SIG Speaks to Deborah Cunningham

Deborah Cunningham is the Co-founder of The Mindfulness Effect

Deb Cunningham’s passion for creating wellness in both the corporate world and personal life has led to her role as co-founder of The Mindfulness Effect, a boutique corporate consulting company that bring mindfulness into the workplace. With a career in healthcare that spans over two decades, she has combined her industry experience with 20+ years of practicing and teaching yoga and mindfulness. She is a certified RYT500/YACEP yoga instructor and certified Yoga Nidra meditation instructor.

What is mindfulness, generally speaking?

Mindfulness is a term that attempts to summarize a way of seeing the world around us, in the present moment and releasing the tendency to judge. It forces us to stop and pay attention, which is an important component in balancing the nervous system.

The past few weeks have catapulted the entire globe into a constant state of near panic. This perpetual barrage of fear and anxiety is quite literally triggering the fight, flight or freeze response in the brain.  How can we move through these times with a calm and present state of mind?

As we know, our environment is constantly changing. Look at the last month, never mind the last 20 years, and we can see that the ability to adapt quickly to new circumstances is vital. This requires a level head and access to focus, ingenuity and intuition.  

How does mindfulness work in a business setting?

We have all seen the person staring listlessly into the air as they go about the mundane task of the moment. It is proven that executives cannot focus on what’s at hand due to the unending demand for their attention, whether it’s the phone, email, text, reports, meetings and face-to-face interactions.

To handle this, it is necessary for each person to become aware of what’s actually happening around them and more importantly within them. In our rush to improve productivity and performance we have neglected the warning signals in our body. If we ignore stress, it continues until it become distress and ultimately degrades the body-mind complex resulting in disease. We use many external methods to push the body or sedate the feelings inside of us, from stimulants to sedatives.

Using mindfulness techniques will enable anyone to increase the amount of stress they can handle, thereby increasing their capacity for effective decision-making and communication, critical factors in any business setting.

What are the benefits of mindfulness to individuals and the business?

The corporate ideal of unending expansion puts incredible strain on the human component of business, which may be most obvious at the executive level. With ever-increasing demands and non-ending methods of being in touch that are introduced constantly, the human need for control is being tested beyond its capacity. It is estimated that 25 million people in the U.S. are taking anti-depressants, so the mental demands are making a mark.

If executive decision-making, clarity of purpose and the ability to expand our capacity to handle these increasing demands is crucial, then we must see that mindfulness is essential. The most fundamental effect of not being mindful is the increasing impact on the nervous system of the body. We are built to handle stress in short bursts. Over a long period of time, the body-mind complex wears down, we lack emotional regulation and clear thinking, and our physical capacity shrinks, resulting in fatigue and lack of motivation.

In the work environment we can “shrink” in our willingness to embrace the workload and retreat into a safe zone where we can manage a smaller level of demand automatically. This “territorial boundary creation” is a safety mechanism and is reflected by the executive or employee being defensive if questioned or asked to do more, or something outside their normal routine, or even worse saying yes to the work and just not doing it. Ultimately, the only way out for this person may be a feeling of being burned out.

The benefits of a mindfulness practice are – first and foremost – to become aware when we are nearing “tilt.” Once we recognize our limit, then we can interrupt the instinctual survival response from kicking in and instead trigger the nervous system to come back into balance.  When our body reacts instinctively, we must learn to interrupt the process.

As we practice doing this, our capacity to handle what is happening around us and the demands being made on us will increase, we will be less tired, more alert and correspondingly so will those around us. When we remain calm it has a calming affect on those closest to us.

Practiced diligently it will reduce absenteeism, improve communication and effective decision-making that is required to handle this constantly changing environment

What are some examples of mindful practices that leaders can incorporate with their teams?

The easiest way to begin a mindful practice is to connect with your breath. It is quite common when we are stressed to have shallow and erratic breathing, even holding the breath is part of our fear response. By paying attention to our breath and consciously lengthening the inhale and exhalation, we begin to tell the nervous system to relax. Doing this multiple times a day will help you to recognize times when you breath is inadequate.

It is estimated that we only take in an eighth of our oxygen capacity, which starves the brain and body of its primary source of energy. Remember, the mind operates primarily in a habituated way, so becoming mindful of this simple, yet vital process will wake us up to what we are doing unconsciously.

What advice do you have for leaders looking to incorporate mindful practices into their organizations?

It is important that the introduction of a mindfulness program be championed by willing participants. No one wants to be told to be mindful and our resistance to change will sabotage any attempt to be coerced into mindfulness.

It is not a quick fix or one and done, it is a change process that requires commitment from your initial cohort of willing volunteers. Inviting a small group into a mindfulness program will ensure the best opportunity for success. A manageable timeline of two weeks can be embraced with a simple survey at the beginning and completion of the program will provide encouraging affirmation to both participants and management that the program is worth expanding.

The initial participants have the potential of becoming your in-house champions and will share their enthusiasm about the positive impact they experienced as a result, thus encouraging others to join the next cohort for the training. It requires a combined top-down and bottom-up engagement and an understanding that to create change in a corporate environment is a process, one that would be mutually beneficial for employees and the entire organization.  At The Mindfulness Effect, we usher individuals and organizations into a culture of being present and this is where true transformation can begin.

To learn more about mindfulness and leadership, read Deb’s article “How to Find Calm in the Midst of Chaos” on Future of Sourcing.

Stacy Mendoza, Senior Marketing Manager

Stacy Mendoza is a Senior Marketing Manager with Sourcing Industry Group (SIG). She began her career as an editor for a Washington, D.C.-based market research firm where she worked on projects for political campaigns, nonprofits, and major corporations and brands. Since 2014, she has assumed progressive levels of responsibility in leading marketing and public relations campaigns and specializes in content creation, social media marketing, data analytics, media relations and crisis communications. Stacy holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from The Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, a certificate in proposal writing from The Graduate School in Washington, D.C., and is Inbound Certified through Hubspot Academy. Follow her on Twitter and tweet at @SIG_Stacy.