MacAulay talks about the power of ‘engaged presence’

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Keith Holcomb
  • 14th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
In one minute, anyone can perform an exercise challenging enough to stump even the strongest individuals; the mental push-up.

Lt. Col. Jannell MacAulay, 58th Special Operations Wing director of human performance and leadership, has been visiting military bases across the U.S. to speak about the benefits emerging from mental training, commonly known as mindfulness.

“My journey started because I needed to find a way to better handle the stress in my own life and at the same time, I had the chance to go back to school,” she said. “The Air Force sent me to Air Command and Staff College and there I went to the Air Universities’ School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. When you go back to school you self-reflect and what I really wanted to figure out was how I could succeed in life and what made it so difficult.”

MacAulay said she believes the benefits can not only strengthen our service members and positively impact the Defense Department, but sees it as a positive stepping stone for the current health crisis in today’s society.

“I know that as a career military officer I have spent my time trying to be the best pilot, leader, wife, mother and academic I can be,” MacAulay said. “That is a whole lot of pressure to put on ourselves. In fact, there was a time in my life I found myself in this space where I forgot how to laugh and lost sight of all the support surrounding me. I found myself in this space where I was trying to be perfect at everything I did, so perfect I lost sight of the growth and learning that comes from our imperfections. I was totally burnt out.”

She talked about hardships military members are faced with on a daily basis and the benefits of keeping an engaged presence.

“When you learn to slow down, you will accelerate your personal and professional success,” she said. “You have to really take a few deep breaths. … We must take care of ourselves before we serve and lead others. That’s how we can actually achieve the highest levels of performance in a personal and professional space.”

She said people encounter and deal with stress on a daily basis, but there are ways to prepare for how to deal with that stress.

“You have control on how you see your stress,” she said. “You have a choice in whether you are overwhelmed and it has a lot to do with your mindset and attention system.”

MacAulay showed a graphic depicting the basic idea of stress and how it can effect a human’s ability to perform. She explained the difference between good stress, called eustress, and bad stress, called distress.

“Distress can be detrimental to decision making, relationships and overall performance,” MacAulay said. “We want to be able to operate right in the center space between eustress and distress - in the razors edge.”

A way in which people can get to this point is by performing mental exercises, which includes what MacAulay calls the mental push-up.

One way to control mental focus during stressful situations she said is to take a break and focus on a specific sensation or action, such as taking deep breaths through the nose, and focus on that sensation or action for a set amount of time.

With an interactive one minute ‘mental push-up’ workout, the audience had the opportunity to feel the difficulty of staying focused on their one sensation. The goal was to recognize when their mind started to wander, so they can pull their focus back onto their sensation. Every time they had to pull themselves back to their initial focus, it was considered one mental push-up.

“You are strengthening your attention system to stay in the moment and focus,” MacAulay said. “This is one of those exercises you want to do less and less push-ups because that means you can hold that attention and focus on one thing for longer periods of time.”

The goal of strengthening one’s mindfulness is not to practice it through stressful times, but to be able to take a deep breath and allow the training they’ve been doing to take over and keep their focus on completing the task when they are not in a stressful state.

“She was my supervisor and commander previously,” said Capt. Patrick Flynn, 14th Operations Support Squadron airfield operations flight commander. “She implemented the mindful thinking at the beginning of every staff meeting and she also held yoga physical training sessions. She never forced it on the squadron, she just earned everyone’s trust by being personable and being honest so we started to buy into it and ended up winning some pretty substantial awards, like the Airfield Operations Flight of the Year.”

Flynn said he still applies the lessons learned from Macaulay and noticed he has had more energy during and after his long days at work.

“She led in a way it all slowly trickled from the top down,” Flynn said. “We understood our boss had our backs, and we worked toward the end goal of being the best we all could be.”

MacAulay expressed her excitement to continue this research and hopes to continue helping the Air Force and DOD through spreading the positive impact of maintaining an engaged presence through all of life’s ups and downs.