… in the context of this pandemic, we have the opportunity to remember the value of small gestures: a chalk message was written on the sidewalk, a daily riddle posted in a neighbor’s window, an unexpected text or note, or a small flower left in a doorway. Small surprises let people know we are holding them in mind.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christina Biedermann, Psy.D., an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Adler University in Chicago and a practicing clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst. Dr. Biedermann is also on the Clinical Associate Faculty of the Chicago Center for Psychoanalysis and owns Northside Chicago Psychology for Women, PLLC. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Davidson College and a Doctor of Psychology from the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
In addition to serving as an Assistant Professor at Adler University in Chicago, I am a practicing clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst. I am on the Clinical Associate Faculty of the Chicago Center for Psychoanalysis and own Northside Chicago Psychology for Women, PLLC.
The thread through my career has been the study of psychological trauma. In college, I began working with children and adolescents living in residential facilities and became interested in ways they were managing, representing, and moving through traumatic experience. I then pursued training at the Victims of Violence Program at Cambridge Health Alliance/Harvard Medical School, an innovative, community-based feminist trauma clinic before pursuing specialty training in trauma, particularly military sexual trauma, at a Veteran’s Affairs hospital in western Massachusetts. Increasingly focused on how people make meaning of their lives, I pursued postdoctoral psychoanalytic training at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, MA.
Psychoanalytic training afforded me the opportunity to learn more about the complexities of the individual mind and the ways it both reflects and shapes greater social systems. Greater understanding of group dynamics and social forces was a hidden gem in my psychoanalytic training; it helped me understand constructive and destructive societal processes that might otherwise seem irrational. It linked my interest in the individual mind with my interest in community health, and helped me find a place to stand in relation to it.
After working at Austen Riggs for 12 years, my family relocated to Chicago. I wanted to continue teaching and training, particularly to pass along what I had learned about the relevance of psychoanalytic thinking to addressing greater social problems. I chose to teach at Adler University because of its serious commitment to social justice and to training mental health practitioners to think critically about clinical practice and the creative possibilities therein. At Adler, I feel challenged to teach and apply what I know, as well as to develop new ways of thinking. I also find it meaningful and stimulating to do all of this in Chicago. Chicago is a vibrant, diverse city actively wrestling with some of our most challenging contemporary social issues.
Can you share a brief story about something interesting that has happened to you since you started your career?
That’s an interesting question as the two things that come to mind are bookends in some ways: the first happened at the beginning of my career whereas the second was more recent, in the context of the global pandemic we are all now in.
More recently, the global pandemic has laid bare the ways we are interconnected, as well as the inequalities embedded in those relationships. As COVID-19 ravages our communities of color, differential access to health care and exposure to the stressors that contribute to chronic medical conditions are clear. In real time, they are translating to immediate, concrete, and deadly health outcomes. Without the pandemic, so many of these factors have gone unrecognized by those privileged enough to avoid them. This pandemic is calling all of us to recognize our interconnectedness, how we are and are not participating in our communities, and how we must lift up everyone. To do so, we must remain aware, empowered, and committed to recognizing each other’s humanity.
Earlier in my career, while I was at Davidson College, I had the opportunity to travel across Central America and visit several non-governmental organizations committed to fighting social injustice, from providing housing for children sniffing glue on the streets to providing after-school childcare to children at risk for joining violent street gangs. Toward the end of the trip, I was somewhat overwhelmed, particularly when I recognized the ways my country, the United States, had participated to create some of the political and economic vacuums contributing to such devastating social conditions. I asked a group of women and teenagers who had gathered in a community center to meet with me what I, as only one person, might do. Nearly in unison, they said, “Solidaridad,” which in English translates to “solidarity.” Even when I was not able to act to change their immediate circumstances, they invited me to stand in solidarity with them. From their perspectives, recognizing and holding their experience in mind was meaningful action.
I have revisited this over time, at once recognizing the power in holding others in mind and also struggling with whether that is enough. This has been in mind again recently, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as we are needing simultaneously to distance ourselves from one another and to join together to address a crisis that is disproportionately affecting our most vulnerable communities.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
In the context of this interview, I find myself thinking about this question in terms of the links between mindfulness, community, and work.
In ways that are short-sighted, contemporary work culture, at least in the United States, often overlooks life beyond work. We ignore, for example, the clear personal and professional benefits of rest, rejuvenation, and engagement with non-work activities. We forget that time away from works actually fosters productivity, creativity, and worker satisfaction; and, we forget that healthy, satisfied citizens create healthy families and societies.
Leaders have great opportunities, perhaps even responsibilities, to apply what we know about the connection between healthy work lives and communities. Therein, they have the potential to act not only as work leaders but also as citizens. Leaders have the power to create conditions that foster societal health.
Beyond creating the policies that contribute to healthy workplaces, effective leaders can also foster community by articulating their organizational missions clearly. Institutional missions highlight the connections between the organization’s work and its social function. They distill the work group’s purpose. As leaders negotiate institutional missions with their employees, they create opportunities for joining. Inviting each person to find a personal connection to their work, and to those they are working with, creates vital community.
This is, of course, easier said than done. It is a process that requires vision, reflective space, and time. You could argue that is an exercise in institutional mindfulness. I must admit, many, if not most of these thoughts, are not my own. A mentor of mine, Edward Shapiro, M.D., has spent much of his career developing these ideas. In 2019, he published a book I would recommend that lays out his thinking, Finding A Place To Stand: Developing Self-Reflective Institutions, Leaders, and Citizens.
I’ve also been thinking about this recently, as I’ve joined the faculty at Adler University. Adler does a great job in this domain. It has one of the best articulated institutional missions I have seen, with a clear focus on the links between individual and community mental health, social justice, and the education of future practitioners. My colleagues and I join one another in this superordinate task. I feel an appreciable sense of community, as well as a direction and motivation for my work.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you and your career? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I mentioned earlier that I trained at the Victims of Violence program at the Cambridge Health Alliance/Harvard Medical School. It is a program that developed under the direction of Judith Herman, M.D. She challenged the field of psychiatry to see the ways it was blind to and perhaps even reinforcing oppressive social forces that contributed to patients’ suffering. Her book, Trauma and Recovery, was a game changer for me; it was written in 1992 and re-released in 2015. It is an astute, fearless critique that not only outlines problems but also illuminates the clinical utility in engaging the social forces that contribute to them. Guided by what she learned from her patients, Herman suggests that to fully recover from trauma, particularly trauma perpetrated in the context of close relationships, patients must find ways to rejoin the social order. She suggests activism as a way to do that. Dr. Herman also suggests clinicians working with trauma survivors might use activism as a means of staying present as witnesses to their patients’ experiences, thereby empowering the clinicians to do their work effectively over time. Reading Trauma and Recovery was the first time I was able to link my interests in clinical work and social justice, and my roles as clinician and citizen. It also demonstrated a deeply respectful way of listening to and learning from patients that I continued in my psychoanalytic training.
From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
First, I’m really glad you’re asking this question. Mindfulness is a word used so often that we are at risk for talking about different things without knowing it.
Most basically, I think being mindful is being fully aware of yourself and your surroundings. Not only does this sound deceptively simple, but also like “self-care,” as we reference “mindfulness” more and more frequently, we risk eclipsing its nuances and the challenges in practicing it. Rather than conceptualizing mindfulness as an ongoing, ultimately impossible, and sometimes radically countercultural pursuit, it is increasingly equated with digitized reminders to take quick breathing breaks. Although of course pausing to breathe is beneficial, the ongoing pursuit of a mindful stance offers much more than that. It means not only attending to your internal experience but also to the environment around you; and, it means acknowledging and staying present with all of it, including what is hard, shameful, or threatening.
While being aware of and present with so much information at once is inherently challenging, it can be particularly challenging to acknowledge our impact on our environments. Fully recognizing our impact on others and on our physical surroundings is complicated, particularly when doing so means we become aware of how we participate in social systems and ways of living that disadvantage others or damage the natural world. When one has the privilege of generally living at a distance from this awareness, becoming fully mindful can feel threatening. The potential of intentional, mindful reflection is that it allows us to approach these challenges from a stance of curiosity, neutrality, and calm. With practice, we can increase our capacities to face ourselves and our worlds more fully.
It is when “mindfulness” is limited to deep breathing or depicted as simple sojourns into serenity that we lose its full potential to connect to ourselves and our worlds, and to access all of these longer term benefits along the way.
Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
The physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful are clearly established. You can easily find a trove of professional and popular literature on the subject, and you only need to practice mindfulness in small ways to experience convincing benefits. For example, when we are mindful and approach eating thoughtfully, we eat less and what we do eat is more healthy. Our immune systems are strengthened when we are attentive to our needs for sleep and hydration, and when we intentionally manage stress. Mentally, we are more focused, clear-headed, and generative when we take the time to register and work through our experiences fully and calmly. We also have the opportunity to live with an increasing sense of coherence and integrity as we work toward knowing ourselves more deeply. Emotionally, as we are mindful, we become more attentive to our internal states and motivations and, thus, act less impulsively and irrationally; we can become more in charge of our feelings as we are more aware of them.
More generally, mindfulness combats the exhaustion that stems from the efforts we put forth (both in and out of our awareness) to manage what we are anxious about. With those energies freed up, we have more opportunities to be effective and empathic, and to contribute to our communities. The benefits of mindfulness then become synergistic: as what helps one person in turn helps their communities, and inspires feelings of belonging, agency, and connection in return.
The past five 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 COVID-19 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? Please share a story or example for each.
First, I’d recommend taking care of your foundation: your physical body. This includes getting adequate sleep, nutrition, exercise, and hydration. Turn electronic devices off at least 30 minutes before you sleep.
Second, I’d suggesting taking a few minutes each morning to pause, reflect on the day before, and set your intentions for the coming day. You might ask yourself: What would you do differently than yesterday? What challenges did you face? How might you innovate or create in response? What could you let go? What are your priorities for the day ahead? These moments of reflection are opportunities to treat yourself generously and kindly; you should not expect yourself to be at peak performance in the midst of a global pandemic. As you set your intentions for the day, I’d also recommend being thoughtful about your exposure to news and social media. Without a plan, it is easy to get pulled into the 24-hour news cycle or curated social media in ways that only amplify anxiety. Choose to view only what you need in order to keep you and those around you safe.
Third, spend time interacting with the physical world. Although the benefits of the digital world are clearer now than ever, interacting through screens is limited and taxing. Physically, screens are two-dimensional, and they dramatically limit nonverbal communication. Interacting with the world as mediated by a screen requires a different kind of energy, particularly for those who have not historically relied on this medium as much as they do now. To counteract this fatigue, go outside at least once daily and spend time doing activities that you can touch, hear, and smell. Take long walks, cook, clean, spend time with pets, make art, knit, sew, listen to music, and stretch. In addition to moving us into three-dimensional, sensory-rich experiences, these activities also invite us to slow down. While the digital world is remarkably efficient, its pace can push us out of our natural and necessary rhythms.
Fourth, reach out to friends, family members, or whomever you trust to talk about your full experience. Express and label your anxieties, worries, and fears, and then put them away. Be explicit about talking about things other than the pandemic and how it is affecting you.
Finally, engage art in whatever forms move you. More than ever, we need artists to help us engage creatively, to help us stretch and see the world from different perspectives, to articulate social experiences on our behalves, and to make us laugh. Musicians, actors, and visual artists are putting work out in creative ways, placing into the public domain what had previously been limited to private venues. Museums are opening virtual doors for increasingly interactive access; and, comedians are helping us fully face what is otherwise overwhelming with humor and creativity.
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?
First and foremost, I suggest fully devoting yourself to the act of listening. This means putting aside your concerns in the service of fully hearing what is being told to you, as well as listening without reassuring or otherwise changing what you are hearing. Despite it often being with the best intentions, assurances can sometimes feel dismissive and may inadvertently isolate those seeking your support.
Second, in the context of this pandemic, we have the opportunity to remember the value of small gestures: a chalk message written on the sidewalk, a daily riddle posted in a neighbor’s window, an unexpected text or note, or a small flower left in a doorway. Small surprises let people know we are holding them in mind.
Third, as long as sufficient time has been devoted to listening, I would also suggest talking. Sharing your experience authentically offers others the opportunity to join you, which combats isolation and anxiety. Further, I recommend sharing the full range of your experiences, what you are struggling with as well as topics beyond fear and the many ways this global pandemic is shaping your life.
Fourth, locate and join a community effort that matters to you. If you think it might also speak to those around you, you could invite them to join too. However, just the act of your participation is powerful, as we draw comfort from knowing our communities are rallying. In joining your community, you are strengthening the social fabric that holds all of us.
Finally, and with recognition of the irony of including this in a list of suggestions, don’t tell others how to manage. Rather, listen with humility and care, trusting that your attention, care, and generosity is enough.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
On the most basic level, I would recommend simply paying attention to yourself and others. When observing others, you might notice what they are doing that seems useful and ask yourself whether there is anything you might adapt to your circumstance. Similarly, over the course of your day, you could also notice what you are doing that naturally makes you feel centered and calm, even if only momentarily; this might involve reading, sitting in sunshine, taking in fresh air, praying, gardening, walking, biking, cooking, building, making, or observing changes in nature. Spending time in the natural world provides a host of opportunities to find serenity: in the trees, in the wildlife, and in the water. We often do not need to look very far to find inspiration and calm; we just need to pay attention to what fosters and interrupts it.
For additional resources, you might search online for opportunities to learn techniques that promote mindfulness. You might, for example, search for meditation scripts or streaming yoga classes; you might in particular look for audio-only versions to avoid more screen time. There are also a variety of smart phone apps available to promote mindfulness practices, though I hesitate to suggest adding another digital experience to compound the increases in screen time many of us are living with. Finally, you might consider the writing, teaching, and mindfulness exercises developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. Dr. Kabat-Zinn is a Professor of Medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he founded its Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society. He developed, researched, and taught mindfulness practices for decades; I would highly recommend anything he has written or taught.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
At the risk of sounding trite, I must admit I regularly come back to, and struggle with, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” While it is always relevant, it seems particularly necessary and profound in these times, when we are scared, anxious, and sometimes competing for limited resources. In combination with our maintaining physical distance from one another, this climate could lend itself to complex, destructive social dynamics wherein others feel increasingly distant, unfamiliar, and unidimensional. These are dynamics that promote racism and other destructive social forces if we do not actively join each other in confronting them.
Beyond maintaining our recognition of and identification with others’ humanity, the other aspect of this “life lesson” that I appreciate is that it also demands action, a do-ing. This is another reason I appreciate my colleagues at Adler University. I am surrounded by people engaging Chicago communities boldly and creatively. My colleagues challenge me to wrestle with the complex forces shaping the lives of Chicagoans and to act toward creating a more socially just community.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Over the last several months, various candidates competed for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. They asked voters to consider dramatically different economic futures for our country. Although I am not an economist and cannot fully evaluate the financial impact of the various plans, I was struck by the social possibilities in economic redistribution.
As I understood it, economic redistribution essentially offered a means of recognizing our interdependence, past and present. In what now is referred to as the “You Didn’t Build That” speech, Elizabeth Warren said, “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody…You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.”
When I heard Warren say this, I came to a full stop; I had never heard our interdependence articulated so clearly. I also immediately linked it to the simultaneous conversation about reparations for slavery. Since then, the pandemic has only heightened our awareness of the essential work done by so many who otherwise go unrecognized and underpaid. We have also seen the real impact of social and economic stressors on the physical health of oppressed, marginalized, and vulnerable communities. Economic redistribution offer a means of redistributing more than just money. It would also be symbolic means of recognizing each other, our history, our interdependence, and our willingness to stand in solidarity with one another.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
My faculty page on Adler University’s website (https://www.adler.edu/page/faculty/christina-biedermann-psyd-chicago-campus) is regularly updated with what I am teaching, writing, presenting, and doing.