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Practicing Mindfulness to Quiet an Anxious Mind

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Carl J. Gabrini
April 19, 2019

I was chatting with a friend of mine in late March when my PA Times arrived via email, and to my surprise, the first column addressed the topic of mindfulness. It was Bethany Pearson’s May 22, article, “Mindfulness: Cultivating and Maintaining Effective Leadership.” My column happened to be due three weeks later and I too planned to write on mindfulness. I thought, should I try to change my topic? I decided no; I would go ahead and write but adjust my approach. The fact that someone else happened to hit on the same topic demonstrates that it is either important or something on people’s minds. I decided to get personal in this column, which is unusual for me.

Throughout my own academic career spanning some 34 years as student and teacher I have never taken a psychology course. What I learned of psychology was learned through practice, training classes and courses in organizational science. I had not heard of mindfulness by name. This year I read two books that introduced me to the concept of mindfulness; Small Teaching by James Lang, and Mindfulness by Ellen Langer. Mindfulness became interesting to me for two reasons: I am always trying to improve my teaching and learning in the classroom, and I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder years ago and continue to struggle with it.

One of the strategies I used to manage anxiety was rigid adherence to routines. I thought the more predictable I could make my life, the easier it would be to avoid triggers that made me anxious. My rigid routine strategy failed miserably. It took time, but I learned to adjust and cope with my anxiety. What occurred to me last fall when reading about mindfulness is how it aligned so closely with my response to the failure of my rigid routine experience.

Mindlessness is being on auto-pilot and cruising along in neutral. How many of you saw the movie Click? In that movie the main character dreams what life would be like if he got to move through it by selectively passing over parts of it. What he discovered is that you don’t always get to pick and choose what parts to pass over. The routine you set for yourself may dictate which parts you pass over and which ones you don’t. You find yourself missing out on things you never intended to miss or developing a pattern of thinking that limits the options you consider and the decisions you make.

The rigid routines we adopt also affect how we react to people and situations. I remember the first time someone said to me, “Be careful. If you only have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.” What a relief to rediscover that life is dynamic, and I don’t need a rigid framework of routines. Instead I focus on being mindful. Merriam-Webster defines mindfulness as, “The practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis, also such a state of awareness.”

Langer explains that being mindless means we develop automatic responses and rigid classifications for dealing with people and situations. Being mindful teaches us to slow down, think and identify any preconceived biases. In a state of mindfulness, we can make more effective decisions that are likely to reduce conflict and increase the likelihood of reaching intended outcomes. When I am confronted by a situation, I breathe, reflec, and often ask for time to consider it rather than blurt out a hasty routine-based decision. Last semester I was put in a challenging situation. Old habits die hard, and I initially wanted to react in the old mindless way. But I took a few breaths and allowed a few moments of silence to prevail, reflecting on the situation. That split-second decision to reflect on what just occurred gave me the time to be mindful. By the next day, we had arrived at a compromise solution that pleased all parties involved.

I am not telling you I have reached some state of perfection. Anyone diagnosed with an anxiety disorder would see right through me if I claimed to have found a cure. But what I have discovered is a name and a face for the concept that I have been practicing for the past several years. Mindfulness won’t help you avoid anxious situations or tense confrontations with people. What it will do is provide you with a method to more effectively deal with these experiences. I learned a long time ago that life is mostly gray with fringes of black and white on either side. Mindfulness continues to be a practice, a state of mind, that allows me to not just cope with anxious situations, but also be a better professor, administrator, husband, father, son and friend. This was hard to share, but I hope my colleagues in academia and in practice can benefit from me sharing my experience in a public forum.


Author: Carl J. Gabrini is Assistant Professor of Accounting at the Wright School of Business, Dalton State College and earned a PhD in Public Administration at Florida State University. Email address [email protected].

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