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Wendy Tamis Robbins: Five Things We Can Do to Develop Serenity and Support Each Other During These Anxious Times

Limit your exposure to news and social media: Prioritize time to be in nature, be with friends and family without talking about the pandemic, politics or other anxiety-provoking topics. Picking times to check in and creating boundaries around how much media you consume will increase your feelings of well-being.

As a part of my series about the things we can do to develop serenity and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Wendy Tamis Robbins, JD.

Wendy is the author of The Box: An Invitation to Freedom from Anxiety, a speaker, life coach, an Ivy League graduate, corporate tax attorney for over 20 years, wife and stepmom of two teenagers. In The Box, she chronicled her journey from almost 40 years of debilitating anxiety, obsessive compulsive and panic disorders to finding freedom to live her best life beyond her diagnosis. Now she shares those hard-fought lessons and strategies with others as a speaker and coach to de-stigmatize mental illness and be an example of what is possible.

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 had my first panic attack when I was just six years old and developed my disorders as I grew. In order to hide my symptoms and scary thoughts, I became a perfectionist and people pleaser. I wanted to control and save everyone around me. So the obvious choice was to become a lawyer. That vision started very young.

I earned a track scholarship to Dartmouth and after law school accidentally stumbled into affordable housing investments and social-impact lending, which has been extremely rewarding. But even after achieving so much success in a traditional sense, I was more anxious than ever. I was still running from myself. That’s when I pivoted to writing, speaking and coaching.

About six years ago, while still accommodating my anxiety on a daily basis, I asked my doctors if someone with almost 40 years of anxiety, panic and obsessive-compulsive disorders could ever live a life free from those shackles. They all said “no” or “I don’t know.” I decided to find out for myself. As a way to process what I experienced while doing that work physically, emotionally and spiritually, I wrote about it.

The book started as a way to save myself, until about halfway through, when I could see a process unfolding. That’s when I decided not only to share the book as an example of what is possible, but to share the process by teaching the practical steps to finding freedom through my speaking and coaching programs.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

When I decided to find the source of my anxiety to see if freedom from it could be possible for me, I had no idea how to start that work but couldn’t get the word “quest” out of my head. So I did what most people do, and I googled it. The first thing that came up was a course being offered by Deepak Chopra and Martha Beck (Harvard PhD, life coach to Oprah, best-selling author) called “The Quest.”

I signed up and was chosen to be coached by Martha on a live call. On the call I asked her the question I’d asked all of my own doctors and coaches, and she responded, “I don’t know, but I can give you a good place to start.”

She offered me a guided meditation that was life changing. At the time, I struggled with meditation, as so many of us do, anxious or not. But this meditation gave me a place to let my racing mind run, time to release stress I’d held in my body for decades and space to process my pain from a safe distance. It was the entry-level drug to a meditation practice that would change the course of my life.

Looking back now I see that moment as pivotal in my career resetting my path on this journey as an author, coach and mental health advocate.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

The biggest sources of burnout in the legal industry are the long hours, deadlines and taking on the stress of our clients. We tend to prioritize our clients and families, while our own healthy habits and self-care get squeezed out. We need to run our lives like we are CEO of a company and make wellness a priority. Otherwise, other parts of the company will suffer.

I think awareness is paramount. The ability to pause and recognize the source of our stress and anxiety so we can implement the right strategies is a powerful tool. Minding our thoughts and the stories we tell ourselves is a big part of that. Our internal dialogue has a huge effect on our daily stress levels. Acknowledge that you can’t always control your circumstances, but you can control your thoughts about and reactions to them.

Finally, exercise and meditation, especially outside in nature. We need time to metabolize stress both physically and mentally. Here’s a trick to get twice the benefit: start with small promises you make to yourself daily and keep them. This will not only give you the gift of the exercise or meditation, but it will rebuild the trust relationship you have with yourself that may have suffered during the chaos of quarantine. And if you are hesitant to meditate, try active, guided meditations first when your mind is racing and there is no space between your thoughts. Practice more quiet contemplation when that’s available, to create and cultivate a peaceful center to tap into throughout the day as you recognize stress building.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Post-pandemic work culture is still difficult to imagine. A lot of offices will be implementing a hybrid approach, splitting in-home and in-office work time. If that’s true for the foreseeable future, I suggest: (a) building meaningful connections in your teams through shared experiences and support, (b) accommodating flexible schedules to allow employees the time to incorporate self-care to recharge, © having open discussions and programs on wellness — childcare, meditation, sleep habits, addiction, exercise, etc. and (d) implementing systems for scheduling, meetings and delegating in order to reduce stress and free your team’s minds for more creative and effective work habits.

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?

Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Chamine is essential for our anxious times in order to understand what is happening in the brain and how that affects our thoughts and emotions and ultimately how we think about our own future, how we lead and how we relate to one another. It offers case studies illustrating the author’s thesis in real-life situations like the workplace and marriage. It also provides daily exercises and in-the-moment techniques to help calm the reptilian brain and energize and stimulate the creative and compassionate right brain he calls the “Sage.” I use several techniques I’ve learned in the book to defuse triggers and panic attacks, which I’ve written about on my blog.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious just from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.

  1. Meditation: Practicing meditation to cultivate a quiet, peaceful center you can return to throughout your day is extremely powerful. If the thought of clearing your mind of all thoughts and sitting quietly gives you anxiety, start with a guided meditation to keep your mind active. When I was first starting my journey to finding freedom from anxiety, the meditation Martha Beck gave me that I mention above was this: imagine you are watching an unbroken wild horse running in circles in a corral. Immerse yourself in the space, stimulating all of your senses. Sit with the horse every day for as long as it takes until it stops running. The horse represents your anxious thoughts and gives your mind a place to run and space to metabolize your fears and anxiety. Once you’ve spent time with this, other meditations will become available. As your comfort level grows, your practice will deepen, expanding your capacity for serenity not only while meditating but throughout your day.
  2. Connection: Studies show that loneliness can negatively affect our physical and mental well-being. It can also exacerbate existing mental health issues. When I was struggling with anxiety, intrusive thoughts and depression, I isolated myself to hide my symptoms. I thought not talking about them would make me feel normal, but it only made me feel alone.
    -So first, recognize when your loneliness is having an impact on your wellness by checking in, journaling and noticing signs of isolation, over-eating or over-drinking/medicating.
    -Then, even if it feels uncomfortable at first, reach out to someone in your life you can confide in about how you’re feeling. Exposing your vulnerability will create that connection you seek. And connection doesn’t have to be with people — getting outside and connecting with nature can quickly bring real serenity to an otherwise chaotic or anxious day.
    -Finally, stay connected to yourself by making your mental health a priority. For me it’s like I’m a light that is dim if not plugged into my source. Those connections I maintain both internally and externally keep the lights on.
  3. Awareness: Notice your thoughts and the stories you’re telling yourself and then question and examine them with a new level of awareness. Increasing your awareness can significantly impact your outlook on your current situation and the future. And in terms of re-entry, awareness can help you navigate these new norms that may feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable because we haven’t done them in so long or because they are new altogether.
    -There are three levels of awareness: contracted, expanded and pure awareness. We just need the first two because pure awareness is enlightenment and that’s a different interview. In contracted awareness, fear rules our thoughts. Our thinking is rigid, and our energy flow is hampered. We view everything as threats and obstacles. We are stuck in toxic emotions like dread, frustration and anxiety.
    -In expanded awareness we find space around the fear and fill it with compassion. Obstacles now become opportunities. We are flexible, balanced and creative. Deepak Chopra describes it as being in a pitch-dark room. You’re afraid because you can’t see anything, you’re bumping into things — even the furniture is a threat, especially to your toes! Then a light is turned on and suddenly everything makes sense and has order. Now the couch provides a place to rest and is no longer a danger. Give yourself permission to be afraid at first (“Of course I feel…”) and then turn some lights on.
  4. Scheduling: If you want to clean up your mind, clean up your calendar. Yes, serenity can be found and created in your schedule. Our beyond-busy lives are a big source of anxiety, especially this past year.
    First, do a brain dump. On Sunday evening, write down everything you need to do that week, personally and professionally. Be very detailed. -Then prioritize and delegate as needed. Finally, add everything to your calendar (I use Google calendar), leaving space between activities for transition, unexpected interruptions and fires you may need to put out (proverbially of course).
    -Then throw away the list, knowing everything is accounted for in the calendar. This will not only reduce your anxiety, increase your focus and help you sleep at night, but it will create time in your day to prioritize the wellness practices discussed above. Don’t forget to schedule them!
  5. Limit your exposure to news and social media: Prioritize time to be in nature, be with friends and family without talking about the pandemic, politics or other anxiety-provoking topics. Picking times to check in and creating boundaries around how much media you consume will increase your feelings of well-being.

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?

  1. Ask them if they are okay more than once. The socially acceptable response is “I’m fine.” But for those most in need of support, more digging is required. Maybe start the conversation for them by acknowledging your own fears, to draw them out if they are reluctant to share.
  2. Implement mental health resources and required programming before they are requested or necessary.
  3. Offer an open door and compassionate ear. Make it clear that you are a safe person to confide in, even confidentially if necessary.
  4. Actively look for signs of distress like panic attacks, isolation, canceling plans, trembling hands, short answers, lack of engagement and increased self-medication. Don’t assume they are isolated incidents.
  5. Educate yourself on the science of anxiety to reduce your own implicit biases and understand what others are going through.

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

Books:

Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Chamine

The Way of Integrity by Martha Beck

Untamed by Glennon Doyle

The Box: An Invitation to Freedom from Anxiety by Wendy Tamis Robbins

Apps:

Calm

Deepak Chopra guided meditations

Shine

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” — Joseph Conrad

When I was looking for a place to start my journey to freedom from anxiety, I had a vivid meditation where I revisited my six-year-old self hiding in a cardboard box. I don’t want to give it all away here, but that was the first cave of many I entered on that journey. Each of them represented an open wound, a pain point that needed my attention to bring healing and forgiveness, and ultimately reconciliation and redemption. That brought me the treasure of freedom.

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. :-)

That we teach our children how their brain works as part of our education system’s mandatory curriculum. Knowledge is power, and so many of us feel powerless when it comes to our thoughts. Physicists say our brains might be more powerful than every computer combined. That’s pretty darn powerful. They even say our brains may be quantum computers, which just hit the market in 2020, versus the digital computers we’ve had for decades.

I find it fascinating that we have these super computers at our disposal with literally no instruction manual. It’s like a demented game of trial and error or whack-a-mole! On my journey to finding freedom from anxiety I did a lot of research and training on how my anxious brain works, specifically how my thoughts trigger my fight-or-flight response, flooding my body with stress hormones that cause overwhelming feelings and physical reactions. Just this knowledge and the power it gave me to retrain my brain has been lifesaving.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

I am on Instagram at wendy_tamis_robbins, LinkedIn and Facebook at wendy-tamis-robbins and Twitter at WTRobbins. On my website, wendytamisrobbins.com, you can sign up for my weekly emails and free downloads, schedule 1:1 coaching, and request information on speaking engagements and programs by contacting me directly through the Contact page.

The Box: An Invitation to Freedom from Anxiety is available where all books are sold online.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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