City of Ottawa Fire Chief Tim Matthias wasn’t sure what to think when he first heard about a stress management program being offered in Ottawa.

“Truthfully, I was hesitant to commit to the class because I did not know what to expect,” he said. “The first two classes that I attended, I still had that mindset of, ‘What does this have to do with me or for me?’ It wasn’t until the third class that I started to realize the true meaning of mindfulness and the benefits that can come from having this in your everyday routine.”

In 2017, Matthias, along with other City of Ottawa department directors, participated in “A Stress Management Program Based on Mindfulness Meditation.” The eight-week program was a collaboration between the City of Ottawa and Ransom Memorial Hospital and was facilitated by William Hale, M.D., of Lawrence.

OUR ATTENTION

Hale defines mindfulness as consisting of two parts: bringing awareness to present moment experience and allowing that experience to be as it is in this moment.

“In other words, cultivating the skill of flowing with life experience, rather than resisting or generating friction against things that we may not be able to change,” he said. “Our stress reactions are forms of friction to life.”

Hale has 29 years of clinical experience in mental health and mind-body medicine and has been teaching mindfulness and stress reduction methods since 1998.

“We go through our lives very much on autopilot. Our attention is a little bit here in the present moment, but 95% of the time our thoughts are caught up in something in the future or past — something we’re looking forward to or something we’re trying to get away from,” he said. “Because we’re not present, we miss out on a lot of pleasurable experiences. Pleasurable stimuli are around us all the time, and we’re just oblivious to them. We are also mostly oblivious to the ways we react with stress in our bodies, emotions and thoughts. Bringing awareness to the subtle ways in which we generate stress reactions within ourselves is a first step toward letting go of such reactions.”

The course Hale teaches is based on the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program, founded by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine. Hale was part of the program’s first internship taught in 1994.

“It was recognized that modern medicine is good at treating acute conditions, but a lot of problems people are suffering are chronic conditions,” he said.

Mindfulness meditation, gentle yoga, mindful communication and methods of non-reactivity are among the practices presented in the program.

“These awareness practices result in a greater appreciation of the pleasurable experiences in one’s life, as well as a greater ability to flow with what is unpleasant,” Hale said.

VALUABLE TOOL

Matt Heyn, Chief Executive Officer of Ransom Memorial Hospital, knew Hale’s program would be beneficial to his employees and community partners. As two of the largest employers in Franklin County, Heyn said the hospital and city seemed like a good combination to introduce mindfulness and stress management to the community.

“We tend to focus a lot on physical health and less on mental health,” Heyn said. “This program is a really valuable tool to be able to gain perspective of different situations.”

Ottawa City Manager Richard U. Nienstedt jumped at the opportunity to offer Hale’s course to city employees.

“Stress management is an issue for all employees,” he said. “I felt it was important to have myself and members of the senior management team attend this training so they had a better understanding of how stress affects us, stress mitigation techniques and how we can use this knowledge to help our employees, family and community to have better conversations.”

Nienstedt said the program is a great reminder about techniques for improving stress and pain mitigation. he said.

“I believe if the organization, family or friends can be helped to recognize stress and the techniques for mitigation, that it makes for a far better atmosphere for conducting communications, solving issues and being more relaxed on a daily basis,” he said. “Not only do we do this several times a week in the office, but my wife and I do meditation, body scans and yoga at home during the week. I believe this is an important leadership responsibility to help the organization deal directly with and mitigate stress.”

A-HA MOMENT

Wynndee Lee, community development director for the City of Ottawa, said she was impressed with the course’s exercises and readings and the impact mindfulness can have in everyday life.

“I realized that some of my ‘busyness’ had taken over even my mealtimes,” she said. “I rarely did just one thing at a time — even eating — and it was an ‘a-ha’ moment to step back. It is clear that mindfulness can help me not be urgent and reactive but slow down, sometimes even just a breath, to be responsive and deliberate instead. I also found that it strengthened my faith life, and that ‘sitting and being still is absolutely a priority.”

Helping people learn how to let go of reactivity to stressors is one of the main goals of the program, Hale said. “Typically, when any of us experience something unpleasant like a stressor, we will react to it – physically, mentally or emotionally,” he said. “So, how do we coexist with stress that in many cases we can’t get to go away: jobs, families, just everyday life? It’s about people learning how to not suffer in reaction to stressors. Our reactivity is our suffering.”

Lee said she now pauses and breathes more in daily work activities before reacting.

“It has been fantastic to share this experience with my co workers, making the commitment better for all of us,” she said. “We encourage one another, laugh about various parts and have learned to enjoy the time.”

LIVE IN THE MOMENT

Both Heyn and Nienstedt said the program is something they’d like to offer again in Ottawa.

“I still ask those who took the class if they’re still practicing, and they say yes,” Heyn said. “For those who did participate, they’ve seen improvement they’ve seen improved mental and emotional health and state of mindfulness.”

And, even though he was unsure about the program at first, Matthias said he’s practicing what he learned.

“Trying to focus on one item was hard for me because I am routinely thinking of multiple thoughts at one time,” he said. “At the end of the course, I was very happy that I attended. The mindfulness way of thinking has taught me to think and live in the moment to some extent, which is very rewarding for me.”

The program is helping Matthias handle stress, both professionally and personally.

“I focus on that certain stressor for a moment, acknowledging that it is there and move on,” he said. “The mindfulness technique is another tool in the toolbox to help handle the stressors of life.”

Jenalea Myers is a freelance writer. You can reach her at jenalea.myers@gmail.com