When we think of mindfulness, it may be easy to imagine someone sitting on a cushion, legs crossed, eyes closed, and in a deep state of stillness and relaxation.
But, did you know that mindfulness, and all of its health benefits, can be practiced and attained beyond traditional meditation and deep breathing exercises?
Finding calm while washing the dishes? You bet. While reading? Absolutely. While drinking coffee? That’s a strong “yes.”
Licensed clinical health and neuropsychologist, Dr. Jennifer Wolkin, came on the Life Without Limits podcast to discuss the science behind mindfulness and how practicing for just five minutes a day can go a long way in reducing stress and finding that hammock-like sweet spot between living in the past and the future.
“Ultimately, mindfulness helps us approach the relationship we have with ourselves with kindness, empathy, and less reactivity,” she said. “It literally changes the physiology of our brains in extraordinary ways.”
Learn more about mindfulness and experience a short practice led by Dr. Wolkin in this episode.
Join Dr. Wolkin in community on Instagram, and pick up a copy of Dr. Wolkin’s book, Quick Calm: Easy Meditations to Short-Circuit Stress Using Mindfulness & Neuroscience, which provides 30 expertly curated mindfulness practices you can use any time and anywhere.
Host: This is Life Without Limits, the One Drop Podcast that gives you the tools, inspiration and support to challenge your limits. We talk with experts across all areas of health to open up more possibilities for you. Lean on us, as you step outside your comfort zone, to work your way toward better overall health and a Life Without Limits.
Kim Constantinesco: Welcome back to Life Without Limits, the One Drop Podcast that supports you as you work toward your health goals. I’m your host Kim Constantinesco and today we have Dr. Jennifer Wolkin, also known as Dr. Jen. She is a licensed clinical health and neuropsychologist based in New York City. She is also an author, speaker and mental health advocate who just her first book, Quick, Calm, Easy Meditations to Short Circuit Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroscience. Dr. Jen, welcome to Life Without Limits.
Dr. Jennifer Wolkin: Thank you so much for having me.
Kim Constantinesco: Before we get into the thick of it, you spent some time studying the impact of mindfulness-based stress reduction during your two year postdoc fellowship. Tell us about where your interest in mindfulness really developed.
Dr. Jennifer Wolkin: Sure. Actually it started even before then. I did an internship at Mount Sinai, and they offered for staff a class in mindfulness based stress reduction. And I had heard of it before and admittedly thought it was a bit woo. Of course, at that time not knowing much about it. And I was intrigued, and I decided to sign up, and I was hooked. It also coincided with a rough time for myself. I have a history of chronic health challenges, including endometriosis, which was not actually diagnosed until a year and a half ago. So I’ve been suffering since I’m 16 or so.
And it was stressful to go through having this pain and also being invalidated by the doctors, being told that it’s all in your head. And I internalized that voice, and there was negative self-talk on my end. And then I just developed anxiety around it, and I found myself disconnecting from my life and just even avoiding simple tasks. Which I write about in my book. I was very anxious and overwhelmed. I was here in chronic pain and I wasn’t being listened to. And yet I had this real gut instinctual, visceral, these synonyms, in understanding that something was truly not right.
And low and behold it wasn’t and I’ve since had very successful endometriosis excision surgery. And so grateful for it. Mindfulness really got me through a lot of that time. And then I did do a two year neuropsych fellowship and I had the opportunity to continue to dive into mindfulness, both personally and professionally. I was asked to be a neuropsychologist on a research protocol looking at the impact of mindfulness based, stress reduction and mild cognitive impairment. And it just changed my life. It was an extraordinary experience, and it really sort of emphasized my own personal practice. And from there on in I’ve been practicing. And like I say, and I’m sure it will come up again, practice makes practice. There’s no end to practice.
Kim Constantinesco: Well, thank you so much for that deep dive into your personal experience with mindfulness. And you then took it a step further and decided to write a book about it. Can you tell us about where that decision came from?
Dr. Jennifer Wolkin: So the decision to write a book was a very organic one. I think it first started with me wanting to put all of the information that I had amassed into one space. So it was born out of this pursuit to have everything sort of very accessible. And then I realized that maybe this can be of service. Maybe this could be something that people can refer to. Maybe I can help people humbly with their own practice, translate and share the science of mindfulness to the masses or on a greater scale than just one-on-one like I had been doing.
Kim Constantinesco: So let’s talk about the science of mindfulness. We so often hear the word and how beneficial it is to our overall health. It would be great to hear from you what mindfulness is and really what it means.
Dr. Jennifer Wolkin: Sure. Let’s start with the definition of mindfulness then, and we can get into the science maybe a little bit later. But first I always like to say that from a historical perspective mindfulness is thousands of years old. And many religions have taught the tenets of mindfulness, including Judaism, Hinduism and of course Buddhism, among others. But Buddhism probably more than any other religion holds mindfulness at its core.
According to ancient Buddhist philosophy mindfulness is first practiced with the goal of the ending of personal suffering. In more recent times mindfulness has been applied as a secular technique to Western psychological intervention. So in the ‘70s, late ‘70s, early ‘80s, Dr. Kabat-Zinn, Jon Kabat-Zinn, he really stripped mindfulness of any of its religious underpinnings and applied it to help people with chronic pain related to their suffering in an alternative way.
And that’s really the beginning, the mindfulness as sort of a psychological intervention. And the way he defines mindfulness is that it’s a state of greater awareness cultivated by paying attention on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally. So paying attention on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally. And I’m happy if you want me to, to parse those components and go a little bit deeper into them.
Kim Constantinesco: That would be fantastic, and I think talking about them in terms of what health benefits they bring to our mind, body and spirit, that would be great.
Dr. Jennifer Wolkin: Well, let’s start with paying attention on purpose. So when we don’t hone our focus on purpose, we’re on auto-pilot, right. And this is when we get lost in doing. We find ourselves struggling to get stuff done, instead of sort of being in the present and really appreciating the moments of our lives. This is when we do things sort of by rote. Like, we’re driving and we all of a sudden get to a place and we don’t realize how we got there. We literally were on auto-pilot.
In contrast, when we’re attentive on purpose, we start to live more consciously. And I guess the health benefit of this among other things is being fully awake to what’s around us. Being more fully ourselves and being able to notice the beauty of life. Being able to savor. Being able to be present. And then engaging in the present moment, right. So the definition, greater awareness cultivated by paying attention on purpose, which we just talked about, is the opposite of auto-pilot. And then in the present moment, so let’s parse that one.
That speaks to the idea about when we’re not in the present, the here and now, we’re either dwelling in the past, (inaudible) replaying it or projecting into the future, trying to anticipate the unknown. And of course it’s natural to want to go back so that you can somehow correct what happened, and you want to go forward so that you can change what’s going to happen. Of course (inaudible) thinking because as much as you want to go back and change something or to predict something and then try to control it. The reality is, is that we can’t.
I suppose that the health benefits here of mindfulness practices is that when we dwell in the past, we’re prone to depression. And when we try and project into the future, we often catastrophize, which leaves us at risk for more anxiety. But the reality is we can’t control the future no matter how much you want to. We can’t change the past. When we’re mindful we hone our clarity and focus as we attend to every sensation as it unfolds and as we’re engaged in our present moment experience.
So again, when we accept the present moment as it is, we let go of the tension caused by wanting things to have been or to be different. Of course it could be like I said, really difficult for us to stay in the present moment. The humans wander.
There is a study actually out of Harvard that found that people spend close to 50% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing. So in some ways this kind of mindlessness is more of the norm. But the study also found that allowing the brain to run like that can make people unhappy.
And then the third part of the definition, let’s go back. So we talked about greater awareness cultivated by paying attention, one, on purpose. Again, as opposed to auto-pilot. Two, in the present moment as opposed to either in the past or in the future. And then non-judgmentally. So what does non-judgmentally mean? When we’re practicing mindfulness we’re not trying to control, suppress or stop our thoughts. That’s actually the biggest myth that I think is built up about mindfulness practice. Is that we can clear our minds, but we really can’t. Nor would we necessarily want to, right. We don’t want to push away our thoughts. And like I said, not even possible.
But mindfulness helps us pay attention to our experiences as they arise without judging, without evaluating them in any way. And to me this is literally the essence of mindfulness. When we cultivate a state of clarity in which we suspect judgment, then we can become witnesses to our present moment experience. And it allows us to let go of some of the negative ruminations, which is a passive dwelling on negative thoughts and emotions.
Again, there’s no way to keep our minds from wandering. That’s a given. There’s no such thing as completely clearing our minds. In fact an important part of practicing mindfulness and creating a mindfulness space is to bear witness to our wandering mind with compassion and loving kindness and non-judgment. So yes, there’s always a temptation to judge an experience as good or bad or that thought is bad, or this feeling is uncomfortable. But letting go of the judgment helps us see things as they are rather than through our filters of patterns and conditioned modes of thinking.
So I guess just to summarize for you, mindfulness is the state of consciously and deliberately noticing what we are attending to in the present moment instead of remaining on auto-pilot and doing so without attaching judgment to what we are attending to. So even when our mind wanders in rumination, we notice it. And without judgment we bring it back to present moment reality. And when we get into the non-judgment portion of it, really the benefits are learning how to be more gentle with self. How to find compassion for ourselves. How to cultivate this sense of it’s okayness. And I think that’s really correlated to less suffering and the ability to find more pockets of joy.
Kim Constantinesco: Great. That was a really helpful definition of mindfulness. And I’m curious to know, is there a quote, unquote, right dose of mindfulness? Meaning how much and how often should we be engaging before we can start noticing benefits?
Dr. Jennifer Wolkin: That’s a tricky question, but thanks for bringing it up actually because one of the tenets of my book is that all we need is five minutes a day every day. I like to call it five to five, that the (inaudible) five and consistency. And that five minutes a day would be more productive and efficient for rewiring for wellness or cultivating wellness than one hour once a week.
So for me, the idea that it’s a consistent practice. Just like you would lift weights, even five pounds, ten pounds, fifteen pounds, eight pounds, whatever it is for five minutes a day every day, you would slowly notice progress in a more accelerated way or a more efficient way than if you lifted weights one hour once a week.
So the whole premise of the book is that it’s all about consistency. And then that’s one C, consistency. And then of course we just talked about non-judgment. I’d offer that there’s a catch. That yes, five minutes a day every day is where I think the biggest bang for the buck is. But we also have to remember to bring compassion. What I mean by that is compassion for when we don’t do it. Because listen, we’re human. We’re going to do a day or ten or twenty or a hundred and then we might not the next day or the next seventy days.
There are no ends to the beginnings we can take. We can always go right back. But we need to afford ourselves compassion. So consistency and compassion and just again, to answer your question about is there the right dose. That’s hard to say because we can see our muscles. We can’t, at least not yet, see our neuro circuitry. It would be lovely if we could see the neurogenesis or the growing of new neurons or the changing pathways, the new connections lighting up and (inaudible) to our greater wellness. That’s just not possible.
However, I’d like to think that we can feel it even in the small ways. And now we’re touching on something also that is outside of my necessarily expertise. I know it in terms of mindfulness practice. But we’re also talking about now probably I think the science of habit and how to make something a habit. And there are so many great books out there. So (sounds like: Charles Dueck) has a book out there, Morgan Dix of aboutmeditation.com talks a lot about habits and how to make meditation a habit.
So again, there’s no one right answer of how many days until it becomes a practice or until you notice benefits. But yes, we can delve into the science and the psychology of habit forming. I’d like to think that if we’re consistent and we bring compassion, that we can start to feel even the increments of our well being. And of course it’s hard to qualify sometimes, but this is what I do. I work with people to set up some markers for themselves. Whether it’s being able to more mindfully communicate in relationship with their significant other or approach their kids in a different way. Or notice that they’re ruminating less, whatever it is.
And again, ebbs and flows, right. Feeling is non-linear. There is an upward trajectory towards a greater level of wellness and yet still, ebbs and flows and ups and downs. Sometimes you have to take one step back to take two steps forward. So that’s a long way of saying, I think that we need five minutes a day every day. And also I don’t know exactly how many days until X, Y and Z. It’s just not that clear.
And I think it’s okay because the practice of mindfulness is literally sitting with the discomfort of the unknown. Okay, what if we didn’t know exactly when I’m going to start to X? Or exactly when this brain change happens? Can we sit with that and still practice and really trust the idea that we will benefit from this?
Kim Constantinesco: And so if I am new to practicing mindfulness, how might I be able to tell that I would benefit from a mindful moment? I mean, mindfulness isn’t necessarily something like thirst, right? So if your body needs hydration, you feel thirsty. And then you go and drink water. But is there something that we can look to, to tell us that we could benefit from a mindful moment?
Dr. Jennifer Wolkin: Sure. I mean, I’m biased. I think anyone and everyone can. But if you’re noticing that you’re particularly feeling stress or particularly feeling burnt out. If there’s a feeling of restlessness, maybe even increased irritability, difficulty sleeping. Of course if there’s anxiety and depression to a level that you need to reach out to someone, please reach out to a mental health professional. Yeah, those are some of the signs that would be helpful to pay attention to and heed.
And mindfulness practice might be the thing that you need to help alleviate some of the stress. You might notice that you’re having difficulty with attention. You might notice that you would like a greater sense of self-awareness. You might notice that you’re lashing out towards your partner or your children more than usual. You might notice how you’re showing up differently at work.
Also a lot of doctors these daysf prescribe mindfulness, a lot of medical doctors I should say prescribe mindfulness to manage symptoms of conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol and gastrointestinal challenges. So it’s very broad. I think mindfulness can be helpful in so many ways for so many people.
Kim Constantinesco: So let’s dive in a little bit to your book. You were kind enough to give me a sneak peek into your book as it was being created. And I know that you broke it up into three different sections, and I think it would be helpful today if we talked about those just to help us see that there are multiple ways to practice mindfulness. So you broke it up into three sections, one being formal practice. Two being informal practice and three being mindful living. Can you talk about the difference between these types of practices and why you included them?
Dr. Jennifer Wolkin: Yes, and first of all, not only did I give you a front row look at the book. You had a great hand in seeing this come to fruition. And I am just so grateful for all your guidance and your copy editing and your just – the eye that you brought to it that honestly I don’t think anyone else could have brought. So thank you so much for that.
Kim Constantinesco: Thanks Dr. Jen.
Dr. Jennifer Wolkin: Now let’s dive in a little bit. So here’s my take, and here’s what I set forth, like you said, in my forthcoming book. How we practice is varied and it’s really important for me to let people know that there’s no one right way to practice. We can practice in a formal way, in a more informal way and then we can take what we’ve gleaned from the more formal and informal practices. And then we can literally weave that into a life that’s more mindfully lived.
So here’s what I mean. So formal practice is the practice that we do, quote, unquote, on the cushion, right. It entails intentionally taking time out of our schedule. We find the specific space to embark on a meditative practice, right. So an example would be diaphragmatic breathing, the body scan, progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery. Something that we literally sit in a specific place and engage in this specific practice.
And then in formal practices, the idea that mindfulness is not just reserved for that cushion I spoke about. In fact practicing informally means we don’t need to be sitting somewhere specific to stay non-judgmentally present to every sensation as it unfolds. It means we can rest in mindful awareness at any time of day no matter what we’re doing. Washing the dishes, walking, taking a shower, brushing our teeth, drinking coffee. I always like to include this in my interviews, but there’s a Zen saying that when you drink, just drink and when you walk, just walk.
And that’s the essence of informal mindfulness practice. That no matter what you’re doing, even everyday tasks, you can incorporate mindfulness practice. They can become mindful practices, like sweeping and walking and showering and eating, like I said. And then mindful living is when we begin to live mindfully. So when our continued formal and informal meditation practices start to positively impact our relationship with ourselves, with others, with the world around us, it’s a way of showing up in this world. It becomes in my opinion more than necessarily a practice and a way of life that encompasses just for example, values such as loving kindness and gratitude and compassion and radical acceptance.
To live mindfully is, in my mind, to hold our life with the greatest level of appreciation. It’s about standing in our own self-worth, offering up compassion, self-care, self-love and of course these terms are abstract. Which is why I delve into them a little bit more in my book and actually give ideas of how to practice self-love and how to take care of self, right.
But mindful living is about approaching our relationships with empathy, kindness, compassion, grace, less reactivity. So I guess to summarize, there are many ways to practice mindfulness, and each way can really help inform our wellness. So each time we practice from any of these categories, whether it’s formal practice, informal practice or mindful living practice, we’re really practicing paying attention on purpose in the present moment and without judgment and allowing mindfulness to become a way of life.
Kim Constantinesco: Well, and it’s almost comforting that there are so many different ways to practice, because it becomes something that you can incorporate into your everyday life almost no matter what kind of situation you’re in. And I’m curious if we can kind of put it into practice right now, would you mind leading us through a short breathing exercise that we can tap into during our busy lives when we need a moment to ground ourselves?
Dr. Jennifer Wolkin: Sure. Let’s do it. And I always just use the caveat that anyone can do this except if you feel as though you’re dissociating or feel disconnected from your body, or if you’re prone to trauma response or maybe experience psychosis. Then I would still practice, but under the guidance of a professional. But here we go, let’s do a diaphragmatic breathing exercise.
So if it feels safe and only if it feels safe to do, see if you can gently close your eyes and if you want, just soften your gaze and then keeping your mouth closed, take a slow deep breath in through your nostrils. And while you do so gently allow your abdomen to fill like it’s a balloon being inflated with air. And then hold your breath for a few moments, and then slowly and fully exhale through pursed lips. And while you exhale pull your abdomen back towards the spin as if it was a balloon being emptied of air.
And then after the exhale, take a few moments to pause and notice without judgment. So it becomes a cycle of inhale, hold, exhale, pause. And I’m going to do that for you right now. So inhale through the nostrils, hold, exhale through pursed lips, pause. And then after that pause, just notice without judgment how you feel. So when you’re ready, repeat. Let’s do another. Inhale, hold, exhale through pursed lips, pause. Notice how you feel.
Let’s do another. Inhale through your nose, remember filling your diaphragm like it’s a balloon. Hold, exhale, pause.
And then you can find your own rhythm of inhale, hold, exhale, pause. And as you get into this rhythm, just notice the sensation of breathing. Feel your breath going in through your nostrils and out through pursed lips. You can even identify where the sensation of breathing feels most prominent to you. See if you can be with your breath as gently as you can. And if your attention wanders and like we said, minds wander, just notice where your mind goes, and then gently redirect your attention back to the sensation of breathing. Back to the inhale and back to the exhale.
Let’s do one more. Inhale, hold, exhale, pause, keep your eyes closed. And see if we can just take a moment to notice with curiosity and without judgment how we feel. And there’s no wrong or right way. There’s no way you need to feel or should feel. Just notice, get curious. And when you’re ready, slowly open your eyes, if they were closed, and return to your natural gaze.
Kim Constantinesco: Well Dr. Jen, I just did that exercise for two to three minutes with you, and I notice in my body just I feel much more calm. My heart rate has slowed. I feel like I can concentrate even more, and I notice just even those two to three minutes to notice my breath has made a big difference in my afternoon.
Dr. Jennifer Wolkin: Same. I actually practice in between every single client that I have. And I see back-to-back clients all day most days. And without this practice, I don’t know if I could show up in the way that I do. And again, I want to just emphasize that there’s no right way to feel, right. Sometimes I feel so relaxed and more attentive and my shoulders unclench away from my ears. And my jaw hangs. And sometimes it’s just, like, okay, did that even help? And the answer is yes. The answer is even if we don’t feel it, it’s a practice and we’re showing up. And it does help.
And I think that’s the, again, the essence of mindfulness is not judging. Not comparing one practice to another. Our practice can be different. If I do my practice in the morning sometimes it’s different than my practice midday and in the evening. Sometimes my practice on Monday is different from my practice on Friday. That’s why it’s just about getting curious and having no “should.” It should be this way. No, there are no shoulds. There’s just showing up and there’s just practice.
Kim Constantinesco: Now Dr. Jen, before we wrap up this show, can you tell us where the One Drop community can follow your work and join you in community?
Dr. Jennifer Wolkin: Yes, thank you. That’s so kind. I am on Instagram as @dr.jenpsych_ and I love being in community there. They can also find me at quickcalmbook.com, and for anyone who does buy a book, I am committed to being here with you through your journey. So find me, get in touch with me. Let me know that you got the book, that you found it through the One Drop Podcast, and let’s do this one step at a time.
Kim Constantinesco: Well, thank you so much for joining us today Dr. Jen. Wishing you many mindful moments in your daily life.
Dr. Jennifer Wolkin: To you too and to your listeners as well. Thank you so much for having me. I’m a huge fan.
Kim Constantinesco: Stay tuned for more episodes and more health experts ready and willing to share their tips to help you achieve your health goals. We’re in this together.
Host: Thank you for listening to Life Without Limits. If you liked this episode, tell friends. We’re here to help you take back your time, power and life so you can live to your fullest potential.