Understand your brain is wired for negativity. Have you ever found yourself dwelling on negative news, a mean comment or a simple mistake? Don’t worry — this is normal! The reason for this is that negative events have a greater impact on our brains than positive ones. Psychologists refer to this as “the negativity bias” and it can be debilitating, especially in times of a global pandemic. For example, you might be having a great day at work when a friend sends you a link to a fear-based news article. You then find yourself feeling anxious for the rest of the workday.
Asa 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 Stacy Conlon.
Stacy Conlon is the founder of The Zen Girl and a certified wellness coach, mindfulness and meditation facilitator. She formerly suffered from anxiety and depression, and since overcoming it through her 20 years of practicing yoga and meditation, she has developed a passion for helping people reduce stress and increase inner peace through mindfulness practices.
Stacy facilitates customized guided meditations and mindfulness sessions for organizations worldwide, including Cisco Systems and A.T. Kearney, with a clear and educational, yet compassionate and gentle approach. She’s also been a keynote speaker at large conferences, including leading 1,500+ people in a guided meditation at the Lean Startup Conference. Stacy also has a mindfulness meditation program series on Grokker, a video wellbeing solution that supports a happier, healthier workforce, with over 16,000 views and customers including Pinterest, eBay, and Aetna. Stacy has also written for American Spa and Travel to Wellness Magazines.
Before devoting her work full time to The Zen Girl, Stacy served as the Director of Business Development for The Lean Startup Company, founded by Eric Ries, the bestselling author of the book The Lean Startup. Her clients included Microsoft, Mastercard, Whirlpool, Caterpillar and the U.S. Department of Defense.
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?
Let me tell you about a blinking light that changed my life and led me to where I am today.
I was 26 years old and recently married. We were living in our newly purchased home in Southern California with our chocolate lab named Emma. We had a big, grassy backyard with lemon, lime and grapefruit trees. All that was missing was a white picket fence! I felt all grown up and completely sure about everything I was doing in my life.
Until I wasn’t.
I had a job as a sales manager and commuted to work two hours every day in my black sports car, wearing my navy power suit and high heels.
One day, my boss gave me a blackberry and I felt really excited to be available for my clients, 24/7. I kept it on my bedside table every evening. I was constantly thinking about work and how to be successful that it hindered my sleep. With the sound of a vibrate, my eyes popped open all too often in the middle of the night to see that bright red blinking light. And I had that unstoppable urge to check and see who sent me a message.
And this led to a vicious cycle:
Go to bed and feel anxious…
See the blinking red light…
Check the blackberry…
Monkey mind starts…
Toss and turn for hours…
See the blinking red light again…
Check the blackberry…
Toss and turn again…
Finally, fall back asleep…
Wake up feeling groggy…
Drag myself out of bed…
Drive to work in traffic looking haggard and feeling tired…
Have yet another long, stressful work day.,,
Drive home in traffic.,,
Get home feeling cranky and exhausted…
Argue with my husband…
Make a drink…
Go to bed…
Can’t fall asleep…
See the blinking red light again…
Check the blackberry…
Take Ambien or an anti-anxiety pill to force myself to sleep…
Finally fall asleep…
Still wake up feeling groggy the next day…
And so on.
For months. And months. And months.
One day after work, I came home feeling really stressed out and got in yet another fight with my partner. He stormed out of the kitchen, went into the bedroom and slammed the door. Feeling frustrated and upset, I made a drink, put on my PJs and flopped down on the leather couch next to Emma and reflected on my life. And the tears came pouring out.
How did I get here? I thought I had a happy life, but I was miserable, tired and exhausted. I was tired and exhausted. I felt burnt out. I was unhappy in my marriage. And I couldn’t sleep because of that damn blinking light.
At that moment, I realized I needed a new light.
And I knew that light had to come from within.
Sitting there, sunken into the couch, stewing in a pit of misery, I recalled a time in my life where I felt more relaxed and at peace despite the stress around me: during a yoga and meditation class in college. I remembered my aunt had given me a yoga mat with a yoga and meditation CD the Christmas before. I jumped up off the couch to go find them in the hall closet, buried in the way back, still in its original packaging.
So there I was, standing in the hall in my PJs, feeling buzzed from my drink and with tears streaming down my face. I decided to make a commitment to start practicing yoga and meditation every day.
That choice changed the trajectory of my entire life.
I came home from work the next day, and, instead of making a drink and putting on my PJs, I put on my yoga pants and rolled out my yoga mat. I put on the CD, sat down, closed my eyes and followed the instructor. When it was over, my mood felt uplifted; I felt more calm, grounded and relaxed. When my husband came home, I was kind and loving towards him instead of angry and reactive. I couldn’t believe this change happened on the very first day, which was extremely motivating. So I did it again the next day. And the next. This practice felt so good in the evenings that I began to practice in the morning, too.
Each night, before I went to bed, instead of leaving my blackberry on, I turned it off. Instead of taking a pill, I closed my eyes to meditate. Eventually, I was able to fall asleep easier and let go of relying on drugs and alcohol to force rest. My husband and I fought less, and eventually ended up getting a promotion and a new job with a short commute. I found happiness again.
Now, this doesn’t mean that I don’t feel emotions like stress, fear or anger. What this practice taught me is that now I can be more aware of my thoughts and feelings, and able to notice and accept them for what they are instead of getting caught up in them, being reactive and trying to control every situation. I notice that the more I let go, the more I can accept the present moment for exactly what it is.
I also learned that we are not in control of what happens around us — a stressful job, a failing economy, the coronavirus. What we are in control of is our reaction to it. We get to choose how we show up every day and rise to the challenges that we’re faced with. And that will only make us stronger — as individuals, societies, nations and the world.
And it begins with finding our inner light.
Ultimately, this experience was so powerful that it led me to become a wellness coach and mindfulness and meditation facilitator so I could help other people and companies in a similar position.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I was working in my new job and found happiness again. However, I had a burning desire to fulfill a lifelong dream of mine before we settled down and had kids: to travel around the world for a year.
So, one evening after work, I exuberantly told my husband about my idea to actually make it happen. He opened his eyes wide and told me I was bat shit crazy. But I was already mentally and emotionally committed to the idea and said I’d be going either way — with or without him.
Several passionate conversations and spreadsheet iterations later, he decided to jump on board and we agreed on a plan to make it happen!
This was super empowering. It created excitement and focus on our goal, which was to save $70K in cash over 12 months to have enough money to travel around the world for a year.
During that time, we made decisions daily to save money instead of spend (we had one of those silver box Sony TVs for way too long!). As we drew nearer our date of departure, we sold our cars, sold most of our stuff, rented out our house and set up a home rotation schedule for Emma so she could stay with our friends and family.
Then, in February 2008, right before the stock market crash, we packed one big backpack each and boarded a plane with three one way tickets to Fiji, New Zealand and Australia.
I remember smiling as I looked out the plane window, knowing I was leaving my world behind in search of new experiences and adventures. I saw myself ticking off the items on my bucket list, like scuba diving and bungee jumping and volunteering on organic farms. I craved to see the world from a local’s eyes. To have the joy of waking up every day and doing exactly what we felt like. I was on top of the world. No more “wishing” — here I was making it happen!
One year turned into three years, five continents and 22 countries. Along the way, my life of remote work and consulting began and I started my first business as an entrepreneur.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
- Notice how you feel. Self-awareness is the first step. Imagine a spectrum from one to 10, with “1 = burnout” and “10 = thriving.” Become aware of your emotions at this moment. Are you feeling peaceful and calm (towards thriving)? Or are you feeling stressed and overwhelmed (towards burnout)? Begin by noticing where you are on that spectrum. Not to judge it or change it in any way, just observing what’s true for you. This knowledge is key because with this information you can choose your next step. With awareness, change is possible.
- Take action. Based on how you feel, you are empowered to make a choice. Ask yourself: what do I need right now? For example, if you are on the burnout end of the spectrum, you can mindfully make choices to move you in the direction of thriving. It may be as simple as taking a five-minute break to stretch, a 30-minute walk outside to breathe some fresh air or just get a good night’s sleep. Perhaps it’s getting some alone time and curling up with a good book, taking a hot bath or even a nap. On the other hand, you may realize you’re closer to the burnout end of the spectrum and what you really need is some time off to fully rest and recover, so you choose to take next Friday off or plan a vacation.
- Know your needs and limits. Everyone is different. What’s considered thriving for one person may equate to burnout for another. I like to imagine everyone has a fuel tank. Things that fill one person’s tank are not the same as another’s and some tanks run out faster than others. For example, when I personally spend time alone, space and quiet is what I need to fill my fuel tank. Conversely, other people’s fuel tanks get filled when they are social and spend lots of time with others. This is not a place for comparison. Get to know yourself, what’s true for you and your limits.
- Be proactive. Don’t wait until you’re feeling burnout to take action! Make sure you’re noticing how you feel throughout the day, every day so you can track and act accordingly based on how you feel. The more proactive you are, the less “lift” each fix takes, and before you know it, your baseline is on the thriving end of the spectrum. Start by creating small new habits, like setting a five-minute stretch or meditation break reminder on your phone. Remember to say “no” to the non-essential so you can say “yes” to what really matters. Exercise the 80/20 rule which says that 20% of your activities will yield 80% of the results. Focus your time and attention on the top 20% and watch your life shift dramatically.
- Make time for joy. Doing what we love fuels us. Doing what we dislike drains us. Make sure whatever you are doing brings you joy! For many of us, this means connecting with those whom we love and working in a job that has meaning and purpose. Carve out time for your hobbies, like baking, playing an instrument, hiking or knitting. Life is short. Find your joy, and peace and happiness will follow!
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
- Show gratitude. Appreciation is a fundamental human need. Your team works hard every day and they are committed to your mission and vision. Recognizing their work makes them feel valued and an important part of the team. A seemingly small “thank you” goes a long way to happiness and longevity in the role.
- Create a safe space and listen. Providing a safe space for your team to express what they notice and/or feel without judgment and opinions allows them to feel supported, understood and respected. This creates humility and trust — keys to a healthy, thriving workplace.
- Show compassion. True compassion is unconditional love in action. Employees who receive more compassion in their workplace see themselves, their co-workers and their organization in a more positive light, report feeling more positive emotions like joy and contentment, and are more committed to their jobs.
- Have and assume good intentions. It’s easy to misinterpret or misunderstand someone, especially when we may have our own feelings around an issue. This can inadvertently lead to negative thinking patterns in our “monkey mind.” Instead, choose to assume the best and you’ll find that the vast majority of the time people mean well and it was just a misunderstanding. Start off assuming good intentions and save otherwise wasted time and energy.
- Communicate early and often. In our increasing world of remote work, many things can get lost along the way, like new hires, new strategies and initiatives. As a leader, you are often privy to new information and see around corners well before your team does. As my old boss used to say, “bad news gets worse with time.” So, as a leader, communicate early and often so your team isn’t blindsided when things change, and bring them along on the ride with you.
- Explain the “why.” Change is constant. In fact, the pace of change today is the slowest it will be for the rest of our lives. When you explain the “why” behind decisions, it allows people to see the big picture and understand where you’re coming from. This generates more trust and ease when inevitable change arises and creates smoother sailing ahead.
- Practice Radical Candor™. The last company I worked for practiced this new management approach, which is “caring personally while challenging directly.” This framework is useful to provide guidance and feedback that’s both kind and clear, specific and sincere.
- Frame “failures” as learnings. Fear of making mistakes is one of the most common challenges in the workplace. Working in our world of increasing uncertainty, it’s inevitable that we will try new things that won’t work out as we expected. And yet, we must take risks to innovate. When you contextualize failures as learnings, the information provides valuable insights into customer preferences so you can take that learning and apply it to what you do next.
- See every problem as an opportunity. Another important perspective shift is to view challenges as opportunities to grow and improve. As Marie Forleo says, “everything is figureoutable.” As a leader, when you begin to see the possibilities instead of the obstacles, and communicate those to your team, you can accomplish anything!
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 had a significant impact on my life was Essentialism, by Greg McKeown.
Years ago, I said yes to everything.
My boss had a new project? I raised my hand first to tackle it.
There was an email with some questions and cc to the whole team? I was the first to reply all.
I got a slack message with an important ask? I responded immediately, shifted gears and got to work on it.
My intentions were good. I truly thought I was doing the right thing by saying yes to everything. I was proud of my work, an overachiever and a perfectionist. I believed by saying “yes” and being available for everything, immediately, it would cast me in a light of being a go-getter, reliable and a team player.
But my time was constantly being hijacked by other people’s agendas. I felt overworked and underutilized. And while I was increasing speed, I was losing velocity. My to-do list just kept getting longer and the most important items on my list never seemed to get done.
Until I read Essentialism, which means “less but better.” This book completely shifted my way of thinking and working.
The way of the essentialist isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s about getting the right things done. It is not a way to manage time or productivity technique. “It is a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution towards the things that really matter.” Because when we say “yes” to something, it means we say “no” to everything else.
By forcing myself to apply a more selective criterion for what is essential, the disciplined pursuit of less empowered me to reclaim control of my own choices about where to spend my precious time and energy — instead of giving others the implicit permission to choose for me.
Essentialism is not one more thing — it’s a whole new way of doing everything. It’s about doing less, but better, in every area of our lives.
Since then, I have become much more discerning in every area of my life. I moved from feeling tired and exhausted to energized and empowered. Beyond that, I became even more respected and valued as a key member of the team because I delivered results on what was essential to the business. In fact, during a quarterly review, my boss recognized my biggest area of improvement was saying no — even in meetings he asked me to attend.
And I smiled.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. 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.
- Understand your brain is wired for negativity. Have you ever found yourself dwelling on negative news, a mean comment or a simple mistake? Don’t worry — this is normal! The reason for this is that negative events have a greater impact on our brains than positive ones. Psychologists refer to this as “the negativity bias” and it can be debilitating, especially in times of a global pandemic. For example, you might be having a great day at work when a friend sends you a link to a fear-based news article. You then find yourself feeling anxious for the rest of the workday. When you get home from work and someone asks you how your day was, you reply that it was terrible — even though it was overall quite good despite that one negative incident. Know that this is normal, and be gentle on yourself when this happens, because our brains are wired that way.
- Stop on a dime. As soon as you notice your mind is spinning out of control, stop and become a witness to what’s happening. As soon as you become the observer, you are no longer caught up in your thoughts. For example, the other day I was connecting with a group of old friends on a zoom call and feeling great. Then, one of my buddies expressed his fear around the pandemic and had a “gloom and doom” perspective. I could feel his fear, and because I care about him I could sense it coming into my space. I felt my chest and throat tighten. That was my signal to stop on a dime, and just notice what was happening instead of getting caught up in his projection of fear. This allowed me to observe what was happening and step into compassion for him and what he was going through instead of taking it on and letting it impact me negatively.
- Take some deep breaths. Once you stop and notice what is happening, just breathe. Deep breathing is one of the easiest, most convenient and natural tools we have to reduce stress and anxiety. This extra oxygen cleanses, opens and soothes our bodies. When you become stressed or anxious, your brain releases cortisol, the “stress hormone.” By taking deep breaths, your heart rate slows, more oxygen enters your bloodstream and ultimately communicates with the brain to relax. For example, the other day after work I was checking the news on Twitter and going down a rabbit hole on a post about what all the symptoms are of the coronavirus. I felt an increasing tightness in my chest, which is my physical body signal of stress and anxiety increasing. As soon as I noticed this, I shut down the app, put my phone aside, closed my eyes and took several deep breaths. I felt better instantly. Research shows deep breathing not only reduces stress and anxiety but ups your endorphins (the “feel-good” chemical), combats pain, detoxifies the body, improves immunity, increases energy, lowers blood pressure and improves digestion. Amazing!
- Reframe the situation. After you’ve taken some cleansing, deep breaths, take another look at what’s happening. The truth is that we are not in control of what happens around us — a stressful job, a failing economy, the coronavirus. What we are in control of is our reaction to it. We get to choose how we show up every day and rise to the challenges that we’re faced with. And that will only make us stronger — as individuals, societies, nations and the world. For example, I learned recently that my dad has stage-4 cancer. This is devastating. I feel scared and sad. So I recognize and honor these emotions, as they are normal and what’s true in this moment. And what I notice is by meeting the fear and discomfort, it eventually begins to transform. My focus shifts to what I am grateful for about my dad, such as the wonderful memories we have, and some fun ideas on how we will spend the rest of our time together. How you talk to yourself about events, experiences and people in your life plays a large role in shaping how you experience things. When you find yourself viewing something in a negative way or only focusing on the negative aspect of the situation, allow for ways to reframe what’s happening in a more positive light. This combats the negativity bias, and you’ll start to shift your perspective and see things in a new way.
- Get the support you need. Tune into what you need for support. Everyone is different — some people need alone time and others need to interact. Be compassionate with yourself as you recognize and give yourself what you need to cope. For example, you may reach out to a friend and ask them to listen to you as you express how you’re feeling. Or perhaps you may want to schedule some ongoing support sessions with your coach or therapist. For others, you may like to journal about your feelings, meditate or even just get outside and exercise to get your blood flowing. Whatever works for you, make sure to prioritize self-care during these times and eventually you will move into more serenity.
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?
- Ground yourself. As they say on airplanes, in an emergency make sure to put on your oxygen mask first before helping others. The same is true when you’re about to offer support for someone else. Typically, we learn about someone’s anxiety when they reach out with a text, phone call or in-person, and verbally express their distress. As soon as you’re alerted someone is anxious and it’s time to support, check-in with yourself. If you can’t offer support at the time, that’s ok. Just communicate that and allow it to be. However, if you are available, take a moment to quickly ground yourself. I like to imagine myself like a redwood tree, with roots on the bottom of my feet that travel deep into the earth as far out wide as the tree is tall. This quick visualization grounds me into my space in the present moment so I can be solid and strong for the anxious person. From there, I can be more fully present for them and hold space in support.
- Listen with compassion. The best thing you can do is to just listen with compassion as they air their feelings. There’s nothing you have to “do” but just listen and be there for them in a loving way. For example, I recently got a long string of text messages from a dear friend and ex-colleague who is getting let go from her job. She lives in New York where she’s especially being impacted by this global pandemic, and now she’s unemployed. She’s upset, anxious and breaking out in hives. After grounding myself, I texted back, letting her know I am there for her and that I can imagine how hard this must be. I sent virtual hugs and let her know she can call me when she’s ready. She thanked me for the support and when she calls later, I will ground myself again and listen with compassion during this difficult time.
- Encourage deep breaths. If someone is extremely anxious, it can border on panic and they might have trouble breathing. If you notice the person you’re supporting is having a hard time calming down, invite them to take some deep breaths with you, counting up to 5 on the inhale, and counting back down from 5 on the exhale. Deep breathing is one of the easiest, most convenient and natural tools we have to reduce stress and anxiety. Research shows extra oxygen cleanses, opens and soothes our bodies. By taking deep breaths, your heart rate slows, more oxygen enters your bloodstream and ultimately communicates with the brain to relax.
- Ask for what they need. Everyone is different in terms of what they need for support. After you’ve listened and encouraged deep breaths, check in with them gently and ask them what they need. That way, you’re not assuming what they want next and it gives them a chance to check in to their own truth within themselves and find strength in communicating what’s true for them. For example, they may need alone time and want to take a nap. Or, they may want you to give them a hug. Or, they may want your advice on a therapist to speak with. Once you find out what they need, check-in with yourself to determine what aligned for you. Are you able to support in fulfilling what they need? Or, do you need support with supporting them? Based on what you learn about them and yourself, make a choice for the next steps in bringing in additional support as needed.
- Check-in. Once you’ve supported the anxious person in your life and you know what they need, continue to check in with them, and yourself, to make sure you’re both getting what you need. This could be as simple as a phone call an hour, a day or a week later to see how they are doing. Based on what you learn, you can continue to support them by checking in with them on a cadence that feels right to you, and takes into account what the other person needs. With this balance, you’re ultimately taking care of yourself and your boundaries while supporting them in a way that feels good to them along the way.
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?
- Guided meditations are one of the best ways to reduce anxiety quickly and effectively. I recommend apps like Calm, InsightTimer, and Grokker.
- Here are 3 breathing techniques from Dr. Weil that are effective https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/body-mind-spirit/stress-anxiety/breathing-three-exercises/
- Free daily group meditations are being offered through Mindful Leader during the coronavirus pandemic https://www.mindfulleader.org/meditate-together
- There are also support groups you can find through the Anxiety and Depression Association https://adaa.org/supportgroups and The Anxiety Network https://anxietynetwork.com/anxiety-help-and-support
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Happy are those who dream dreams, and are ready to pay the price to make them come true.”
— Leon J Suenes
I heard this quote when I was 14 years old. It was on the back of the book Illusions, a book my Mom was reading at the time. It was her favorite quote, and after reading the book, it became my favorite quote as well.
This was relevant in my life at the time, as I was about to enter high school. This was inspiring for me at the time, as I was entering a new world as a teenager and I was just beginning to envision what I wanted my life to be. What this quote told me is that anything is possible so long as you’re willing to make the necessary sacrifices along the way.
Knowing this universal truth, as I grew older I kept the idea close to my heart that anything I could imagine to be true could come true — and that also to be careful what I wish for because I just might get it. This planted the idea in me that life is limitless and truly anything is possible. It removed the “I can’t” or “it’s not possible” phrases in my language. I knew anything was possible, I just had to be willing to let go of things to make it come true.
I feel this helped give me the courage to fulfill my dream of traveling the world. I had to sacrifice my house, my car, my job, my dog and was even willing to sacrifice my partner to make it happen. This is empowering because it has allowed me to live my life with the perspective that any dream really can come true!
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. 🙂
Everyone takes time to meditate every day! I believe this would bring about world peace 🙂
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