Mindfulness: An Oxygen Mask for Your Brain

Patty Casebolt, chief operating officer at the Medical Eye Center, was introduced to us by our friends at CareCredit, who generously made it possible for us to have a conversation about how mindfulness can be worked into our busy days and why even skeptics should consider making meditation a habit.

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An Interview with Patty Casebolt on Central Line: The AAHA Podcast

Mindfulness and meditation have begun to appear consistently in conversations about mental health and wellbeing. Leaders in nearly every field, from Ariana Huffington to Bill Gates, cite mindfulness and meditation as keys to their success, and it turns out there’s plenty of evidence to back up the benefits. Patty Casebolt, chief operating officer at the Medical Eye Center, was introduced to us by our friends at CareCredit, who generously made it possible for us to have a conversation about how mindfulness can be worked into our busy days and why even skeptics should consider making meditation a habit.

Patty Casebolt: I started as a technician, so I’ve been on the clinic side, and I’ve been in management for a really long time. But the path that brought me here is most likely what a lot of people deal with, which is stress. I developed some pretty serious stress-related illnesses. And maybe 10 years ago my doctor recommended that I get into mindfulness and meditation as a way to help, because mainstream medicine wasn’t helping. And it was a dramatic change. I am symptom-free. And I was so impressed that I continued my journey and became certified as a mindfulness meditation coach.

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Katie Berlin: That rings true for me this year, for sure, after having had some very strange neurologic symptoms pop up seemingly out of nowhere. I have to admit that I’m very dedicated when it comes to exercise and to try to eat well and all that, but I have a hard time with things that require me to be still.

PC: I diagnosed myself as an A+++ personality type—so driven. And I work ridiculous hours, and my family calls me a workaholic. But I have discovered, and I want to share with you today, how someone like me, maybe someone like you, can work in mindfulness.

So if you’re thinking it’s sitting on a cushion for 20 minutes or half an hour, that’s not what we’re talking about today. That’s great if someone wants to do that, but really, this is more for the working person who wants to find more manageable ways to work in mindfulness throughout the day, those micro-moments of pause.

KB: Can you tell us what the difference is between mindfulness and meditation?

PC: There are many different definitions if you google it. I like going back to the person who really coined the term mindfulness. Mindfulness is a state of being, if you just think about that, and meditation is a tool to achieve that. Jon Kabat-Zinn was really like the father of mindfulness, and he says that mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment nonjudgmentally, so that means as you become aware of what’s going on for you in this present moment, you’re not judging yourself.

Patty’s Micro-Moments

Try to incorporate some or all of these mini moments of mindfulness throughout your day . . . or better yet, try them with your team.

• Set an intention (not a goal—intentions are open-ended and nonjudgmental) for the day as soon as you wake up. Maybe “I’ll create micro-moments of mindfulness today.”

• Eat breakfast mindfully—no phone, no TV, no eating in the car. Use all of your senses to experience the smells, textures, and tastes of your food and drink.

• Take a different route to work.

• Breathe into your belly at red lights and pay attention to your breaths until the light turns green.

• Try a walking meditation from your car to the door of the clinic. How is your foot meeting the ground? How is your weight shifting? Take note of five new things on the way from the parking lot into the building.

• When you pass through a door—into the hospital, into your house, even into an exam room—pause and check in with your mind (what are my thoughts?), your body (what sensations are present?), and your heart (what am I feeling?).

• Take a break to connect your mind and body, even if you have to lock yourself in the bathroom for 60 seconds to allow yourself to reset.

Meditation is just simply a tool. It’s possible to be mindful without actually meditating. And I think that’s the part that most people get confused. Meditation is a tool or a practice that helps an individual use a technique that trains their brain—it trains their attent

ion to become aware of this present moment and achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state. It’s really about wiring two parts of the brain: the prefrontal cortex, which is the executive problem-solving part of our brain, and the amygdala, the emotional part—fight, flight, freeze. When we are becoming defensive or scared or any kind of emotional response, most of us go right to that amygdala part, not problem-solving. And the wonderful thing about mindfulness is they’ve shown in studies that those two regions of the brain actually wire together, and therefore, I’m able to be more emotionally regulated and access that problem-solving part of my brain, real time, in the moment when I need it most.

Everyone I’ve ever experienced in the veterinary industry has an amazing amount of empathy. One of the reasons I think that mindfulness is so important is the difference between sympathy and empathy: sympathy is I can relate to what’s going on for you, but empathy is I’m actually feeling it myself.

And the problem with empathy can be: if I really allow myself to be in the same space as you emotionally, now we’re both in the trench, right? And that’s where mindfulness really helps me bring up that resource of still being empathetic and feeling with you, and yet I can help problem-solve despite what’s going on for you emotionally.

KB: That kind of makes me wonder if we should call it empathy fatigue instead of compassion fatigue.

PC: It’s true. I work with a lot of patients who have really received devastating news about their eyesight, and what I was noticing for myself is absolute fatigue. At the end of the day, [I was] almost feeling depressed, and what I noticed through doing so much mindfulness and meditation is I was able to tap into a resource that I hadn’t been [able to tap into] before. Although I was still feeling what was going on for them, I was able to—like the oxygen mask, when they tell you in the plane to put it on yourself first before anyone else, it’s one and the same thing. I’ll be able to show

 up every day, at my best, and therefore be helpful for other people.

KB: Regardless of our role in the hospital or what our day is looking like, do you have some tips for how anybody can start to incorporate mindfulness into their day?

PC: I do. There are ways, these micro-moments, that you don’t have to sit on a cushion for 30 minutes a day to achieve this zen-like feeling inside.

So, it starts with—you’ve already mentioned it—setting an intention in the morning. So as soon as you wake up, you’re asking yourself, “What is my intention for the day?” And that’s very different than a goal. A goal is action, moving toward something. Intention is more open-ended and nonjudgmental, so maybe my intention today is to create micro-moments throughout the day when I’m going to take care of myself in that way.

The next thing would be in the morning when you’re eating breakfast and drinking your coffee, doing so in a mindful way. It means taking a moment to really pay attention, because remember, mindfulness is about being in this present moment. Putting the phone away and really absorbing what it feels like, using all five senses—what does my breakfast smell like? What does it taste like? What’s the texture? What does it sound like? Am I crunching or . . . ?

And it might sound silly, but it is a way of 

becoming present without any complicated tools, and that’s kind of easing you into your morning as a micro-moment.

The next thing is, on your drive in to work, take a different route. When we go to work every day, I’m sure you’re probably like me, where I’ve somehow ended up at work and had no idea how I got there. If you force yourself to take a different route, your brain is forced to be more present, to pay attention.

The other thing, I love this one, is breathing into the belly at the stop lights. So any time you stop for a red light, just breathe into your belly, pay attention to your breath, until a green light happens, and that’s a very easy way of becoming present.

KB: That’s something that as a person who’s chronically five minutes later than I wanted to be, I have had to do intentionally many times because I’m sitting there at the red light or behind the train that’s taking forever or whatever.

PC: Definitely—control the adrenaline rush, the cortisol spike.

The next is walking meditation, and you can do this at your lunch break, but I like to start when I come from the parking lot into the building. Literally paying attention to how my foot 

is falling on the ground, where my weight is transferring from the ball of my foot to the heel, then looking, and what am I noticing? What are five new things that I’ve noticed just from the parking lot [to the door]?

Because again you could get into autopilot, just lock in and be thinking about my first meeting or that report that was due last night that I didn’t finish. You’re forcing, again, that presence, and using all five senses—so what do I smell? What am I hearing? What am I seeing? Maybe even, what does the air taste like? It doesn’t seem like you could taste the air, but if you pay attention, there are subtleties, right? And then as you are walking into the building, ask yourself, “What is my purpose for being here?”

Doors can be a real key, any time you pass through a door. If you’re coming into the office, the door is a moment to pause and remind yourself, as you go in that door, of three things: What are my thoughts right now, in my head? In my body, what are the sensations that are present right now? And then in my heart, what are emotions that are present right now? And that’s another way of bringing yourself a micro-moment, right? Just a quick check in, how am I doing in those three areas? The mind/head, the body, the heart.

Another really important thing is the micro-moment of a break. I can go hours and my mind and my body are disconnected. If you find that it’s difficult to find a space in the office where you’re not going to get interrupted, go into a bathroom and lock the door and set your timer on your phone for a minute. Literally breathing for even a minute can reset so much and just give you that presence of mind of like, “I’m doing this for me, and nobody can get to me right now. This one minute is all for me.”

KB: I love that. And we are so conditioned in healthcare and veterinary care to not take that time for ourselves during the day. It’s like we think we’re not as worthy or not working as hard if we take a minute for ourselves, and that’s just not true.

PC: For me, it has felt like a badge of honor. Even before COVID, I just think about how often most of us came to work sick and worked through it. And all these things like, “I don’t need a break. I can power through.” Like you’re saying you’re more worthy or more competent [if you don’t take breaks].

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And honestly, what I have found in our office is the more we take care of ourselves, the more others are looking at that and giving themselves permission [to do the same]. It’s supportive, and we haven’t realized. 

This episode was made possible with generous support from CareCredit.

Catch a new episode of Central Line: The AAHA Podcast every Tuesday on all major podcast platforms, YouTube, and aaha.org.podcast. Send us feedback or questions anytime at podcast@aaha.org. Find all of AAHA’s most up-to-date Guidelines, including resources for your clients and team, at aaha.org/guidelines

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