From lifestyle blogs to Google employee onboarding packages, “mindfulness” generated a lot of buzz in 2016. And while the word might bring to mind yoga ashrams or stressed-out Silicon Valley execs, there’s good reason to think we could all benefit from a breather, says Dan Guerra, Psy.D., ’91.
A practicing psychologist, executive coach and public speaker, Guerra’s approach to mindfulness combines Western cognitive behavioral therapies, Eastern philosophies and improvisational acting. His distinctive approach bridges the gap between mind and body to help clients suffering from stress, chronic pain and autoimmune disorders find relief and clarity.
“Mindfulness, simply put, is awareness,” explains Guerra, who lives and has a private practice in New York City. In particular, Guerra encourages patients to pay attention to their breath, a tactic that helps people stay calm and can even stop patterns of negative thinking.
“You teach people to connect their breath and their awareness to their body, and good stuff starts to happen,” says Guerra. “I’m not saying it cures a lifetime of illness, but you can lead a higher-quality life.”
When he’s not helping patients in his daily practice, Guerra spends his days coaching executives. He tailors mindfulness techniques to help his high-powered clients handle stress, lead their teams better and relate effectively to their employees.
But mindfulness isn’t just a practice for the C-suite. Americans spend their lives at work in a culture that tells us “if I’m not doing, I’m not productive,” says Guerra. This mindset makes it increasingly difficult to create the space we need to reflect on our decisions and mitigate stress in our daily lives.
That’s because, according to Guerra, taking a moment to stop doing can often make us feel like failures. But reflection is crucial to our ability to make informed decisions—especially when we feel stressed out. It’s a critical life skill that colleges and universities have begun teaching. F&M’s new health center, operated in partnership with Lancaster General Health, offers a number of mindfulness opportunities. And these were augmented recently by a $1 million gift from Trustee Tony Kreisel ’66 and his wife, Dr. Kimberly Faris, providing for more comprehensive, campus-wide mindfulness programming.
Giving college students the opportunity to practice mindfulness techniques during “an intense and demanding time of life” will provide tools they can use for a long time to come, emphasizes Guerra. He lists benefits that include “increased well-being, increased concentration, integrative and improved judgment—that ability that we have to see from multiple perspectives—and increased empathy.”
All it really takes is practice, he says. And in his new book, “From Stressed to Centered: A Practical Guide to a Healthier and Happier You,” Guerra helps readers “develop a personal action plan” to combat stress in their daily lives by tapping into a new awareness of their breath, body and mind.
“It doesn’t take a whole lot of burden to change,” says Guerra. “I’d much rather see someone practice mindfulness two to three minutes a day than two hours one day a week.”
Still, Guerra is the first to tell you he needs the reminders he learns from his own work.
“I’m not built for relaxation,” Guerra says, laughing. “This is a practice I have to bring to my life every day, and anyone close to me will tell you that I do not do it perfectly.”
But perfection is hardly the point. “We definitely don’t need one more thing in our lives that we have to achieve and get perfect,” he says. Just a strategy to practice, day by day—imperfectly—that helps us pay attention, connecting more deeply with others, our work and ourselves.