I just thought I was a stressed person — that always feeling a little stressed was normal; that taking multiple sick weeks a year due to burnout was to be expected when you were driven; and that letting go of my standards would mean I was letting go of myself and ultimately failing. It wasn’t until 2018 that I started therapy because my heightened stress was impacting me both physically and mentally, and this was something I could change.
I studied environmental engineering for the reasons many go into engineering — I liked math and science and prioritized sustainability and conservation. I graduated with my BS in 2012 and started my first job at a large international firm. After five years, I decided to try a smaller local firm of about 40 people, which then led me to an even smaller local firm of two people.
As I experienced different jobs, including different types of companies and environmental engineering focuses from remediation to industrial stormwater to green stormwater infrastructure, I noticed that something still didn’t feel quite right.
Mindfulness came into my life more formally at this time although I wasn’t fully receptive to the concept yet. A therapist told me to try walking and eating slower and doing these things without multi-tasking; I thought that sounded inefficient. A year later, following life changes and regular therapy, I connected with a mindful eating coach and that’s when my mindfulness practice began to change my life.
I left my last full-time engineering position in January 2020 to take a sabbatical to reset and reflect. I spent some time at home and traveling before my plans were interrupted as the world closed due to COVID-19. I journaled sitting outside in beautiful places in Hawaii, Costa Rica, and the Galapagos and had wonderful and inspiring conversations with new friends from around the world. At this point, I realized that I was ultimately rediscovering myself.
I re-read Start With Why by Simon Sinek and then it hit me: I am a connector. I love so many things — bringing people together; leadership; sharing new ideas, books, movies, and music; and helping people reach their full potential. I also reflected on people in my life who inspire me — those with freedom, flexibility, and independence.
As I continued to grow my mindfulness practice, I noticed that how I feel each day is far more important to me than what I do. Yes, they are inherently linked, but I was more frequently making choices based on what I thought I was supposed to do vs. how I felt.
These realizations led me to become a certified meditation and mindfulness teacher and start fleeceandforests LLC to help others grow mindful connections. Now, I use my experience as an engineer to teach technical professionals the importance of mindfulness and how to incorporate these practices into their lives to not only manage stress but to also improve interpersonal communication, increase empathy and compassion, and create stronger and more resilient teams and leaders.
What Is Mindfulness?
Although the definition of mindfulness varies, I like to reference Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgmentally.” He identifies three main tenets of mindfulness.
The concept of staying present is straightforward, but implementing this practice in your daily life can be challenging. We are constantly bombarded with distractions, and our minds are easily drawn in multiple directions. Remaining present is a skill that we can grow through mindfulness practices and one that ultimately improves our ability to focus, reduces spiraling thoughts, and allows us to enjoy each moment.
Mindfulness teaches us to be aware of our bodies and emotions; we slow down when we practice and notice feelings or thoughts. Building this skill translates directly into how we treat ourselves and others. We learn how to extend more compassion and empathy with ourselves and ultimately to those around us. We are also better able to pause before we react to a situation, examine and understand our initial inclinations, and determine how we want to move forward rather than simply reacting.
This component of mindfulness involves letting go of judgments of yourself and others. Through mindfulness practice, we learn to simply notice with curiosity and an open mind. In the same way that self-awareness helps us with our interactions with others, letting go of judgment of ourselves means that we reduce judgment of others and recognize our biases. We are better able to accept the differences of our family, friends, and coworkers and see how these differences make our relationships and teams stronger.
The Science of Mindfulness
When we experience chronic stress, our brains change because more energy is ultimately allocated toward stress response rather than higher-level executive functions, such as planning, decision-making, problem solving, self-control, and memory. Neural connections and volume of different areas of our brain change because of stress, which results in functional changes including difficulty regulating thoughts, emotions, and behavior; contextualizing new situations and information; and storing new information and learning.
Mindfulness practices tap into the neuroplasticity of the brain — new neural pathways can be built over time. So just as long-term exposure to stress can change the functionality of the brain, mindfulness can also rewire and ultimately counteract some of the impacts of stress. Mindfulness practices increase brain gyrification — the folding of brain tissue — which allows the brain to process information more efficiently.
Multiple studies conducted by researchers at Harvard explored the impact of mindfulness on the brain (To learn more, read “When science meets mindfulness” and “With mindfulness, life’s in the moment”). The research found that areas of the participants’ brains changed counter to changes observed in response to stress following a few months of a regular mindfulness practice.
Grow A Practice
Growing a mindfulness practice is similar to learning any new skill — you have to find what works best for you and practice over time. These practices can include meditation, gratitude, mindful eating, or inviting mindful awareness into your daily routine (mindfully brushing your teeth, washing your dishes, walking your dog, etc.).