Reduce daily stressors. This could mean learning and practicing stress reduction techniques like breathing exercises, guided relaxation or certain types of meditation. Practicing some of these techniques regularly can take the edge off and bring the nervous system back into balance, bringing more mental clarity and focus and less emotional reactivity. It could also mean becoming more aware of the bigger parts of your life that are causing undue tension and worry — is your relationship with your significant other draining because they travel so much for work? do you feel creatively stifled at your job and unheard by your boss?
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Crow.
Jessica is a meditation, yoga and mind-body wellness instructor with a degree in behavioral neuroscience and a fascination for psychoneuroimmunology- or how thoughts and emotions affect disease processes in the body. Her company CNTRD Wellness specializes in bringing virtual meditation, stress-reduction, and mindfulness programs to companies and employees in the office or working from home. She is the author of three mindfulness-based professional continuing education courses and is a published contributor in Massage Magazine, has taught ‘The Art of Self Care’ and ‘Mindscaping’ in seven different countries, and her first book ‘The Power of Guided Meditation’ is set to be published in early 2021.
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?
Adecade ago I found myself at the end of a long term partnership and at the same time suddenly in the midst of a personal health scare. I had no stress management tools. I knew that if I wanted to feel better each day and live with purpose, I needed to change my lifestyle to include tools for anxiety reduction and mindful ways to reconnect to my higher self.
It was during this time that I was guided to yoga and meditation. I gradually built up my daily practices and studies before attending my first teacher training. It wasn’t long until I started to sense changes in both my physical and mental states. As I started feeling better and regaining personal power, I became fascinated with the brain and the power of thought.
I went back to school to study neurobiology and psychology in-depth. My future plan was drawn up, or so I thought. I planned to finish my Bachelor of Science degree and segue into a program at Stanford to study the neural correlates of compassion, fear, and intuition as they related to modern social behavior. Right around the time I finished my degree and was seeking out internships, I happened to meet my yoga teacher, the world-renowned Sri Dharma Mittra.
He imparted the importance of developing the intuition to guide your path and the daily practice of genuine compassion. Both of these were synchronously in-line with my scientific enthusiasm and I ended up creating a new intuitive path — teaching the science of yoga. Now after years and years of practice, additional study, investigation and integration, I’ve learned to weave this knowledge into my everyday life. It’s made a world of difference. I’ve learned how to stand up for my intuitive sense and create my own health through yoga, meditation and mindfulness.
I am grateful that I can now help guide other people in their quest for healing and a bigger sense of connection in their lives. It gives me joy to share these methods with others and see them rediscover and trust their own innate ability to reinvent their lives and expand beyond what they thought was possible.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I was working as trainer for a non-profit called Wellness for Cancer where I would travel to international resorts and train their spa staff in mindful cancer care techniques. Both my trainings in St. Lucia and in Ireland were interrupted by severe weather. I had just arrived to each before the storms hit and the islands closed down. In St. Lucia it was a massive hurricane, and unexpectedly, in Ireland it was a full-on blizzard with several feet of snow (something that even they weren’t prepared for!). The trainings had to be delayed, running slightly different hours so people could travel safely, and with varying numbers of students (depending on who could get in on a certain day). The additional stress and disorganization were actually a helpful tool for re-focusing on mindfulness and practicing staying in the present moment. Some decisions could only be made hours before class start times, and I had no idea if my flights back home were even possible. I think the presence of so many unknowns made us all a bit more creative, and also more grateful to have the experience at all.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Take your own advice! In my industry it is essential to practice what we preach and teach. If you don’t believe it, if you haven’t lived the power of creating a more mindful lifestyle and habitually exploring self-care, then you won’t be able to impart the importance of it to other people. Keep learning, trying new things, and loving and redefining yourself. And stand for something.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Speaking straight to the leaders, it starts with you! It’s the thoughts & impressions, habits, beliefs and actions of the higher-ups that inform an entire company culture. Get familiar with mindfulness practices. Take a corporate retreat or set up a leadership wellness program and integrate what works best for you into your daily life and into your work. You will be setting an example that is magnetic, with benefits ranging from better communication and more sales to happier and healthier employees and work relationships.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
The five things I’ve found have a pronounced impact on mental wellbeing are:
1- Reduce daily stressors. This could mean learning and practicing stress reduction techniques like breathing exercises, guided relaxation or certain types of meditation. Practicing some of these techniques regularly can take the edge off and bring the nervous system back into balance, bringing more mental clarity and focus and less emotional reactivity. It could also mean becoming more aware of the bigger parts of your life that are causing undue tension and worry — is your relationship with your significant other draining because they travel so much for work? do you feel creatively stifled at your job and unheard by your boss? Fearlessly eliminating larger, chronic stressors from your life can help you realign with your inner knowledge, your passions and your joy for life- creating more mental stability and contentment.
2- Practice gratitude. When we practice gratitude we are choosing to position our attention on our gifts, accomplishments, luck and blessings. By consciously recalling a moment or experience we feel thankful for through meditation or journaling we allow ourselves to feel the positive emotion once again. Our neurochemistry can shift based on what we are imagining and how it feels, and this adjustment can affect how we feel throughout our entire body and mind. Try writing down 5 things you are grateful for each day, either in the morning before the day begins or just before bed. Put it in your calendar, make it a steady habit, and over a period of a month or so begin to notice how it affects your mood and outlook.
3- Get substantial, quality sleep. Many studies indicate that lack of sleep (both short term and chronic) can cause a plethora of undesirable symptoms that affect work, relationships of all kinds, and your personal goals and initiatives. Diminished patience as well as decreases in memory formation and accessibility are common. Executive functioning networks (now thought to only stem from the prefrontal cortex of the brain) seem to work differently when sleep-deprived, negatively affecting self-control, planning and decision-making processes. Most people need 7- 10 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. Get familiar with how you feel with different amounts of sleep, find out what is ideal for you, and become mindful of planning those undisturbed hours into your schedule so you can start the day rejuvenated and mentally fresh.
4- Adopting a mindful communication style. Staying present when listening to others can change how your family, friends, colleagues and community relate to you and ultimately, the quality and depth of these relationships. When we practice mindful listening, for instance, we both strengthen our brain’s general capacity for paying attention to detail and make the other person feel heard and ‘seen’ — an experience that is increasingly rare in this era of near-constant distraction and divided attention. When we learn to listen mindfully to others we also get better at listening to our own inner messages. When you’re in conversation next, try to notice if at any point your mind wanders off and you stop ‘hearing’ what the person is saying. Keep bringing your focus back to the present moment and their words and body language. Later, without self-judgment reflect on where your mind went. Was it planning your response even before the person had finished? Were you reminded of a story? Distracted by something in the environment? Keep practicing this when speaking with different peoples and see if you notice any patterns. The more aware you become of your listening style, the more easily you’ll be able to upgrade it.
5- Make time to laugh and play. This often seems too simple to work, too whimsical or far-fetched, and so many people don’t see it as a serious step in optimizing their mental wellness. But laughter and playfulness are qualities that keep us healthy, physically, mentally and spiritually. The brain releases feel-good neurohormones when our spirit is ignited and immersed in play. Plan an hour or a day per week to do things you used to love as a child (painting, learning an instrument, staring at the clouds, watching sci-fi) but also try new things to see what stimulates you at this point in your life. Follow your curiosities and interests, even if they seem irrational or don’t appear to ‘fit into’ your current lifestyle. Then, mindfully take note of how an activity has affected your mental/emotional state. If it feels uplifting and energizing- keep it around!
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
The two things that pop into my mind are:
Mindfully schedule social events and meetings. They might be as small as a cup of coffee, a short walk or a regular book club meeting, or as big as weekend trip with friends, a retreat or an immersion. Stay active in your social circle, and don’t be afraid to expand that circle, or make it into a square. Keep your mind open.
Which leads me to the next:
Plan to have novel experiences. Brand new experiences affect the brain in amazing ways. They can produce wonder and stimulate imagination and creative expression. Studies even show that novel experiences promote enhanced learning and memory health. Sometimes we need to connect to our sense of fascination. We can cultivate genuine interest in a new hobby, experience or relationship if we become aware of our mental and spiritual limitations and allow our awareness to stay open to the unknown.
How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?
Start meditating now and make mindfulness a part of your daily routine. The earlier you start the more ingrained the practice becomes and the benefits — like being able to temper stress and fear, make unclouded decisions, and lead with pure self-confidence — will guide you on your best path. Increasing mindfulness and self-awareness through reflective practices helps to counter the immense pressure put on young adults through social media (comparison causes depression and lowered self-esteem) and also by the state of the world today (which is increasing uncertainty and anxiety about the future).
Try different types of meditation, breathing exercises, or mindful movement (staying present when practicing yoga or going for a run or swim, etc.), mindfulness, and self-reflection to counter the negative effects of social media saturation.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
I’m an avid reader, so choosing just one is not easy but what’s coming to mind is ‘Creative Visualization’ by Shakti Gawain. I first got this book when I was 16 years old and I still have it and refer to it. It was one of the first texts to stimulate my curiosity for the mind-body connection, visualization and meditation. When it was originally published in 1978 there was practically no scientific research to prop up the mental and physical benefits of meditation, breathing, affirmations or visualization, and now we have catalogues of evidence that these practices can affect our physical, mental and emotional health immensely. Now the use of yoga, meditation and mindful programs in hospitals, universities and corporations is soaring as people learn how simple it actually is to create a sense of wellbeing by practicing more conscious control over their mindsets.
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. 🙂
Global meditation could realistically change the world for the better. In a very real, tangible way, if most of the world adopted some form of meditation and mindfulness practices into their daily lives, and actually made them into a habit that was as important as any other, the positive impact would be seen worldwide. I believe we would have a calmer, more compassionate society, one that is healthier in every facet of being, and that many more people would begin to know true happiness and contentment as they come to know themselves and grow into themselves in ways they never imagined.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“If you open your heart and become like a child, you will always be blissful, always content.” and
“Everything depends on your mental attitude.” — Sri Dharma Mittra
These quotes from my dear teacher have kept me on track in difficult times, especially when facing fears or facing ‘unknowns’ in my life. These reminders that most of what we experience, and the quality of those experiences stem largely from our mindstate is something I am reflecting on now in the midst of the pandemic and economic global crisis. We can’t be positive all of the time, and we shouldn’t try to be positive all of the time. We need to experience a full range of emotions. But when we can remain open and become more mindful of the innate joy and livelihood inside of us our experience is colored in a new light.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Follow me on Instagram: @CNTRD_wellness
or Facebook and LinkedIn: CNTRDwellness
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!