#SHRM21 Interview with Marissa Afton: Turn Off Worry, Turn On Resilience

In this interview, Marissa Afton, Partner & Head of Global Accounts at Potential Project, discusses how to turn off worry and turn on resilience. 

Hi Marissa, for those of us who are not familiar with your work, can you please introduce yourself?

Hello. I am privileged to serve as Partner & Head of Global Accounts at Potential Project. We are a global firm that creates a more human world of work, by helping leaders and teams to understand and manage their minds. We have partnered with over 500 organizations such as Cisco, IKEA, Unilever, and Bloomberg to help unlock their potential for greater resilience, performance, and innovation, and to create cultures of excellence.

I have been a mindfulness practitioner for more than 25 years, having learned about it from my father. He was a VP & General Counsel at a multinational corporation, and he used mindfulness to manage his work-life stresses long before it became mainstream. When I began, I immediately noticed the impact on my resilience, as well as my general performance. And now, I see the powerful impact it has on others, especially on our clients. These collective experiences have taught me that managing the mind is where the potential for all great things begins.

You talk a lot about reducing needless worry and enhancing resilience. For those of us at home, what are some simple, yet effective techniques to train the mind to reduce needless worry while enhancing resilience?

Fortunately, our minds can be trained to enhance resilience, and this has been verified by neuroscience, numerous research studies, and our years of experience supporting people and organizations. Here are some strategies:

First, calm the mind. This will enable you to pay attention to what is really going on around and within you. One technique is to gently rest your focus on the sensations of the breath, as you breathe naturally. Every time your attention is pulled away by a distracting thought, simply release that thought and return your attention back to the breath. This will help you better engage in the present moment and hold your focus on what you choose (e.g. “Let me see how to best support my people.”) instead of needless worry (e.g. “Oh no, I can’t believe this pandemic is not over yet.”). If you can engage in this training for 10 minutes a day, you will rewire your brain to enhance resilience in a powerful way.

Reflect instead of reacting.  Often, it feels better to be doing something … anything … rather than sitting with uncomfortable emotions. This could be checking the news, stress-eating, or constantly checking emails with the hope of being productive. The mind often benefits from having space to unhook from the barrage of stimuli, activities, and inputs that fill our day. Perhaps you can go for a walk or simply pause before responding to an email, especially if you are experiencing strong emotions. Once you settle into a more stable mental state, good planning, clear decisions, and impactful leadership can emerge.

Connect with others through compassion. Compassion is the intention to be of benefit to others, and it starts in the mind. For example, before your next meeting or call, ask yourself, “How can I help this person to have a better day?” An added benefit to this practice is that when you connect with another person in service to enhance their wellbeing, you will enhance your own well-being too.

How does Potential Project internally help employees build mental resilience?

At Potential Project, we practice what we offer to our clients. As a foundation, we encourage each employee to have a daily mind training practice, using company time. We also offer our employees the same programs that we offer our clients, such as how to manage stress and anxiety, develop kindness, and cultivate greater joy in our work and personal lives. We’ve also codified into company guidelines the practical work techniques that we teach our clients, such as how to conduct effective meetings, manage emails, prioritize, and effectively communicate with each other. As a result, we’ve created a very resilient and mindful culture that has paid dividends on the investment we’ve made in our people. In addition to building resilience, these practices have simultaneously enhanced our ability to perform and innovate. 

How can HR professionals begin training their minds to be present? 

A simple way to begin training your mind to be more present is to develop a regular mindfulness practice, which will create lasting, neurological change. As a result, your mind will naturally become more present, which will impact everything you do, such as enhancing your own resilience, establishing stronger connections with others, being able to focus well on your work, and inspiring others naturally.
There are many other ways to cultivate presence in daily work life. For instance, you could use “presence cues” as mini training sessions. For example, whenever you’re getting up from your seat, that could be your cue to practice being present instead of letting the mind wander in that moment.
Another tip is to begin your meetings with a moment of mindfulness, where attendees just take the time to settle into the present moment and clear their minds to get ready for the agenda to come.  We at Potential Project, as well as our clients, often utilize this technique. It really helps to draw everyone’s attention to a meeting and make our time abundantly more productive.

You’ve shared that unhooking from unconstructive thoughts is one way to build mental resilience. What is a simple method to unhook from unconstructive thoughts when they start to seep in?  

There is a wonderful mind training technique we teach called Open Awareness, which is very helpful for unhooking from unconstructive thoughts. First, you settle into the present moment and simply become more aware of your inner experience. You’ll likely notice various thoughts (as well as feelings, memories, sounds, and bodily sensations) coming in and out of your field of awareness. You may not have noticed many of these experiences before, since we generally tend to be masters of self-distraction. Then, instead of letting your attention become captured by one of these thoughts (which often take the form of worry and rumination), you simply train the mind to let it go. 

It is like catch-and-release fishing; you briefly “catch” a thought within your field of awareness, and then you gently release it and repeat the process.
Over time, you will become skillful in developing greater awareness of your thoughts, which is the first step in preventing a fleeting thought from transforming into a full-blown rumination. You will also become skillful in releasing unconstructive thoughts even after they have captured your attention. And by creating greater mental space, you will develop your capacity to focus on constructive and innovative solutions, instead of becoming stuck in problems.

For those who can’t attend your Saturday morning session in Las Vegas, what is your recommended long-term method for rewiring the brain to enhance resilience?

The mind-training methods that I’ve mentioned above are effective (though not exhaustive) long-term solutions to rewire the brain to enhance resilience. To sustain mental training over time, here are some tips when going to the “mental gym:”

-Learn from someone who is qualified, who engages in and models the training well.

-Engage in regular training sessions. Research shows that daily training sessions that last as little as 10-minutes will rewire the brain. Some people find that 10 minutes is difficult to commit to right away. If that’s the case, it’s great to start with smaller sessions and gradually work your way up.

-Relax and enjoy the sessions. These sessions can help bring the mind and body into balance in the short term, as you rewire the brain for the long term.
Do the training with other people when possible. This will provide social support and group momentum.
Apps can be a great way to get started, and there are many good apps out there. In my experience, however, there is no substitute for live, group training to inspire and motivate people, foster community, provide nuanced guidance to ensure that the sessions are effective, answer questions, and frame this mental training within a broader, inspiring context.

Switching things up - the entrepreneur in me has to ask a question about better managing anxiety and stress in challenging times. What are some shorter-term strategies to manage high stress that may have an immediate impact on an entrepreneur? 

Thanks for asking. I think many of us are looking for ways to manage anxiety and stress, especially in these extraordinary times. Some effective short-term strategies are to breathe deeply. Start by taking three-six slow, deep breaths, focusing on sensations in the body. On the in-breath, scan for physical signs of stress. On the out-breath, release and relax. Breathing deeply will interrupt your fight-or-flight response.

Build “rest” into your schedule. We often get so busy that it’s essential to put rest time into the calendars. On a daily basis, ensure you have at least 30 minutes to do something that recharges you. On a weekly basis, ensure you have at least half a day of recharging activities. Ironically, when people ensure they have time for renewal, their performance improves. It’s also important for leaders to encourage their people to take time off and to model this behavior themselves.

In the longer term, it’s amazing how well we can prevent and manage anxiety and stress if we train our minds. There are many ways to do this. In addition to the mind training practices I’ve previously mentioned, one strategy is to reframe situations. 

For instance, entrepreneurship can be seen as a pressure cooker of endless work with multiple possibilities for failure, or it can be seen as an engaging experiment with the potential for constant learning and innovation that benefits many people's lives. How we frame our professional endeavors and daily tasks will greatly impact how we subjectively experience the inevitable ups and downs that come with work, and this will directly impact how much anxiety and stress we experience. It all begins in the mind.

Alright, last question (thanks for hanging in there). For anyone who won’t be able to make it to your talk about turning off worry, turning on resilience in Las Vegas, what do you want them to know? 

If you’ve been experiencing a very challenging time, you are not alone. 

Over 40% of us have reported a decline in mental health since the pandemic. Fortunately, resilience is a mental quality that anyone can develop with a bit of guidance and training. It’s not that some people are simply born with it, and some people aren’t. 

I hope the strategies I’ve mentioned may help you and your organization on your journey towards greater resilience. 
Learn more at Marissa’s SHRM21 concurrent session: Turn Off Worry, Turn on Resilience | In-person Saturday, September 11, 7:30 a.m - 8:30 a.m. PT


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