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A Moment With Janera Soerel

Janera Soerel knows a lot about stress.

While working as an investment banker in Amsterdam and Milan, she became well-acquainted with both the psychological and physical detriments of a high-pressure lifestyle. Her direction changed, however, when she became the program director of Donna Karan’s Urban Zen Foundation. Once there, Soerel certified as an integrative therapist, which led her to launch Oneshift, a company that designs corporate stress-reduction programs to enhance employee resilience. She believes the building blocks of wellbeing are happiness, wellness, and prosperity, and she works to empower her clients to reclaim their own health.

Below, Janera explains how we can break our bad habits, let go of our addiction to drama and, ultimately, improve our lives.

Live The Process: Have you always been able to identify and cope with stress as well as you do now?

Janera Soerel: Well, no, not really. It’s been a process. The one thing I’ve learned is that there are two types of stress: there’s external stress—things that happen outside of you that you don’t influence—and then there are the stresses that you create yourself by worrying, for example. So there are ways to manage and react to external stress, and then there are tools to help manage the behavior that creates internal stress. If you’re aware that there are two different kinds of stress, then you can understand how best to deal with each one.

Of course, there are acute stresses, but internal stress can create chronic stress. Stress is necessary in our lives for the times when we need to call on our resources in order to perform in the moment. A gazelle attacked by a lion is under a lot of stress, which he will use to stay alive and get away, but afterward he will let it go. The gazelle doesn’t ponder it, thinking, “Oh my God! I almost lost my life!” But we humans do. We create stories around these things and we keep them inside.  That can create chronic stress.

LTP: Why do we hold onto these stresses and why is that negative?

JS: Stress keeps our cortisol levels high, which leads to inflammation. If your body is inflamed over time, your immune system won’t be able to fight real outside aggressors. That can lead to chronic diseases like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. So, it’s really our responsibility to understand how we create stress inside ourselves and then how to let go. We’re not always good at that.

I mean we as human beings, we love stress. It’s so much fun, right? We love the drama: you get a lot of energy, you get a lot done and you sort of want to live from high to high, but you need to let your body rest for it to be able to really attack external aggressors. Otherwise it’s too exhausted to protect you.

Then there are the two systems we have that make our entire central nervous system: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic is the one that deals with the stress and the parasympathetic is the one that allows us to relax. Our sympathetic nervous system, with the chaotic modern lives we lead, is always “on” and that’s not good. A lot of people have forgotten what it feels like to relax and let go, so we help people get there. If you ask most people if they’re stressed, they’ll say, “Oh, no! I’m fine.” But if they then go through a process in which they really feel relaxed, they realize they haven’t felt that way in a very, very long time—for years even!

Modern life can really be a trap for this—we want to be busy and we want to do it all. We want to have a full social life, a thriving professional life, family time, adventures and a lot of money because our minds can conceive it. We’re bombarded by emails and advertisements saying we can have it all, that we can be thin and beautiful and everything else. There doesn’t seem to be a limit. If we can think of it, we should be able to do it, but that’s not real!

LTP: What can we do to combat this mounting stress?

JS: That is where many of the tools we use at Oneshift come in. For example, how do you let go and understand that chronic stress isn’t something that helps you at all? There is a physical capacity constraint on our bodies, so it’s a question of making choices. Now, I’m not saying you can’t be professionally successful and beautiful and have a family. I’m just saying that you might not be able to do everything at the same time.

You can’t drive in fifth gear all the time or the car will wear out after a short period. You have to shift back to neutral every once in a while in order to keep the car running for many years. In the same way, we have a body we need to take care of. Now of course we can run it into the ground and be fifty-something and die, and some people might say they would rather live life like that, but, again, those are choices they make.

LTP: We all have that something or someone that, despite our best efforts, fills us with anxiety. What is the biggest trigger of stress in your life?

JS: I feel like I’ve come to the world with a purpose and I guess my biggest fear or anxiety is that I won’t be able to fulfill it. Sometimes I feel like I’ve missed the boat. I see this albatross—they’re these huge birds and it takes them a really long time to get off the ground because of their size and then, when they’re in the sky, they fly for a very long time. Sometimes I imagine myself as an albatross that can’t get off the ground.

LTP: What are your tips for those who aspire to leave the stress of their jobs at work, but find it difficult?

JS: Well, it requires discipline, like most things. If this is a real desire and you don’t usually do it, you have to intercept yourself. You have to recognize your behavior and say to yourself, “Oh, I’m doing it again!” and change it, and then change it again and again, over and over, until you stop indulging in that behavior. Then you’ve created a new habit. But it requires a lot of self-awareness and discipline.

It will also take some time. If you’ve allowed work to seep into your personal life for a longtime, that has likely become your norm. It’s up to you to make the changes and that requires a behavioral shift. For a behavioral shift to happen, you have to pay attention.

Imagine you’re 200 pounds overweight and you want to lose the excess. You know it will take a while because it took some time to gain all of it in the first place. It’s the very same thing with any habit that you’ve formed that you don’t like: to change it you will have to intercept yourself every day and every time.

Now, everyone falls off the wagon. Maybe you’re doing well and sticking to the regimen, but then, one day, you have a brownie. That’s fine. Just make sure that the next day you go back on the program, and be patient with yourself. Allow yourself to make mistakes, but don’t give up, because if you do, nothing is going to change. You have to be conscious of the behavior that doesn’t suit you anymore and change it into a behavior that meets the goals that you want to achieve.

It’s all based on neuroscience. We’re wired a certain way based on the way we’ve been behaving, so in order to create new neural pathways, you have to create new patterns in your brain. The brain is quite lazy and takes the easiest route because it always wants to conserve energy, so to create new neural pathways requires will, time and tenacity.

LTP: Was there a moment or specific incident that was the catalyst to your founding Oneshift?

JS: I was an investment banker in Europe and ran events under my own name. Then I was the program director at Urban Zen of the Donna Karan Foundation. Her whole premise has been to create a training program that integrates different healing modalities to help patients in hospitals heal quicker through feeling better. I took the training and it gave me wonderful insight into how to help non-patients.

Hospital patients have obviously already gotten sick and need to get better and the method really helps them to feel better, so I was thinking this would be great to help people not get sick, as a preventative measure. I am incorporating all the healing methods that I learned at Urban Zen to help people stay healthy.

What it is that makes my offering unique in the preventative world is I look at it from a holistic wellbeing perspective. What does “wellbeing” mean and where does the sense of wellbeing come from? It has to do with happiness, prosperity and wellness. So I’m incorporating all three of these concepts into the program I created with Oneshift and also through janera.com. It’s all about making people understand how they can take charge of their lives and be responsible for their own wellbeing. There are different methods for doing that and those really depend on the person. You have to find what it is that’s going to make you a more grounded person in your own essence and your own truth, and that’s what I’m trying to help people do.

So I guess there wasn’t really one catalyst. I’m not trying to tell sick people how to get better, but rather how we shouldn’t have to get sick to take care of ourselves. I want to teach people how to take responsibility and empower them, and have them understand that it takes effort to make change. There is no real quick fix. It will not happen overnight. It takes dedication in order for it to be sustainable.

LTP: What does happiness look like to you?

JS: What it looks like to me is when I’m completely present in the moment of where I am and who I’m with and what I’m doing. I am content and am with the people I love and am doing something that gives me fulfillment, whether it’s personal or professional. Remembering that everything flows: I like it when I feel energy flowing freely. I like being an active participant and not just a bystander.

There are ways of becoming happy that people have written about and gratitude is a huge part of that. There’s a difference between thinking and feeling. Feeling gratitude for what is happening in your life really contributes to happiness. Then also self-awareness and meditation are factors because understanding how you feel can help make you happy too. Being part of a community with people you love around, that’s a big factor in happiness too. Ridding yourself of want and feeling incomplete is very, very difficult in this modern time, but if you can do it, it will help make you happy and content.

LTP: What does it mean to you to “Live The Process” and how do you do that every day?

JS: You stay true to who you are and open to what comes your way. It’s easy to close yourself off and feel separate from the whole, but you have to stay connected to the flow off life and be aware of your contribution. To be happy in that space of being open and connected to something larger than yourself is really being in the process.

You do that by creating awareness and staying open. For me, that’s not so easy. It’s quite difficult to trust that everything is always the way that it should be. Letting go of worry would be the best way for me to “Live The Process,” and that’s the 200-pound gorilla I’ve got to lose. When I do that, I feel that flow of energy and happiness I was speaking about before. I do that with personal reflection through meditation, Reiki and a lot of yoga.

photo credits: rogier houwen, lucie elizabeth