Know that creating mindfulness is a bit like building muscles. The more you train it, the stronger it gets. Training your brain to become mindful means flexing that mental mindful muscle repeatedly. Do not expect to become mindful overnight and without effort. This is a mindfulness practice, not a mindfulness event.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eliza Kingsford.
Eliza Kingsford is a licensed psychotherapist and behavior change specialist who helps clients struggling with food addiction, body image, and emotional eating. She’s the author of Brain-Powered Weight Loss and has sat in on scientific advisory boards with leading researchers in the field of obesity and weight management. She is turning the diet industry on its head by combining the science of nutrition with the psychology of eating to create lasting results for her clients.
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?
My childhood was chaotic and fractured. My mother died when I was an infant and that set-in motion a troubled childhood that often left me feeling anxious, fearful and alone. This internalized struggle showed up in my relationship with my body. Starting early in my adolescence, I struggled to find peace with my body shape and size. Looking back, I realize I needed something to control in my world that often felt out of control. I was so consumed with controlling my weight. Even though I was arguably very healthy on the outside, on the inside my weight and shape took up far too much of my headspace. I read all the books, tried all the fads, but nothing seemed to make me feel better emotionally. What I didn’t realize, at the time, was that my relationship with my body was just a symptom of something awry deeper within myself.
This led me, in my graduate studies, to an interest in eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors. I studied counseling psychology and began helping others (right alongside myself) learn how to have a better relationship with food and their bodies.
I was a behavioral coach, then clinical director, and eventually executive director of obesity and weight management summer camp for teens and young adults for 10 years before going out on my own and starting a similar company. I found great fulfillment in helping others navigate their relationship with their bodies. During that time, I sat on scientific advisory boards and was mentored by some of the greatest researchers in the country on obesity, weight management, and food addiction. I wrote the book Brain Powered Weight Loss in 2017, highlighting the brain-weight equation and how our weight is impacted by the relationship we have with food, and not just the food itself. Currently, I run programs, courses, workshops and retreats for people looking to make lasting changes from the inside out.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
When I was in my early 30’s, I was the Executive Clinical Director of an obesity treatment program. I was asked to sit on a scientific advisory board with MANY of my hero’s in the field of obesity, food addiction and weight management. I was the youngest board member (by a good number of years), hadn’t published scientific articles or books the way they had and did not have the long list of accomplishments and accolades that they had accrued over the years. In the beginning, I often wondered how and why I was even allowed in that room. What was I doing there? I was talking with one of the board members who had written numerous best-selling books and had published hundreds of peer-reviewed research articles and he said to me, “we need people like you, on the front lines, who spend their lives putting into practice all of this great research that I have spent my life developing.”
It hit me, then, this was my purpose. To be the bridge between the incredible research, and actually implementing the findings on the ground. There is a vast difference between theory and practice. We don’t just do better when we know better. We are more complex than that. I spent years on that scientific advisory board soaking up all the incredible knowledge and resources from my esteemed colleagues, so I could take that knowledge and synthesize it in a way that translates to real-life scenarios.
I also learned two very important things about being on that scientific advisory board.
- I never want to be the smartest person in the room.
- Never doubt my worth in ANY room.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
As CEO and Executive Director of two different companies, I learned that creating a healthy work environment meant that each member of the team felt valued, inspired and fulfilled. It was always important to me that my team knew that I valued them as individuals, and not just employees. This meant that I valued their creativity, their satisfaction in the workplace and their life experiences outside the workplace as well. I did my best to help each member of the team feel like their skills were being utilized in the best way and that they were in the right role. It was important to me that my team felt like they could balance their outside lives with the work we needed to get done because I knew this would lead to more creativity and, therefore, better work getting done. People do better work when they are engaged, valued and satisfied in their roles. To the best of my abilities, I was always striving to create this environment.
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?
When Dr. Wayne Dyer’s work found its way into my life, everything changed for me. He put into words the things I often wondered about. He so beautifully showed me the path to having agency over my thoughts, and therefore my material world. I have read ‘Wishes Fulfilled’ at least a half a dozen times and I believe I will re-read it many more times in my life. Each time I read it, I dive deeper into the world of my unconscious mind and the power we all hold to manage our thoughts.
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?
To me, being mindful is being aware, in the present moment about who you are being or what you are feeling at that moment. In our fast-paced life, most of us play a very reactive role in our lives. We move from task to task, often without being present or mindful during that task. Examples of this are: scrolling through the news while eating breakfast with your family, going through your to-do list in your head while walking your child to school, checking your Instagram during a phone meeting, thinking about your fight with your partner during your yoga class. We are accustomed to DOing things, but not very good at BEing there. Mindfulness helps teach us how to stay present. This allows us to examine who we are being in relation to what we are doing. Being mindful sounds like, “I am wanting to eat sugar right now, even though I am not hungry”. Or, “I am scrolling through my phone when I said I wanted to eat dinner with my family”. Or, “I am feeling so much joy as I watch the sunset”. There isn’t a judgment about the observation one way or another, just the observation itself.
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?
Humans have all been living in a heightened stress state for quite some time now. The pace and demand of our technologically advanced lives keep our brain in an activated sympathetic nervous system state much more than we were designed, biologically, to endure. We get too much information, have too many places to be, have too many responsibilities and obligations. To this end, chronic stress is a global concern and is contributing to every single major health concern we have, physically, mentally and emotionally. There has never been a better, or more necessary time, to become a mindfulness expert in your own life. I believe this will become the most important thing we can do, as humans, to stay healthy in the future. If we don’t know how to cultivate mindfulness in order to guide us towards stress relief, we are at risk for a multitude of health complications including, inflammation, heart disease, auto-immune disorders, chronic pain, obesity, diabetes, cancer and many more.
When we are mindful, however, we can learn simple and very effective ways of managing stress to optimize our health and wellbeing. Mindfulness is a practice, but it does not have to be difficult. When we are mindful our relationships improve, inflammation is reduced and health improves, our mood and anxiety improve and we think, act and respond more effectively.
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.
Today, it is more important than ever to understand how stress affects us. When we experience emotions such as worry, anxiety, fear and panic the brain activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS then mobilizes the systems necessary to deal with an acute stressor and turns off the systems that aren’t needed. Being in the SNS state has very real consequences if we are not able to come back into the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) state. Humans are designed to activate the SNS, deal with a stressor and then go back into the PNS. However, what’s happened over time (and has been increasing rapidly in more recent years) is that we get into stressed states and we don’t come out of them. This severely taxes the systems in the body that respond to stress and we start to see mental, physical and emotional deterioration in other areas. So many people are living in this prolonged stressed state and are unaware of its impact. We are not designed to function in prolonged SNS activation. It’s crucial that we learn techniques that can bring us back to a PNS state. Below are 5 simple things we can do that can physically alter the nervous system to bring us back to a place of peace.
1 . Diaphragmatic or ‘Belly’ Breathing
Humans are naturally “belly” breathers. But when we are stressed, or just through bad habits learned over time, we can adopt the habit of breathing in our chest cavity and upper body, which is a much more shallow and ineffective way to breath. Learning to belly breath can slow the heart rate and even regulate blood sugar, putting us back into a more natural, (and healthy) relaxed state.
Here’s how to do it:
- Lie on your back on a flat surface (or in bed) with your knees bent. You can use a pillow under your head and your knees for support, if that’s more comfortable.
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your belly, just below your rib cage.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose, letting the air in deeply, towards your lower belly. The hand on your chest should remain still, while the one on your belly should rise.
- Tighten your abdominal muscles and let them fall inward as you exhale through pursed lips. The hand on your belly should move down to its original position.
2 . Emotional Freedom Technique or ‘Tapping’
According to tapping experts; tapping therapy is based on the combined principles of ancient Chinese acupressure and modern psychology. Tapping with the fingertips on specific meridian endpoints of the body, while focusing on negative emotions or physical sensations, helps to calm the nervous system, rewire the brain to respond in healthier ways, and restore the body’s balance of energy. I have found this technique to be incredibly powerful for my clients. It is easy to learn, can be done without a practitioner and includes a self-reference checkpoint so you can determine how you have moved along the scale before and after tapping. You can download free tapping resources from my website to learn more.
3 . Gratitude Journal
Some may consider keeping a gratitude journal just a “feel good” exercise, but don’t underestimate the power of this simple tool. We all have something called the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS is a bundle of nerve networks just above the brainstem, but to simplify it, the RAS is responsible for filtering out information that your brain doesn’t need and also for bringing you information in line with your beliefs. Have you ever decided you were going to buy a car and then suddenly you see that car everywhere on the streets? This is your RAS at work. There wasn’t a sudden surge of people that purchased that car, the cars were always there, you just didn’t see them until you decided you were going to buy one, activating your RAS to bring you evidence of that car.
When you keep a gratitude journal, or spend time contemplating what you are grateful for, you are sending a message to your RAS that it’s important for you to find evidence of things you are grateful for. In that same way the RAS would show you the car you decided to buy, it will bring you evidence of more things to be grateful for. This is how you go about rewiring your brain to think and feel better. So the next time you think keeping a gratitude journal is cheesy or just a “nice to have”, remember that you are missing the opportunity to rewire your brain and direct it to where you want it to go.
4 . Nature
Science tells us that as little as 20 minutes a day of being in a place where we feel connected to nature can lower our stress hormones significantly. Can you spend time outside in a place that makes you feel grounded and connected to nature, especially if you know it can have a direct impact on your stress?
5 . Move the energy out of your body
We often experience negative emotions in our bodies. This can come in the form of restlessness, agitation, inability to sit still or more internal somatic symptoms like an upset stomach, heartburn, tightness in the chest or abdomen area or holding tension in the shoulders, back or neck. Obviously, check with your medical provider to rule out more serious complications, but these physical symptoms can all be indicators that there is stuck energy (negative emotions) in your body that need to be released or moved through. Tapping is great wat to do this, but we can also physically move. Yoga, dance, walking, hiking or really any form of movement that feels nourishing to you can help move those feelings and emotions out of your body. The key to moving stuck energy is to let it flow through you rather than stuffing it down. If what you are feeling you might need is a nourishing walk in nature, but you decide you “have” to do a 3 mile hard run instead you may be inadvertently stuffing the energy further down. The key to moving stuck energy is to align with the release of it without forcing or numbing the emotions.
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?
- Acknowledge someone else’s anxious feelings and don’t try and fix them. Most of the time, the best thing we can do for someone is to just witness their feelings. Unless we are asked for a specific piece of advice, what they usually need is for someone to just acknowledge their feelings; allow them to process them and witness what they are going through. If you are focused on just witnessing the person you are supporting it also takes the pressure off knowing the “right” thing to say, or how to “fix it”.
- Reach out and connect. If you know people who are particularly anxious, make an effort to reach out and let them know you are there for support. Even a quick text to let them know you are thinking of them can help them to feel less isolated and alone.
- Compassion. Try to approach your conversations and support from a place of compassion. Even if you don’t fully understand or agree with the anxiety, try and have compassion for what the other person might be experiencing.
- Regulate your breathing to help regulate theirs. One of the tricks I use with my daughter, when she gets worked up emotionally, is to regulate my breathing to help regulate hers. Research shows that when we are experiencing high anxiety, we get into more shallow and rapid breathing. Our bodies also respond (unconsciously) to those around us. When my daughter is getting anxious or worked up, if I can intentionally slow my breathing down and regulate my breathing, it helps to slow and regulate hers. Try this with a friend, child, partner or spouse the next time they are feeling anxious. Slow your breathing down while you are with them and see if you can feel the difference in their breathe.
- Send love, prayers, energy (or whatever you believe) from afar. Depending on your belief system, many people believe we have the power to help others heal (emotionally and physically) through the power of our thoughts. If you know a loved one is struggling, try spending some time thinking about that person, sending them love and light through your thoughts. Many people (myself included) believe this has the power to dramatically help, but one thing is for sure, it can’t hurt!
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
I suggest making very small changes first, and then building on them. Our brain does not like it when we try and make big, sweeping changes and it will meet us with resistance when we try to do too much at once. Start small. Pick an area of your life you want to become more mindful and pick one small thing you can do to accomplish this in a small and manageable way. For example, if you are looking to become a mindful eater you could start with asking yourself “am I hungry?” once a day before you eat one meal (with the goal of working up to asking that question before you eat each meal, but starting small). When you have cemented that new mindful habit, you can move to increasing that habit or adding another small habit.
I also suggest planning time for slowing down. If you are used to a fast-paced life (most of us are), you cannot expect time to just open up in your day to be able to be more mindful. Saying ‘yes’ to being more mindful will inevitably mean saying ‘no’ to something else. You will need to prioritize this time. Again, I suggest starting small. Where can you find 5–10 minutes in your day and schedule that time to be uninterrupted. Then decide what you will do with that time. Will you breathe? Tap? Meditate? Take a walk? Sit still? Do not overwhelm yourself by trying to map out hours of your life to dedicate to a new practice. Start small, stick to it, then build.
Finally, know that creating mindfulness is a bit like building muscle. The more you train it, the stronger it gets. Training your brain to become mindful means flexing that mental mindful muscle repeatedly. Do not expect to become mindful overnight and without effort. This is a mindfulness practice, not a mindfulness event.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I live much of my life by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote “ Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that”. In my case, this was the thing that changed my entire relationship with my body and therefore myself. There was a time when I realized that hating my body the way I did would never get me to the “love” that I desired for it. Love was the only way. It was when I realized this that I was able to systematically to start changing the way I viewed my body and my path towards healing really developed. I live by this sentiment in many areas of my life. Love is the way through most things if you ask me.
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. 🙂
Food and weight issues happen to be niche that I find myself in. However, I see this as my way of spreading the larger message to the world that we are powerful beyond measure. We have the incredible capacity to heal through our minds, and we don’t even know how powerful we are. My mission is to bring the larger message of peace, joy, ease, and healing to as many people as I can. I am doing this through teaching, coaching, and healing wherever possible. When we live in a state of peace, ease, and joy we impact everything around us. Every living organism, every relationship, every system, and structure. I believe we are going through a global shift in consciousness and I am honored to do my part in helping guide people to the full expression of their potential.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!