Health and Wellness

Ex-Obama Secret Service agent on how to stay mentally tough during trying times

Former Secret Service agent Evy Poumpouras with then first lady Michelle Obama.
Courtesy: Evy Poumpouras

Evy Poumpouras admits her career path hasn't exactly been an easy one.

As a former NYPD cop turned Secret Service agent protecting then-President and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama, Poumpouras has endured years of intense mental and physical training.

"It can be intimidating to someone when they understand they have to be physically fit so they can take care of somebody, move somebody, possibly drag or carry somebody and jump in front of a bullet to save somebody's life," Poumpouras, who is in her 40s, tells CNBC Make It.

Now, the mental toughness she developed during more than a dozen years as a Secret Service agent (including in New York City during the 9/11 terrorist attacks and later her presidential protection detail for Obama) is something she wants to share as world deals with the fear and uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic that has already killed more than 252,000 worldwide.

"Whether you find yourself in the middle of a terrorist attack, trying to find the courage to deal with a confrontation or negotiating an important business meeting, your ability to conquer your fear, survive and even thrive comes down to one thing and one thing only: mental attitude," Poumpouras writes in her new book, "Becoming BulletProof."

Survival, she says, is all about mastering your fear response and "being able to think and act while keeping your panic at bay."

Here are the habits Poumpouras says she has learned and developed over the years that can help anyone become mentally resilient. 

Meditate to become more adaptable

"Adaptability is key" in times like these, Poumpouras tells CNBC Make It.

"I think people that are having the greatest struggle are those who are very rigid. They can't understand or adapt to what is happening," she says. 

You need to be able to analyze, adjust and psychologically rebound from adversity, Poumpouras writes in her book.

It's especially important with the current pandemic, because things will likely not go back to the way they used to be and people need to stop living in the past and instead focus on the present moment, Poumpouras says. 

"Your ability to accept a situation — the real situation — will ultimately help you overcome it," she says.

That means losing the "I can't believe this is happening to me" response and instead having a mindset of "This is happening to me. This is my reality. So now what?" she writes. 

To stay present in reality and erase past and future thoughts, Poumpouras suggests meditation and practices it herself every evening. She also advises people not the watch too much news as reports about death and things like protests can affect your psyche.

"[It] will make you fear-based. It's okay to get informed and get the knowledge but then turn if off and go on and do you life," she says.

Set an expiration date for wallowing 

Poumpouras believes that before you can truly move toward to solution during a trying time, you need time to process the situation and your emotions.

"When I find myself grumbling to my husband about a frustrating situation, I set an expiration date. It can be anywhere from one hour to twenty-four hours to a week, depending on the emotional fallout," she writes.

And then she makes herself move on.

"You need an expiration date to mitigate the length of time you allow yourself to spend on an emotional hardship," she writes.

"It takes about twenty-eight days for a behavior to turn into a habit, so if you dwell in anger or misery or self-pity for too long, you'll end up making it much more difficult to extricate yourself from those emotions."

Exercise to clear your mind

Poumpouras says when she has a lot on her mind, she goes for a run. You can "slay your demons when you go running," she tells CNBC Make It.

Poumpouras often will also yell out her frustrations while running to help clear them from her head.

Afterwards, she takes an ice cold shower. "A physiological change happens that alters your mind after [taking a cold shower], and I then I do my meditation again," she says.

But the best course is whatever works for you, says Poumpouras. So keep trying different things and see which ones have the best results. 

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