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The power of pause

Romie Mushtaq, M.D.

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When people are too busy and too stressed, they struggle to take the time to recognize happiness, only moving from one challenge to the next. By being willing to press pause, Mushtaq says, we allow room for an open mind and heart. The neurologist addresses how to make your brain feel calm and free ourselves from the revolving door of over-scheduled lives.

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Have you ever walked into a crowded room and felt all alone, as if no one sees you, let alone believes in your abilities? Balancing your work and life responsibilities can be so overwhelming that you may not even be sure if you believe in yourself anymore.

There was a signature sound of my designer high heels that echoed in the hospital corridors where no stilettos had ever roamed before. Click click click click. This was the signal to my physician colleagues, nurses, and patients that she had arrived—female brain doctor, epilepsy specialist, and never-to-recover chocolate addict.

I entered neurology at a time when less than 5 percent of neurologists were women. MDRT welcomed its first female member 20 years before the neurology community did in the United States. I knew very quickly to keep my head down, my heels high, and to stay laser focused. The truth of the matter was that I was overwhelmed and sleep deprived trying to keep up with 80- and 90-hour workweeks. I felt alone, and my single prayer every morning was that no one would discover my shame and loneliness that was I hiding underneath a starched white lab coat.

For all of my fellow sisters here, I want to congratulate you on being a female leader at MDRT in the financial industry and in your community. We are at an unprecedented time in history here in the United States and around the world discussing the rights of women in the workplace. If you ever have a moment where you feel overwhelmed or lonely, I hope you will remember my message to take a pause. My intention is that when you pause, you find your voice and stand in your strength.

Since that lonely time almost 10 years ago, I have learned that I am not the only success-driven professional woman or man who feels trapped in a life you created for yourself. No one is immune to feeling lonely or unhappy while the world thinks you are wildly successful. The solution is in the power of pause.

We then pause and set another goal, such as being able to attend the Annual Meeting, losing weight, doubling our sales goals from last year. We stress ourselves out to reach the goal. We succeed and then think, Am I happy now? The happiness stays with us for a small moment, and then we find ourselves in that same lonely or unhappy place only to start this stress-success cycle all over again. Being stuck in this stress-success cycle does not only keep us unhappy, but it is dangerous to our health. The stress can kill. I should know not only because I am a doctor but because the stress almost killed me.

I remember back to my full clinic days as a practicing doctor when one afternoon my nurse knocked frantically on the door, “Dr. Mushtaq, I’m sorry to interrupt you in clinic, but your mother is on the phone at the front and said it is urgent.” I immediately started to panic. Like so many of you, one of my roles is dutiful daughter to elderly parents. I was worried that something had happened to her or my father. I ran to the front of the clinic and picked up the phone, “Hello, Mom? Is everything OK?”

“Romie bhayta, all of your aunties came over this afternoon for a chai ceremony. Everyone, I finally got her on the phone. Say hello.”

“Hi, sweetheart, we are so proud of you. Look at you, all grown up, a doctor professor. Did you find a husband in the hospital yet?”

I quickly realized that they were not in trouble; I was. “Mom, I’m in the middle of work. Everybody is staring. Can I call you back?” “No! Your aunties and I have an important announcement for you. We were discussing that you have missed several family meetings and are very stressed lately. We have come to a consensus; you should meditate.”

“You called me to tell me to meditate? I need to go. I am a busy, successful doctor.”

“OK, OK, OK, Ms. BusyBusyBusy, go, and your Auntie Deepa will call you at 7:30 tonight with further meditation instructions. Everybody, say bye-bye to Romie.”

“Goodbye, darling. We are proud of you. Keep working hard as a doctor. Go on, but please go work hard on finding a husband today.”

I sunk down feeling three feet tall in my five-inch stilettos. I felt like I had just been spiritually assaulted. So, if you are sitting here wondering, Why would the MDRT Annual Planning Committee bring a brain doctor to tell us to be mindful and meditate, I tell you this: Pause. Breathe. And trust that there is a message your mind needs to hear and something your heart needs to feel.

I didn’t listen to the wisdom of my aunties and mother. I kept fighting in the stress-success cycle until I started to have severe chest pains. Initially, the doctors could not figure out what was happening. They thought it was acid reflux and stress. They told me to stop the chocolate and take antacids. It didn’t work, so I restarted the chocolate. I only realized that I was in danger when I started to wake up in the middle of the night having difficulty breathing. I couldn’t swallow, and I was choking on my own saliva and vomit. At this point, I got diagnosed with a rare medical disorder called achalasia, and it was so severe that I needed urgent surgery. I remember laying on the gurney in pre-op worrying about whether I had cancer or would end up disabled. I slipped into a darker place wondering, How did I let my so-called successful life get to this low point?

After surgery, I started light yoga and meditation. With meditation, I noticed that my postoperative pain felt better and that my mood was getting lighter. This sent me on a journey around the world learning about the role of mindfulness and meditation in healing. When I came home to find decades of medical research supporting the power of meditation and mindfulness-based practices to help our brain and physical health, I knew I had to share this with patients and others who are stuck in the stress-success cycle.

I am here today to ask you to keep an open mind and heart on the power of taking a pause. This lesson is in alignment with MDRT’s core concept of the Whole Person to achieve balance in your life.

When we pause, we shift our brains to a place of calm and we feel back in control of a situation again. You see, when we are stuck in the stress-success cycle, it negatively impacts our brain function. There is a region of our brains called the temporal lobe that is responsible for memory and emotions. Inside the temporal lobe, your amygdala acts as the airport traffic control center of your brain. It processes all the incoming words, sights, sounds, and other sensations into memories, actions, and emotions.

When we are stuck in the stress-success cycle, our airport traffic control center in the brain freezes, creating a stress-response. It is as if our brain is hijacked, and we cannot think clearly. Emotions overrule rational thinking. In a state of brain freeze, we become reactive. You run the risk of sending an angry email, saying the wrong words during a sale pitch, or starting a conflict with a colleague.

To take control of the situation, we must take control of our brains. The secret is in the power of pause. When we pause through controlled breathing, meditation, or other mindfulness-based techniques, we shift from a brain freeze to a state of calm and controlled thinking. When we are in a state of this calm and controlled thinking, we break the stress-success cycle and move forward, achieving goals in a consistently high-performing state.

So, how do we take the power of pause into our overscheduled lives? You may think that you do not have time to meditate. When we look at the successful psychological habits of high achievers, they have one thing in common: They understand that in order to speed up, we must slow down. Yes, in order to speed up, you must first slow down.

Slowing down with the power of pause is practiced in these three simple steps:

  1. Disconnect to reconnect.
  2. Perform a brain dump.
  3. Take a breath break.

Step 1: Disconnect to Reconnect

The first step in the power of pause is to disconnect from our digital devices. In our hyperconnected world, I understand that expectations are that we must be available at all times. I ask you to power down all of your electronics 30 to 60 minutes prior to bedtime. The blue light from our devices stimulates the back of our eyes and tells the airport traffic control center of our brain, “Wake up! Start thinking and analyzing again.” The blue light from our screens activates our mind and sends us into a brain freeze. In this state, important neurochemical levels of serotonin and melatonin in the brain drop. This leads to difficulty sleeping and pushes us into a high-stress state.

Instead, shut down all of your digital devices 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.

Step 2: Perform a Brain Dump

Do you feel like your thoughts are running a marathon inside your brain? By pausing to be present with these thoughts, we stop the racing thoughts from running us crazy in our minds. Use pen and paper to write down all.

Step 3: Take a Breath Break

Do you find yourself in a brain freeze? Take a breath break. I’d be honored if you joined us in an MDRT family pause so that we can, as a group, feel the collective power of pause.

With your next exhale, bring your awareness back into your body, wiggle your toes in your shoes, and take a moment to pause and feel the energy in this room. As you open your eyes, I ask you to ponder what the power of pause could do for your stress management, your focus, and your performance.

I often get asked if I really meditate every day. Meditation is medicine for my Whole Person. Meditation is a key component of my plan for maintaining well-being and staying healthy eight years after life-saving surgery. I ask you to consider meditation to pause and to realize the power of yourself as a Whole Person.

And if you are sitting here today feeling all alone on your life journey, my intention is that you realize that when we connect to the power of pause, we are never truly alone.

I ask all of you to join the movement, and pause.


Romie Mushtaq, M.D., is a traditionally trained neurologist with additional board certification in integrative medicine. Mushtaq brings together Western medicine and Eastern wisdom to help change the conversation on brain and mental health. Her programs bring together her unique wisdom in neuroscience, integrative medicine and mindfulness. She is a regular expert contributor in national media in outlets such as NBC, the Huffington Post, Fox News and NPR.


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