AIMEE BERNSTEIN, president of Open Mind Adventures, is a change accelerator and coach focused on leadership and personal development. Her clients have included executives from Dolce Gabanna, The Ritz Carlton, Microsoft, NASA, Intel, and others.
Could Centering Help Leaders Reduce Stress?
Editor's Note: The following article is excerpted from Aimee Bernstein's book, Stress Less, Achieve More.
If you are unaware of your emotions, physical sensations, and intuition, or if your conditioned mind is so invested in your point of view, you either won’t notice your body’s signals or you’ll try to ignore them.
Over time you might develop a stress-related disease. However, if you are attuned to your mind/body, you can make another choice.
Each of us is called upon at work to make decisions and take action when we are under pressure. Although you can’t control other people’s decisions and actions, you do have a choice between becoming a victim of the situation and preserving your integrity.
The word integrity is often defined as a consistency of values, beliefs, and actions. Sounds simple, but it’s not always. Integrity has another meaning, which is the condition of being whole and complete.
When you are whole and complete, it is much easier to decide and act on what you truly believe and value. Wholeness implies that all the parts of you—your mind, emotions, body, and energy field—operate as one, aligned and unimpaired.
In this context, I will introduce you to the process of centering, which, when experienced deeply, positions you to act with integrity and authenticity even when times are the toughest.
Stress is unavoidable, but not unmanageable.
That's the message of Stress Less, Achieve More—a book that is part training manual, part spiritual guide for individuals and teams to accomplishing more while feeling calm and centered despite the stresses of everyday life.
In this book, author and leadership and personal development coach Aimee Bernstein offers a more effective and realistic approach to stress: Don’t try to numb yourself from the pressure or run from it. Embrace it!
What is Centering?
Centering increases your awareness, energy, and confidence. You trust yourself more and act decisively. Your presence grows, and people notice you.
In the first level of centering you feel balanced, relaxed, and present. Your perceptions expand and you feel more self-contained. Your breath is located deep in the lower belly, and everything that was out of alignment (the shoulders that were raised to carry your burdens, the slight leaning forward that came from racing around with your attention outside yourself) comes back into alignment so your mind and body act as one unit.
With practice, the experience of centering shifts from the subjective to the objective. Instead of being rigidly ruled by your conditioned mind, its tight boundaries soften, and you have more options in how you respond to people and situations.
“Centered” at this level means “grounded in your deeper values and connections with others.” When centered, you are authentic. You no longer need to be what others—the organizations to which you belong or your culture—expect you to be. You can be yourself and, without fanfare, acknowledge and act from your inherent value and uniqueness. The more centered you are, the more integrity you have, and therefore, the harder it is for you to be torn asunder by self-doubt, fear, and high-pressure situations.
Try Centering Yourself Under Pressure
Our experience of center shifts with the pressures that are exerted on us, which lets us adapt to our inner and outer environments. Put under enough pressure, each of us reacts by hardening and pushing forward (attacking), weakening and collapsing, spacing out, or distracting ourselves.
Although it only takes minutes or seconds to re-center, we tell ourselves we are too busy, that we will do it later, or that the workplace doesn’t support us in doing this. But in reality, it only takes few minutes to reduce stress when you practice centering.
How to Center Yourself and Reduce Stress
Step One: Pause
To change your mood and stress level, you first need to realize that you are no longer centered. This means that you need to stop and sense/feel inside you. Since you might forget to do this, here are a few suggestions you can use at work:
- Set your phone, clock, or timer to go off every sixty or ninety minutes. Stand up and sense/feel how you are.
- Create rituals in which the pause is built in so you can take time to assess your inner state. For example, every time you put the phone down or turn the computer on, pause before getting involved in the next task. Or, instead of rushing off to the next meeting, take a moment before you leave your office or cubicle to pause. Are you centered?
- Notice when someone or something grabs your attention. Initially, you may not be aware of it, but that person or object may be providing you with a clue to center/ground. Here are two examples:
- Does the tall redwood tree you see from your office window capture your attention? It can serve as a reminder that there is an up and down energetic stream that moves through you. A center. Better check to see if you are slouching or leaning towards one side of your body.
- Do you notice how surefooted the woman in the next office is? She moves so deliberately. Now notice how grounded you are. Can you even feel your feet?
Once you recognize the amazing intelligence of your attention, a tree will not only be a tree; it will be your wake-up call.
Step Two: Ways to Re-Center
Modern life has us paying attention to the future: our to-do lists, the next meeting, or upcoming deadlines. When your attention moves from center into what is in front of you, you lose a sense of your back, which supports you, and the ground that anchors you. To re-center yourself you need to get out of your head and shift your attention into your body. Here are some quick ways to shift your attention back to center:
- Take three deep breaths into your lower belly, allowing your rib cage and chest to expand wide rather than rise up.
- Take a walk, get something to eat, or speak to a colleague in person instead of writing an email. As you walk, feel the way your body moves. Experiment with moving with your attention in your hara or lower belly, your center of gravity.
- If your workplace has a campus in a natural setting, bring a blanket to work and lie on the ground. Spend five to ten minutes lying on your belly doing nothing and then flip over for another five to ten. You will be amazed at the energy you feel as your mood improves and your tension eases into the ground.
- Use humor to dispel the heaviness of your situation. Laugh your stress away by compassionately surrendering yourself to the imperfections, learning challenges, and moments of jerkiness that make us human.
- If your shoulders are tight sense/feel the soft angel wings that are connected to your shoulder blades. (Think John Travolta in the movie Michael.) As they expand wider than your physical body, feel the release of tension and your ability to sense your back increase.
- Once you have a sense of your back, it is easier to gain a sense of the ground. Imagine that you have a large, thick dragon tail growing from your lower back and resting comfortably on the ground. Notice how this helps drop your tension into the ground so you are moving with gravity instead of resisting it.
When All Else Fails, Practice Centering
Most people try to change their behavior and reduce stress using insights, self-talk, and affirmations. Sometimes this works; often it doesn’t because personality, which is like your mind’s software, is preprogrammed.
Thus, it is often easier to go through the back door, so to speak, by practicing centering and shifting the body in order to change your thoughts.