Monday, August 21, 2023
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Mind Your Health

It's May - Mental Health Awareness Month! Let's break the silence and shine a light on the essential aspects of our wellbeing.

From Burnout To Bliss: Expert Tips To Achieve Mental & Emotional Wellbeing (Part 1)

Isabelle Griffith is an Emotional Resilience and Embodied Feminine Leadership Coach, Trainer and Speaker. She is the founder of The School of Somatic Leadership For Women™, and the creator of The Pause Approach™ and Soma Leadership™. Through her online programmes, workshops, coaching and speaking services, Isabelle supports female leaders to stress less, live more and lead well, and organizations to embed emotional resilience at all levels.

After spending over two decades in the corporate world, where she held various roles at organizations like AT&T, PwC, Amazon and Yahoo!, Isabelle set up her coaching and training practice in 2017 and has not looked back ever since. Her personal experience of burnout combined with her training in multiple modalities from reputable sources have led Isabelle to develop unique approaches to supporting women to have the impact they desire without burning out, and to foster psychological safety within the organizations she partners with.

Isabelle specializes in helping female leaders to press pause, reconnect with themselves and develop greater emotional resilience, so they can live and lead with more calm, joy, purpose and confidence.

In this exclusive interview with AlignThoughts, we delve into her remarkable journey, exploring the profound experiences – from her personal encounters with mental health challenges to her groundbreaking work with esteemed organizations, Isabelle shares her insights, challenges societal norms, and offers a beacon of hope for a future where mental health is embraced with empathy, understanding, and unwavering support.

As part of our series ‘Mind Your Health’, we’re delighted and honored to share our conversation with Isabelle and to share her valuable insights. Join us to learn more about her science-backed explanations on emotional resilience, self-leadership and the most common challenges faced by the women she coaches.

How do I know if I’m mentally healthy? What are the red flags I need to be aware of?

We often think of mental health as an either/or scenario: we are either mentally healthy or mentally ill – but actually, mental health is a continuum. We can be anywhere on the continuum at any given moment.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve learned to appreciate the fragility of our own mental health and to recognize that being human is far from a linear experience. In general, feeling mentally healthy means experiencing a sense of wellbeing and inner resilience. A feeling that we are resourced to cope with the challenges that life brings us.

As we move towards the mid-point on the Mental Health continuum, challenges that we used to be able to navigate with relative ease might begin to feel difficult or insurmountable. It’s as if our inner capacity was starting to erode.

Now let’s look at red flags.

While some red flags tend to be universal (trouble sleeping, persistent negative looping thoughts, ongoing worry or anxiety, pulling away from our friends or family), it’s important to become familiar with our personal early warning signs – what tells us that things are starting to slip.

It means learning to recognize what it feels like to be ‘mentally healthy’ in our body:

  • The sensations, emotions, and feelings that are present, as well as the thoughts that may be running through our minds.
  • And equally, learning to recognize the early warning signs of this ‘wellbeing imprint’ beginning to change – so that we can course correct early.
  • It’s also helpful to be attentive to our daily habits and to notice when keystone habits that sustain us are starting to fall away.

Personally, there are a few telltale signs that I now recognize as very early warning signs that something needs my attention:

  • I crave sugary food
  • Abandon my yoga and meditation practices
  • Become easily impatient and irritated
  • Have a tendency to ‘retreat within myself’

What is the first thing you give up on when you feel stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, or stuck in negative emotional spirals? These are your telltale signs.

Can mental health problems be genetically transmitted? If so, what can I do to overcome them?

There is a growing interest in the field of epigenetics, which explores how trauma may be passed from generation to generation. This would mean that trauma experienced by our parents, grandparents, etc might affect the way that our genes are expressed, and therefore how we perceive and respond to our experiences today.

When we heal ourselves, we become what’s sometimes referred to as ‘the domino that doesn’t fall’. As we unwind these patterns within ourselves, we act as a ‘cycle breaker’. Modalities such as EMDR, and trauma-informed body-based (somatic) approaches can be really supportive to facilitate healing.

I recommend seeking the support of a coach, therapist or practitioner who is trauma-informed as many of us hold some form of trauma in our body and this can be really tender inner work. As a Trauma-Informed Somatic Coach, I spend time with my clients mapping their nervous system to better understand their habitual patterns and identify resources that they can lean on to find a sense of safety within their body. We work with and through the body to release held patterns with safety and compassion.

For anyone interested in finding out more, I also recommend the books The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk and When The Body Says No by Gabor Mate.

Are emotional wellbeing and mental wellbeing the same thing? What are the key differences between the two?

Emotional and mental wellbeing are very closely interwoven. What we think, impacts how we feel and vice versa.

I love this quote by Michel De Montaigne: “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened”.

Left unchecked, our mind can get caught up in catastrophizing and doomsday scenarios, which can take us into downward emotional spirals. So emotional and mental wellbeing are linked – but they are different.

Emotional wellbeing is the ability to experience and cope with our emotions skilfully – it’s about developing the skill of ‘riding the wave’ of our emotions safely and compassionately, rather than repressing our emotions, numbing them, or acting them out.

Mental wellbeing is the ability to witness our thoughts and reframe negative thoughts to orient towards greater wellbeing.

Both go hand in hand and mutually impact each other. Both of these skills are part of developing greater emotional resilience and self-leadership.

Can you also help us understand the differences between stress and burnout? What are the key traits to know if we are stressed or burned out?

When we think about burnout, we often think about how to better cope with stress and chronic stress. But actually, burnout is a step further.

It is the outcome of being under chronic stress for too long. If chronic stress is like running after the horizon line faster and faster to outrun our overwhelm (without ever actually getting there) – burnout is like falling off the cliff.

They are two different states in our nervous system.

In chronic stress, we are seeking safety in action. It’s as though we were stuck on ‘ALL ON’, pushing through, and constantly in a ‘go go go’ type of energy. The sympathetic branch of our nervous system is activated, and our nervous system is in hyper-arousal.

When we burn out, our body is in shutdown mode. We are stuck on ‘ALL OFF’, we feel depleted, and can’t gather the energy we need to function properly. Our nervous system is in hypo-arousal – we are in a low freeze response.

One of my clients described her experience of burnout in this way: “It felt like a train crash, I couldn’t even go to my desk. I have no energy; my confidence is at its lowest and it feels like the floor is crumbling beneath me.”

Burnout and chronic stress require different approaches to regulate our nervous system. Our tendency is often to seek ways to feel ‘calmer’ when we’ve experienced a high level of stress over a long period of time. But a slightly different approach is needed when we are burnt out and need to move out of ‘collapse’ in order to slowly build inner resources to re-engage.

If you have been feeling stressed for some time, take a moment to consider where you may be within your nervous system: hyper or hypo activation?

We all must have heard that ‘prevention is better than cure’. So how do we prevent burnout in the first place? What lifestyle changes and mindful actions can we adopt to overcome burnout?

Burnout is a slow and long erosion – it isn’t something that happens overnight. Yet, we often don’t realize that we are burning out until we are completely depleted physically, mentally, and emotionally.

I particularly like this definition of burnout: “Too little or too much for too long.” In other words, it may be due to doing too much, working relentlessly, being overly busy, but it is also impacted by too little rest, and little to no selfcare and relaxation.

Learning to recognize the early warning signs of burnout is a great prevention tool. These can look like:

  • A constant sense of trying to ‘outrun’ overwhelm
  • Becoming increasingly exhausted physically, mentally & emotionally
  • Pulling away from those around us
  • Feeling detached
  • Starting to feel hopeless, and caught in a self-defeating cycle

Preventing burnout often starts with replenishing our inner foundation, so that we can create the capacity we need to take purposeful action. It starts with regulating our nervous system, releasing the stress accumulated in our body, prioritizing deep rest, and being compassionate towards the part of us who feels exhausted, depleted and empty.

As we restore our inner foundation and feel more resourced, we can then take purposeful action such as:

  • Setting boundaries
  • Addressing stressors by prioritizing, delegating or seeking support
  • Creating a non-negotiable self-care routine

Over time, it’s also helpful to look a little deeper and address the root cause that is keeping us stuck in cycles of stress and burnout.

Most importantly, on our path toward prevention or recovery, we meet ourselves where we are at, and begin by tending to our needs as we would with someone we care deeply about.

35% of participants in a workplace study named their boss as their single biggest stress and 80% felt that a leadership change induced stress. How can managers/leadership teams promote better mental health for their employees?

The past few years have truly highlighted the vital need to support employees’ mental health at work. And the importance of creating working environments and cultures, which feel psychologically safe. There are many things I could mention when it comes to leaders promoting mental health, but at a time of heightened stress and anxiety, I believe that one of the most critical skills leaders and managers need to develop is emotional resilience and nervous system awareness.

Here’s what I mean.

Nervous system awareness is the ability to understand how today’s fast-paced, ‘always on’ way of life is affecting us as humans. The different stress responses we might experience, and how we can stay regulated and stable in a world that I often refer to as ‘unfit for human consumption’ (as it triggers our stress response time and time again).

More than ever, leaders and managers need to bring calm, stability, resilience and compassion to their workplaces. But it’s also important to recognize that leaders are human too.

They need to have the capacity to ‘lead one’, in order to lead many.

Supporting better mental health at work starts with leaders resourcing themselves first, so they can support others at a time that demands so much from all of us.

By learning to regulate their nervous systems, they not only protect themselves from burnout, but also help those around them remain grounded and stable through co-regulation. Combined with emotional intelligence skills, this can help leaders to create an environment that feels safe to be in – which does wonders for all of our nervous systems.

It contributes to creating a work environment that is psychologically safe and promotes better mental health.

Lastly, being authentic as leaders (letting go of the polished facade and being seen in our humanness) can go a long way in helping others feel seen in their experiences and feel safe to be themselves too.

In tough times, what are the ways to find resilience?

I believe that integrating small practices during the day to regulate our nervous system, and find safety within ourselves when life feels challenging is most important. It helps us to stay grounded and to feel resourced ‘in those moments’, as well as to expand our capacity to cope with challenges more generally.

Drawing on inner resources (such as our breath) and outer resources (friends, family, favorite places) to lean on and create a ‘scaffolding’ that feels nurturing and supportive is vital too.

Spending time with people in our lives who are a calming, grounding presence can do wonders for our nervous system (even if we’re not talking). It’s also helpful to think about all the things, which help you to feel safe, grounded, and regulated. Create a resource list, and choose at least one of these things each day.

Be compassionate with yourself, and tend to the needs of the part of you who is feeling anxious, lonely, fearful, confused, or lost, as you would do if it were a young child or dear friend. And remember that this part of you may feel particularly present at the moment, but it isn’t the whole of who you are. There are also parts of you that are calm, resilient, and connected. I find it helps to expand my awareness to include these other parts too, where possible – and to remember that ‘this too shall pass’.

Lastly, in tough times, we often have a tendency to withdraw, to move away from the people, places and practices that give us joy, sustain and nourish us. Deliberately reintegrate some of these if you notice that you are ‘slipping away’. Little and often is best.

How to find a sense of belonging, especially in a new environment?

Belonging is a feeling of safety, support, acceptance and inclusion. And our most fundamental sense of belonging comes from belonging to ourselves first. It means feeling at home within our own ‘skin’, accepting all the parts of who we are, and feeling safe in our own body.

I think this quote from Dr. Steve Maraboli illustrates this well: “When I accept myself, I am freed from the burden of needing you to accept me.”

Coming into a new environment with a sense of inner belonging and stability creates a safety net in a way. It gives us a little more courage to express our opinions and stand up for what we believe in, because it feels safer to be who we genuinely are.

Being in an environment where we are able to be fully ourselves, to connect with others authentically and meet them in their own authenticity helps us feel that we belong. We aren’t meeting ‘persona to persona’ (where neither of us truly belongs, because the version of ourselves who belongs isn’t actually us).

We are seen and met as we are.

Thank you for reading Part 1 of this ‘Mind Your Health’ series with Isabelle! In Part 2 of this interview with her, we will dive deeper into nurturing our inner self and explore topics like happiness and self-leadership. Stay tuned for more expert insights and practical tips to help you stay mentally healthy!