EAP chief forges resiliency via meditation

  • Published
  • By Thomas Brading
  • OSI Public Affairs

Special Agents regularly face dangerous, emotionally taxing situations in their investigations and domestic lives, leaving them seeking ways to cope, said a meditation facilitator with the Office of Special Investigations.

Mindfulness meditation is effective for dealing with the psychological effects of a variety of situations, said Dr. Margaret Swank, OSI Employee Assistance Program chief.

Since 2018, Swank has led weekly meditations with OSI agents and professional staff aimed at helping support their emotional health and well-being. Following her weekly meditations, participants often feel calm and relaxed, she said.

But, participation is not restricted to Special Agents, despite the high-stress situations they may be involved in. Mindfulness meditation is something everyone can benefit from, she said.

For example, a driver might get distracted and miss their exit because they were thinking about anything but the road ahead. They may be lost in a daydream, ruminating on the past and present, or even judge themselves or others, instead of focusing on the road ahead.

That’s where mindfulness meditation comes in. By focusing on the present, people can stay mindful, Swank said.

On any given Friday, Swank puts this practice to work in a virtual setting. With a calm voice and peaceful demeanor, she encourages people to close their eyes, breathe deeply and take in the moment.

“We have good feedback,” she said. “People are like, ‘this is helpful, thank you,’ sometimes people will put in the chat, ‘I needed that’ [and] that’s what it’s there for.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Swank has held meditations virtually on Zoom and although she is physically separated, her ability to help people become more mindful has not diminished, she said.

“We try to create opportunities, whether it's webinars or applied opportunities, like the meditation, where people can try out some practices that will sustain their resilience,” she said.

The most important thing is not how long someone meditates for, but how consistently they do it. “It’s a lifestyle, it’s not something you do once and makes a [lasting] difference,” she said.

Mindfulness meditation taps into the parasympathetic nervous system and offsets fight or flight, she added, which influences overall awareness, concentration and decision-making.

In 1995, Swank joined the Navy as a psychologist, where she served for 12 and a half years. Later, she spent seven more years in employee assistance for the FBI, where she developed mindfulness and meditation skills before joining OSI.

Swank took her first yoga class while working for the FBI, which she said changed her life.

“I built yoga into my life, but hot yoga is not for everybody,” she said, referring to a style of yoga performed in humid conditions intended to increase sweating.

Instead, mindful meditation can be done virtually anywhere for very short integrals of time.

“The great thing about a practice like mindfulness meditation, you can take 30 seconds, to a minute or two, just drop into awareness of your body and focus on your breathing,” she said.

Almost half the time, most people are in a mindless state of distractibility because their mind is not connected with their body, making them at a greater risk of depression, anxiety and lower quality of life, she said.

In the end, Swank’s mission is to help others, she said. Whether it's a ten-minute breather on the other end of a Zoom call or teaching others how to find time to meditate during their day, it's her mission to improve OSI one breath at a time.

She encourages members of the OSI community to join the Zoom calls and practice mindfulness meditation with her, or if they prefer something closer to their location, she can provide them with local resources or direct them to their local Airman and Family Readiness Center.