Corporate wellness, mindfulness, and happiness

My guest, Shawn Bradford, founder of Breathe and Work, had a life centered around her job in corporate America while her marriage, family, and her own sense of fulfillment suffered. Ultimately, she left her job to launch her own business, helping corporate employees to take control of their stress and providing them with self-care techniques and wellness tools. We talk about:

  • the 3 counterintuitive things you can do to find peace, happiness, and contentment right now
  • how 30 seconds can transform your day
  • where to start making changes to calm the craziness
  • giving yourself the tools you need to deal with stress, anxiety, and insomnia

Some days are going to be just abundant with business and other days it’s going to be abundant with family time. I don’t think there’s any perfect balance.

Connect with Shawn

Accelerate lasting success through harmony of mind, body, soul, and business

Transcript

JM: Hi, Shawn. How are you?

SB: I’m doing really good, Jennifer. I just put one of my kids out on a playdate. He’s off to the children’s museum so it will be a little bit more quiet.

JM: I was cracking up. I really wish we were recording. It was so funny because leading up to this conversation, we were talking about balancing kids and how we do that. As of the time of this recording, the kids are out for summer and so you may hear some banging in the background because my older one went to work with my husband but my little one is super into taking things apart to see how they work. He is outside banging on an old printer with my mother-in-law right now but it’s like whatever it takes to keep everybody busy. At least it’s not video games.

SB: That’s my thought exactly. Whatever it takes as long as they’re not at a screen. My kids this morning, about an hour ago, we’re just making laps around the house with the dog, I’m like the house was a track.

JM: Whatever you have today to get the energy out.

SB: Exactly.

JM: We’ll take what we can get in the summertime. I am happy to talk with you. You have made quite the transition. Originally when I met you, you were in sales and now you’re doing something completely different. Talk to me about what you do. What prompted that transition or that big change for you?

SB: Yes, absolutely. I teach people how to deal with their stress. Life is stressful, there’s so much going on and half the time we’re stuck worrying about what’s going to happen in the future, the other half of the time we’re stuck worrying about what already happened in the past. So I go in and work with people on how to really pull their awareness into the present moment. That is a lot of stress management strategies so that there’s a little bit more peace, more focus, more concentration, and more happiness. Businesses love that because their people then are more focused, more productive, more present at work and that just benefits their co-workers, their clients, and their overall.

JM: I would imagine a more positive morale at work, a more positive culture.

SB: Absolutely. It’s way more, there’s more teamwork. People that are present in the moment, studies show that they are happier and of course, it’s going to increase morale.

JM: Absolutely. How did you make that change? How did you make that transition and how did you know that was the kind of work you wanted to be doing?

SB: I did some sort of corporate work, whether it was copiers or real estate for about seventeen years and everything was just fine before I had kids. And once I had kids I was like, “Holy moly, this is a little crazy,” trying to balance it all, and I didn’t have any good strategies at all.

I had a nanny about six years ago that said to me, “You need to make some changes. I’ve never seen anybody more tightly wound than you.” Those are her exact words.

JM: Was that hard to hear?

SB: Oh, gosh, it was super hard to hear like I was highly insulted like I can’t believe this woman just said this to me. I’ve only known her for a couple of months. But you know, when somebody said something and there’s some truth to it, it stays with you. I knew it and I’m like, “I know I need to make some changes.”

JM: It tends to be when we’re most defensive too, I think. When I have a very high strong reaction I’m like, “Oh, I probably need to look at that. Maybe a little kernel of truth there.”

SB: Her words just kind of kept repeating in my mind and I was like, “Okay, there’s some changes that need to be made.” I just started exploring like, “What can I do to start managing really this life that’s on fast forward?” I’m not really engaged in any of it and then I noticed, I started looking around and I’m like, “Gosh, everybody else is like this. Everybody that I work with is really stressed out.”

JM: I was going to say that. I feel that it’s an epidemic. I feel like it’s very easy to fall into thinking that’s normal. There’s not much contrast for us.

SB: No. We do think it’s normal. We think this constant fast pace, constant worry is normal and it doesn’t need to be. We can still get everything done but in a way where we’re more enjoying what we’re doing. That’s really what I was looking for. I wasn’t enjoying anything, I have this amazing life, three healthy kids, a job that paid a good amount of money, and nice vacations. If you’re looking from the outside it’s like, “What on earth was there to worry about?” But I was either always worrying, always in motion, and I really wasn’t enjoying anything. That’s when I knew her words rang through because nothing was bringing me a lot of happiness or joy in the moment. Although I couldn’t identify that at that time, I just felt kind of out of my mind. Does that make sense?

JM: Oh, totally, I totally get that. That was one of the big watershed moments for me. In fact, I was realizing that when I built my other company – which I still have and have managed to achieve more balance with – on the outside, it looks like it’s the American dream. It’s like you have these healthy kids, you have a beautiful home, you’re going on trips, and you’ve got the successful business like what you have to be. But at the same time, I also did have that feeling like, “Who am I to be so unhappy and stressed out? How ungrateful am I?” But you do start to realize something is not right. It’s not how you’re supposed to live.

SB: No, no. That’s exactly where I was and that’s exactly what I had surrounded myself with. I was seeing a lot of the same thing. I didn’t immediately start my business and I really worked on myself first.

I started to do things that gave me a little time to myself and a little rejuvenation. I tried some yoga and meditation, I started making friends, and I just did more things that connected me with myself and other people at just a level that felt real.

JM: You started yoga nidra, is that correct?

SB: I started that so the other thing that happened like once I realized that there just wasn’t a lot of happiness and I was like, “Who is this person? What is she doing?” I really turned my whole world upside down. I got a divorce and that was really my low point because I did get a divorce thinking that would really solve everything and like, “Oh, everything’s going to be fixed because it’s all this other person’s fault.”

JM: It’s all these external stuff.

SB: Exactly. It didn’t fix anything. It just almost made it worse because I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, maybe it’s me, maybe I’m the one that needs to make some changes.” So I went through this period of just being so stressed out that I couldn’t even sleep. Anybody that has not been able to sleep knows just how much of a gift sleep is when you don’t have it anymore.

I found something called “yoga nidra” and I started to listen to it on YouTube. It’s basically guided meditation that translates to yoga sleep or sleep with awareness. It was the only thing that would help me fall asleep and then get back to sleep in the middle of a night. I started to really explore that.

Fast forward, it was such a game changer for me that now I teach it all over. I teach it in businesses, in studios, in community settings because there are so many medical and health benefits to it.

JM: How does that work? I mean, is it really something you only do when you want to go to sleep? Is that something that you practice? What is it and how does that work to help you deal with stress?

SB: Yes. It’s such a great question. When I first started doing it, I only used it for sleep. I really didn’t know much other but then I started noticing all these other little changes were happening; I was more aware of my reactions so therefore I was less reactive, I felt like I was starting to enjoy these little moments more and I was doing a lot of yoga nidra. I then became certified in it because I want to share it with other people.

I started doing a lot of research on it. It can be used in different settings. I’ll go into a business, let’s say, I’ve been in the hospital before teaching their nurses and PTs how to use mindfulness techniques and yoga nidra to manage their stress. We’ll just do a short fifteen-minute one which energizes them or helps boost creativity.

I’ve learned how to customize them for particular needs because it helps pull awareness into the present moment by connecting with the breath and a body scan. It’s that simple, just connecting with the breath and connecting with different parts of the body. It really helps people relax and release some stress and it’s like this short little break so that if I do it at noon in an office, they feel really revitalized for the rest of the day.

JM: That sounds amazing.

SB: Yeah, that simple. It’s truly amazing. Other times, I’ll do it like in a studio in the evening and it helps people sleep that night. They’ll report that they sleep better. There’s been a lot of studies done with PTSD so it does alleviate symptoms of PTSD. It’s a pretty phenomenal practice because it just helps you to connect with yourself. It helps you get rid of all that stress that builds up.

JM: That’s amazing. Yeah. I find that it is so important. I think the discussion we’re having is such important to have because I do think a lot of people either don’t realize how stressed out they are, how much they are lacking fulfilment in their lives, or like me I feel like, “Who am I to feel this way?” I feel like such a lack of gratitude but I think it’s so pervasive in our society and we see it in the media, in movies, and TV. Like you said, it even shows up in the people that we’re spending time with that it starts to feel like this is such a normal part of life.

When you really started to slow down, did you start to feel a sense of relief? When I started meditating, I fought it for a long time. I realized because there was a lot of shit coming up that I just didn’t really want to do it. I didn’t really want to look up, I went to embrace it. For me, my experience was that it was really hard in the beginning because once I started to get the hang of it, there were a lot of messages that were coming in.

The slowing down was hard for me too in the sense that I felt like I had to relearn what it was like to prioritize and get things happening in my day in a calm state. I don’t know why if it’s just kind of force of habit but it almost felt like there’s no way that I can be successful if I’m not like the hamster on the wheel. Did you go through any of that as you were really embracing this technique? Was that a struggle for you or did you just kind of take to it like a duck to water and it was a great thing?

SB: Oh, my goodness. That’s such a great question. So many people said the first time they either meditate or did yoga, they fell in love. The very first yoga class I did, at the end they did something called shavasana where you just lie in there with yourself. The very first time I was put in that, I didn’t know that was the end of a yoga class. First I was confused. I remember clearly, I was so angry with the instructor because we weren’t doing something, I wasn’t physically moving my body.

JM: Taking the lazy way out.

SB: Right and I clearly remember thinking, “Oh, my God. You are wasting my five or ten minutes. I could be getting dishes done, responding to emails…” I was angry. It took me a couple of years to start to really crave that quiet time because I never had quiet time like that, ever. So no, I did not instantly love it.

Now, it’s like the biggest gift in the world that I can have these quiet times. But it didn’t come naturally because you’re exactly right, the first time I thought it was a time waster and that stayed with me for months. You’re pulling up a lot of stuff that I never processed, it was like, “Let’s just keep moving no matter what happens.” So all of a sudden, you’re still in your processing all of these things you never dealt with. There were some breakdown and it wasn’t pretty and fun but when you come out of the other side of that breakdown, you feel fresher, clearer, and freer.

JM: I’m so glad you say that. I have that conversation frequently with friends, family, and clients. Those things that we really hold back on, those are the things we really need to examine. The things that we’re just like, “I’m not dealing with this,” those are the things that think have the biggest pay off at the end if you’re willing to go through it instead of around it.

I think as human beings, we spend so much time circumventing. I just remember the days in my life where I would rather go back to back to back in appointments where it’s not stopping to pee or eat, I mean, so unhealthy and gross because I wasn’t thinking about the other stuff that was happening in life. It’s like, “Let me just dive into work.” It’s like I had a child with a brain tumor who’s now an eleven-year-old honor student nine years later. He’s in great shape, thank God. But it’s like going through some of those phases in life where you just have these super unhealthy habits where you’re just, it’s eating, it’s drugs, it’s alcohol, it’s work, there are so many different grudges as human beings that we use to just not deal with stuff.

I think it’s so valuable and I love that you say that it’s like going through the other side of that you do come out of it fresher and clearer. For me it was just this greater fulfilment in life overall and this greater ability to connect with people on a deeper level when you embrace it and you go through it and you process that even though it’s really difficult.

SB: Yeah. It’s super difficult. One of the blessings of getting divorced was it took away that person that I could blame and I had to look at myself, I had no choices.

JM: It’s like another layer of avoidance.

SB: Oh, my gosh, yes. But it’s also made me connect with people. That’s when I started developing real friendships. I could talk about this crap that was coming up and like half of it had been stuffed down for most of my life so it was just fabulous and terrifying. And I still have more to come. This is a lifelong process.

But the things I look back at are now fabulous and there’ll be more things that I have to peel apart. It’s a never ending journey. But once you’re aware of it, that’s the amazing part because you get to explore and talk about it. One of the things it led to was my ex-husband and I reunited. It was really fascinating getting back together after that I got over wanting to blame. Then I could just appreciate that person for who he was.

JM: Did it feel like a different relationship? It’s like you’re different person growing into it.

SB: I hear a lot of people say like we can’t change. It’s not that we change but I peeled apart all these layers that were really over being able to have any sort of whole relationship or healthy relationship. It is a completely different relationship. And the meditation really helped me get here. All my stuff is still there. I still notice I react to stuff but now I can watch myself reacting instead of being in the reaction and I can stop myself most of the time, it’s not perfect.

JM: That’s huge.

SB: People used to nickname like Mr. and Mrs. Bickerson. All we did was bicker. That’s not there anymore because we’ve learned how to communicate instead of bicker.

JM: It’s hard when people around you are reflecting. It tends like when you know it really is a problem.

SB: Exactly. We communicated by arguing and it wasn’t a nice arguing. Now we are divorced for three years, still divorced but we’re back together. I can see the things that I would have reacted. The things I would have blamed from now have a conversation about them which is a whole new world for me.

JM: That’s awesome. I love your candor. I appreciate your authenticity and your honesty so much about how difficult the journey has been and how you can now observe the reaction instead of being in the reaction but that it’s never perfect, it still happens.

I think, I am curious to hear from you what it’s like to be in the industry that you’re in because I think so much of what we are sold when we hear about stress relief, meditation, yoga, and changing your lifestyle, a lot of it is this very pretty kind of Photoshopped Instagram world. I think unfortunately it kind of backfires because it makes it seem almost more unattainable to people when we are being sold this message of perfection, attainment, and ascendance and there’s, “How? How would I ever be that person?” when the reality is that you’re just constantly reaching up like everyday I feel like I’m just constantly reaching to be the better me, the higher energy. Some days we don’t get there and I love that you’re so honest about that.

You have a very authentic message and I love your Instagram. I love seeing the pictures of you in your retreats with your clients. I love that honesty. But is that difficult when you see that coming from other people where it’s that kind of Photoshopped airbrush fake reality?

SB: That’s a good question. I’ll break it up to a few things. When I first started, I did not know how to be vulnerable or myself so I would do my workshops, my stress management training, and I really wouldn’t share anything about myself, it just wasn’t there yet. And over the past two years, I’ve really learned how to – within reasons and depending on my audience – definitely share more of myself so that they understand we are not striving for perfection. I’m still practicing everyday, I’m not perfect, and I’m not expecting any of them to be.

These are just strategies, just like you said, to help us really uncover our best selves, be our best selves but also accept every part of ourselves and know that this isn’t a strategy we perfect, it’s a strategy to start understanding ourselves better and to start just trying to try, to aim a little bit higher but to still accept that there might be a day that we do react or a day when we don’t get that practice in and also not to judge it but just know that we’re trying.

Sharing that message that we’re all just working as hard as we can has helped me to be more relatable to people because I learned from the people I’m teaching and they learned from me that we’re all in this together just trying to be a little bit better, to be better to ourselves and better to others.

Then with your question with Instagram, oh, goodness, that’s one of my things. I think I’m past that point of it doesn’t bother me at all but I have this beautiful community, people like you, people that are very authentic. I think the best that I can do is just share real messages of, “This is a simple blast that’s going to help you, it doesn’t have to be fancy.” You can sit in your chair and do a chair stretch that is going to make you feel better, it doesn’t have to be some fancy twisty inversion that is only available for two percent of the population. I mean, trust me, I was definitely there at one point a few years ago. I did have photos of me like doing a headstand and high heels. It’s fun but it’s also like, “Okay, that’s a cute photo but how realistic is that?”

JM: How relatable is that.

SB: Right, exactly. Now, it’s like, “You know what? Let’s sit in a chair and show somebody where one minute they can twist side-to-side or stretch their arms side-to-side and it really does make you feel better and clear the way for you to be a little bit more focused and productive for the next thirty minutes.”

JM: I love that. I have like a million questions to ask but I need to just set up like a lunch with you so that we can talk about a million things. There are so many things I haven’t asked you. If you’re in your office and you just have a few minutes, do you have some other little things that you can offer up to us? If you’re having a rough day, you’re in the middle of the office – I’m not going to do like a headstand and heels, obviously I’m a long way from that – but what are some of the other things that you suggest to your clients?

The people who are listening are entrepreneurial women, they’re just like you and me, they’re balancing a million things. They’re probably tired of like the Instagram Photoshop perfection. The reality is that there’s like a sick kid at home, I had to get the other one to school, I had to pack lunches, I have to pay bills, I’m in the office, clients pissed off, somebody called up sick, what are some of those things that we can do when we’re sitting in our office to just regain that being in the present and bring down some of that stress and anxiety?

SB: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve got three completely real tips that are so simple but when you do them, they blow your mind that they really work. Tip one is we always think it’s so counterintuitive, but anytime you feel super overwhelmed like there’s too much to do, which is pretty much all the time, you have got to take a one minute break. It will truly reset. If it’s possible, no matter the weather, just walk outside for one minute even take the shoes off, just feel that connection because that change of scenery is going to boost you, the natural sunlight’s going to give you a little energy and sit down somewhere. It could be inside too, it could just be in your office chair, just set the timer for one minute, maybe five if you have it and just sit with yourself.

There’s this mist around meditation that we have to completely clear our minds, and yes, in the eastern tradition, that is what meditation is but here on the west, that is something that is really unattainable. Sitting there and just watching the thoughts come into your mind is a great way to practice mindfulness meditation so we all need to get realistic, we don’t need to clear the mind. If we simply watch the thoughts come in, we are truly building our focus muscle of just being able to say, “There’s a thought but let me come back to just focusing on the breath, or watching that tree, or just scanning my body,” and then, oh, two seconds later and you know another thought about having to email this person comes in, bring it back to the breath. In one minute, if you have to bring your mind back to the breath fifteen times, you still benefit it because you’re teaching yourself how to come back to the present. That’s my first tip.

JM: That is so good. That’s such a great tip. As I’ve started working with mindfulness and just trying to become mindful, it’s interesting to me how often we’re lost in thought, like we’re lost somewhere else, and something will occur to me, it’s like a flash. It’s like, “Oh, my son is playing with something and he’s probably going to get hurt.” But I’m so distracted, it’s like, “Oh, I knew that was going to happen and I didn’t pay attention to that thought.” So many times, “I need to reach out to this person about this thing,” but it’s just this fleeting kind of flash of a thought.

I think that having that time, in the middle of our crazy day when you are being pulled in so many directions from just surface external stuff, the value of taking even just that one minute so that you can stop and pay attention to those flashes, those are often the intuitive thoughts that are telling you what you need to be paying attention to, they are these little observations that you are just letting get by you all day long. It was great advice. What else?

SB: Yes. That’s beautiful. The second one is literally just to stand up and take thirty seconds worth of movement. Everytime I’m in a workshop, I weave in movements that we can do in thirty seconds or less so it could just be twisting side-to-side which gets the blood flowing. It could be standing up while you’re talking with the client in just pacing because studies show that the connectors in the brain for movement are the same connectors for focus. If you’re doing something like replying all when you don’t mean to, forgetting an attachment, the sentences blurring on the screen, you have to break that up because then we’re just being counterproductive. So it’s like stand up, literally, just take what I always call backstroking. Just backstroke like you’re in the water and then it’s going to give you a counter-movement to that typing we do all day and it really, really makes that stress feel like it’s falling off the shoulders. It’s simple but when people do it in workshops I hear them be like, “Oh, my gosh, that feels so good.”

JM: So simple and so amazing.

SB: Yeah.

JM: That’s awesome.

SB: It’s so simple. We really probably have to program our phones every twenty to thirty minutes to take a thirty second to one minute time to stand up and just take shoulder shrugs, twists, or something and notice that it really does make us more focused, it does.

JM: That’s a great tip to use technology. I feel like oftentimes, being in a digital world, it’s so easy to blame the technology but it’s whatever you make of it. It’s funny because I got an Apple watch and at first I was like, “Oh, it’s great, very productive,” then it started to feel like the digital leash. But it’s got the program where it reminds you to stop and breathe. It walks you through a little exercise, I think it’s like thirty or sixty seconds and that actually was amazing. Then I thought, “Oh, I just need to use this in a way that is good for me,” and it was super helpful. Having those reminders during the day is amazing. That’s a great tip.

SB: I love that. My final one – and this one I think is the most powerful – in a workshop I was doing in an insurance agency once, one of the gals stood up and said, “Oh, my gosh. My doctor wrote this on a prescription pad for me for my anxiety.” That final one is to take a longer exhale than inhale because if you think about it, anytime we’re really anxious, overwhelmed, we have a very short breath, we’re breathing really quickly.

The cool thing is science shows us that we can control our breath. One long deep breath can actually activate our parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for relaxation. It gets us out of that fight or flight mode which is not healthy to always be in. We need it sometimes but we don’t need to be in it constantly.

If we focus on, let’s say, just inhale for the count of three and then I like to tell people to purse their lips like they’re blowing out a candle and we can exhale for a count of five or longer. That slow steady exhale is like a little piece of magic for really calming down the system.

JM: I just did that. It’s amazing.

SB: Yeah.

JM: It’s so simple and it really is so good. I don’t know why or how it works but it’s amazing. That’s good stuff.

SB: Because you’re literally in the body, you’re activating the system that is responsible for relaxation. It’s like if you have an upset client, before you respond, take a deep breath, or you have to leave work because you have that kid that has to get picked up at school, we’ve all been there. It’s like before we move, rushing through that adrenaline, let’s calm ourselves and we can do everything that we’re going to do, but let’s do it in a calm manner because we’re going to be clear-headed and we’re going to preserve our health.

JM: Absolutely. I love that, such great advice. In terms of growing your business, our audience is women entrepreneurs who are listening, along your way to growing your business, what piece of advice from your experience or your expertise would you offer to other women entrepreneurs who are growing their businesses?

SB: Oh, it’s such a great question. It’s not easy and we all know that. I’m done going out there saying, “It’s so easy, just work hard.” It’s not. It’s hard to grow a business. Our business is another little baby that we have, but we also have our other babies that we need to be there for.

I don’t think there’s any such thing as balance, I mean, I used to say, “Oh, there’s this perfect work-life balance that I’m going to find.” But you know what? The days that I am working extra hard, I have more appointments than normal, my house is kind of crazy. I’ve got to lean on other people to help me with my kids. Then the days where it’s like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m the best mom in the world, we just did all these activities,” I’m probably not doing too many business calls that day. It’s just this everyday ebbs and flows and I’ve learned to be okay with that so I really think that the advice is to obviously want to work hard but to be kind to yourself and know that we don’t need to be these machines and we shouldn’t be because it’s not realistic. I don’t want to teach my kids to be little machines, I want to teach them to be these humans that are kind to first themselves because then they’re going to be kind to other people and to take really each day as it comes and allow it to ebb and flow.

Some days are going to be just abundant with business and other days it’s going to be abundant with family time. I don’t think there’s any perfect balance. Just keep believing in yourself because I think when we have an idea that we’re meant to bring to life, we are supported in it and they just keep after it and to ask for help and support because I think we all really need to stick together.

JM: Absolutely.

SB: Does that make sense, does that give manageable advice?

JM: Yeah, it’s all great advice, I think it’s so important because like you say, we’re all role modelling for our kids. How many times do you tell your kids something three hundred times and at the end of the day, they’re doing what they see you do. I’ve become more aware of everything. It’s like I have two boys and I’m happy that they see me as an entrepreneur, that I have this wonderful relationship with my husband where we are peers and we’re both working side-by-side in our businesses and in our home.

I think that role modelling is hugely important and being able to ask for that help and support when you need it because I think so many of us can relate that even that can be really hard. We feel like we have to do it all, it’s like we kind of set ourselves up for this failure and then we wonder like what happened, like, “Why isn’t that working?” It’s like, “Well, you’re trying to do the work of three or four people.”

I love what you say about balance because I think that is really such a myth. You have to have balance but for me it’s more on like a weekly or monthly basis. It’s like we’re getting ready to go on vacation to Florida to see family and I know that’s going to be my time with my kids. Right now, luckily I have my mother-in-law to lean on and to help with our kids while they’re out of school for summer.

I’m not seeing them as much as I would like to right now but their time is coming. It’s just sometimes that’s just the way it is, that balance has to happen sometimes on a larger scale and not like a daily scale which is hard as a mom because you feel like you want to give everything to everyone but I think it’s a wise advice.

Thank you so much for your time Shawn, I love talking to you, I would love to interview you again in the future if you can make time. I think that you have such incredible advice. It’s so valuable.

SB: Oh, thank you, Jennifer. It’s a pleasure to do this with you.

JM: If you’d like to learn more about Shawn and her programs, you can visit her website at breatheandwork.com. If you’d like to learn more about Catalyst and working with me, you can visit brandwithcatalyst.com.