“Let’s all enjoy a walk today”, said the dear Austrian friend my family and I were visiting. The next thing I knew, we were boarding a gondola, along with forty or so strangers, heading up the side of a very steep mountain to a peak in the Austrian Alps. This was not the type of “walk” I was expecting. Once the door of the gondola closed, I panicked. I dropped down low to the floor to connect myself with something steadier than my legs that had decided to abandon their duties. The surface below offered me a modicum of stability in my otherwise conflicted body. My peculiar posture led many of my co-passengers to withdraw, hold their children close and watch suspiciously for what would come next. I suspect they were waiting for me to vomit. It was a logical guess, since I had enjoyed a sausage and a beer a few short minutes before we left the ground that was now, far below us. My mind raced and my heart fluttered every time the gondola passed over a tower during our ascension. As we climbed higher and higher, I paused. I traveled to a place deep inside of myself and tried to slow the rhythm of my breathing to avoid hyperventilating. In spite of my efforts, there were several near misses. As weird as I looked, I’m pretty certain it would have been far worse had I stayed upright, fainted and landed squarely in the lap of my captive audience of onlookers. When I finally convinced myself that I would not perish due to heart failure, I mustered the strength to slowly open my eyes. I found myself eye to eye with a calm, little girl with long blonde braids. She was clearly confused by the full-grown woman sprawled so oddly in front of her. As she sized me up, I simply shrugged and flashed her a nervous smile. I didn’t try to explain or pretend that I was looking for my lost earring. I proudly held my down low posture until the door opened at the top and released us all into freedom.

My gondola scene isn’t something people who know me would ever imagine. They would tell you I’m a brave person. I meet big challenges with a “no looking back” kind of confidence, determination and enthusiasm. I’ve taken bold chances my entire life. Each and every time, I’ve savored the rush of the unknown. Most people who know me, have never heard what comes next.

I don’t appreciate high places and by that I mean, elevations more than three to four feet off the ground. I find them utterly terrifying. Heights leave my body in a state of near paralysis whenever I allow my mind to take over without my attention. My mouth goes dry, my thoughts spin, my legs take on the consistency of limp, overcooked spaghetti…it’s not a pretty site. I have no experiential basis or rationale for my fear. Nothing tragic has ever happened to me, at least not yet. I’ve ridden ski lifts hundreds of times without falling off. I’ve never had to awkwardly climb down to safety in ski boots and I’ve never had the cable snap. I’ve ridden the high speed elevator at the Empire State Building AND I made it back down again without crashing. I’ve hiked tall mountains without falling over the edges and I’ve actually enjoyed the views. I’ve never had to climb down from the top of a broken ferris wheel. The mere thought of that scenario sets my nervous system on a code red alert. (I won’t dwell on that possibility because the likelihood that I would ride a ferris wheel is well, pretty slim.) All that said, I am what people call “a good flyer”.

I’ve been traveling extensively with my work for the last 11 years. Traveling presents a litany of challenges that have the potential to trigger my spaghetti legs. Things like riding elevators to high floors to attend meetings in skyscrapers, traversing bridges and free standing flyovers in big cities… You get the idea. I’ve been known to request hotel rooms below floor three, more than once. Being too elevated and looking out of the window makes me well, super jiggly. I’ve had to close my eyes when riding in cars over bridges. I politely explain my relationship with bridges well ahead of time, to whomever is transporting me. I want to help them understand that it’s not them. I believe being proactive is a form of kindness. It just might also help me maintain the near perfect rating I’ve worked so hard to earn on Uber and Lyft.

Two years ago, I was in an early morning Uber with a driver who spoke only the lovely language, Portuguese. I unfortunately, do not. During our journey to Newark, we had to go over the Verrazano bridge. It was dark, cold and lightly snowing, which took my fear of bridges to DEFCON 1. That morning, I had raced around to pack, before the car arrived. I didn’t give myself time to pause, breathe and assess the route before getting into the car. Things got super freaky. My mind started racing with thoughts of this poor driver’s car sliding right off of the very tall bridge, plunging into the icy waters of The Narrows. Before I knew it, my slightly trembling body moved into full on convulsion mode. My teeth were chattering. I imagine I looked as if I were experiencing a neurological event. (Funny thing is that neuroscience shows I actually was) My hands were clammy. I was overcome by a sudden wave of nausea and at 5:30AM, my deodorant was being put to a serious test.

I had not approached that situation mindfully. Consequently, the tornado of thoughts swirling in my brain were wreaking havoc on my nervous system. My body reacted as if it were under siege. The story I authored in my mind that morning hijacked my actual well-being. Just before we approached the bridge, I found myself wishing I could just pass out so I wouldn’t have to experience the horrible fate I had convinced myself surely awaited us. In the midst of my personal drama, I felt the energy in the car shift. I looked up and saw a pair of concerned eyes in the rearview mirror. I realized the driver was now aware of my breakdown. I frantically reached for my phone. As I was curled up in fetal position in the backseat of his car, I asked Siri to translate: “I know this looks odd. Please don’t worry. You’re doing great!” I held the phone up slightly so the driver could hear as Siri gloriously connected us with: “Eu sei que isso parece estranho. Por favor, não se preocupe. Você está indo bem”. My driver smiled knowingly and nodded. Siri and I went on to tell him that the weird humming sound I was making with my mouth would soon stop and that I’d be a-okay after we reached the other side of the bridge.

Riding escalators can be a real challenge for me. I do not relish the idea of hanging out on a small little jagged step with the ground far below. The ones with the clear side panels are even worse. I know where the tallest escalators are because my mind has mapped them in multiple cities. If you’ve ever used the Tube in London, then you’re familiar with the very steep escalators that take you below ground and back up again from one destination to the next. This is also true of the escalator exiting the subway at Hudson Yards in NYC, the escalators underground between terminals at Hartsfield in Atlanta and the set at DFW which effortlessly glide passengers up to the Skylink platform, all day, every day and generally, without incident. If I’m not paying attention, my mind calls the bad vibes up, on demand. There have been times where I was unable to stand on those moving stairs without my heart racing, the blood leaving my brain and my knees nearly buckling. I’ve been known to jog up escalators, all the while looking down and passing the fellow, oh so mellow, riders hanging out on my right. I’ve let my mind get me into such a total frenzy that I’ve wiggled into the elevator between babies in strollers and elderly people in wheelchairs, out of sheer desperation. On days where the elevators were full, I’d wait two to three cycles until they cleared to make sure I didn’t take space away from people who actually needed to use the elevator. One time, I mindlessly stepped onto an escalator and got so freaked out that I left my suitcase on the step with my colleague to lighten my load so I could escape by vaulting up the stairs. I took them two by two, in four inch high heeled boots, at breakneck speed just so I could reach the top before passing out. Logically, I know escalators are a safe and efficient means of ascending and descending (unless your shoelaces are untied) but when I’ve let my mind take over my experience without intention or focus, the feelings that have washed over me have been nearly paralyzing.

B.C. (before COVID) I used to fly almost every week. Remember, I’m a “good flyer.” I’m the friendly gal rockin’ an easy smile, offering understanding glances and calm reassurance to the “bad flyers” next to me, whenever the plane suddenly hits “unexpected rough air.” So, how is it that I can embody the vision of calm at 35,000 feet with nothing securing me but a skinny little lap belt and not manage to get myself onto an escalator? The answer is simple. It’s all about my mindset or the way I have chosen to set my mind in those situations.

In my mind, I have painted the worst case scenarios about things like gondolas, escalators and bridges. I’ve thought about how the cable on a gondola could snap and how an escalator could suddenly speed up, chucking me and the rest of the folks right over the side rail. In my mind, I’ve thought through the horror that would happen if one day I’m driving over a bridge that collapses and my car goes plummeting into the water never to be found. Or, what if the driver of the car next to me has a cardiac event, loses control of their car, hits me, forces my car into the guardrail and then I plummet thousands of feet into the water? When I’m not operating with intention or focusing to slay those stories in my mind, my imagination becomes a gaggle of rabid weasels getting stoned on fear cookies and going rogue. None of those things had a single root in any reality I’ve experienced. They were stories I authored that took over my neurological motherboard and in turn, my body and overall experience.

Things are very different when I fly. I’ve convinced myself that I’m floating in a snow globe when I’m up there in those clouds on a plane. That’s the story I’ve authored in my mind about flying and that story has become my truth. My inner Bob Ross has painted a pretty picture of billowy, cotton ball clouds and peaceful sunbeams. Consequently, I view flying as positive, my experiences are positive and I’m the picture of cool, calm and collected when I’m way up there above the Earth. In all cases, the stories I author create thought patterns which dictate my total experience. When I pause, breathe and make a mindful choice about the stories I author, my experiences change. They become enjoyable. My body relaxes and no longer feels like it will surrender and collapse.

Mindfully “sitting” (meditating) has been a part of my life for 26 years. In that intentional stillness, I’ve given my mind and body a chance to learn and connect with the source of bravery and calm within myself. That experience has become so familiar to me that when I pause and breathe in a focused way, I’m able to tap into it, now, with the first deep breath I take. This mindful practice of pausing and breathing has become the force that guides the majority of my life experiences. It’s my source of steady and courage. I’ve learned that most things in life are about mindset- the way we set our minds. We can’t control the things happening outside BUT we are in total control of our thoughts, stories, perceptions, the way we internalize our experiences and our perspective. All of these things play an instrumental role in the way our brain connects with our nervous system. That connection creates our experience and our reactions to whatever is happening around us.

Here’s the cool part. Each of us can choose how we experience the world around us. We just have to remember to activate these three little letters: P.B.A.

Pause: Slow down

Breathe: Take six, deep, focused breaths

Assess: Check in, ask yourself: What’s driving my experience in this moment?

That one mindful choice is the gateway to a whole new world. It sets us up to navigate challenges like a global pandemic, finding balance while working from our sanctuaries and even stepping onto escalators, with objectivity and awareness. Pausing, breathing and assessing enables us to make choices without doing harm.

  • We can choose to create a mindset of kindness or force.

  • We can choose to create a mindset of judgement or a mindset that bridges connection and understanding.

  • We can choose to beat ourselves up about the past, fear tomorrow or we can choose to create a mindset that allows us to joyfully embrace what’s right in front of us, one moment at a time- whatever they hold.

Choosing means we can stop authoring the stories that hijack our joy and cause us to suffer. It means we’re more able to greet every moment with courage, curiosity, and intention. Mindset is about choice. Our choices become the authors of our stories and for better or for worse, they create new patterns in our brains that determine our experiences and our reactions.

I’ve created a common language with my clients around P.B.A. to help them change the experiences in business by using it to guide their decisions. It’s my personal anchor, especially before heading to high places. After a few breaths, it connects me with my reliable source of bravery and calm. I breathe a few more times to welcome that feeling into my body.

The last time I flew to Dallas, I didn’t wait in line for the elevator at DFW. I made a different choice. I paused, took six mindful breaths and told myself, “This time, you’re in charge, sister”. I bravely stepped onto the Skylink escalator. My knees shook a little BUT my legs didn’t fail me. I made it to the top without knocking anyone over or making a scene and I lived to tell about it. The circumstances were exactly the same but the choice I made in that moment helped me author a new story. I know the next time will be even easier. Small mindful choices lead to little victories that become bigger ones. They create powerful, new patterns in our lives that help us realize we are braver and more capable than we thought. Maybe next time, I’ll even try riding up gripping just one handrail.