In the February edition of our monthly wellbeing interview series we’ve had the pleasure to speak with Dr. Reena Kotecha. Reena is a medical doctor trained at the Imperial College of London where she specialised in neuroscience and mental well-being research.
Having spent the early part of her career in the National Health Service (UK) as a hospital doctor, Reena expanded her practice to focus on evidence-based approaches that improve employee health and wellbeing which in turn enhance productivity, performance and engagement at work. Reena bridges the science and practice from the ‘West’ and the ‘East’ using teachings, learnings and insights from the fields of Medicine, Neuroscience, Mindfulness, Positive Psychology and Emotional Intelligence.
In this interview she shares valuable insights into what happens to our brain when we practice mindfulness, why it is important, and how businesses and individuals can take first steps to being more mindful.
1. Could you explain to us what mindfulness is for you?
Mindfulness for me is conscious living. The mind has a tendency to wander and to think about what has happened in the past or what may or may not happen in the future, often on autopilot. This means we go through life missing what is actually happening in the here and now. Along with this tendency many of us have a negativity bias where we view ourselves, others, the world through a negative or at least a suspicious lens. Mindfulness training has allowed me to see things as they are not better or worse than they are. It’s like a ‘reality check’ in the present moment. This for me has enabled a fuller engagement with my life as it’s happening.
2. What happens to the brain when we practice mindfulness?
Scientists previously believed that beyond the age of 25 or so the brain stops growing. There is now plenty of research evidence to show that the brain can change in both structure and function depending on what we think, do and pay attention to. The scientific term for this mechanism is neuroplasticity; the lifelong capacity of the brain to create new connections and cells in response to our behaviours and the environment. Through practice we can strengthen the interconnectivity between cells in the regions of the brain involved in for example attention so that we are less distracted, self management and regulation so that we respond more flexibly to situations as they unfold, along with areas involved in decision making and perspective taking. Studies also show that mindfulness practice is associated with a decreased size of the brain region associated with stress.
3. Which benefits of mindfulness have you experienced or in our words, how has your passion for mindfulness born fruit?
We live in a world where many of us experience a fast paced ‘busyness’, some years ago I was caught up with pressures, constant demands and competing priorities both at work and at home. At times I would struggle with anxiety about how much I had to get done, or whether or not I was ‘good enough’ and at other times I would ruminate about the past, often beating myself up about what I could have done better or how I may have utilised my time, money, energy and other resources more efficiently.
I was often caught up in negative thought patterns and quick to react particularly with my nearest and dearest. This took a toll on my mental health and interpersonal relationships.
Mindfulness training has allowed me to be with life as it unfolds rather than being stuck in my head and missing what life has to offer in the here and now. In this way I’m able to better appreciate and savour the positive experiences and better ‘see’ the difficult or challenging ones. In particular with the challenging situations I find I can create some mental distance between myself and the situation at hand and in my experience the more distance and perspective I create the more room I have for a wider range of options which allows me thoughtfully respond rather than impulsively react to what’s happening. This change has brought about a noticeable improvement in my personal and professional relationships as well.
I also seem to have more mental reserve and perhaps even more time (though I’ve never measured it as such), since I’m with my experience as it’s happening I don’t have to go back and double check things so much and am less prone to error or forgetfulness. I wish I had learnt this whilst at medical school!
4. How can companies contribute to strengthening the mindfulness of their employees?
Companies and teams that place importance on employee health and wellbeing can encourage taking time out for mindfulness practice by for example, starting meetings with a minute to pause and focus on the breath or encouraging a mindful lunch break where staff eat away from their desks rather than multitasking.
Companies can bring in mindfulness teachers or facilitators to run classes, workshops and courses via Passion And Fruit. For example, the mindfulness and resilience workshop I facilitate looks to give staff a flavour of both the theory and practice of mindfulness meditation. Some companies have also taken up our 8-week course where staff deepen their practice and integrate it into their personal and professional lives through group work, homework and regular dedicated audio-visual practice.
Of late I’ve also noticed that many companies are introducing designated spaces for mindfulness or reflection. A quiet space void of distractions such as emails, phone-calls and generalised chatter can help employees mentally calm and refocus as and when required.
5. Do you have three simple tricks on how people can practice being more mindful, particularly if they feel very stressed in everyday life?
Breathwork is possibly the simplest and most accessible practice, as long as you’re alive you carry your breath with you wherever you go! When stressed it can be helpful to tune into the sensations of your breathing. You can choose to focus on the coolness of the air as it enters the nostrils on each inhale, and the warmth on each exhale. Alternatively focus on the sensations of the chest and/or abdomen rising and falling as you breathe.
Taking a walk mindfully can also be a wonderful way to restore and reset when stressed. Focus on the sensations between the soles of your feet and the ground as you stand upright and centred. As you begin to walk notice the movement of the body along with the various physical sensations associated with walking. If you get a chance to walk outdoors this can have added benefits as you breathe in fresh air, note the air surrounding and caressing the skin, or simply experience the warmth of the sun or the moisture of rain.
While it’s not solely a mindfulness practice per se, gratitude can certainly help. Everyday we have numerous experiences ranging from positive to negative to difficult or challenging to enjoyable, joyous and so on. Due to the negativity bias of the mind we are predisposed to more readily recall the ‘not so positive’ experiences, while quickly forgetting or discounting the positive. Stopping to notice, vocalise and/or write down three things you are grateful for can help lift the private ‘raincloud’ many of us walk under when we are stressed and in doing so we can reset the emotional tone of our day.
6. What are some key topics you are covering in your workshops and 8-week programmes with Passion And Fruit clients?
Mindfulness meditation and Positive Psychology - the science and practice
Emotional Intelligence - the function of emotions and how we can improve the various domains of emotional intelligence
Understanding Thoughts and how Cognitive Biases impact our day to day experiences
Lifestyle based practices for a happier and healthier life - various topics will be covered such as stress management, sleep science, impact of technology, physical activity, and nutrition on our health and happiness
You would like to offer workshops on mindfulness, lifestyle based medicine, emotional intelligence or an 8-week mindfulness programme to your employees? Contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
Because passion bears fruit.
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