May 15, 2020 by David Gambrill
Listening carefully to your clients on the phone or on Zoom — as opposed to letting your mind wander while they talk — will not only improve your performance while working from home, but it can also improve your own mental health.
Mindfulness is a key skill that can promote the mental health of employees during the stress and anxiety associated with the novel coronavirus pandemic, one health practitioner and trainer tells Canadian Underwriter.
COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has amplified people’s fear, stress and anxiety, which in turn has raised the profile of mental health in workplaces across Canada — including within the Canadian property and casualty insurance industry.
Dr. Geoff Soloway, founder and chief training officer at MindWell-U, says mindfulness is an important skill to be learned. It can help bring P&C insurance professionals out of the stress and anxiety of facing an unknown future, and into the more familiar and thoughtful territory of the here and now.
Essentially, mindfulness techniques use our bodies, senses, breathing, and awareness of our immediate surroundings as pathways back to the present moment — moments in which people are trying to forge more meaningful personal connections with clients.
“It’s very normal that we are all caught up in the unknown, the uncertainty about what’s next,” as Soloway explains. “We are watching a lot of news. This is a field day for the mind. The mind operates in two different places: It goes into the past or it goes into the future. Both of these places are other than the present moment.
“With COVID-19, our minds are in the future. Everything we see around us, and all of our conversations, are about the future. And we really have no control over what it’s going to look like; when it’s going to go back to being ‘normal.’ This is just keeping us caught up in a lot of thinking — and thinking that has no answer because we cannot know the future. When we spend a lot of time thinking about the future, how does that make you feel? For most people, it makes them feel stressed or anxious….
“With mindfulness, what we are trying to do is practice letting go of getting caught up thinking about the future, and coming back to experiencing the here and the now. We can return back into the present moment, which helps us to make good decisions now that impact the future.”
Essentially, by returning our attention to the here and now, we are getting our brains to transition from the emotional centre of the brain back to the more thoughtful part of the brain. It’s the difference between reacting and responding to a situation, as Soloway describes.
“We often react without thinking, and we react when we are in a fear-based place,” Soloway explains. “We are activating our limbic system, our emotional centre of our brain… It’s a more prehistoric part of the brain, like our lizard-brain. What we are trying to do is take ourselves out of this place, which is responding to our emotions, and come to this more responsive place, where we are more thoughtful about how we are behaving.
“When we are more thoughtful, we activate a different part of the brain, the frontal part of the brain, in which we consider multiple perspectives; we have a bit more cognitive flexibility. It’s an area of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex that is responsible for executive functions. It’s like the CEO of the brain.
“They [the limbic and pre-frontal areas of the brain] can’t both be active at the same time. Either we are reacting or we are responding. Research has shown that when we are practicing being more mindful in the moment, we are able to down-regulate that reactive or emotional centre and activate the pre-frontal, where we can be more thoughtful.”
Soloway said a research study coming out of Harvard University showed that our minds wander approximately 50% of the time. And it doesn’t take scented candles or deep meditation on a yoga mat for half an hour a day to bring us back into the present moment. All it takes is to practice a few simple skills — including listening to others carefully — in order to create habits that support positive mental health.
MindWell has trained over 60,000 Canadians and conducted research to illustrate that, through mindfulness, employees have:
Soloway lists the following steps of Take 5, MindWell’s central mindfulness-in-action practice, which people can integrate into daily life to bring the distracted mind back into a state of mindfulness:
Returning to our senses
Paying attention to our senses is one pathway back into the present moment. It could be, for example, enjoying the aroma of coffee or listening attentively to what your client is saying on the phone or on Zoom.
Notice the body
Our body is always with us, but we are so busy thinking, we often don’t pay attention to what our bodies are telling us. So, try simply standing up from your chair once every hour or so, and maybe get a glass of water. This can help re-ground our attention back in the body so we are whole people.
We do this all the time, but noticing our breathing can bring us back into the present moment and “downregulate our stress,” as Soloway puts it. One exercise suggests taking five intentional breaths. Or instead of counting, simply take a few moments to feel the breath moving in and out of the body, which can help to slow down the mind.
Notice the now
So much of mindfulness is about paying attention, and how we are paying attention, said Soloway. When we notice the now, it is important to bring a certain mindset to whatever is present, that is, one of patience, non-judgement and acceptance. This mindful mindset helps us to more fully step into the moment so we can respond to it vs. react.
“The power of mindfulness is that when we are not caught up with thoughts about the future, we can see what’s around us more clearly,” he said. “You have to see clearly what’s going on around you to make quality evaluations. And to see clearly is not to get caught up in discursive thinking about ‘What ifs?’ When we see really clearly what’s in front of us, we can make good decisions.”
Featured image from iStock.com/Tatiana
Other images from iStock.com/MundusImages and iStock.com/metamorworks