Anyone familiar with “The Karate Kid” knows the power of “wax on, wax off.” Young Daniel LaRusso learns that a simple household task, when done repeatedly, creates muscle memory that in turn helps his karate defensive skills.
The same effect happens with mental training. Edward Brown, author of “The Time Bandit Solution,” devised six psychotherapeutic exercises he calls “psychological martial arts” that can train the mind to defend itself against stress-related shutdowns.
Brown’s inspiration wasn’t the schoolyard of bullies Daniel faced in “Karate Kid,” but a much more solitary threat — a diving chamber. After getting the bends from scuba diving, Brown had to spend nine hours encased in a tube, an unsavory prospect because he suffers from claustrophobia.
Your employees probably aren’t spending nine hours in a metal box every day, but those eight hours at their desks could contain some stressful moments. Here are six psychotherapeutic methods that can calm the brain or at least help employees weather tough situations:
1. Constructive acceptance: Go to any restorative yoga or meditation class, and they’ll encourage you to create a mantra that will help you focus. Brown said he repeated the Serenity Prayer while in the metal box for treatment — “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference” — to change his thoughts of “I’ve got to get out of here” to “I have to stay in here, so let’s make the best of it.”
2. Transcend the environment: If mantras were a little hippy-dippy for you, Brown’s next step is going to seem really out there. “My body was in the chamber, but my mind was in the cosmos,” he said, explaining that by picturing planet Earth, he was able to trick his mind into ignoring his encasement.
When a crisis hits, employees don’t have nine hours to spend floating up in space. But managers can encourage them to find a mental image that helps them get through stress. For me, that image is a gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago filled with white-painted canvases — empty, solitary and just the kind of peaceful place I need sometimes.
3. Meditative relaxation: Brown said he counted to eight during each inhale and exhale, a technique I’ve done in almost every meditation and yoga class. If anything, it centers you on something other than what’s freaking you out.
4. Positive self-visualization: While in the tank, Brown imagined his mother telling him he would survive the experience.
Like transcending the environment, employees facing a deadline or crisis probably don’t have time to imagine a conversation with a loved one. But I’ve found tough moments can improve just by having a photo of my family or friends within eye’s reach on my desk. It’s a nice reminder that someone’s rooting for me.
5. Counter punches: Anytime doubt creeps up — “I can’t do this,” “This is too hard,” etc. — Brown suggests a method he learned from Muhammad Ali. Return every nagging thought in your head with a mental counter punch of “Yes I can.”
6. Reprogram your computer chip. The way we react to stressful situations is something that’s engrained in us, right? “I knew as a child I had claustrophobia,” Brown said. Acknowledging that part of his makeup made it easier to overcome it, or at least subdue it for nine hours.
These mind tricks might not seem like hard science, and in many ways they aren’t. That doesn’t mean there’s no validity to them. Yogis have been using meditative relaxation for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The Serenity Prayer has been embroidered, carved and painted onto household decorations since the 1940s, not to mention acts as a mantra for Alcoholics Anonymous.
So before waxing on poetically about whether psychotherapy has a legitimate place at work, wax off some of that skepticism. It might not be your cup of stress-reducing tea, but if it helps just one employee, isn’t that enough?