We need to make time for physical activity and stay present in these moments to cultivate overall mindfulness. If you can, please take walks while safely distancing yourself from others, but also take the time to tune into your senses during your walk and just notice the things you see, hear, smell, and feel.
Asa part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anthony Nave, LCSW.
Anthony Nave is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Senior Manager of Outpatient Services at Mountainside treatment center in Canaan, Connecticut. In addition to holding master’s degrees in Educational Psychology and Clinical Social Work, he is advanced certified in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and is currently an EMDR Consultant-in-Training. In his current role, he designs curriculums for clinical programming and incorporates interpersonal neurobiology and a trauma-responsive framework into one-on-one counseling, group therapy, family sessions, and supervision.
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?
Thank you for giving me the time! I definitely did not have a direct path to this point in my career. I originally envisioned myself being a Social Studies teacher during the day and a coach in the evening. That feels like a long time ago now. I did complete undergraduate programs and became a certified teacher, but, looking back at it, I was left wanting to know more after taking psychology and child development/learning courses. Instead of going a more traditional route and pursuing a Master’s in History, Secondary Education, or School Administration, I chose to enroll in Educational Psychology, which had a focus on adolescent development.
While in graduate school, I worked a couple of jobs to build my teaching resume, and one of those positions was as a Group Leader at the New Hope Community Center in Poughkeepsie, New York, where I worked with at-risk students in the After School and Summer Camp programs. These lived experiences opened my mind to the idea that traditional classroom learning alone would not help students grow to their full potential. They would also benefit from mentorship and opportunities for one-on-one learning. Hoping to merge this realization with my love of teaching, I continued to teach after finishing graduate school, but took positions working in alternative therapeutic schools. In the first school, I worked with students struggling with different types of emotional and behavioral disorders, and later, those with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Over those ten years when I first started as a student teacher and later became an Applied Behavior Analyst (ABA) Therapist, I learned a lot, and even met my wife along the way.
However, I also saw the different systems — such as the community, education, and family — at play in the students’ lives, and continued to feel frustrated and limited in my role due to some barriers within those systems. I met a lot of great psychologists and clinicians along the way and remembered the versatility and different options that social workers had available to them to help people feel more attuned to the different facets of their lives. So, I decided to take the leap and go back to school for a second Masters in Clinical Social Work. Since then, I have continued to go where help is needed. I have grown into specialty areas of clinical practice in trauma and addiction, helping clients tap into their resiliency and connect with the different systems and communities in their life.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I feel like I am always learning and living through new interesting lessons from clients. Okay, so I don’t know if this is the most interesting, but this experience with a student has always stood out to me and resonates with me more now than it did at the time. I met this student, who was transferred from public school to my school because he often struggled with aggression. I never understood the stories I had heard about his aggressive behavior because he was always the calmest and most polite in our classroom. There were subtle behaviors, like not wanting to talk to his clinician or to attend sessions when they came to pull him from class, and there were times he was awkward around other students. I was naïve, maintaining the same teaching style with him in class and playing catch or Uno with him during his breaks and recess.
During one lesson though, I triggered him when I pressured him to answer a question and used sarcasm, which I thought was safe to do based on how our relationship had formed so far during the school year. I was wrong, and it was almost as if a different person had entered the classroom. He quickly threw a chair at me and grabbed a pencil in a fight response. The situation escalated and resulted in him being placed into a hold by myself and other staff. There was a process where he was temporarily separated from the group and moved to another room before returning to the classroom with the other students. I empathized with him and made sure I was the teaching staff member that went with him to get the rest of his work done. We did not talk much for the rest of the day; I just sat in the room with him while he worked.
Before the end of the day, I went to debrief with him, which was part of the behavior plans in place at the school. I started to try and do it the “right way,” but it felt off. So I stopped, just saying sorry and laughing about how often I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. He laughed at me in the moment, too. Over the next few weeks, our interactions remained similar to life before that rupture. It was later in the year when we were playing catch during one of the movement breaks when he randomly brought up that day. He explained to me that it meant a lot to him how I volunteered to stick with him after he got upset, and when I said sorry and did not pretend to know the right way to help.
It felt good that he said that, but I still felt like a failure and did not understand how what I did was helpful. I would learn later that he was in foster care for being physically and emotionally abused. I can understand now the healing power of a secure attachment, of being there more often than not, modeling vulnerability, along with the growth that can come from a healthy rupture and repair when in a safe relationship. I hold on to that lesson as I continue to learn new theories or become certified in different interventions. At the end of the day, those methods are only helpful when the foundation is built on a healthy therapeutic relationship. At times, such interventions can be distractions, keeping us from being present in the room and fostering a healing relationship.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Genuinely live and model the belief that you are always learning something new. From my own experiences, the best work environments have been fostered by leaders who provided certainty that “we” can figure it out, as opposed to an environment fostered by leaders trying to provide the unsustainable certainty that they had it all figured out. Being able to practice and teach flexibility prevents a team from being too rigid or chaotic, and promotes resiliency in maneuvering and resolving a variety of challenges.
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?
I continue to read, but there was a time when I was reading at an anxious pace to find a headspace where I felt like I knew what I was doing in my clinical practice. I was fortunate to be placed under a supervisor who understood the feeling: Seon Kim, LMFT, who is Assistant Clinical Director at Mountainside (where I currently work). He pointed out to me that knowing too much theory or too many interventions can just continue to foster uncertainty and undermine the common factors and ultimately effectiveness of my clinical practice. Of course, I doubted him, and at this point in my life, I was already taking what I wanted and leaving the rest. But I took his suggestion to read, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, by Dr. Daniel Siegel. Seon knew based on our discussions that the core values in this book matched mine, and Dr. Siegel’s explanation of interpersonal neurobiology helped to ground me and soothe the anxiety.
It was at this point I was able to understand what the student meant in the story I shared earlier. It helped me to remember the common factors in my practice, such as being able to attune, resonate, and establish a warm holding environment to foster change. It put words and terms to things I felt I knew without knowing what to call them. It also helped me to realize that nature and nurture are not two separate entities that are independent of one another. Even the language of rigidity and chaos, and the goal of not working towards control but towards flexibility in self-regulation, are theories and terms used by Dr. Siegel in this book and others he wrote. His works highlight that creating healthy well-being means being present, balancing awareness of the outer and inner senses, and integrating all of the information exchanged between our minds, brains, and relationships.
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?
I have often heard others use the term “awareness” when describing mindfulness. I feel that word can capture a chunk of the concept, but at the same time, does not offer the full story. I think words such as “attunement” and “resonance” need to be paired with awareness. The word “mind” describes an entity that is a product of the marriage between nature and nurture, which creates the felt forces and energies interwoven within our brains, bodies, and relationships. To be mindful is to practice being present using several steps.
Exercise the mind to be aware of itself and this flow of felt energies. Once this awareness is achieved, we need to resonate with that felt experience. Then, attune to the communication this energy was meant to be in order to set an intention or purpose with what was learned. I feel like I am headed into Dr. Strange territory from the Marvel world, but someone we view as mindful is more often than not able to tune in and out of this flow of information. They can do so with awareness and intention, allowing them to have greater mental flexibility to balance and integrate these parts. A mindful person can more easily choose what actions to take next, as opposed to feeling overwhelmed or stuck with either/or choices to make.
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?
Of course! It is important to remember that someone who can be mindful is not necessarily happy all the time. But being mindful is beneficial in the sense that one has the flexibility to act or cope with what is happening in the moment, and able to shorten the time one stays in an uncomfortable activated state. Physically, we often minimize or confuse the somatic sensations we feel throughout the day as something else, and we do not understand them as communication. When we are not well-integrated or mindful, we often will experience frequent headaches, stomach aches, back pain, other muscle tension, lethargy, or — for those of us who grind our teeth when we are sleeping, myself included — mouth sores. These sensations will continue because the body does not feel heard. So, if we grow more aware and attuned to our bodies through mindfulness, these somatic sensations are less frequent and continue for shorter durations.
Additionally, mindfulness may help us feel more energetic or rested overall. Emotionally, we will start to have smaller peaks and valleys, or less frequent ones. We may have moments of sadness, anxiety, and anger, but when we are mindful, we will tend to stay in these states for less time. If these feeling states become shorter in duration, they will grow to be less frequent over time, as there will be fewer short- and long-term consequences of the negative actions we take while in this headspace that can lead to future scenarios of sadness, anxiety, or anger. As a result, more often than not we will feel content. Through mindfulness, a wider window of tolerance forms, meaning we are not hyper-aroused (overwhelmed) or hypo-aroused (shut down) often. We can mentally process more information, which leads to a deeper level of attunement in our relationships, a wider variety of perspectives, and ultimately, the ability to think of a larger selection of actions or responses to choose from in our daily lives. We will become more understanding and have an easier time focusing.
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.
As a rule, it’s going to take practice to develop mindfulness, and to do so without judgement. These are uncertain times, so practice not judging yourself for feeling anxious, depressed, sad, or grieving the loss of the life we had before these times and those we have lost to COVID-19.
- We can set time in the day to complete a task or goal, and practice being present in what it takes to complete the task. Try not to be multi-tasking too much during this time. The goal is to work out the brain in a focused manner. For example, this can be learning a new recipe to cook, a new song to play, a new yoga pose, or completing a chapter in a book you are reading. Body scan yourself after to feel the sense of accomplishment physically.
- It is hard during this time, but we need to practice mindfulness in our relationships and exercise the mind through connections and play. Eat dinner with others in the household when possible (making sure to put aside distractions) or have video chat dinners, play games, experience new music or shows together, or try new workout routines together. This can be done with those you are sheltering-in-place with or virtually with loved ones you are not able to be with in person. Remember to pause from time to time to check-in with yourself physically and how you feel in these moments to soak it in. Explore virtual groups you can attend with others as well. There are still community support meetings that have adapted to the times to be virtual.
- We need to make time for physical activity and stay present in these moments to cultivate overall mindfulness. If you can, please take walks while safely distancing yourself from others, but also take the time to tune into your senses during your walk and just notice the things you see, hear, smell, and feel. If space is limited in your hometown area, practicing this same approach of tuning into your senses for part of your in-home workout will also help.
- We can practice meditation and self-reflection through writing, art, and music to develop the ability to “tune in.” Part of being mindful is being able to tune in and out for at least ten minutes a day. The goal in this practice is to really notice bodily sensations, feelings, thoughts, or memories, letting them come into awareness and then letting them pass. Being able to tune out is important as well, and guided meditations focused on reducing stress, creating a calm place, or progressive muscle relaxation are helpful. Other grounding techniques include creating art, such as mandalas or Zentangles, trying adult coloring books, gardening, and playing or listening to music. Breathing exercises and gentle stretching yoga are great for this, too.
- This may seem too simple, but it is crucial that we additionally practice good sleep habits. Rest is what helps the brain to recharge and be mindful in the first place. I know from my own experience during this shelter-in-place time that sleep can easily be impacted. Routines have changed; for those new to working remotely, the boundaries of home and work life have been enmeshed, and the constant feeling of Groundhog Day can impact our mood, leading to staying up late and sleeping in more. Finding a consistent and healthy sleep regimen will help us mindfully get through this period in our lives.
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?
- Take the time to sit, be present in conversations with others, and listen without trying to fix anything. This can make a tremendous difference for loved ones struggling with anxiety. As a helper, it will be hard to do this because we all want to rescue, but through my experience, helping someone self-regulate is helping someone feel understood. As a result, an anxious loved one is able to better attune with you, and this gives them the time and space to match you and start feeling more grounded again.
- Include others in parts of your new daily routine, whether it is walking together, eating together, working out together, or watching movies and shows together. This sense of connection and modeling how to take time to tune out will alleviate some anxiety.
- Practice breathing exercises, grounding meditations, art directives, and gentle stretching yoga together, if you are invited to help. Loved ones may be more receptive to doing these activities with a companion. This is due to the power of secure attachments that give us a sense of safety to explore, and then combined with Lev Vygotsky’s concept of proximal development we achieve a greater potential to learn with others than on our own.
- Create and complete at least one task a day together to foster a sense of resiliency during uncertain times. Together, you can paint the room you have neglected in the house, clean the basement or the junk closet that has been overlooked, or get the yard work done. I am suggesting these tasks specifically because often, our external environment can get messy or cluttered and start to reflect how we are feeling internally, or start us down a path of feeling depressed or overwhelmed.
- If a loved one’s anxiety continues to escalate, use the trust you have in your relationships to be vulnerable about your concern, and gentle in your encouragement to reach out for help. Many clinicians have adjusted to the current situation, and are offering therapeutic services through telehealth.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
When we have gotten through this time, I feel the best way to be more mindful moving forward is by living and experiencing it. We can only learn so much by reading about it. Explore and try meditation and yoga classes with others, add massage therapy or acupuncture into your routine, and get out into nature by hiking or trying new physical activities. Experience the trial and error process to see what works best for your mindful daily routine; this process in itself shows you are being mindful of who you are and what you need in this present moment.
There are also currently some helpful apps like Insight Timer, Headspace, Calm, Aura, Breethe, and many others. Dr. Dan Siegel has helpful books such as Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation and Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence. Another read that I have found helpful that offers a different perspective is The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, by Don Miguel Ruiz.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I’m not going to lie, this question makes me the most anxious to answer so far. I am sure someone has already said this at some point, but, “You have to feel your way through life. You can’t think through it.” For me, it helps to remember that the times I always felt stuck in life or in my career were when I thought I had a plan, or when I was constantly searching for knowledge to improve my plan. The times I found success or was able to learn from failure were when I have leaned into my emotions, made myself vulnerable, and remained flexible about whatever came next. In reality, when it comes to thinking or feeling, it’s not one or the other. We only get genuine information from the awareness of our sensations and feelings, and then we can use that information to think about what the next best thing is for us. When we think first, we create false feelings and get stuck spiraling with limited options for action as a result. This realization to not overthink everything has benefited me in both my personal and professional life. It was scary and felt daunting to go back to school while trying to help raise a family and work full-time. Rationally, it didn’t make a lot of sense as far as a plan. Luckily, I wasn’t logical, and here we are now.
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. 🙂
This is a combination of the history teacher and the social worker in me, but I would like us to re-energize an old movement and focus on the broad issue of poverty to help build a better sense of community again. As part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society vision, he started a Community Action program through the Economic Opportunity Act. This program adapted a novel approach in which federal funds were allocated directly to community organizations, who were in charge of designing and staffing local programs as well as distributing resources to the neighborhood. Its main goals were to help those struggling to meet basic needs and ensure they had the necessary skills to find security in the work force. I feel that would go a long way for a lot of people in terms of feeling connected and part of a community again.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
You can find me on LinkedIn, and find out what the team and I are working on by following Mountainside on Facebook.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!