Anna Miley

Mindfulness tools to support local elected leaders

Mindfulness for political leaders

Political leaders face complex and multiple sources of stress. They must be able to cope with shifting demands, long work hours, high-pressure situations, constant scrutiny, and high levels of mistrust. Although many politicians have a high tolerance for stress, there is growing interest in the wellbeing and psychological health of our leaders. The recent report from Apolitical Foundation identified that:

 
Modern political leaders need mental health support to help them make good decisions and build resilience in the face of threats

After all, it must be considered that the mental health of those we elect to represent us and make decisions on our behalf not only affects their capacity to do their job but also the outcomes of their decisions.

We have discussed the unique stressors of political life in a previous blog. Here we unpack how practising mindfulness can be a powerful antidote to these stressors. With practise you will be able to respond more appropriately in high-stress situations and reduce your general stress levels.

Stress explained

First, it is important to know that stress is normal and we are designed to deal with it. We have evolved a highly efficient physiological stress response to challenging or new situations or any kind of pressure, demand or threat to keep ourselves alive and safe.

Our body’s reaction to stress causes uncomfortable physical sensations (that squirm of your stomach or building muscular tension in your face or shoulders when feeling pressured). These have a specific function of preparing us to flee the threat, fight the threat or freeze to try and hide from the threat.

Now that the threats we experience are likely social in nature rather than sabre-toothed tigers, these pressures may not just be due to our external environment but also the demands we place on ourselves.

The good news is that the stress response helps us to focus, maintain motivation and think quickly. This can be useful when you need to think on your feet in the Chamber or you are approached on the street by a confrontational constituent.

However, stress can become problematic when it lasts a long time, is repeated regularly or if you feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with your situation. The physiological changes in the body when stressed are only meant to be short-lived. So if we are constantly exposed to real or perceived stress there can be health consequences. The goods news is that mindfulness is a powerful and simple tool that can reduce both in the moment and chronic stress. 

Practising mindfulness

So, what exactly is mindfulness? Well known mindfulness researcher and advocate Dr Jon Kabat Zinn defines it as:

 awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally

In other words, mindfulness is a cognitive state. Practically, mindfulness can be thought of as pausing in the moment and inserting a lens of equanimity to your perception of the situation. Rather than being ‘caught up’ in the moment, we shift to a cognitive state of observing the moment and our experience of it without judgement. 

Benefits of mindfulness 

The general benefits of mindfulness are well documented and include:

> decreased depressive symptoms
> reduced experience of anxiety
> less emotional reactivity
> increased positive affect
> increased ability to concentrate
> improved working memory
> increased resilience
> improved problem-solving and decision making

When we pause and become aware of the situation through this lens of awareness, we dial down the physiological stress response. This in turn allows us to better respond instead of reacting. Overall, leading to less stress and improved health. 

Benefits of mindfulness for political leaders

Mindfulness benefits that apply more specifically to political leaders are explored by James Bristow in his article, Mindfulness in Politics and Public Policy and through the Mindfulness Initiative. In this context, mindfulness is defined as:

 the capacity to pay attention, moment by moment, with an attitude of openness, curiosity, and care, without judgement.

Politicians have reported four main benefits from participating in mindfulness courses:

Attention

Policy and decision makers must absorb a colossal amount of information each day whether from multiple briefing papers, 24-hour newsfeeds, social media, marathon debates in the Chamber or engaged constituents. Mindfulness can improve concentration and help performance.

Impulse control

Forever in the public eye and placed in adversarial situations, politicians often mention ‘responding, not reacting’ as a key learning. They report improvements in self-regulation which in turn helps them to behave in ways they won’t later regret.

Kindness

Politicians have suggested that mindfulness practice increases their empathy with the public and constituents. Some also observe how self-care transforms their coping response when they have made public mistakes or felt overwhelmed.

Meta-cognition

Politicians regularly report that mindfulness helps them to maintain ‘perspective’. They note that observing reactive thoughts as ‘mental events’ rather than ‘the truth’, enables them to identify less with obstructive beliefs. Politicians can accept challenges to their ideas without feeling as if their identity is under attack – and thus avoiding descent into conflict.

Summing up, there are a number of ways to develop a daily mindfulness practice and thus gain the cognitive and psychological benefits it can bring. There are some excellent free digital resources that will help to develop general mindfulness skills. The Smiling Mind, a non-profit Australian organisation, is a great place to start. This is a free app with mindfulness skill-building activities. You can also download our free mindfulness recording for busy leaders.

For more tailored support to integrate mindfulness into your life and specifically as an asset to your leadership, it can be beneficial to work with a trained facilitator. Here at Locale Learning you can access coaching with Anna Miley, a certified mindfulness and yoga teacher and mindset coach. Contact us at [email protected] to find out more.

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