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How a Mindfulness Coach With a Harvard MBA Recommends Dealing With Microaggressions at Work

Reclaiming Flow

What do you do when workplace microaggressions start to affect your well-being? Many Black employees resort to code-switching, changing their appearance or simply just ignoring it. However, the stress that comes with discrimination at work can cause physical and mental harm, and exploring different methods to stay grounded could potentially be lifesaving.

According to Harvard Medical School, discrimination can contribute to several health issues, like hypertension. This is especially true for Black women, according to a study that appeared in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, which found a connection between chronic discrimination and high blood pressure in a large sample of African American women.

Zhalisa "Zee" Clarke is a Harvard MBA who transitioned from managing teams at Fortune 500 companies to being a mindfulness and breathwork instructor. After experiencing the adverse physical and mental effects of workplace microaggressions firsthand, Clarke started her journey to find healing.

"I spent years working in the tech industry in Silicon Valley, and during those years, being a Black woman was very challenging. I was passed over for promotions. I would find out that my white colleagues were getting paid a lot more than me," Clarke shares with CNBC Make It.

"I would say things in meetings and people would just completely ignore my comment. And then a white colleague might say the exact same thing and get praised. And that started to affect my physical and emotional health. I cannot tell you how many sleepless nights I had thinking, 'I'm gonna get fired,'  every day."

This work exhaustion sent Clarke on a sabbatical to India, where she got her yoga certification, became a sound healer and studied breathwork. Practitioners say these methods of elemental healing offer several health benefits, like decreased anxiety, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and decreased risk of heart disease, though not all have been proven.

Clarke recommends that Black people experiencing work stress, discrimination, and/or burnout, practice mindfulness, which she describes as "observing how you're feeling, and also what is happening around you." She uses the acronym, RAIN, to remain self-aware in these situations.

"R is for Recognize how you're feeling. If you're angry, recognize it's okay to be mad. The A is for Allowing it to be there, the opposite of sweeping it under the rug. I is for Investigate. What are you experiencing right now and what do you need to feel better? And the N is for Nurture, doing something about it."

Clarke also urges Black individuals to practice breathing techniques, which can help "release anger and reduce anxiety." These techniques can be a quick solution when you're in a setting where you can't necessarily step away to gather yourself. 

Clarke has two breathing techniques that she does when she's in the moment: belly breaths and 4-7-8 breathing.

Belly breaths stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body's rest and digestion response when the body is relaxed, resting or feeding, according to Science Direct.

"Inhale and allow your belly to expand like a balloon. And then exhale, and let that belly come towards your spine. This is what triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, and is a quick response for when you notice yourself to be triggered."

According to Healthline, 4-7-8 breathing helps bring the body back into balance and regulate the fight-or-flight response we feel when we're stressed.

"Anxiety can be very debilitating," says Clarke. "4-7-8 breathing, which is when you inhale for a count of four, you hold for a count of seven, and you exhale for a count of 8, is amazing for anxiety and insomnia." 

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