Many of us are experiencing an array of feelings in the midst of COVID-19. You might be feeling scared, overwhelmed, and a great sense of loss and in the next moment, grateful, optimistic, and at ease. Remember that feelings are like visitors–they arrive and then they depart. No feeling state is ever permanent, just as no visitor ever stays forever. Just as we can count on various feelings to arise, we can also be certain that they will ease and depart.
As a 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 Dr. Christine Kiesinger.
Dr. Christine E. Kiesinger is Vice President of Development and Lead Trainer of Emotional Intelligence and Conscious Communication at studio BE. Her passion for personal development, the study of human relationships, and mindfulness recently intersected in ways that now allow her to fully express her purpose through meaningful work.
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?
I have always been interested in personal growth. I read my first “self-help” book when I was ten years old. It was Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” I was astounded that such a book existed, and I fell in love with the genre of personal growth literature. Additionally, I was intrigued by human communication as it related to relationships. I knew very early on that how we communicate with each other strongly determined the quality of the relationships that mean the most to us. I longed to understand this idea more. From the time I was six years of age, I was inspired by the feeling of deep peace. The nuns who lived and worked in the convent of my small town intrigued me. I was very drawn to their sense of presence, their commitment to caring, and the serene energy they possessed. That said: personal development, relational communication and the call to understand “peace” brought me to my career path.
I spent thirty years in a gratifying career as a Communication Studies professor with expertise in the areas of interpersonal and family communication. Concurrent to my work as a professor, I worked just as long as a yoga and meditation teacher.
Eighteen months ago, I left academia to commit to full time corporate leadership and professional development training with a foundation in mindfulness. This work led me to studio BE, which offers mindfulness training to businesses and organizations, where I presently serve as Vice President of Development and Lead Trainer of Emotional Intelligence and Conscious Communication. I have longed for a single place within which I could merge what matters most to me. studio BE is that place. It is here that I get to teach, write and fully “live” out my passion for personal and professional growth, communication and mindfulness.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
There are so many interesting stories to share about the various directions my career has taken. What comes to mind now, however, is the moment I decided to leave academia — a place that I cherish and worked in for so many years.
In December of 2018, while teaching, a student asked a question about my path. While answering, I heard myself say: “And this is my last semester. I am retiring.” During this profound moment, I was struck by two things. First, I will never forget the look on the faces of my students. They were astounded. Second, I was struck by the sound of those words falling from my lips. I had no idea where they came from. However, what I did know was that the words felt utterly and deeply “right.” This marked one of many powerful epiphanies I have experienced in my life.
When this happened, I realized that the certainty I felt was identical to how I felt within the first sixty seconds of teaching my very first university course. I was quite young then and really did not know what I was doing. However, while beginning my first class session, these words flashed across my mind: “Yes…this is it. This is what you were meant to do. You were meant to teach.” This epiphany was the catalyst for an amazing journey.
There is nothing quite like the level of certainty I felt at the beginning of my academic career and the moment I chose to leave. When we are open to such guidance and direction, these “deep knowings” are entirely possible. I credit a thirty-year meditation practice for my capacity to have experiences of this nature. What is really wonderful about this story is that upon reflection, I realized that my public proclamation that I was retiring occurred thirty years after my very first semester of teaching.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
In my work with studio BE, I work primarily in corporate environments and stress and burnout are largely the reasons we are called into these settings. Often, my work is a form of intervention. Perhaps a team is not functioning at optimal levels, or leadership needs help in taking an innovative direction, or leadership wants to inspire a corporate culture that will thrive. No matter the topic, it is nearly always the case that leadership, management, and employees could benefit greatly from foundational training in stress management. In fact, many challenges that exist in organizations are rooted in stress and burn out that has been left to fester and grow wild.
When upper management or executive leaders discuss their most pressing issues, I can almost always see how these issues are rooted first and foremost in stress. That said, my first bit of advice to colleagues is to always ask: “To what degree is unmanaged stress and burnout at the root of what is happening here?” The answer to this question is often the first step in gaining some clarity about what sort of interventions are necessary and helps me to tailor trainings in ways that best meet the needs of the organization. We must begin by understanding what “is” before any change can occur. Thriving, healing the impact of burnout, and then fostering a workplace culture that prevents burnout always begins by recognizing that stress, when left unattended, has an erosive impact on everyone in the organization and the organizational system as a whole.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Begin with the question: “How do I want our work culture to feel?” We must think about work culture much like we think about climate. For example, what weather and geographical climates make you feel your best? Which climates do you thrive in? I thrive when there is steady sunshine, warm temperatures and in places near water. Stretch this analogy out and into the workplace “climate.” Aim for clarity about what a “fantastic” work culture would “feel” like.
Far too many leaders focus on what a fantastic work culture would “look” like and might choose certain paint colors, organize common meeting spaces, hang artwork, or bring in a ping pong table. Although there is nothing wrong with such measures, they often miss the mark related to how important it is for people to feel “good” at work. For example, many thrive in workplace cultures where they feel safe, seen, heard, valued and not only part of a “team,” but part of the organization’s overall identity. I’d advise leaders to intentionally shape work culture by answering, “How do we want this place to feel?” Create a culture around the answers to this question. And always remember: Employees leave not necessarily because they did not like the work they were doing, but because they did not like how they “felt” within the culture within which they were working. There is a direct correlation between retention and how a workplace culture “feels.”
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?
Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, published a beautiful book called The Art of Communicating in 2013. I have read this book many times and it has had a significant impact on my life, relationships and way of being in the world. It is a small book with a potent message.
The hallmark of this book is what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “The Four Mantras.” The Four Mantras are guidelines for communicating from a responsive state of mind as opposed to a reactive state. If practiced, The Four Mantras assist us in navigating relationship challenges and conflicts with a great deal of ease and grace. If the energy of these mantras infuses your communication style and becomes part of the way you live, you begin to trust that you can calmly manage any kind of relational suffering and love from an undefended heart. It is truly a precious book. Although published seven years ago, its message is incredibly timely.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. 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.
Step One: Make the choice for serenity. In the context of this global pandemic most of us are inherently anxious and overwhelmed. It is easy to wake up and move through our days from a place of fear and high reactivity. In fact, this is quite natural as we are facing legitimate and valid threats. However, we can decide that when swept up in fear and overwhelm, we will rely upon those strategies and ways of thinking that lead us back to feeling grounded. For example, I have been implementing three-minute meditation periods between tasks. I find that when I take just three minutes between tasks, I intentionally create small spaces of quiet that replenish and nourish me. These mini-meditative doses have been extremely powerful in keeping me stable and grounded during these uncertain times.
Step Two: Feel everything and make space for whatever arises. Secondary stress arises when we are experiencing feelings that are uncomfortable and then become “stressed” because we are feeling discomfort. For example, if I am not self-aware, I can find myself feeling “anxious about being anxious” or “angry because I am angry,” or disappointed in myself for feeling fear or loss.
Many of us are experiencing an array of feelings in the midst of COVID-19. You might be feeling scared, overwhelmed, and a great sense of loss and in the next moment, grateful, optimistic, and at ease. Remember that feelings are like visitors–they arrive and then they depart. No feeling state is ever permanent, just as no visitor ever stays forever. Just as we can count on various feelings to arise, we can also be certain that they will ease and depart. Resisting what we are feeling or allowing ourselves to get swept up in the waves of difficult feelings drain us of our energy and the precious resources we need to remain steady. As such, I recommend that you give yourself permission to feel it all without guilt, shame, fear, dread or disappointment. We are all human beings navigating an extraordinary time in history.
Step Three: This step follows naturally from step two. Grant yourself self-compassion. Many scoff at the notion of self-compassion but the work of Drs. Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer offer compelling, science-based evidence of the critical role that self-compassion plays in well-being.
I was one of those people who could teach about the value of self-compassion but did not allow myself to experience its value until I took the Mindfulness of Self-Compassion course created by Neff and Germer. As I was taking the course and pro-actively practicing self-compassion, I came to realize how comforting self-compassion is, and, more importantly, how self-compassion serves as a sanctuary of sorts. You might notice that during times of crisis, we can be really hard on ourselves in ways that deplete our system at all levels. When we commit to self-compassion, we begin to build an inner refuge of sorts that we can rest in whenever we feel lured into negative thinking and negative self-talk. Self-compassion is a very powerful tool.
Step Four: Limit consumption! The news cycle can feed our fears and exacerbate our sense of overwhelm. Although it is important that we remain informed and engaged in what is happening around us, too much time spent watching the news, reading reports, and scrolling through social media platforms can not only incite more fear but can contribute to anxiety and depression.
Be mindful of how watching or reading from certain media make you “feel.” Think about media consumption much in the way you would think about the foods and drinks you consume. Which make you feel good? Bad? Toxic? Full? Starved? Apply the same principle to media consumption and social media activity. Stay aware. Check in with your body and ask: “Is stress present after that viewing or reading or scrolling? Did watching/viewing/scrolling contribute to or take from my peace?” You are innately wise. Your inner guidance will provide you with the answers you need.
Step Five: Practice gratitude. This may sound trite, but it is a powerful mindfulness tool. Think about this: the mind cannot hold thoughts of gratitude and thoughts of fear, worry, or stress. Just try it! Whenever you are feeling anxious or overwhelmed, pause and quickly bring to mind just three things about which you are grateful. They can be grand things such as being grateful for your child or partner. They can also be smaller things like being grateful for the cup of hot tea you are sipping or the way that the light changes at dusk. It does not matter. What matters is using gratitude to override your chaotic mind and to calm the system down.
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?
During the time of COVID-19 our relationships are paramount. There is so much uncertainty and what human beings most need is to feel safe and connected. I cannot emphasize this enough. As such, much of my current teaching has been focused on how to “storm proof” our relationships so that they are stable sanctuaries for us during turbulent times. It is critical that we not only support each other now but that we also reach out and ask for support when we are in need.
- Stay connected. If you are living at home with family members and perhaps a partner under “stay at home” orders, be sure to consciously check in with each other at an emotional level a few times each day. Living all together in this way can be very stressful and everyone has emotional needs that may or may not be addressed. Deciding that there will be a morning, mid-day and evening “check in” is a powerful strategy to include in your new family routine. Invite honest disclosures and be sure that everyone is heard and not judged for what they are feeling.
- Give the gift of contact. Choose one person in your life that you have not been in contact with for some time. Reach out to that person by text, e-mail, or a quick call. Let them know that you are reaching out to one person per day that you care about, but have not connected with in some time. Let them know that they are at the top of your list. This gesture might sound like this: “Hi Gail…just a quick note to let you know that I am thinking about you. I am choosing one person per day to reach out to who matters to me…you are on the top of my list. Much love to you.” I have been doing this daily and it has been a gift both to the recipient and to me.
- Practice conscious and intentional communication. I have also been arranging virtual social dates via ZOOM. Rather than focusing on the mundane, I bring five provocative questions to each session that inevitably launch us into deep conversation. Here are just three of the five questions: 1) What is the state of your Soul these days? 2) Tell me a bit about the love you are experiencing right now in your life. 3) When you envision getting on the other side of COVID-19, what do you wish to hope will be the biggest change you will have made in your life? I never suggest things that I don’t try myself, and these “conscious” social dates have been really powerful. Feel free to use my questions and to create your own!
- Take special care of the young ones around you. Many report that their children, pre-teens and teens are doing really well during this turbulent time. But how can we be sure? What I have noticed is that parental stress and overwhelm is obvious to children and as a result, kids are not wanting to burden their caregivers with their own fears. Please make sure that you are creating lots of space and permission for your kids, pre-teens and teens to openly express their own fears and stressors. If they are silencing themselves, there may be negative consequences to this emotional repression in the future.
- Ask for support when you are in need. So many of us are masterful at care taking. We give of ourselves freely and refrain from asking for help. Although giving of ourselves so freely is noble, it can cost us a great deal when we are not filling our own cup. Take a moment and reflect upon this question: “How willing am I to ask for help when I need it? Who do I lean on when I am in need of support?” We are collectively navigating uncharted waters. None of us quite know the way forward. We need each other now more than ever. And this includes you! You, too, need others. If asking for support is hard for you, use this time as an opportunity to practice. Please know that loving and caring in the context of close relationships is a two-way street and is mutually rewarding. The important people in your life want to care for you, too. Don’t deny them this opportunity. Garner the support you need. Don’t allow yourself to get to the other side of this pandemic feeling depleted, disconnected and unsupported.
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?
Five months ago, I might have addressed this question differently. However, I am going to respond in the context of COVID-19 because it is imperative that we acknowledge that presently, our levels of anxiety are likely extremely high and as such, being pro-active about managing our anxiety is of the utmost importance. Thus, my answers today are straightforward and things we can do immediately.
- Protect your sleep. Make sure that you are getting adequate sleep. Many report that they are staying up much later than usual, are having trouble falling asleep, or are experiencing interrupted sleep. Sleep deprivation is a quick pathway to compromised immunity, cognitive impairment and emotional upheaval. In the early days of the “stay at home orders,” I found myself feeling like I was living a perpetual weekend. I was binge watching movies late into the night, reading, or connecting with others. I began experiencing the negative impact of these late nights fairly quickly, so I changed my pattern. I aim to go to bed and to rise at the same time. I have a few natural remedies on hand to support me if I have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. These remedies include diffusing essential oils, sleep hypnosis audios and guided meditations. Additionally, I have a sleep ritual which includes a period of winding down through light reading with a cup of chamomile tea, a hot shower with some lovely bath products, and a ten-minute seated meditation. This is the time to get very serious about the support that sleep can grant us.
- Nourish. Be proactive about what you are ingesting. If possible, eat foods that nourish your body and mind and avoid foods that tax your system. Watch your sugar in-take. Excess sugar can compromise your immunity and create unnecessary inflammation. One of the questions I have been asking myself is: “Is what I am about to ingest going to contribute to my well-being or take from it?” This is a game changing question that works to ensure that I am nourishing myself during these anxious times.
- Move. Movement is critical to shaking off or expelling the build-up of stress hormones that gather up in our system during anxious times. Many animals in the wild will naturally and literally “shake off” the stress hormones in their systems after an episode of being threatened. Humans tend not to do this. One of the reasons that movement (walking, running, aerobic activity, yoga, dance, etc.) feels so good for many of us is because movement is a form of “shaking off” what we no longer need. We know that regular exercise is critically important to our well-being. However, let’s not overcomplicate things right now. If you are working from home — can you take 3–5 minutes each hour to get up and move, stretch, walk or do some resistance training? Can you carve out 20–30 minutes each day for sustained movement of some sort? Integrating lots of opportunities for movement throughout our day is vitally important right now and a natural way of coping with anxiety. What ways of moving feel best for you?
- Consider a quieting practice. What practices or activities quiet you? For some, long walks, listening to music, reading novels, praying, meditating, yoga, running or deep breathing provide opportunities to settle and quiet the system. The practices and activities that soothe and quiet are different for everyone. Take a moment and reflect on those things that bring you back to center. Commit to calling upon such practices and activities regularly.
- Tend to your mind. So much of our anxiety and suffering is related to how we are thinking about things. When I am feeling exceptionally anxious, I will often pause and tend to my own mind. This means taking a moment to explore what I am thinking and the quality of my thoughts. More often than not, when I am feeling anxious, I am catastrophizing in my thinking. My thoughts are “worst case scenario” narratives that may or may not reflect my current reality. When we tend to the mind, we take an honest assessment of how we are thinking and we ask: “Is this way of thinking serving me or depleting me? Are my thoughts reflective of reality? Is there another way of thinking about this situation that is more reasonable? If our thoughts are fear based, we want to make sure that we are not making any critical decisions from a mindset of fear. Fear creates a mental and emotional hijacking of sorts that disconnects us from the part of the brain that aids us in making decisions from a place of calm, clarity and sound reason. I tend to my mind with as much commitment that I tend to my garden. The mind must be nourished to flourish. This means checking in on my mind several times each day in order to clear away those thoughts that can grow like weeds so that I might thrive — even in the midst of a pandemic!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Calm is contagious.” This is saying that I share a lot. Just as anxiety and overwhelm are contagious, so is calm.
The following story powerfully illustrates this.
“When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
Decide to be the calm one on the boat.
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. 🙂
If I had to summarize the heart of the work I do in the world it would be that I am: “committed to creating meaningful connection and community through conscious communication.” I try my best to teach from this commitment and the principles that support it. Coming full circle, I see how my earliest interests and stirrings brought me to this larger life mission. Meaningful relationships are intricately tied to the communicative dynamics that create them. Absent communication, there cannot be “relationship” and relationships cannot be sustained without communication. When we are conscious and intentional about how we communicate we have tremendous agency in shaping relationships that are fulfilling and enduring.
The global crisis we are navigating makes it abundantly clear that our collective capacity to connect with each other both in our personal lives and across the planet is of utmost importance now. If we fail to see how interdependently linked we are now, we will never see it. In many ways, COVID-19 is a call to connect more deeply and meaningfully. Our very lives depend on it. The future of this planet depends on it. Part of the great healing we are being invited to engage in is relational in nature. Our future and the future of our children rests in using our communication consciously and intentionally to build our world anew. Just wait and see — the transformation of how we relate will play a big role in all the new ways we will begin living our lives moving forward.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Christine can be reached at:
Facebook (personal): https://www.facebook.com/christine.kiesinger
Facebook (studio BE): https://www.facebook.com/meetyourcenter/
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!