“Participate in a task one-mindfully.” With Beau Henderson & Dr. Amanda Darnley

Mindfulness is often described as a state of nonjudgmental present awareness. If we break that down, it means bringing your attention to your inner world (your thoughts, emotions, physical sensations), and the outer world (what is going on around you) without labeling anything as “good or bad”, “right or wrong”, etc. When you practice mindfulness, […]

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Mindfulness is often described as a state of nonjudgmental present awareness. If we break that down, it means bringing your attention to your inner world (your thoughts, emotions, physical sensations), and the outer world (what is going on around you) without labeling anything as “good or bad”, “right or wrong”, etc. When you practice mindfulness, you are noticing your experience without trying to push it away or deny it. You are also not trying to pull it closer or amplify it. You are simply letting it be.

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

Dr. Darnley is a licensed psychologist with over a decade of experience. She has extensive training in empirically supported treatments, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy, which teaches mindfulness as a core skill to help regulate emotions, tolerate distress, and improve interpersonal relationships. Dr. Darnley divides her time between consulting for local nonprofit, supervising graduate students, seeing clients in her private practice, and chasing her toddler.

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?

Thanks so much for having me! I’ve always been driven to help people and from a pretty young age had aspirations to go into a healing profession. In high school I thought I wanted to work in an emergency room (the show ER was very popular when I was growing up). I shadowed an emergency room doctor my senior year and quickly found out that I get queasy at the sight of someone else’s blood. Nonetheless, I forged ahead and went into college declared as a pre-med major. Well, in the very first biology class the professor lectured us on how we wouldn’t have a life outside of work and school until our mid-thirties if we pursued a career in medicine. This sounded like too much of a commitment for my 17-year-old self, so I dropped the class. The only other course that fit into my schedule at the time was Intro to Psych and from day one, I was hooked. Ironically, I ended up dedicating just as much time to studying psychology as I would have going into medicine! But psychology is where I was supposed to be. It is definitely my calling.

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

This is a tough one! My job itself is interesting. I’ve worked in a bunch of different settings- inpatient hospitals, residential treatment facilities, outpatient clinics, and private practice. And I am consistently amazed at the sheer resilience of the human spirit. It’s such an honor to be present to those “aha moments” when clients recognize patterns that are keeping them from living their best lives.

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

The best, most effective treatment teams I have ever been a part of were those that empowered everyone to share their ideas and hold one another accountable. To successfully create a culture like this, especially where there are power differentials and performance reviews (as is often the case on therapeutic treatment teams) you need to build a solid foundation of trust among all team members so that everyone, from CEO to intern, feels comfortable being vulnerable with one another.

As a supervisor, I believe the best way to establish trust is to model the behaviors I want to see on my team. I typically prioritize the following:

  1. Self-awareness. Know your strengths and your limits. Spend some time reflecting on what goes well and what doesn’t. Seek out feedback from team members.
  2. Validate others. Actively listen without judgment. Communicate an understanding of another’s perspective, especially before sharing your own thoughts.
  3. Accountability (with kindness). We all have missteps and blind spots. Own up to your mistakes and take the necessary steps to correct them. Do it with kindness- don’t beat yourself up over them.

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?

There have been a bunch. The one that is coming to mind at the moment is Braving the Wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone by Brene Brown, Ph.D., LMSW. As soon as I got it, I read it cover to cover three times, underlining and dog-earing pages to return to for quick refreshers. Brene Brown is masterful at talking about topics most people shy away from, like shame and vulnerability and our need to belong. Aside from appreciating her conversational style of writing, I really resonated with her call to own and share our stories (the good, the bad, and the ugly), because allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is the only way we will be able to truly connect with each other. And for this type-A, recovering perfectionist living in an ever-polarized world, that message really hit home.

I loved the book so much that I gifted it to all of my graduate students that year.

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 is often described as a state of nonjudgmental present awareness. If we break that down, it means bringing your attention to your inner world (your thoughts, emotions, physical sensations), and the outer world (what is going on around you) without labeling anything as “good or bad”, “right or wrong”, etc. When you practice mindfulness, you are noticing your experience without trying to push it away or deny it. You are also not trying to pull it closer or amplify it. You are simply letting it be.

Two things: I say “practice” mindfulness, because we are not used to living mindfully. We exist in a society where multi-tasking and the pursuit of happiness reign supreme; both of which are the antithesis of mindfulness. So, it takes a concerted effort, especially in the beginning, to be mindful. Second, I think mindfulness often gets confused with meditation, and though meditation often requires you to be mindful, they are not one and the same. A nice way to differentiate them is through their main objectives. The aim of meditation is to enter into a deep, restful state, whereas the purpose of mindfulness is simply to become aware.

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?

To answer this question, it might be helpful to briefly talk about what it’s like when we are not mindful. Have you ever had to re-read a paragraph in a book multiple times because when you got to the bottom of the page you realized you didn’t retain any of it? Have you ever been so enraged that you sent a text you later regretted? Both of these situations highlight non-mindful behavior. In the first, we’re zoning out and essentially detached from the present task; and in the second we are overidentifying with our present emotion. Being mindful is the sweet spot in the middle where we are not detached and we aren’t overidentifying; we are alert and observing.

There are a ton of benefits to practicing mindfulness. Research has found that it reduces stress, improves relationships, lowers blood pressure, reduces depression and anxiety, and generally increases overall well-being. Practicing mindfulness accomplishes this in a few different ways:

  • Being present to our current emotion gives us more control over our behavior and helps us to make grounded decisions. When we can observe our feelings and the urges associated with them, we give ourselves space to select a response, rather than immediately reacting.
  • Focusing on one thing at a time, rather than multi-tasking, can help us become more effective and productive.
  • Fully participating in the here and now, as opposed to worrying about the future or regretting the past reduces suffering and cultivates joy.

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.

Great question. I agree, the past few years have certainly been difficult and cultivating a sense of calm in the midst of a global pandemic is a tall order. But I believe it can be done.

  1. If you are new to mindfulness, I would recommend journaling for a few minutes each day. This will help you get into the habit of noticing your thoughts and feelings without acting on them.
  2. Practice taking a non-judgmental stance. Stick to observable facts. Instead of complaining about how your roommate “is an idiot”, explain how “you feel irritated when he leaves dishes in the sink”. Maintaining a nonjudgmental stance is an essential part of mindfulness.

When we are overwhelmed and anxious, there’s a good chance our minds and bodies are not in the same place. Our minds are likely living in the future playing out apocalyptic scenarios, while our bodies are washing our hands for the millionth time (for the recommended 20 seconds). In moments where we catch our minds spiraling in the “what ifs”, it is helpful to bring ourselves back into our bodies. Here are a few techniques that are really great for this:

  1. 5–4–3–2–1 grounding technique. What you want to do here is engage all 5 senses to bring you into present awareness. Start with 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you are touching, 2 things you smell, 1 thing you taste. Welcome back to the present moment.
  2. Participate in a task one-mindfully. I don’t know about you, but I do a lot of day dreaming/worrying during mundane chores, like folding laundry. If you catch your mind catastrophizing, bring yourself back to the task at hand. It’s helpful to remind yourself “just this one moment, just this one task”. Just fold this one towel.
  3. Pay attention to your breath. You can do this anywhere, anytime. You don’t need to change or control your breath, just notice how the air feels as you breath in and out. Count the seconds it takes you to inhale, and if you want to feel calmer, try exhaling for one or two seconds longer than the inhale.
  4. I want to acknowledge the fact that the present moment may not be all that pleasant. As you mentioned, the ‘here and now’ can be rife with fear, sadness, loneliness, anger, you name it. The point in highlighting this, is that being mindful and attending to the present moment may not necessarily lead to serenity. In fact, paying attention to the here and now might lead to some really stressful feelings. The goal isn’t to not experience them, or to get rid of them, it’s to effectively cope with them; and your power to cope solely exists in the present moment.

I read this quote recently and I think it sums this all up pretty nicely, “Mindfulness transports you to a place of what is rather than what if”.

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?

Validate, validate, validate! When someone is feeling anxious, the last thing they want to hear is “Relax” or “Just stay positive”, no matter how well-meaning the intention. And while platitudes like “It will all work out in the end” may briefly offer a glimmer of reassurance, ultimately, it’s not going to really help someone move through their anxiety.

Validation is key. Take their worries seriously. Really listen to their concerns and convey that you understand why they might feel the way they do, without offering solutions. Once someone feels heard and understood, they will be more likely to engage in some problem-solving and you can suggest any of the five options I just mentioned.

We are living in uncertain times. It is normal to feel anxious and uneasy right now. But if the anxiety is so severe that it is getting in the way of your day to day activities, it might be time to seek out professional help.

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

You don’t need anything special to cultivate mindfulness in your everyday life! You just need to practice. Brushing your teeth before bed and notice your mind wandering to all the things that went wrong that day? Good. Noticing your mind wandering is being mindful. Pull it back to the present moment and focus on how it feels to brush your teeth.

If you are looking for some extra help with a side of serenity, I’d suggest doing some guided meditations. There are a ton of free meditations online and there are also a bunch of free mindfulness apps for your phone.

If you are physically able to, practicing yoga is also a great way to strengthen your mind-body connection in the here and now through your breath and movement.

Whichever way you choose to do it, the more you practice, the more it will become second nature to you.

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

I love this quote by Ram Dass, “We’re all just walking each other home”. I find myself coming back to it time and time again, especially in some of those tougher moments. It’s a quick and powerful reminder that we are all in this life together, which I find immensely comforting and motivating.

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. 🙂

We need to do a better job at caring for new moms in this country. Screening for perinatal mood disorders at the pediatrician’s office is a start, but it’s not enough. I’d love to see maternal mental health care that begins at prenatal checkups and continues through the postpartum period. It would be great to get mental health practitioners to check in with mothers before they even leave the hospital to set up in-home sessions, at least for the first few months postpartum.

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

You can find me on Instagram @hey.dr.d and #southphillypsychologist for daily wellness tips, motivation and the occasional mom-joke. If you are looking for some additional mental health resources or to schedule a consult, head to my website at www.chrysocolla-counseling.com.

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

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