Work/Life Effectiveness
Photo credit: Pravassa Travel

Practicing Mindfulness Each Day Keeps Stress at Bay

As a busy MBA, you’re constantly bombarded with endless stress-inducing tasks — a seemingly overflowing email inbox, multiple meetings, and high-pressure presentations to prepare. Shannon Reinard Demko, Senior Director and Coach, MBA Prep and School Partnerships at Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT) and founder of MindfulMBA, gets it.

Shannon, who has hosted several Women Lead Webinars on mindfulness for Forté, makes a living helping future and current MBAs find and create more meaning in work that matters to them. Her secret weapon is mindfulness, which is at the core of her coaching business. In her personal and professional life, she ascribes to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness: “Awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.”

She has seen firsthand how regularly checking in with yourself — instead of checking out — via mindfulness practices has the power to reduce stress; improve overall well-being; and enhance focus, creativity, and decision-making.

“I know mindfulness tools can be life changing personally and professionally. They’re so simple and powerful,” she says.

Whether you’re struggling with work-life balance, fear of missing out, imposter syndrome, or b-school interview jitters, Shannon is a strong believer that practicing mindfulness can help you overcome these challenges while alleviating stress.

Shannon says, “I’ve seen how bringing mindfulness into the personal lives of MBAs and into their careers has been transformative for all those spaces.”

Here she shares her story, along with tips and tricks for incorporating mindfulness into the hectic MBA lifestyle.

Paying Attention Pays Off

After completing an internship in public relations and strategic communications and halfway to earning her master’s degree in communications from the University of Pennsylvania, Shannon realized the career she thought she wanted wasn’t going to cut it.

Shannon says, “I was sailing. I’m halfway through, and I do my internship, and I realize this isn’t it. I was taking classes at Wharton, where everyone is so focused on the MBA. I had a sense of failure mixed with fear and uncertainty.”

It was 2002. She didn’t know it at the time, but a form of mindfulness would see her through that difficult period.

“I thought about what I love doing. I was a campus tour guide and admissions ambassador at the time. It hit me: College admissions is a job,” she remembers.

So began her early career working in college admissions at Georgetown University, eventually leading her to a role as Associate Director at Emory University from 2004-2008. She wrapped up her career in college recruitment as Director of Admissions at American University in Washington, D.C., from 2008-2013.

“Sometimes we don’t know where we’re headed until we have these moments. Mindfulness helped me stay connected to that voice that told me to pay attention to that moment in grad school,” she says. “Mindfulness has taught me, it’s more important to figure out how you want to live over what you want to do. When you figure out how you want to live, the rest will fall into place.”

Shannon’s mindful career journey culminated in her present-day role as a coach for MLT. During a presentation just a few months into her job, she decided to instruct a group of MLT fellows at Stanford University in an unconventional method of b-school interview preparation.

“I decided to use pranayama, a yoga breathing technique. My copresenter freaked out. I explained that it’s just deep breathing and led a 90-second round of breath work. I explained to them that this form of mindfulness would help to reset their nervous system before their interviews,” Shannon recalls.

That short, simple act of mindfulness paid off. Shannon was able to create and implement a well-being and stress management module for MLT’s MBA prep curriculum. It consists of exercises in stress management, affirmations, journaling, and self-reflection.

“This gives our fellows an opportunity to take care of themselves. We want them to understand how important that is,” she explains. “You can go full force in the direction of working as hard as you can. Eventually, your body will stop you. Or you can get into the habit of taking care of yourself and equip yourself to lead a sustainable lifestyle. Then you can go for much longer.”

Combating Stress with Mindfulness

When faced with modern-day stressors — dozens of unanswered texts, unpaid bills, looming meetings — Shannon explains that our bodies enter fight, flight, or freeze mode. She has a quick and easy biological hack rooted in mindfulness for returning to a “rest and digest” state that’s free of stress.

“Take four or five deep breaths,” she says. “Push your belly out as you inhale and make your torso bigger before exhaling. This will elicit a physiological response that sends your body into rest and digest.”

In addition to deep breathing, Shannon says she aims to spend 10 minutes meditating each day as a mindfulness practice and a stress release. She may listen to calming sounds or follow a guided meditation on an app. Practicing mindfulness has not only helped Shannon alleviate stress, but it has also improved her connection with others, made her more comfortable with uncertainty, and taught her let go of the illusion of control.

I know mindfulness tools can be life changing personally and professionally. They’re so simple and powerful.

Shannon recognizes meditation isn’t for everyone. Regardless of your mindfulness practice, or how long you’re able to devote to it, just start making it part of your daily routine, she advises.

“Over time you’ll start to see mindfulness show up in your everyday life. You’ll be able to recognize when you’re having a stress response throughout the day, when you’re being triggered, when you’re angry. You can catch yourself before you act out or become completely overwhelmed and manage your reaction,” Shannon explains.

Shannon recommends incorporating these mindfulness techniques into your lifestyle to reduce stress and enhance your quality of life:

  • Get grounded. When stress levels in the body are too high for deep breathing, Shannon says grounding is an effective technique for dialing things down and recentering. It can also be used as a preferred mindfulness practice. To start, place your feet on the ground and your hands down on your lap or another nearby surface. Look around you for five objects you can see. For example, a green car, a small, brown dog. Then do the same for four objects you can feel, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste. This process is powerful in that it allows you to shift your attention out of your head — where most stress originates — and into your body. Doing so focuses on the reality of what’s happening in the present moment, which is often significantly less stressful than what you’re imagining,” Shannon says.
  • Step away. Sometimes you just need to remove yourself from a stressful situation. Pausing a project to take a short break or asking to finish a difficult conversation later can “boost creativity and also give you the time to consider options and next steps from a different point of view.”
  • Move it. “Mindfulness is about drawing your attention to the present moment, instead of the past and future, where our thoughts often take us. No matter where our minds may roam, we spend every present moment located in our bodies, so connecting with them is an excellent way to be more present,” Shannon says. If you’re tight on time, she recommends 10 minutes of walking, stretching, or doing everyday tasks like washing dishes or folding laundry to mindfully reduce stress.
  • Book yourself. If you don’t think you have 10 minutes for mindfulness most days, Shannon clarifies that any moment and any activity can be done mindfully “if you choose to truly pay attention to the details of the experience.” Block time on your calendar for your practice. “It’s highly likely you spend an equal amount or even more time scrolling, staring, and clicking each day without even realizing it,” Shannon says. “You deserve to use that time in a way that recharges and refreshes you. Prioritizing mindfulness even when you don’t feel stressed will make it easier for you to manage active stress when it arises in daily life.”

Photo credit: Pravassa Travel

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