practice if it relied on journaling, simply list the three things in your mind at bedtime. Whatever the time of day or style you use to employ this practice, you will find that it can help you achieve the serenity we all seek.

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?

Research consistently supports the importance of social connections to one’s well-being. In terms of anxiety, some experts suggest that there is a “mere presence” effect of being with a close friend or loved one, meaning that we are less prone to be worried about threats in the environment (i.e., we feel safe), and we receive greater pleasure by co-experiencing positive events. So, if you know someone who is feeling anxious, the first and foremost step is to spend time with them doing enjoyable activities. Other steps include the following:

  1. Actively listen. When someone is telling you about their worries, it is important to be fully engaged in listening. Look into their eyes, provide encouragement by nodding, and stop once in a while to check in with them about what you have heard. Say, “What I am hearing you say is…is this right?” or “I understand that you might feel…is this what you mean?” Encourage them to get beyond the superficial, with a question like, “I want to be sure I know what you mean, so can you tell me a little more about…?”
  2. Validate thoughts and feelings. Anxiety is a bit tricky — often the anxious individual knows when their anxiety is not completely rationale. For example, if a friend tells you that they are very fearful about driving over bridges and they go miles and miles out of their way to avoid bridges, don’t tell them they are being ridiculous. It is very unhelpful to point out the illogical nature of the person’s anxiety, and can actually cause them to be more anxious. In addition to the original source of their anxiety, they also then become anxious because of what others think, and more anxious about not being able to control their irrational thinking. Bottom line: validate what the anxious person thinks and feels, and empathize with how difficult it must be for them.
  3. Ask this one question. “What would it take to make the situation better?” Sometimes anxiety blocks our thinking to the extent that we are unable to problem solve. Frequently, however, the solution to our difficult situation is simple and right at hand. Help the anxious person by encouraging them to identify what they need to reduce or even eliminate their worry, support their efforts to meet those needs, and acknowledge their progress along the way.
  4. Teach the “Stop and Breathe” and “3 Things” exercises.

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

If anxiety is interfering with your daily life on a continual basis — interfering with work, school, or relationships — then I recommend speaking to your doctor. Additionally, the books below can give people the knowledge needed to take control of their anxiety.

Daniel Amen (2015): Change Your Brain, Change Your Life (Revised and Expanded): The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Anxiety, Depression, Obsessiveness, Lack of Focus, Anger, and Memory Problems

Judson Brewer (2021): Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind

Stefan Hofmann and Judith Beck (2020): The Anxiety Skills Workbook: Simple CBT and Mindfulness Strategies for Overcoming Anxiety, Fear, and Worry

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

One of my favorite quotes is this one by Mahatma Gandhi: “Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn again.”

This quote resonates with me because it gives me hope that each day I have a new opportunity to do right or to be the person that I want to be. If during the day I don’t achieve a goal or I don’t live up to my own expectations, or even if I disappoint others, I know I have an opportunity to do better the next day. I can start each new day free from whatever has happened the day before.

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. 🙂

I think we need more unstructured play in our lives — I mean play that doesn’t involve any kind of electronic device. There are so many games that can be played that don’t cost anything. Of course, it’s great for kids, but adults can benefit from unstructured play, too. One of the best ways for parents and children to connect is through simple games — card games, board games, hide n’ seek, I spy, etc. I would like to see everyone turn off the TV and put away the devices for 20–30 minutes every day to play, laugh, and be goofy with those close to them. If everyone did this, I think the world would be a better place.

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

<laughing> I’m really going to show my age here. I don’t tweet or use Facebook or Snapchat or any other social media tool. I have never had the desire to figure that stuff out. I don’t even have my email connected to my phone! But also, this is one way I set boundaries on my time, so I might blame my age, but really it is a purposeful decision. I would rather focus my energies on in-person social activities. Or FaceTime — there! I do use technology to connect with people!

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

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