Author Denell Barbara Nawrocki: “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”
I envision a world where women feel strong and empowered in their bodies no matter what anyone else around them desires of them, and move about their day from their place. Decision making, inspired action, using our voices, standing for what we believe in, and having strong boundaries with our body will transform the society we live in.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Denell Barbara Nawrocki.
Denell Barbara Nawrocki, MA is an author, speaker, and holistic health expert specializing in Women’s health and wellness. Denell believes in the body’s ability to heal, and guides women on ways they can connect to their body and find empowerment on a self-healing path.
Since 2008, Denell has done extensive study in the fields of health, healing, personal transformation, indigenous wisdom, plant medicine, and history. All of this culminates in her mission to lead people to be in a loving relationship with their bodies. She received her MA in Integrative Health Studies from California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), and a BA in History from UC Davis.
Utilizing all she studied, Denell self-healed 7 years of HPV and cervical dysplasia diagnoses and has retained a clear bill of health ever since. In 2016, Denell founded Cervical Wellness, an online-education platform guiding women to self-heal their cervix, as well as reconnect to their female sacred-anatomy in new and empowering ways.
She offers online masterclasses & events, in-person workshops & retreats, as well as sharing illuminating content in public talks, and across her social media platforms.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I was first diagnosed with HPV and cervical dysplasia at the age of 19 but knew little to nothing about what this meant for me and my health. Since I was considered young, the doctor sent me out the door with no more information than when I arrived, other than knowing I had an ‘abnormal pap smear’. Four years later, I continued to have abnormal pap smears, and this time the dysplasia on my cervix was worsening (bordering severe pre-cancer). Upon refusing Western medical treatment because their options didn’t sit well with me and being told by my doctors there was ‘nothing more they could do for me’, I set off on a three-year journey of learning everything I could about the cervix, gynecological and reproductive health, the inherent healing and regenerative capabilities of the human body, and all things holistic health and wellness. Seven years after my initial diagnosis, I received the news I had been waiting for- my pap came back normal. All signs of HPV were gone from my body and the precancerous cells on my cervix disappeared. After a brief period of celebration and excitement, I quickly grew angry at how little I had been taught about my gynecological and cervical health, and devoted myself to spreading the information I learned over the course of my healing journey. I now guide hundreds of women from around the world to reclaim their cervical health and empower themselves to holistically heal HPV and cervical dysplasia.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Early in my career as a cervical health educator, I found myself teaching a workshop at Sonoma State University on ‘Demystifying the Cervix’. This presentation was an informational workshop designed to bring awareness to the cervix not only for health and wellness purposes but in sex and sexual literacy as well. I was shocked when over 75% of the participants who attended were male! I asked them at the end of the presentation why they showed up, and each and every one of them said that they wanted to be more informed about female bodies since they were engaging with them in a sexual way. It was amazing to watch their eyes grow big and their mouth falls agape as they learned more about the interior of the female body than they had in their whole life. It was so inspiring to witness!
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
The most profound shift I’ve made in our teamwork culture is to value the messages and cues of our bodies and to listen to them. As a female leader, it’s important for me to give permission to other women on my team to take a day or two off to rest when they start their period because that’s what the body is calling for, or to take breaks throughout the day to take a walk or have a dance party when we start to feel sluggish. I’ve found that when we don’t feel good in our bodies, the quality of work diminishes. I routinely check in and ask members of my team (as well as myself) how I am feeling, and if there’s any semblance of negativity, we get to the bottom of what needs of our body is not being met. When we feel good in our body, it’s easy to feel good about doing work that changes the world.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The first book which comes to mind is Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom by Christiane Northrup, M.D. This book has become like a bible for me when it comes to taking care of myself and the needs of my body. Northrup describes the female body system in a way I had never heard of prior and offers insight into mindsets, behaviors, habits, and energies which can negatively impact the female body, leading to unwellness and disease. Before reading this book, all the teachers I learned from and followed were male, and although they are powerful in their own way, I always felt like something was missing for me in the teachings. It was this book and her work which was a catalyst for my personal healing journey.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
Mindfulness and the state of being mindful is the moment by moment experience of being present with what is. This means removing any story, any thought, any belief surrounding the in-the-moment experience. When one is mindful, we are fully experiencing the sensation and input of our body’s senses (see, smell, taste, touch, hear).
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
The physical benefits of becoming mindful includes the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, or the part of our nervous system which stimulates the ‘rest and digest’ cues in our body. Peace, relaxation, and calmness of the body naturally arises when we become mindful. Following this experience of relaxation, our mind can unwind and has space to declutter. The mental benefits include more positive thoughts than negative and the elimination of rumination (cyclical negative thinking). With a relaxed body and a calmer mind, our ability to emotionally stabilize becomes easier. This doesn’t mean we don’t feel emotions, but rather we’re able to move through an emotional experience with more ease and completion. Our emotions have space to become expressed in our daily lives, and do not get bound up or stuffed because of a stressed body or cluttered mind. The benefits of becoming mindful are like a beautiful row of dominos, that once initiated help us live our life filled with more joy, peace, and pleasure than was available before.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
The beauty of the upheaval is that it provides us with more opportunities to become exquisitely attuned to our body, our mental state, and our emotions.
Five steps I invite each of us to follow include:
- Notice your breath when we’re ingesting any sort of news or media. How deep are your breaths? Are you holding your breath? These are cues that our body is feeling afraid and the sympathetic nervous system is activated (fight, flight, freeze response). I’ve noticed in myself that whenever I’m scrolling through the Facebook feed or any media outlet and I’m reading all the negative headlines or posts of fear and overwhelm that people in my life are sharing, I’m literally holding my breath the whole time. Sometimes I’ll stop and notice that I’ve only been breathing maybe into my upper chest, and as soon as I take a nice, long, deep belly breath, I suddenly have the inspiration to logout of Facebook, turn off my computer and do something else. It’s like holding my breath makes it easier to intake the negativity on the newsfeed.
- Go outside or look out the window at something natural. So often we’re glued to some sort of screen, be it television, computer, tablet, or phone. These devices are designed to keep us hooked into the cycle of staring, when really our eyes (and body) do best when we’re looking at complex patterns of the natural world. If I begin to notice myself feeling unwell or bogged down by whatever I’m watching or looking at on a screen, I’ll either take the time to go step outside (without my phone) and stare at the movement of a tree or bird for a while. If I cannot step outside, I’ll find a window and do the same thing. Our body attunes to what we focus on, and when we focus on something in the natural world, our body immediately begins to relax, as this is our natural state of being.
- Choose to drink water over a caffeinated beverage or alcohol. Oftentimes when we feel stressed out by what we’re seeing in the world around us or on news media, our brain sends us signals that it wants a dopamine release (a neurotransmitter which signals pleasure and motivation). Sweet, caffeinated beverages and alcohol give us a quick dopamine release which tricks our body into feeling good for a temporary amount of time. However, it doesn’t last long and soon we find ourselves wanting or needing more to regain that ‘feel good’ sense. For years I found myself turning to a glass of wine to wind down at the end of every day, but ultimately this left me feeling more depleted than uplifted because of the way it impacted my sleep and ability to activate my parasympathetic nervous system on my own. As I began to transition away from the nightly booze, I found myself finding full pleasure in drinking a big glass of water. It feels now like my body is singing whenever I drink water because I know it’s helping my nervous system remain hydrated, and keeps me in a ‘cool’ stress-free state.
- Develop a creative hobby just for fun. Having creative projects, no matter what they are, provide us with endless possibilities for inspiration, motivation, and a sense of fulfillment. Whether it’s writing, painting, woodworking, gardening, or cooking, creative hobbies help us feel accomplished in our lives without it being tied to the economy or our sense of self-worth. During this time of pandemic and shut-in, I’ve dusted off my sewing machine and have found immense pleasure in tailoring clothing that didn’t quite fit well, putting new covers on old pillows, and attempting (while sometimes failing) to sew new pieces of clothing for myself. The process itself is what makes the end product so fulfilling. Becoming mindful of what sort of activities bring us joy and then actively doing them is a key way to remain hopeful during times such as these.
- Pick up the phone and call a friend or family member to have a chat about something other than the state of the world. Connection is a balm for our heart, soul and body. Given that we cannot be with each other in person, having as many real-time conversations with others is paramount for our mental and emotional health. When we’re not in connection with others, negative self-talk, rumination, and the tendency to binge on news media take ahold, and suddenly we find ourselves not breathing, consuming foods and beverages which deplete us, and we’ve been inside, out of the sun for hours or even days. I’ve made it a habit to call my mother at least every other day. She tells me about her long walks and what she’s been cooking or working on as a project, and I tell her about my cats, funny experiences I’ve had with my husband during the shut-in, and my sewing projects. It’s wonderful to speak to someone about the peaceful, mundane aspects of life as the world spins around us. Grounding back into the medicine of simple story-sharing is what will help us remain mindful of the good things in life during this time.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
- If it’s possible to, hold their hand or give them a nice long hug (10 seconds at least). Physical touch helps us co-regulate. When we’re in a relaxed state and we then physically touch another (with permission of course), this helps their nervous system receive the signal that all is well and it can relax too. Hugging, hand holding, cuddling, or sitting next to one another with legs touching helps with this.
- Offer a listening ear, but be mindful of not playing into the story. It’s a wonderful act of service to be willing to hear someone out and hold space for their feelings. However, it’s a fine line between listening to someone and fueling the fire of their anxiety. After they’ve shared what they’re experiencing, calmly remind them to come back to their breath, to feel their feet, and to recognize that their body is safe right now, in this exact moment. There’s nothing going wrong right here and now, and we can give permission to allow the stories to melt away.
- Change the circumstance or situation they’re in by switching rooms, turning on some music and dancing, or inviting them outside. Often anxious rumination occurs due to stagnant energy in the body, and when we switch the atmosphere or bring movement to the body, our body changes the biochemicals that are released in the brain. This is why splashing our face with cold water can help us when we’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed about something. The shake-up to the system breaks us out of the mental cycle we’re in. Turning on some fun loud music and getting silly will instantly pull us into the moment and the anxious fears will be kept at bay for a while.
- Invite them to take a warm shower or bath. Water is the great equalizer and gives our body permission to emotionally release. Oftentimes when we’re anxious and stressed, a really good cry helps us feel better. However, so many of us are emotionally constipated and don’t feel safe to emote. Inviting someone to take a nice long shower or drawing them a bath is a beautiful way to invite the body into safe emotional release to reset the nervous system
- Remind them that they’re safe and supported. Anxiety arises when we feel alone with the potential of a future that makes us feel unsafe. When we can look into another’s eyes and remind them that we’re here and they’re not alone, this helps the sympathetic nervous response wind down. Even better is hold their hands or shoulders, look them in the eyes, and verbally remind them of this. Eye contact, verbal affirmation and physical touch are the trinities to mental and emotional support for us when we’re anxious and scared.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
Right now, my favorite resource is the phone app called ‘Insight Timer’. It’s a meditation app where you can time various mindfulness activities such as walking, meditating, yoga, praying, chanting, and offers peaceful sound-scapes and musical backgrounds to listen to while practicing. One of my favorite aspects of this app are the hundreds of free guided meditations available for everything from cultivating a positive mindset at the beginning of the day, releasing stress and anxiety, to falling asleep peacefully. It’s been my favorite go-to resource.
Another resource I recommend for everyone is to have a gratitude journal where every morning before hopping on to any device or social media, you write down at least three things you feel grateful for that day. Practicing gratitude is a sure-fire way to bring us into the beauty of the present moment and to recognize that our life situation in the moment is actually a wonderful gift. We can be grateful for simple things like the socks on our feet, clean drinking water, and a roof over our heads. Reminding ourselves of this everyday helps bring the beauty of life into perspective.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
My favorite ‘life lesson quote’ is “I saw that my life was a vast, glowing empty page, and I could do anything I wanted” by author Jack Kerouac. This quote reminds me every day that every morning that I awake, I get to choose how my life unfolds. Every single day is a new opportunity to create my life into something beautiful and wonderful. Yes, experiences that are unpleasant can happen, but I get to choose how I respond to everything that occurs in my life. When I think about my life and every day being a blank slate, I feel empowered in my ability to choose a life filled with joy, peace, pleasure, and positive thoughts and experiences.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The movement I am starting is one of the female-bodied people to be embodied in their pelvis throughout all aspects of their daily life. I envision a world where women feel strong and empowered in their bodies no matter what anyone else around them desires of them, and move about their day from their place. Decision making, inspired action, using our voices, standing for what we believe in, and having strong boundaries with our body will transform the society we live in. The world’s population is 52% female, and for there to be a transition of leadership power in the world, we must have women who are fully willing and able to be grounded and centered in their pelvis. It is time for women to reclaim their pelvis for themselves, and take back their right to be sovereign in their bodies no matter what culture or society wants from us.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
You can find me on Instagram, where I’m most active, at @cervicalwellness. You can join my newsletter via my website www.cervicalwellness.com or find me on YouTube, search ‘Denell Barbara Nawrocki’. I love sharing empowering content and hope you reach out and say hello!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!