“Focus on gratitude.” with Beau Henderson & Dr. Sharone Weltfreid

During these challenging times, we may focus our attention on wishing that things were different or ruminating about all that we can’t do. When we accept our current situation fully, we have more resources available to see the possibilities in front of us. How can we use this time wisely? What opportunities does this time […]

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During these challenging times, we may focus our attention on wishing that things were different or ruminating about all that we can’t do. When we accept our current situation fully, we have more resources available to see the possibilities in front of us. How can we use this time wisely? What opportunities does this time afford? How can we best support others? In what ways do we need to adjust our expectations for ourselves and others? We can use this time to try to recenter, focus on what we can control, extend compassion to ourselves and others, and develop clarity around what is needed for us to live well.

Asa part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Sharone Weltfreid.

Sharone Weltfreid, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Mindfulness Executive Coach/Speaker. Dr. Weltfreid brings her background in teaching, researching, and practicing mindfulness into her work with clients to support them in living their best lives. Her online mindfulness-based therapy practice integrates coaching, cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, solution-focused therapy, and existential theory, as well as other methods to help her clients succeed at life and relationships. Dr. Weltfreid also provides mindfulness executive coaching and talks to develop more mindful leaders and workplaces. Dr. Weltfreid has presented on mindfulness to universities, corporations, and non-profits and has been featured in publications such as NBC News, Bustle, and PopSugar.

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?

Sure! I had taken a mindfulness meditation course as an undergraduate and was inspired by the instructor’s comment to “accept what is, and your ability to see what is expands”. At the time, I was dealing with injuries and had a difficult time accepting my limitations. I was accustomed to being self-sufficient and excelling, so these limitations challenged my identity. However, as I learned to accept my circumstances, rather than wishing them away or pushing myself more than I should have, I was able to notice the opportunities in front of me, as well as expand my sense of self.

My experience in the course led me to focus my undergraduate honor’s thesis on the psychological correlates of mindfulness. As part of my thesis, I helped manage a study that examined the impact of the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by Dr. Kabat-Zinn on reducing stress and delaying disease progression in adults who were HIV-positive. I had the opportunity to participate in the MBSR class as well. As a class member, I was able to observe how mindfulness enabled participants to change the way they related to their disease and to themselves. By the end of the course, many of the participants no longer perceived their illness as defining their entire being or impacting all areas of their lives (e.g., “I may have HIV, but I can dance”). These participants had essentially “accepted what is” and their “ability to see what is” was expanding. This was the first of many shifts in perspective that I observed when people, myself included, embraced mindfulness.

I knew after this experience that I wanted to bring mindfulness into the work I did with others. I also was very interested in positive psychology (i.e., the scientific study of human flourishing) more generally, and within the field, the topics of finding meaning and enhancing relationships, in addition to mindfulness, were of particular interest to me. I wanted to use my knowledge in these areas to help people live from their hearts and experience the joy and fulfillment that comes from that. I aspired to devote my career to helping people be happy and cultivate fulfilling relationships.

During the global financial crisis, I was offered a generous fellowship to obtain my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from American University and study mindfulness as well as other related positive psychological constructs, such as gratitude and compassionate goals, in the context of interpersonal relationships. As soon as I saw my first two clients, I knew that I was on the right path. Getting my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology allowed me to deeply understand the human psyche and the ways that an attuned therapist can help clients change the way they relate to themselves and others. I also learned during my time in graduate school, as well as my experience and training afterwards, how an active and integrative approach can help people achieve their goals.

Today, I reached my goal of providing therapy that incorporates mindfulness, positive psychology more generally, and coaching to help people find fulfillment personally and in relationships. Also, my postdoctoral fellowship at UCSF, which had an industrial organizational focus, and other experiences outside of graduate school, led me to want to help leaders be more mindful, hence the mindfulness executive coaching I also offer.

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

One story that comes to mind was that many people had told me that it would be near impossible to have a successful online private therapy practice immediately after obtaining my license. I was told to first work for a group practice or have a full-fledged private practice in the office in order to establish a client base and referrals. But I believed that there was a need for effective online therapy, and was traveling often at the time I started my practice so wanted the flexibility. I am so happy that I followed my intuition/heart because today I have a thriving online practice and love what I do. I also now support my colleagues in going off on their own and practicing online.

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

I would advise leaders to recognize that their internal state impacts their actions and interactions with others. Therefore, it is important that they focus on grounding themselves in the present moment, because in the space of the present moment they can make more conscious choices and lead from a heartfelt place. When they are interacting with others from this centered, heartfelt place, they can more clearly see and authentically connect to the people they work with. They can also be intentional about giving people their full presence, recognizing others’ good work, compassionately providing feedback, challenging others to be their best, and valuing peoples’ strengths and essence. The people they work with will then feel heard, understood, appreciated, cared for, and recognize their potential and value. As a result, these people will likely be more motivated and give their best.

I think it is also important to mention that an important goal for a leader is to inspire others by linking the work to a greater purpose, living by the values they promote, and remaining centered in the face of difficulty.

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?

A book that made a significant impact on me was “The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying” by Bronnie Ware because it emphasized for me what is most important in life. Unsurprisingly, the most common regret for people at the end of their life was that they wished they had the courage to live a life that was true for them rather than the life that others expected from them. When I read this book in my 20’s, I had already experienced the pain of making decisions based on what I felt I should do, or a fear of mistakes. I had also known the freedom, peace, and joy that followed decisions that honored my heart and true nature. The book reinforced these experiences, though it took several more years before I came to truly trust in my heart. Today, I help many clients acknowledge and overcome self-limiting beliefs, fears, misperceptions, and defenses, and support them in courageously following their truth.

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 involves intentionally paying attention with openness, curiosity, and non-judgment to our internal and external experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.

When we are not mindful, our bodies are here, but mentally we may be elsewhere, caught up in ruminative, elaborative, or future-focused thoughts. Practicing mindfulness allows us to take control back from these thoughts that capture our attention or distort our perception. When we are mindful, we anchor our attention on our immediate experience and observe thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they arise without elaborating upon them or habitually reacting to them. As a result, we enter a space in which we can more directly access the present moment and expand our perspective. From this expanded perspective, we can recognize the habitual reactions that do not serve us and gain additional insights about ourselves and our environment.

It is important to recognize that the attitude with which we approach our experiences matters. Being mindful means attending to our experience with curiosity, openness, and acceptance. For example, we non-judgmentally observe when the mind has drifted away from the present, and gently bring our attention back to the present. Viewing our thoughts, feelings, and sensations with openness and acceptance enables us to access the present moment more fully. In contrast, when we judge our experiences as good or bad, or right or wrong, we take resources away from the present moment and can activate our flight, fright, or freeze response.

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?

Physical benefits: Mindfulness has a number of health benefits such as reducing stress, improving sleep, and lowering blood pressure. When we are mindful, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system (our body’s relaxation response), which prevents the production of stress hormones (e.g., cortisol) along with their negative consequences for our health (e.g, decreased immunity and sleep and increased blood pressure).

Earlier, I had mentioned that I had helped manage a study that examined the impact of the eight-week MBSR course on HIV-positive individuals. The results of that study were really interesting! Participants in the MBSR course showed no loss of CD4-T cells (a decline in CD-4 t-cell counts is a characteristic hallmark of HIV progression). In contrast, the control group showed significant declines in CD4-T cells from pre-study to post-study. The study was the first to indicate that mindfulness meditation can slow HIV disease progression.

Another fascinating study concerns psoriasis patients. In this study, patients with moderate to severe psoriasis who listened to a brief mindfulness meditation experienced accelerated skin clearing compared to the patients who were solely given light treatment.

MRI studies also suggest that mindfulness changes our brains! In fact, one study suggested that participation in the MBSR program is linked to an increase in gray matter concentration in the parts of the brain associated with processes such as emotion regulation, learning, and memory.

Mental Benefits: Research has shown that mindfulness is related to numerous mental benefits such as reduced rumination, increased concentration, and cognitive flexibility. These findings are not surprising. When we are mindful, we focus on maintaining our attention on the present and try not to allow ruminative or other thoughts to distract our attention. Further, separating ourselves from these thoughts can help us recognize that thoughts are just thoughts, not facts, and only have as much power as we give them. Detaching from our automatic thoughts enables us to enter a space in which we can experience greater calm, expand our perspective, and choose how best to respond.

Emotional Benefits: According to research, mindfulness has a range of emotional benefits such as decreased emotional reactivity, anxiety, and depression, and increased positive affect. The act of simply observing and not reacting to the contents of the mind can bring awareness and space from automatic thought patterns that turn pain into suffering and lead us to experience stress, anxiety, unhappiness, etc.. We can then choose to not mindlessly fuse with these thoughts or attempt to suppress them due to discomfort, which actually has the paradoxical effect of increasing our suffering. Consequently, we gain more direct access to the present moment — a place where we can make conscious decisions and experience more positive emotional states. When we do experience difficult feelings, we respond with openness and acceptance rather than amplifying and prolonging these feelings by judging them or engaging in a narrative that fuels them.

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. Practice Mindfulness Meditation

Formal mindfulness meditation practice involves a sustained period of focused attention as part of a preset routine. You can practice meditation anywhere, anytime, and for any span of time. It is especially helpful to start your morning with a mindfulness meditation because doing so can set the tone for the day ahead. Specifically, practicing mindfulness meditation first thing in the morning calms the nervous system, which can enable you to be more mindful throughout your day and better cope with the additional stressors we have at this time.

Mindful Breathing Meditation for 5–20 minutes

One of the foundational mindfulness meditations involves focusing your attention on your breath, which serves as your anchor to the present moment. Before beginning the meditation, find a comfortable position and close your eyes or hold a soft gaze ahead of you. If you notice that you are feeling anxious, it can help to first take 3–5 deep breaths to activate the body’s relaxation response.

Next, focus your attention on your breath. Pay attention to the sensation of breathing in and out without attempting to modify your breathing. When you observe that your attention has wandered, as it inevitably will, gently return you attention to your breathing. Rather than judge your wandering mind, try to appreciate that you have become mindful the moment that you notice that your attention has drifted!

If you would like someone to guide you through a meditation, you can use popular apps like ‘Headspace’ and ‘Calm’ or find free meditations online such as those provided by ‘The Honest Guys’, Tara Brach, and UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center.

2. Apply mindfulness to your activities throughout the day

Informal mindfulness practice involves cultivating non-judgmental present moment awareness during our everyday lives. While working, for example, give your full attention to one task at a time. Each task then becomes the object of your mindfulness practice. If possible, do not check your email, unless that is the task to which you are focusing your attention on. As thoughts come in your mind unrelated to the task at hand, let them pass as you keep your attention on your work. When you notice that you have become lost in thought, gently redirect your attention back to your task.

You can apply this same mindfulness approach to activities such as eating, cleaning, brushing your teeth, listening to someone, walking, etc.. Try to engage as many of your senses as you can during each activity. For example, when you eat, focus your attention on the taste, smell, and texture of your food. When your mind wanders, kindly bring it back to the food in front of you. The more you keep your attention in the present moment throughout the day, the more centered and less anxious you will feel.

Mindfulness also can be used when you find yourself experiencing anxiety at this time due to the pandemic. When you are feeling anxious, notice where your mind is. It is likely that you have become entangled in worrisome thoughts about the future (“e.g., what if I get sick?”, “what if I lose my job?”, “what if this never ends”?, etc.) and have lost touch with the present moment. Though what you are thinking about is currently not happening in reality, you experience these events as though they are real. Labeling your thoughts as “anxious thoughts” can help you to gain distance from them and recognize that they are just thoughts, not facts.

You can then come back to the present moment by intentionally redirecting your attention to your breath, or other senses (e.g., the sensations in our hands), and curiously observing your experiences without judgment. You can also take a few deep breaths to activate your relaxation response. Stepping outside of your anxious thoughts allows you to enter a space wherein you can experience greater equanimity and more accurately assess your situation. From there, you can respond more effectively. For example, you can recognize that you cannot control the future, but you can focus on what you can control, like taking necessary precautions before leaving the home.

3. “Accept what is and your ability to see what is expands”

During these challenging times, we may focus our attention on wishing that things were different or ruminating about all that we can’t do. When we accept our current situation fully, we have more resources available to see the possibilities in front of us. How can we use this time wisely? What opportunities does this time afford? How can we best support others? In what ways do we need to adjust our expectations for ourselves and others? We can use this time to try to recenter, focus on what we can control, extend compassion to ourselves and others, and develop clarity around what is needed for us to live well.

4. Be intentional about how you structure your time

Our lives can easily become out of balance right now with our schedules thrown off, uncertainty about the future, worry about our health and the health of others, etc.. It’s all too easy to respond on autopilot to all that is going on and allow ourselves to become distracted by activities that lead us to feel worse (e.g., watching hours upon hours of the news, eating unhealthy, staying up until the early morning hours).

Mindfulness can help us to step back, check in with ourselves, and commit to living in ways that are best for us. Establishing routines can get us in the practice of being intentional about spending time on activities that nourish us mentally, emotionally, and physically and helps to prevent us from becoming lost in thoughts or activities that deplete us or leave us feeling anxious, unhappy, disconnected, etc.. Routines help us to feel more in control of our lives, grounded, and purposeful. They also help us to maintain a sense of normalcy.

Examples of routines include:

Schedule time to exercise daily: When you exercise, the body releases endorphins, which are the “feel good” hormones, and so your mood improves and your anxiety decreases. At the same time, exercise reduces your stress by decreasing stress hormones (e.g., cortisol) as well as your blood pressure and heart rate. Also, exercise increases your energy and concentration by bringing oxygen and nutrients to your brain, heart, and lungs, and it helps you sleep better.

Establish a bedtime routine: Getting enough sleep is one of the most important things we can do to care for ourselves at this time. Benefits of sleep include reduced stress and inflammation and improved memory, attention, and mood.

In order to get good sleep, we need to have our circadian rhythm (aka sleep/wake cycle) functioning properly. Tips to keep your circadian rhythm in check include keeping a consistent sleep schedule, making sure the sleep space is dark and cool, avoiding blue light exposure from electronic devices, and getting morning sunlight for about 30 minutes. I also recommend engaging in activities that promote relaxation prior to sleep such as meditation and reading.

Make time for Meditation (see #1 above) and Gratitude (and #5)

Try to keep your work schedule close to the same: For example, attempt to start and end your day at the same time each day and take a lunch break. A couple of my clients even walk around the block before they start their work day to mentally prepare for the work day and feel like home and work life are separate. Keeping the work structure the same allows you to take advantage of well-established habits and provides a sense of normalcy.

Limit media intake to a specific time frame (e.g., 30 minutes per day): It’s important to be informed about what’s happening so that we can do our part to not contract COVID-19 or spread it to others. However, constantly tuning into the news or social media can result in overwhelm. Be mindful regarding how watching the news impacts your well-being and limit your media consumption accordingly. One final note on this, make sure that you are following trusted sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Schedule time to read: Reading distracts us from focusing on stressors by actively engaging our minds and transporting us into another reality. Research also has found that even 6 minutes of reading can reduce stress! If we desire to escape into the world of imagination, we can read sci-fi books. If we wish to expand our perspective and enter a positive frame of mind, we can turn to self-help books. An additional benefit of reading is that it can help us to fall asleep, so you can make it part of your bedtime routine.

Schedule time to intentionally connect with others: We are social creatures. Whether we are connecting with people over Zoom or in person, sharing our struggles or finding creative ways to enjoy our time together (e.g., playing cards or having a drink while on FaceTime) can help lesson our sense of isolation and loneliness. Also, connecting with others provides an opportunity to get out of our minds, which we know can take us all over the place!

Spend time in nature, if possible: Research has shown that spending time in nature can reduce stress and inflammation and improve mood and creative-problem solving. Setting the intention to focus on our surroundings allows us to disconnect from worries, rumination, etc., and notice and enjoy the beauty that surrounds us. We can enhance our experience outdoors by harnessing a “beginner’s mind”, which is a mindfulness concept that involves viewing something as though we are seeing it for the first time. Though these are difficult times, being outdoors can help us experience gratitude, connection, joy, awe, and other positive states of mind.

5. Focus on gratitude

Focusing on gratitude shifts our attention to the good in life and allows us to view our current challenges from a broadened perspective. When we commit to journaling about gratitude or noting what we are grateful for, we get in the habit of scanning our environment to find what is positive. This practice can bring awareness to that which we take for granted or otherwise may not notice (e.g., having a warm meal) and interrupts our automatic negativity bias (i.e., our brain’s tendency to focus on the negative).

To get the most benefit from that which you are grateful for, take time to really savor your feelings of gratitude. Also, if you are keeping a journal, try to provide detail about the object of your gratitude so that you it comes to life more. For example, rather than write, “I am grateful for my friend”, you can write, “I am grateful for my friend’s validation and comfort when I shared with her my fears”. Finally, make the practice consistent by scheduling a time to journal regularly, whether that be every other day or a couple times per week.

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 . Make sure that we are in a mindful state before offering support.

When we are mindful, we have the capacity to show up fully and offer our presence. Also, we are less likely to be swept up by another person’s anxiety. Or, if we do find ourselves taking on the other’s anxiety, it is easier to bring our attention back to the moment. When we are present in mind and heart for the person, and refrain from judgment, the person can feel cared for, accepted, safe, and understood, which can help to reduce their anxiety.

We are more likely to be mindful when we support others if we have been taking the steps to develop mindfulness during this period (e.g., practicing mindfulness, sleeping well, etc.). If needed, center yourself prior to speaking to the person by taking 3–5 deep breaths, practicing mindfulness of the breath, or engaging in any other activity that can help bring your mind and body in alignment.

It will also help to set the intention to make the other person the object of your mindfulness practice such that you give that person your full attention and listen with non-judgement, interest, and compassion.

2. Invite the person to share their feelings and validate.

You can create a safe and welcoming space for people to open-up about their anxiety by reaching out and inviting them to speak about it. For example, you might say something like, “I know this is an anxiety-provoking time right now and wanted to check-in on how you are doing” or “How are you coping with all of this?” These questions give the person an opening to share any struggles they may be having.

Listen and respond in a way that communicates that you acknowledge the person’s feelings and understand why they are feeling that way. Even if you can’t identify with the feeling, attempt to understand what the person is experiencing from their perspective. Also, try not to invalidate their feelings by minimizing or denying their experience. For example, instead of saying, “I wouldn’t make such a big deal about it”, you can say something like, “It is anxiety-provoking to leave home at this time!”

Validating another’s feelings communicates that you recognize and value their experience. You may also then be able to respond or offer input without them feeling judged.

3. Ask how you can best support the person you are speaking with.

When you ask the person what they need, you demonstrate that you take their needs seriously. You also provide the person with the opportunity to consider what could be most helpful in that moment, which has the added benefit of conveying that you view them as competent. Further, your open-ended question does not limit the scope of the conversation.

If the person requests that you provide emotional support, you can focus on empathizing and validating the person’s feelings as well as communicating that you will get through this together (e.g., “I know that this is anxiety-provoking, but we will get through it”).

Alternatively, the person may request instrumental support. For example, the person may wish to talk through options about how to manage a challenging situation, or the person may need help to break down an overwhelming task into manageable steps. Helping people ground themselves in the present moment and take action can be one of the most helpful things we can do.

4. Help the person recognize what they can control and how their strengths and coping abilities can help them.

When we are anxious, we can become consumed by “what if’s”. For example, the person may be caught up in anxiety about themselves or loved ones contracting COVID-19. Let the person know that you acknowledge how difficult that would be, but help them recognize that they would be able to deal with it. If possible, remind the person of a time or times when they overcame adversity. You can also help the person reflect upon the strengths and resources they can rely on if they or their family becomes ill. It is important to not reassure the person that they will not get coronavirus as that is not realistic. Instead, when you acknowledge the person’s coping skills, you help them access their strengths and feel more in control.

It is also helpful to discuss what actions the person can take or is taking now to make their situation better. For example, if the person is anxious about contracting COVID-19, discuss with them what they are currently doing to minimize their risk and/or prepare for worst-case scenarios. Further, it helps to acknowledge what is beyond our control, and to discuss how we can ground ourselves in the present moment when our mind starts to entertain all that could go wrong in the future.

5. Keep the line of communication open

Communicate to the person that you are available to support them. Also, continue to check-in with the person to show your care and let the person know that they can rely on you.

Finally, I’d like to add that if the person’s anxiety is greatly interfering with their life, encourage the person to seek therapy.

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

I would recommend guided mindfulness meditations online from tarabrach.com, UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, “The Honest Guys” on YouTube, and Deepak Chopra’s Living Carefree Meditation on YouTube. I would also recommend apps like “Headspace” and “Calm”. Meditations help us strengthen our ability to be mindful throughout the day.

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

“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition”. -Steve Jobs

In the past, my fear of mistakes may have led me to value others’ input and what I “should do” above listening to my heart. Ironically, when I would make decisions based on trying to do “the right thing”, I was making the mistake of not trusting my heart and intuition. When I made decisions in this manner, I would feel disconnected from myself and internally wrestled with the choices made. Today, I have learned to quiet my mind so that I can hear my heart and inner knowing, and I help my clients to do the same.

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. 🙂

If I could start a movement it would be that we all practice listening mindfully to one another. When we listen mindfully to someone else, we try to give the person our full attention. Further, we step back from preconceptions, evaluations, or judgments that can distort our perception of the other person. We listen with our whole being and offer our presence, empathically attuning to the person in front of us.

Listening in this way allows us to more clearly see the person and leads the other person to feel seen. It also increases our empathy for the other person because we are focusing our open-hearted attention on entering their perspective. Finally, it increases our connection and prevents miscommunications.

If we could all practice this type of listening, we would all feel so much more seen and connected to each other!

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

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