In Search of the Busy Brain Cure

Recovery Unscripted banner image for episode 83

Episode #83 | January 2, 2019

Featured Guest: Dr. Romie Mushtaq

What are some tangible steps we can take to prioritize long-term, holistic health, not just for patients, but also for our colleagues and ourselves?

We’ll answer this with mindfulness expert and doctor of integrative medicine Romie Mushtaq on this episode of Recovery Unscripted.

Podcast Transcript

David: I’m here with Dr. Romie Mushtaq. Thank you so much for being with us.

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: Thank you, David. I’m honored to be here with the Foundations Recovery Team.

David: Absolutely. To start, I guess could you tell us a little bit about your personal story and the journey you took to doing what you’re doing today?

Romie: Thank you, David. I grew up in a small town in Illinois with a one success mantra from my parents, “We have one doctor and you will become a doctor.” So I did. I loved the aspect of it. As a woman and minority in STEM, I entered neurology at a time where less than 5% of neurologists were women. I had a deep passion for brain science and neuropsychology.

Started to do some really cutting edge research on women’s issues, epilepsy and how hormones play a role. All that time, building the successful career, doing research, seeing patients, teaching medical students, I was not taking care of myself. Slowly, the joy, the compassion, and everything I had from medicine started to leave me. As they say, the illness always starts in our spirit and we typically don’t notice it.

Then the mental symptoms started. I was having difficulty keeping up, not as sharp, not as able to focus. The tasks were taking me longer to do. Then the physical symptoms started. Long story short, people who have seen this in my TED Talk, The Powerful Secret of Your Breath, I was diagnosed with a rare medical disorder called achalasia. The fact that I was chronically sleep-deprived and not managing my stress made the disease even worse. It probably would not have progressed to this life-threatening stage with pre-cancerous changes on biopsy.

After having undergone life-saving surgery eight years ago, really, to this month that we’re sitting here together I found the path to meditation, mindfulness and yoga. I started to do this. My elders are talking about it, and healing. Mind you, let’s talk about my age. This is before there were Youtube videos on this subject, a yoga studio in every street corner.

David: You had to go a little bit further to find.

Romie: I had to go further. As I was going through this journey and realizing that it was lifting me out of this depression from career burnout and I didn’t need my post-operative pain medications doing the meditation and the yoga, I wanted to know more. It sent me on a journey around the world to learn from the mindfulness and meditation teachers, Ayurveda and yoga.

As I started to heal myself and we’re out that six-month post-op mark where they’re thinking they need to do another surgery, I’m actually doing better and training to run a half-marathon. My surgical team is wowed. I thought, “How could I as a brain doctor not take this to my brain and mental health patients?” That’s what started this journey. I went back to do an additional board certification in Integrative Medicine, which is bringing the science beyond Eastern and Western medicine together.

Here I am today. If somebody had told me eight years ago when I was in the hospital, not sure if I was going to end up alive with cancer or disabled, that I would be here working with global corporations, athletes, professional associations to bring the power and the brain science of mindfulness and meditation into our organizations to help the mental health of our workers and prevent career burnout.

I could never have imagined this. Those are those moments that I hoped if anybody is listening to this and you’re in that dark place right now, not sure how you got there, is just trust that maybe there’s a great breakthrough waiting to happen and you’re truly going to be of service to the universe.

David: Back to your traveling around the world, this journey that you took, why did you decide to do that? Did you have a goal? What did you hope to get out of it?

Romie: It’s really insane if you think about it, because five years ago, I did not renew my medical contract. I think the CEO of the hospital, my parents, my patients, everybody was shocked. They’re like, “You are leaving a good-paying job as a physician.” It felt right, because at that time, the traditional hospital systems were not built to bring in integrative medicine. I think it’s slowly changing now but very slowly.

Initially, I thought, “How am I going to do this, bring this integrative medicine protocols?” I ended up moving to Florida and joining an outpatient integrative medicine clinic there. I studied all these protocols of how we get to the root cause of somebody’s illness. It scientifically all sounded great, but until I started practicing it and seeing the results of getting down to the root cause of depression, migraines, insomnia, whatever that may be that’s going on in a person’s brain and then introducing mindfulness-based cognitive therapy as a tool, my practice quickly filled up.

As I was sitting in meditation, I realized, “Why am I waiting for people to get so burnt out from their jobs that they’re ending up with insomnia, depression, anxiety, burnout?” I want to go to the companies and present this idea, and say, “If you can put your people and their mental and emotional well-being first, it will greatly benefit your organization and you’ll see the positive financial results.” That’s how all of this got built. From, as any entrepreneur will tell you, it feels like this crazy idea. Everyone will come and doubt you along the way. Then when it happens, you’re hailed as a visionary.


David: Not until it happens.

Romie: There’s this fine line everyday in my own mindset of feeling crazy or visionary. It’s my meditation practice that I remember to pause and ask, “Am I really being of service to humanity?” Then you move forward.

David: Kind of what you’re getting into now is your role as a chief wellness officer?

Romie: Officer, yes.

David: Could you kind of tell us about that? How does that play out?

Romie: It’s great. This is, I think a cutting-edge role. I am the chief wellness officer for a company known as Evolution Hospitality. There’re about 6,000 employees. It’s a privately-held company. They manage hotels of all chains all throughout the United States. Their company eight, nine years ago was founded on this principle that we put our people first. We are a people-driven culture, and wellness is a big part of that. That’s their differentiating factor.

Very much like me coming here to Foundations Recovery, two years ago, I was their keynote speaker. Blew the lid wide open. A call to action. You need to bring mindfulness and meditation. That led to consulting and me working with the company. Last year, we did a cutting-edge study. We’ll talk about that in a minute with them. We talked about what were we going to do as a company to be the differentiators in all of hospitality industry, and that we were going to bring mindfulness and meditation into the company.

I got named chief wellness officer. To our knowledge, there are no other medical doctors in the country that have a role like this in private industry, let alone in hospitality. We have chief medical officers in companies that are overseeing devices or services for the patients and medicines. Certain hospital systems are starting to employ that now for their well-being, but in corporate America, this is the first of its kind.

I am now, as we’re doing this interview, seven months into the role. We’ve rolled out a company-wide mindfulness and meditation program with great success. It’s just an honor to be of service. What you all heard me talk about in the lecture was this company was founded at a time where they were running at a loss. They are ready to cross the $1 billion mark within the next six months in revenue. It speaks to any leader that’s listening right now, is when you put your people first the spreadsheet results follow. It’s a true testament.

David: I guess, could you also talk a little bit about how you’ve seen that changed the culture as your implementing that, what results have you seen? Obviously, that financial, what have you seen to lead up to that?

Romie: I think at first and foremost, it starts with the leaders who are passionate about it. John Murphy, the CEO and founder of Evolution Hospitality has a meditation practice himself, and has even coming into to the company. He was a personal believer in it already. Then it meant recruiting the rest of the leadership team and me working with them one-on-one to really show them the benefits of mindfulness and meditations.

Number one is walk the talk as a leader. You can’t implement any kind of programs especially on wellness unless you’re walking the talk yourself and being, as Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

David: Because then it’s just on paper and they can tell it doesn’t matter.

Romie: It’s just on paper. Then, I think the great thing was to identify three different types of leader in the company. They were the people that we call either you’re a green light, a yellow light, or the red light. The green leaders were the people that anytime there’s a wellness initiative being rolled out, they are on board. They’re like, “We’re going to try this.” For me, it was working with them building relationships one-on-one and letting them lead.

Any leader knows this. To start a movement, it has nothing to do with myself or the CEO, it’s the first or second people that adopt the change, then everybody starts to follow because if they see other team members have implemented it will. Here is how this works, is initially, it did not work because I rolled out an online course and people had access to it. Videos, PDFs, all the science.

It happened because I went and I started to meet everybody in person one-on-one in doing the training. It was number one, walk the talk as a leader, and two, building the relationships and talking about that. Any resources were there. We can’t lose in this digital world a sense of human connection. It’s that human connection that people understood what was happening.

Now, how we brought mindfulness and meditation into the workplace. For anybody listening, you can imagine in the hospitality industry, hotels are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Just like hospitals. How are we going to create a mindfulness movement for all of these employees?

We call it taking a team pause. The power of pause is the program within Evolution Hospitality and trademarked by them. We call it taking a team pause. That’s doing a controlled breathing exercise based in mindfulness for three minutes before every team meeting. Whether you had a sit down meeting. In the hotels, there’re stand ups and huddles, with our housekeeping teams with leadership teams, we started there. We started simple and small. A three-minute controlled breath break.

The results were outstanding. People were like, all of a sudden, meetings don’t feel as rushed or toxic because everybody’s put their phone down, everybody’s focused, everybody’s calm. The meetings were running really smoother. Then what started to happen as we rolled out the team pause challenge, I was hearing feedback that the associate opinion surveys improved. Associates were actually saying, “Yes, we feel like a part of the team and our leader cares about us.”

David: It makes them feel more valued.

Romie: It makes them feel valued that everybody is doing the same thing. Organizational psychology shows us that, that when we do a team ritual, everybody feels connected. When we think of team rituals, we’ll think of passing a football around or doing something like that, why not a mindfulness exercises that will calm everybody’s brain down and calm the collective group down? We call it that the team that pauses together succeeds together.

We saw their associate opinion surveys improve, we saw the customers’ survey results of the hotels improve. Because now people are calm, they’re more present at their jobs, you’re feeling welcomed into the hotel and very supported. We’re just seven months into the program and seeing these results. Stay tuned. We’re going to be measuring them and talking about that. My gosh, what an honor it’s been.

The beautiful thing is everything is backed by science and psychology. There’s the naysayers. What we find is it may sound silly or funny, but once people try it and they see the results, they just give it a chance, you can move forward. We win people over one breath at a time, as we say.

David: You use the term mindful revolution a lot in your work, could you introduce what that means to you?

Romie: Yes. Mindfulness is become a term that we’re hearing. I think people wonder if this is just a trend in leadership, or healthcare, or corporate America until we see the next trend. I’m saying it’s here to stay. This is not a trend, it is actually a revolution, that no matter how distracted we are with our to-do list and all the digital devices we have, and how we work virtually, that we really do still yearn for a connection, connection within ourselves to ourselves and connection with each other.

Eight years ago, I thought it was insane. It was crazy to tell my surgeon that I traveled all over Eastern Asia and South America learning meditation, mindfulness and yoga and this is why I’m doing better and I don’t need surgery. How insane does that sound? Yet there’s medical literature to show the health benefits to the mind, to the mental health, to the physical health of meditation and yoga.

You start from a place where people thought it was crazy, and now you’ve seen in the last five to seven years a tremendous amount of scientific data emerge in health, in organizations on the power of mindfulness that now we’re actually having conversations about it. People like me get hired to go talk to companies. Companies are instituting apps and meditation classes there.

I call it a revolution because it’s not something that’s gone away. Once a company adopts mindfulness and meditation and they see the positive impact it has on employees, it continues to grow. Here we are into this movement. It’s not a trend, it would have disappeared. It’s actually growing. I’ll tell you this, David. The sad thing is, unfortunately, who do you think the last sector is that’s adopting it?

David: Healthcare?

Romie: Yes. Isn’t that unfortunate?

David: Yes.

Romie: Here you are with Foundations Recovery, one of the cutting-edge recovery addiction groups in the country to be of service to patients, and some of the most impactful literature on mindfulness and meditation is for mental health, addiction recovery, PTSD, those things that go hand-in-hand. I’m thankful to be on this podcast with you to talk about it. I really want more healthcare institutions to understand the importance.

David: This is not necessarily an educated opinion, I think a lot of it is healthcare is in their certain mode. They’re like, “Okay, these are the tools we have and this is what healthcare is to us.” That’s not necessarily part of it yet. I think it’s just hard to turn it around.

Romie: Well said. That we’re a sick care system and we need to be a system that’s promoting well-being.

David: Being proactive, like what you’re saying.

Romie: Being proactive, promote well-being. The other thing is there’s this idea that people come into our integrative medicine clinic and they’re like, “Okay, either I want a pill for my ill or supplement for my symptom.” That we want that quick fix. It’s not that. That normally when we have any kind of disease, mental health, addiction, anything related to that in our physical body, it took days, years, months to get to a point.

David: It didn’t just show up today.

Romie: It didn’t. To say that you want that magical pill or supplement to fix it is not necessarily realistic. It requires presence-centered awareness and patience, two things that mindfulness and meditation teach us.

David: You’ve touched on this a little bit. I feel like part of the challenge here in the US is our culture and how it’s flowing against this in a lot of ways. You had to go to South America and East Asia just to pick some of this up. Why do you think it’s hard for us in our culture to slow down, shut off our thoughts, get in this type of mindset?

Romie: It’s fascinating based in psychology and brain science. I call it our stress-success cycle. That we’re constantly thinking that there’s something outside of us that I need. What is it that’s missing that I don’t have peace, happiness, calm in my life? “Well, maybe if I get that next job promotion or I meet the man or woman of my dreams and get married”, or “Lord, I thought I met the man or woman of my dreams, and they turned out to be a nightmare. I’ll be happy when I get a divorce”, right? Whatever that is, while it’s okay to have external goals, what doesn’t work is that we attach our happiness or our sense of inner peace to all of those things.

David: To be driven by comparison.

Romie: To be driven in comparison, yes. Comparison is the death of joy. Mindfulness teaches us. We pick a goal, and we stress, we worry and we obsess to reach that goal. We work hard because we’re success-driven professionals and we reach it. There’s this temporary high. Then all of a sudden, you’re like, “Really? Is that all there was? Something really must be missing. I was wrong. It wasn’t that promotion. I need something different now.”

David: It doesn’t do what you thought it will do.

Romie: Yes, it doesn’t give us that satisfaction because we’re looking outside of ourselves. I think that’s what’s happened here in the Western world, that we drive ourselves quicker and quicker to find something outside of us to make us happy. We keep repeating that stress-success cycle. We know that causes inflammation in the brain and it can lead to a myriad of mental, emotional and physical health issues.

When we pause and we use mindfulness, we realize that inherently we are all wired to have a place of joy, compassion and infinite love deep inside of us. We get so distracted by our digital devices, all of these things, goals and outside forces that we forget how much power is inside. That is the power of mindfulness and meditation, it reminds us to pause and go within and tap what is already inherently ours.

David: Another part of this journey is each individual connecting with their own life purpose. Could you talk a little bit about why that’s so important? Especially how you look at how it affects all areas of our life.

Romie: Actually, that’s the most Googled question, is, “How do I find my life purpose?”

David: Really?

Romie: Yes.We look again outside to it. We want some massive change. We have this idea, David, don’t we? That to have a life purpose, I must be effecting change at the level of hundreds, thousands of people. We are attached to a number. I want to be the next Martin Luther King Jr. or the next Gandhi. That’s all very noble, of course. Really, it starts in this basic law of mindfulness and mindful leadership, is how can I be of service? That one simple question. Then when we pause and we meditate, we forget that we are living a life of purpose.

If I said, how can I be of service, and I see a turtle struggling on the seashore here and allow them to go back to safety, and that if I was of purpose to another one living being, that I was of service today. That is a life of service. That’s what presence-centered awareness thinks. For everyone that is a healer in the addiction and recovery space, we don’t measure success by how many hundreds or thousands of patients we’ve treated every year, or what the financial spreadsheet says, it’s did I provide compassion, healing and love to just even one individual in my lifetime? That is the life of purpose.

That’s what mindfulness teaches us, is at every moment, ask, “How can I be of service?” Otherwise, it becomes of ego that we’re doing it. Saying, I want to be the best recovery center, or I want to be the most brilliant CEO, or I want to be the most famous healer, that’s ego.

David: It gets back to comparison, too.

Romie: Yes, exactly. That’s so well said. To go with what you’re saying, David, is let go of the comparison, that’s a function of the ego. Go back, and at every moment, pause, breathe and ask, “How can I be of service?” Then follow that. If you’re not sure, then keep meditating. Because the answer is always there. Chances are, you’ve already been of service, we’ve just not been present to realize that we had that moment to provide comfort to a soul.

One of my guiding principles are this quote that I didn’t think was– I didn’t realize the power of it when I was younger.

I’m a geek girl, there’s no surprise to that. While the other kids were playing, I was in libraries. At a very young age, I think fifth or sixth grade, I discovered Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Rumi and the poetry. One of my guiding principles always was Ralph Waldo Emerson from his poem, Success. There’s a line in there, “To even know that one, life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded.” I didn’t understand the value of that until I stopped breathing myself and I couldn’t breathe because of the accolades achalasia.

Now, here I am teaching the power of the breath and meditation. It’s pretty humbling when you see that coming full life circle. Having this aha moment sitting here, remembering myself in the library in fifth grade and here I am now like, “Oh, wow.” I just had that aha moment with you here.

David: That is wild to look back and see like, “I’m actually doing some of that.” Not everyone can travel around the world and have that experience. What are some steps that someone can take right now, this week, this month, to find their life purpose, to start on this journey?

Romie: In order to heal others, we must first heal ourselves. Because if we’re wounded healers, then we’re only giving those wounds out to other people. It’s this energy. It’s this idea and mindfulness in Eastern spirituality that the healer and the healed are one being. Really, being mindful of how we’re showing up. We’ve talked a lot, I think, in the lecture I gave and before we started this interview on really recognizing compassion fatigue and career burnout.

These are really common terms that are thrown out these days when we see the level of people in the mental healthcare system that are helping addiction recovery, trauma victims that have compassion fatigue. We just say, “Okay, I’m compassion fatigued but I need to pay my rent, see more patients and do this.” We just keep powering on. It doesn’t work that way. Because when we have a compassion fatigue, that physical, emotional, mental, spiritual exhaustion, that is what we are passing on. If I am functioning from an empty gas tank, then spiritually, I’m just passing on that fear and judgment and fatigue onto the person that I’m trying to help.

David: It would really be better if you took a step back?

Romie: Yes. Took a step back and take that pause. As we say at Evolution Hospitality, the power of pause. If you find yourself stuck in the stress-success cycle, saying, “God, if I just reached that one goal, I swear I’ll be happier.” I’m going to ask you to take a pause. Sleep is sacred. From a traditional neurological psychiatric point of view, it’s the time that our mind, our body and our spirits are all restored. Yet, it’s just the one thing most of us deprive ourselves of because we’re too busy, the busy brain.

David: It’s the easiest thing to cut out of the day. It’s like, “Okay, well, I have to do another hour of something else.”

Romie: Let me cut out sleep. Yet it’s the most important thing to restore our functions. Including for everyone that’s in mental health, it’s critical. I asked these three steps, is could you commit to 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime to turn off your digital devices? This is a part of the brain up program people who invite me to lecture here. They hear all the data on how damaging the digital devices are to our sleep-wake cycles, to our brains because it keeps them busy. Whether you’re trolling someone on Instagram or doing work emails.

David: I feel it in my eyes, too. I get eye strain.

Romie: Yes, eye strain and all of that. Put the digital devices away. Then for those of us that have that busy brain, that I can’t shut off my mind before I sleep, it’s our form of ruminating anxiety, very common in intellectuals, certainly common in healers, we’re carrying the emotion and the trauma of the people we’re helping during the day, is doing a cognitive behavioral therapy exercise that I call the brain dump. Just taking pen and paper and writing a list down.

I think any therapist listening to this has known the clinical benefits of journaling. Then I’m in the real world working with busy corporate executives and athletes. They don’t feel like writing all their feelings down in a journal. I’m like, “Just take a pen and paper and create a list.” Why? Because when our eyes see the words and our fingers are touching the pen, we’re actually signaling to our brain that I don’t need to remember this. I don’t have to worry about training this from intermediate to short-term memory. It pauses the worry.

David: The vision I get is like your brain is trying to spin all these plates, trying to remember all this stuff, then that let’s it go away.

Romie: Yes. You’re kind of saying, “Let me just stack all those worries away and get it out of my brain in that brain dump.” These two steps with my insomnia clients has helped majority of them reduce or get off of some pretty highly-addictive sleeping pills. Those two steps, digital detox and the brain dump. Then there’s one more. This is the time to add meditation into the day. Even if it’s that three-minute controlled breathing exercise and building up to a 20-minute meditation.

A lot of people who meditate regularly will ask me when you look at the traditional schools of meditation based in mindfulness, transcendental meditation, the Sufi meditation, centering prayer in Christianity, we typically talk about meditating first thing in the morning, which is what I do. When I ask clients who are busy to do that, what happens to most of us when we wake up in the morning, David? What do you think it is?

David: It’s you have to get started doing something. You have kids, you have to get ready.

Romie: Right? Yes, it’s like your alarm shocks you out of the system. When you’re like, “Wait, I need to find my calm.” I’m trained to do that, the RPM, the rise, pee, meditate system. For many people, that’s difficult to do. My whole idea is, hopefully the kids are in bed, you’ve done your lying down, you’re getting ready for the next day. Take that time before you just sleep to meditate.

It’s going to improve sleep. The clinical studies show that it’s a very effective in treating insomnia as much or even more so than using a sleeping pill. The three steps, digital detox, do a brain dump, write down everything that’s in your brain on a list on pen and paper, not on your devices or tablets.Then the last thing is to meditate. Do that for the 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. People see a profound result. It’s that reset that we’re using to heal our mind, our body and spirit as healers, and then offering that healing to others. Because, really, inside all of us are two beings, the healer and the person needing to be healed. We all have that inside of us.

It doesn’t matter what your title is, whether you’re recovering from addiction, whether you’re a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a CEO, we all have a healer inside of us, and a part of us that is willing to be healed. We need to honor both of those.

David: Wow. You’re getting into meditation a little bit now, I know you actually led a guided meditation here at the conferences in addition to your keynote. For people who are wanting to start this, maybe they’ve tried meditation, maybe they haven’t, maybe they’ve had an experience where they thought this isn’t for me maybe, how do you suggest that they get started? Is it like the three-minute breathing exercise you mentioned?

Romie: Controlled breathing is an exercise that can calm down our busy brain and shift us out of that stress-success cycle. That’s not actually a full meditation program. Hey, I want to make it easy, and let’s start easy. Just controlled breathing for three minutes. Then after that, start with guided meditation. Most people, myself included, eight, nine years ago, that’s how I started.

If they want, they can go to my YouTube channel, Dr. Romie, or website and download them for free. There are a myriad of apps out there too that people can use. As a licensed medical doctor and medical journalist, I don’t want to promote one over the other. Here’s my danger, David, though, with an app. What happens if you’re going to open your meditation app to app on your cell phone or in your tablet?

David: Another notification comes up.

Romie: Yes. That, “Ding” notification, so and so just liked your Instagram post. You’re like, “Let me just check that work email.” Even if you put it in airplane mode, the Wi-Fi is on and some text messages still come through. You get distracted. I can be a little strict as a brain doctor about the apps but I’m realistic, if it really helps some people.

Here’s the key. There isn’t one that is better than another. Find one with the voice that you like and use that to meditate. Mindfulness meditation or the meditation that I taught us here to calm down the busy brain is using a mindfulness technique known as the thought bubble meditation where we’re really learning to detach ourselves from our thoughts. The number one question I hear is, “Oh, my God, Dr. Romie, I must not be meditating right. The thoughts are still coming to my brain.” That’s normal. As a brain doctor, I’m here to tell you that the only time our conscious thoughts stop coming to our brain is if we’re under general anesthesia or if we’re dead. Hence, as most people listening to this podcast–

David: That’s probably a good thing to add.

Romie: A good thing, if you’re not under general anesthesia or haven’t passed away, thoughts are going to come to your brain. This idea is that we detach ourselves from those thoughts, that I’m not going to jump into a swimming pool full of fire of thoughts, we’re just going to walk away from them. That’s what this thought bubble meditation that we did.

It starts with the controlled breathing, sitting with the waterfall of thoughts, putting a particular thought, or story, or problem in a thought bubble and just sending it away. It’s learning to detach from your thoughts.

I typically teach most clients who are anxiety ruminating based on mantra meditation. Clinical neuroscience studies have showed that when we recite a mantra, a word or a phrase over and over again, it actually through neural plasticity helps us to rewire the brain from that path of anxiety to one of calm and opening up the frontal lobe and our ability to execute analytical thoughts a little bit better. That’s why you had me teach everybody here inhale calm, exhale peace.

It’s often helpful. I’ll have people who sit down one on one to learn this with me in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy when I’m teaching on mindfulness. They’re like, “Dr. Romie, what do you mean meditate on the word peace? I’m not in peace, I’m in the middle of a divorce”, or this and that. That’s often when it’s helpful to help people find their mantra. Whether it’s a phrase from a spiritual text that they follow to repeat over and over again, or I give them a term in Sanskrit or a different language to focus on so that they’re not jumping and creating a lot more thoughts based on that one word.

David: Interesting. Part of it is finding that mantra. Because it can be any number of things.

Romie: Here’s a fun thing that I have a belief in working with all the Eastern spirituality teachers that I have, is that I think inherently, all of us spiritually we’re born with a mantra inside of us. It’s a very sacred time when a mother is pregnant with a child. They say the angels have surrounded the child in the womb and are reciting that child’s mantra as a comfort as they transition onto earth and in this present world. That when you see a young baby cooing and smiling, it’s often because they’re still hearing the mantra from the angels.

What happens? We get distracted by the noises of life and language, “Don’t do this”, and, “Don’t touch that, David.” “I’m mama, say dada”, whatever it is. We lose touch, we get distracted from that mantra. It’s been very common that I’ve been sitting with clients in meditation one-on-one and we take a journey of what I call a mantra retrieval.

Most of us, it’s a phrase or word that we heard somewhere along the way. Someone we’ve loved, we may have heard it in church, in the temple, in the synagogue. When we find that phrase, it’s the same reaction every time. It’s like, just these cleansing tears come out, the shoulders relax, their heart space opens, and they’re like, “This is my mantra.” That mantra, when you find that, it’s this tool to just bring balance between your mind, your body and your spirit when you meditate.

My first mantra was given to me by someone that resembled my maternal grandmother. The minute she said it, I knew that was my mantra. I felt a higher force doing this. I was in Guatemala at the time. Now, even if I have a moment where that fight or flight response kicks in, like I’m driving on the highway and someone cuts me off, I can stop and breathe really quickly and recite the mantra and it’s just instant calm. That’s the power of a mantra.

David: Really? Wow. I’m guessing even with all the studies, all the literature that’s coming out, there’s still a lot of skepticism, I guess especially in healthcare I’m sure, about mindfulness, meditation and integrating that with other types of medicine. What what do you say to that?

Romie: I used to be one of those people. I have no judgment. I think 10, 12 years ago, my mother and my aunties were calling me, “You are very stressed out. We think you need to meditate.” I’m like, “What are you talking about? I’m a busy faculty doctor, you want me to meditate?” I try not to have judgment, but here’s the thing that’s out there. The medical evidence and scientific literature is irrefutable. It’s present. We have to bring that into the medical schools, into the nursing schools and into psychology.

I think the psychologists are ahead of us. We know it’s there. As a doctor, we don’t all have to learn it, but gosh, there’s meditation practitioners and teachers that can come in and partner in the healthcare systems and bring that in, to one, heal the healers, and two, heal our patients. You’re going to see some push back, I think in our health care system.

Why? Because in a profit-driven system, procedures, pills and devices have a higher profit margin than teaching someone to meditate and naturally bring down their blood pressure or cure their depression. Then really, we have to pause and think to ourselves as CEOs of healthcare systems, administrators, doctors, nurses and psychologists, “Am I really being a service? Am I doing the right thing for the patients when I’m putting the profit first?”

We circle back to the beginning of this interview when we’re talking about Evolution Hospitality or other companies I get to work with. We’re people-driven cultures. When you put your people first, the results and the outcomes follow. Why? Because we are being of service. That’s taking that mindfulness into leadership, and always asking. I have hope that healthcare will come along. Integrative medicine is now a board certification. It’s slowly at UC, some of the larger healthcare systems are realizing the importance of getting to the root cause of illness. They’re bringing it into cancer care, et cetera. We have a ways to go. I’m not going to lose hope.

David: Part of, I guess what’s next for you is the book that you’re working on. You’ve mentioned this term a couple times during the interview, busy brain, could you tell us about that? You were saying earlier about some of the ways that we’ve gotten it wrong in mental health so far.

Romie: In brain and mental health, we’ve gotten it wrong. What happens when someone comes in and say, “Gosh, I’m really busy at work and I’m having a hard time focusing or low energy.” We easily can give them a stimulant. People are either addicted to high levels of caffeine. Now we know clinical studies show a low amount, a couple cups of coffee a day are highly beneficial, but people are consuming larger amounts of caffeine and getting over-stimulated, or they make it a stimulant. That’s really meant to treat ADHD incorrectly.

That feeds into anxiety, it feeds into difficulty focusing, it causes more inflammation in the brain and imbalances in certain neurotransmitters. Now what happens in the evening? You’re trying to wind down, you’re anxious and you can’t fall asleep. You’re like, “Let me have a couple glasses of wine, a few beers”, or, “I’m going to be responsible and go to the doctor and get a sleeping pill.” Now we become dependent on something to calm us down, or help us sleep, or an anti-anxiolytic. We’re in this vicious cycle of using substances in the morning to perk us up and give us energy and substances to now calm us down at night. All of that is feeding into the inflammation.

Anxiety, difficulty focusing and insomnia are not three different diseases, they’re all on one spectrum of an imbalance. My book, The Busy Brain Cure is actually bringing out the science of what are the hormonal and chemical imbalances that are happening in the brain and in our gut that cause all of this and what are the steps that we can do to get to the root cause of it, which is looking at your hormones, looking at certain nutrients, like the importance of magnesium and zinc for neurotransmitters and methylation disorders. Then, of course, what can we do about it.

There’s a Busy Brain Cure, a 21-day program just meant to detox our mind, our body and spirits from all of the distractions and come back to that place of calm that we all are. I’m really excited about it.

David: Awesome. Looking forward to that. Thank you for sharing a little preview with us.

Romie: Thank you.

David: We’ll just wrap up with this final question. You’ve devoted your life to this mission of spreading the mindful revolution, doing what you do with hospitality, could we wrap up by having you sum up why helping others heal, strengthen their mental health, focus their minds, why is that so important to you?

Romie: If you take a moment right now, I think, and close your eyes and take a deep breath, and ask, “How was I of service today? Did even like one life breathe easier because I lived?” It may be a being, it may be a plant, it may be an animal, it may be another human being. I really believe in this laws and mindfulness, that’s compassion. When we do that, we’re going to make a better world. Whether it’s one element of nature, one animal, one mammal, one human at a time. That in this world where we’re so divided, we can come together.

I have been on a long journey in my career to learn about neurology, psychiatry, integrative medicine and mindfulness. I think my purpose was to bring all of those together to know that we always respect the science and that we understand that there’s a lot we need to learn about that’s already there scientifically about mindfulness and meditation. When we bring those two together, we must remember that I first must heal myself. You must first heal yourself. That as the healer, we must be healed in order to give healing, and that we’re in this constant motion of healing so that the healer and the healed are one person.

If we take that moment to pause and meditate everyday, and nurture our mind, our body and our spirit with this, then we’re offering that idea of being of service to someone else, another human being in a more healed and completed way. Really is an honor to bring these concepts of neurology and integrative medicine and mindfulness together.

I think my goal and starting with this pivotal role at Evolution Hospitality while working with other companies, is if any leader out there is listening, and you have an organization of 10 people or 10,000, let’s take pause and think about the emotional and mental well-being of the people who are working with you, for you. When we do that, and we pause and we put those people first, we’re already improving the health and the well-being of all of our team members, and that your financial outcomes and productivity outcomes will naturally follow. We’re doing the right thing and that we’re caring for our people.

David: That can never be wrong. Absolutely. All right. Well, Dr. Romie, thanks so much for your time and for sharing all that with us.

Romie: Thank you, David. An honor to be here with all of you.

Unlearning Toxic Masculinity

Episode #105 | January 8, 2020

In a culture that often encourages a toxic version of masculinity, how can treatment providers help men unlearn harmful stereotypes and uncover their own trauma?

We’ll answer this with SCRC clinical director Hedieh Azadmehr on this episode of Recovery Unscripted.

Cultivating an Environment of Innate Listening

Episode #104 | October 2, 2019

As the healthcare industry evolves, how can treatment professionals turn off the noise and really listen – to emerging trends, to their patients and to themselves?

We’ll dive into this with speaker, coach and founder of human connection company BluNovus James Hadlock on this episode of Recovery Unscripted.

The Realities of Self-Harm and Suicide

Episode #103 | August 15, 2019

What can behavioral health providers do to better understand the realities of self-harm and to know how to respond when they spot the signs in their patients?

We’ll discuss this with non-suicide self-injury specialist, author and counselor Lori Vann on this episode of Recovery Unscripted.

For more about Lori’s work, visit

Integrating Buddhism and the 12 Steps

Episode #102 | August 8, 2019

How can ancient principles from Zen and Tibetan Buddhism integrate with modern treatment programs to help more people build lasting recovery?

We’ll discuss this with author Darren Littlejohn on this episode of Recovery Unscripted.

For more about Darren’s book, The 12 Step Buddhist, visit

Can LGBT-Affirmative Therapy Help Re-Write Internalized Messages?

Episode #101 | July 17, 2019

In a heteronormative culture, how can providers use affirmative therapy to help LGBT individuals re-write the false messages they’ve internalized?

We’ll answer this with psychologist, author and activist Dr. Lauren Costine on this episode of Recovery Unscripted.

For more about Dr. Lauren’s work, visit