Mika: How I went from mindfulness skeptic to believer

The Know Your Value founder says Dialectical Behavioral Therapy has helped make her life "better, richer, happier, joyful, and yes, more mindful."
Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski says practicing mindfulness has helped her recalibrate and regulate her emotions.Miller Hawkins
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By Mika Brzezinski

It hasn’t been easy to get here. But I have finally grasped the meaning and magnitude of mindfulness — and the need to recalibrate and regulate my emotions.

Back in 2014, my friend Arianna Huffington approached me about my anxiety and lack of sleep. She wanted to help and thought my struggles were a universal problem. She proposed that we co-produce the inaugural Thrive Conference in New York City. It was a spectacular event at New York City Center in front of hundreds of women.

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The event opened with Arianna and I dressed in silk pajamas on a bed, surrounded by three of my mother’s massive two-ton sculptures (Arianna goes big or goes home!). We acted out a skit on my sleep issues.

Clutching my phone, I told Arianna, “I have so much work to do, and I gotta be ready when Joe talks about being a congressman, and you wouldn’t believe the character from Game of Thrones they say I am in this quiz, and there’s video of a parrot that adopted a baby hippo. It’s so cute … Look, the picture of my salad from last night! 459 regrams!”

"You can't live your life in response to texts and emails," Arianna patiently told me.

We were a sensation. But my problems weren’t exactly solved.

I did work on my sleep after the event, but I still wasn’t “thriving.” I was too busy to thrive. That massive event was one of hundreds of projects that I hastily signed up for in a manic pile-on in my life.

I was writing books, producing my mother’s art exhibitions at major museums, managing my parents’ increasing health challenges, raising two teenagers who needed their mom’s attention, co-hosting a live political talk show for three hours a day, five days a week, building the Know Your Value brand, doing speaking engagements, appearing at live events, being a track mom, following my daughter to horse shows, and yes, going through an agonizing divorce. It was a process that had me spending my time that I used to work out, walking all over town in sweats, weeping.

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My “reactivity” was so high it would make your head spin.

Even though I was insanely busy, if you texted me, chances are I would text you back two seconds later. If my daughters needed one thing from me, I produced three things, hyperventilating and trying to do more.

My emotions were often exaggerated. Too hot, too hyper, too eager, too dramatic, too everything. I didn’t realize at the time that I had lost control over my emotions. After all, I was getting a lot done. Productivity was my cover.

Arianna’s big message at the Thrive event was to “sleep your way to the top.” While she was talking about real sleep (and not anything, ahem, unseemly), it was also about much, much more. It was about calming your mind and protecting its health. I was so busy, I didn’t latch onto that part. And so, my anxiety and unregulated emotions got worse, and were made even more raw by the personal challenges in my life.

I was a mess. Highly functional — but a mess.

It was years later when I kept hearing about Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. I mentioned it in my piece about my lifelong struggle with sugar. Several members of my family swear by DBT and kept prompting me to do it.

I have been in DBT for six months, and Dr. Gillian Galen has helped me start to mend my poor worn out brain and heart. Every week, we work on changing my relationship with just about everything. Making it better, richer, happier, joyful, and yes, more mindful.

I was not a good student at the start.

She wanted me to prepare for our first meeting by downloading the mobile app “Headspace.” Three months in, I still had not done it.

“Who has three minutes?” I thought. “Not me!”

Dr. Galen is a senior child and adolescent psychologist specializing in dialectical behavioral therapy at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.Courtesy of McLean Hospital

Eventually, something clicked. She did not judge and did not give up. She kept trying until we found a way.

She told me there had to be five minutes in the day for me. Sometime, somewhere in the day. Five minutes. She asked me, “Who does not have five minutes?”

“Give me five minutes before your show. Before 6 a.m. Before your mind starts talking, texting and churning. When you are doing your voice exercises before the show, give me that. I want you to try and be present for those five minutes. And just focus on your voice and your breathing. Listen to it. Feel it. If you wander off, just bring it back. That’s part of it. It’s OK.”

At first, it felt forced and funny. But I kept at it. Weeks in, I started getting up a few minutes earlier to make sure I had those five minutes. Those were mine. I was going to have them. I realized I even looked forward to them! Wait, what just happened?

The breakthrough! I had been trying to exercise more and Dr. Galen said it was totally appropriate to try my mindfulness exercises while I was running. I am usually talking and texting when I run. Not anymore. Now, running has become a mindfulness moment for me too.

Mika Brzezinski started practicing mindfulness for just a few minutes everyday.Miller Hawkins

Something physiological started setting in. I actually felt good practicing mindfulness. Like the way I felt when I had that huge sweet caramel sundae in the first week when I swore off sugar for a month — my brain relaxed when I went into mindfulness mode. I could feel it happening. Dr. Galen says there is a term for that. Many mindfulness practitioners call it “dropping in.”

I am still off added sugar, by the way. We are working together to moderate the relationship I have with sweets and make a positive change away from large amounts of it, last forever.

So why do I say all this? What does it mean to you?

Data shows that mindfulness actually increases the grey matter in your brain. It also lowers your reactivity. It can help you recalibrate or regulate your emotions. The science and data is there.

It’s helped me immensely. And if I can do it, you can too!

I wish I had discovered DBT and mindfulness much earlier in my life.

I believe it should be introduced in schools across the country, which Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio recently and poignantly spoke about on the set of “Morning Joe.” I am far from the only one who suffers from stress, disjointed thoughts and high reactivity. Across the country we have several generations of young people who have grown up on their phones, on social media, seeing too much too soon — from school shootings, to porn, to the stresses of just being a teen.

These are confusing times for kids and for adults, too. Social and emotional training along with mindfulness is an urgent emerging need in our society.

I am a true believer.

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