An Interview with Dr. Stanley: On Mindfulness

What personal experiences drove you into the mindfulness world?

It was mainly personal reasons that drove me to this field. I experienced a lot of chronic stress and trauma from very early in my childhood. Then, when I served in the military, I went through challenging military training, two peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, a near-death experience when I was in Bosnia, and sexual harassment in my chain of command…By the time I got to graduate school, my system was overdone. Throughout that time, I had coped with stress and trauma in the way most people do — I compartmentalized it and suppressed it. It had a lot of consequences: physical illnesses, insomnia, migraines, and chronic respiratory problems. Eventually, I developed depression and PTSD, and I even lost my eyesight for a while. I tried therapy first, then yoga, and then, starting in 2002, practicing mindfulness. While on medical leave from Georgetown, I sat my first three-month silent retreat. I also spent time practicing in Burma. Eventually, I received some clinical training in body-based trauma therapies, and all of that culminated in my developing Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)®.

When you developed and incorporated your Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT) into the security sphere, what reactions did you encounter?

I found intense reactions from two directions. First, from the high-stress populations that I wanted to work with — the military, first responders. This was 15 years ago, and there was still a lot of stigma about mental health, as well as a fair amount of stereotyping that these were “soft” skills. Our pilot study with marines in 2007 provided neuroscience evidence that these techniques had a real effect on the way their minds and bodies functioned. We’ve now conducted four scientific studies and published research in top peer-reviewed science journals, which reduced the criticism from this direction.

The other resistance came from people who had been using these techniques — the mindfulness community broadly, and also the Buddhist community. These people had misconceptions that I was going to use these techniques to make supersoldiers by training a high-stressed population to create laser-focused attention and block out their emotions. I showed this group different evidence, such as how troops deployed in combat who experienced dysregulated emotions were three times more likely to engage in unethical behavior. I explained how, when paired with MMFT’s body-based self-regulation skills, these techniques can actually help people regulate (not suppress) their emotions and thereby prevent them from overreacting or acting unethically.

Have you seen any changes in these reactions with time?

Yes, there has been much more attention to these issues in our wider culture and in SSP over these last 15 years. I think people intuitively know that our world is much more uncertain, complex, and quick-changing than it was in the past, and they are hungry for more tools to navigate it. In the American population more broadly, we have seen an exponential increase in substance abuse, anxiety, depression, suicidality…and then the effects of the pandemic. This is all evidence that these complexities underscore the collective need to build resilience.

What are the “windows of tolerance” you talk about in your research?

Everyone has a window of tolerance to stress arousal. Inside that window, we have our thinking brain, and our survival brain functions online and is able to work together effectively. That means we can pay attention, evaluate information without biases, make plans, follow through on them, regulate our emotions and stress, stay connected with other people…all necessary elements for strategic thinking. Everyone’s window of tolerance is unique to them: This window is initially formed through interactions between our genetics and our early care environment. Then, there are three pathways that can narrow the window over our lifespan: childhood stress and developmental trauma, shock trauma events, and chronic stress in everyday life.

How much of our window of tolerance is fixed, or can be expanded?

Our genetics and early life experiences absolutely have an effect on our window’s width. But, if I’ve learned anything over these two decades of research, it is how much our neurobiology is the result of our repeated experiences. We have a choice in terms of what repeated experiences we choose for ourselves. My book is called Widen the Window for this reason.

In your last publication, you compare two leaders with very different windows of tolerance to show the effect that these windows had on their decision-making during the COVID-19 pandemic. What were your main observations? 

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has had a relatively wide window since her childhood. Although she experienced some shock trauma events, such as the Christchurch mosque shootings while she was prime minister, and chronic stress, such as being pregnant while she was in office, she has a lot of resources in her life that has allowed her to keep her window wide. During the pandemic, she relied on scientists, her message was consistent, and she acknowledged the stress of the situation but provided clear guidance to the population. She emphasized kindness and empathy in the response to the pandemic, setting the stage for her opposition leaders to follow suit. Consequently, New Zealand has been well-regarded across the world for responding well to the pandemic. During reelection in 2020, she became the first prime minister in decades to get her party elected as a majority so she didn’t need to form a coalition government. 

In contrast, former U.S. President Donald Trump has a narrow window, which was narrowed via all three pathways. Early childhood stress and trauma, shock trauma events, and then his behavioral choices in daily life further fed that. He brags that he gets 3-5 hours of sleep a night, which by itself contributes to narrowing the window. Then, he was in the midst of his first impeachment when the pandemic started. This colored the way he took in the information, the way he made decisions, and the people he surrounded himself with. His decisions were driven by unregulated stress and emotions, especially impatience and anger. He was also selective in taking in information that he wanted to hear while firing people who did not agree with him. Because of this, there was a lot of inconsistency in his messaging, and he pushed the pandemic response to the states very quickly. That undermined the U.S. collective response to the pandemic over time, with inconsistent efforts to manage the virus, vaccine misinformation, etc.

In the aforementioned article, you explain how individual capabilities affect the dynamics of organizations. Should we improve the individual’s capabilities or the organization’s? Or both?

Both. I absolutely think we need to be implementing practices that will expand the collective window. Our individual self-regulation, or dysregulation, has a big effect on the people around us. Individuals should be getting the skills and adopting the habits will widen their individual windows. But organizations also need to be making some intentional choices to widen the collective window. 

Do you think we are doing that?

No, I don’t think we are doing it very well.

Hopefully, SSP’s future decision-makers will change that. What is your advice for them?

While you are in graduate school, this is a wonderful time when you can reflect on where you want your career to go next, but this is also a time for instituting lifestyle habits that you can take into the rest of your career. If you have not yet developed consistent self-care habits to widen your window, this should be a time to prioritize them. Set those habits in place before you go into the next stage of your career. Make sure you are consistently getting eight hours of sleep each night (not catching up on the weekends), getting enough cardiovascular exercise, creating a group of friends and family members that you feel has your back, eating well, and building habits to regulate yourself, gain perspective, interrupt negative thinking, etc. There are skill-building classes we offer in SSP — my class (SEST 640) but also classes in mediation, negotiation, red teaming techniques — that allow us to take a bigger view and bring in other perspectives.

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