Be the Difference

I watched every episode of Oprah and Prince Harry’s documentary “The Me You Can’t See…The Path Forward” I felt so many emotions washing over me as I listened to each story unfold. I could literally feel the connection being made between me and the storyteller as they shared intimate details of their personal experiences. Fragments of my own life story resonated so deeply with theirs. Yes, I could feel it in my bones — the empathy, the understanding, those big emotions we all share in times of great adversity. Our shared humanity.

The transformational power of all these courageous people sharing their stories to raise our awareness for the impacts of mental health and well being cannot be underestimated. Each and every one of us possesses the gifts and opportunities to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others. And especially when someone is in deep struggle.

However, I think we let unconscious roadblocks get in the way of making a positive difference. We label, judge, fix, dismiss, ignore or placate what others are experiencing and feeling. This is not helping anyone.

While it may be true that a string of poor choices is leading some folks to disastrous results, when we judge, shame and blame, we are doing them a great injustice. We push down any possibility that they will be able to see their truth — that it is their poor choices causing the trouble — not the core human being that they are.

Th biggest shift for me over the past six years of my own personal growth journey has been learning that I am not here to “fix” things for others. I can’t and I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t jump in and solve somebody else’s problems because I stunt their own growth. I not only disempower them, I am often fixing the wrong core problem. Each and every one of us is responsible for ourselves, our actions and our choices. As my awareness around my natural tendency to jump in and “fix”, grew so did my awareness of the places where I too was guilty of judging, soothing and dismissing (all with good intentions), and getting in the way of other’s growth by solving their own problems.

While this became very freeing for me as I released my reactive urge to problem solve, it also became the source of deeper fulfillment. I always wanted to make a difference in the lives of others, but often my old ways turned out to be just a box of bandaids. My new and improved ways of supporting others is yielding meaningful, lasting and empowering personal growth.

One of my favorite Maya Angelou quotes is “when we know better, we do better.” This is flowing both ways now. I know better how to help others just by being present, without judgment, and really listening. Others are digging in a little deeper and exploring their own strengths, increased awareness, and experimenting with new strategies.

A key takeaway from watching “The Me You Can’t See” documentary is the significant difference that just one person can make in another’s life — and especially in times of great difficulty.

It just takes one trusted, caring and interested human being — offering presence, non-judgment and holding space for another. It sounds simplistic. In reality, it is so much more. The hidden benefits to our mental wellness are astounding.

I found myself captivated by Dr. Bruce Perry’s assessment that professional counseling may not even necessary when someone is in struggle if we have a trusted confidante. We may just need to be able to share our stories and feelings with someone who makes us feel safe and valued. Many times, we do possess the internal fortitude to get through a hard time but what we need is someone who can give us a boost.

Throughout the episodes, I also learned a lot about significant ways our brains can be reset in positive ways to enhance our ability to emotionally regulate and build resilience.

I’m going to share three of my own stories when mental wellness got turned upside down for me and my family. First I will share the stories and then I will circle back and tell you what happened with some caring intervention.

I remember when the young mommas of my grandchildren were in struggle with breast feeding issues, sleepless nights, pure exhaustion and the heavy anxiety of this major responsibility of a helpless newborn. All too often, people are prone to label this as postpartum depression. Step back and take a fresh perspective on the full scope of the childbirth experience and you’ll quickly realize the overarching complexities of motherhood. Try starting the most challenging job of your life — after one of the most strenuous physical accomplishments humanly possible, without an instruction manual and extraordinarily high expectations. These young mothers were tired, overwhelmed and anxious — with good reason.

I was only 40, in my bed, curled into a ball, listening to Yesterday by the Beatles on repeat for hours, barely recognizing myself with a bald head and part of my body now gone. So weak and nauseated from chemo it didn’t really matter what I looked like. There was no component of my cancer treatment that addressed my mental health. I was caught between scared out of my mind and being strong for my three children. That was the secondary battle I fought right along side the one with breast cancer.

When my beloved husband Skip died suddenly at only 57, it was not only me who grieved deeply. My 15 year old daughter was devastated and shocked by the loss of her beloved stepfather, the one man who made her feel safe. Our world stopped on a dime and it changed forever. But in less than two weeks, we were both expected to return to work and school. We had too much grief and too many adjustments coming at us fast and furiously. She was in boarding school so we weren’t even able to spend our evenings together. Each weekend I’d drive hundreds of miles roundtrip so we could be together. Our grieving process always seemed to be on a start and stop cycle. My boss asked me when I would be well again.

Now I will share what happened when a guardian angel showed up in each of these vignettes — that one person who showed up and made a profound impact on the course of events. I’m adding the insight that I gained from the documentary about meaningful contributions to our mental health and brain functions because it is so relevant.

The lactation specialist who showed up to support my daughter had a warm and kind demeanor. She sat and listened to my daughter for a very long time. No judgment, no advice, just letting her release all that stress. She put my daughter at ease and shifted her perspective in such a positive way during that first visit. Both momma and baby were calmer and more relaxed. My daughter formed a bond with this woman almost immediately and by the time she left, my daughter was laughing. Do you know that laugher completes a stress cycle? Are you aware that babies’s brains are impacted significantly in the first few months of life by their environment. Releasing the stress overload supported my granddaughter’s brain development. Most people would just be looking for results — was the baby nursing now? So much more happened in that transformational visit. My daughter got a much needed boost in her own confidence and abilities, she got a release from anxieties born of unrealistic high expectations society sets for new mothers, and she was set up for success with new methods to try. One person, one visit — big difference.

It was a flat-chested, bald woman with bright lipstick and stunning statement earrings that shifted me from anxiety and despair to determination and hope. She was at the tail end of her cancer treatment and was winning the fight. She had a firm conviction that if she could do it, then so could I. One powerful honest conversation and a bucket of tears changed my perspective and I am convinced it changed me on a cellular level too. My body and my attitude joined forces to beat the odds. I would have never guessed that my subsequent path would lead me to be a motivational speaker for the American Cancer Society and an integral part of a corporate launch of breast cancer awareness for CoreStates Bank. I did know that I had a responsibility to help others just as that woman had helped me.

That thread of hope and possibility was so strong that it later pulled me out of my depression over Skip’s death years later and gave me the courage to launch Annabella’s, my lingerie and breast care boutique in Main Line Philadelphia. My staff and I touched lives in a meaningful way and it rippled out to others. I watched women in all stages of their cancer diagnosis and treatments helping each other every day in my nurturing boutique. All of this was set in motion by that one beautiful, inspirational woman with the bright lipstick and awesome earrings in the chemo room in 1992. One caring stranger — big difference.

It was our next door neighbor, Helen, who touched my daughter’s heart and helped her after Skip died. It was all the happy, silly, heartwarming encounters that Helen had with Skip that she poured into my daughters heart and memory. Being able to recall the effervescence of Skip and the joyful way he lived his life brought back laughter and tenderness. What I did not know at the time was how important this was in creating new neural pathways for my daughter — shifting from attachment to the grief to a more positive one of priceless happy memories. This is where acceptance with grace occurs. It is where the seeds of resilience get planted. One loving neighbor — big difference.

I believe that we can all participate in clearing and creating an easier path forward for mental wellness. As Dr. Bruce Perry says, no one gets through life unscathed. We will all face times of adversity and we will all be grateful for the help we get in those moments.

Millions of people around the globe are struggling in silence. Encourage conversations.

Pain, suffering and need for help is universal. It takes courage to ask for help. If someone trusts you enough to ask for help, listen without judgment.

No one heals alone. Families, friends and communities play an integral role in sustainable recovery. We can educate each other, share stories and offer support.

The road to recovery is not a straight line. Hope lies in awareness, acceptance and action.

Isn’t it remarkable that some of the most unlikely change-makers are the ones who have overcome some of life’s hardest adversities. They often champion a cause, establish support groups, raise funds and awareness and shift collective perspectives. Watch the documentary. You will see courage in action.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

The Me You Can’t See — Apple TV and YouTube

https://tv.apple.com/us/show/the-me-you-cant-see/umc.cmc.4amwght1qtt8ioilwr0mgnf6d

Untangled

The definition of mental health is simply this: a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being.

What is not so simple is the complex and intricate ways our psychological and emotional well-being get out of balance.

When I started on my personal growth journey, I wasn’t thinking about my mental health. I was thinking about my heartbreak, my derailed dreams and my utter exhaustion. After slogging through a lot of self-help books and meditation magazines, I began to understand mental health in a new light. We contribute to each other’s mental health in our daily interactions and responses. Poor emotional regulation, lack of self awareness and old habitual patterns can suck us into a complex web of familiar but dysfunctional chain reactions. I began to realize the interconnection of members of my blended family and how we were inadvertently triggering each other’s most vulnerable emotional memories.

I could see how my own unconscious behavioral patterns and resulting coping mechanisms were in fact affecting my mental health. As I overlaid how members of my family were also operating unconsciously, what came to mind was the image of intricate, delicate necklaces all twisted and knotted together. Untangling all of this was going to take a committed effort — and it had to start with me. Our mental health was at stake — and it was affecting everyone’s quality of life.

I had plenty of evidence that my anxiety level was high. Stress was running the show and running me ragged. I was now a chronic ruminator, prone to stress eating, had trouble sleeping and was becoming forgetful. I credit my long-time fascination with neuroscience for preventing me from going into denial about the connection between stress overload and old behavioral habits feeding the cycle. I stumbled onto Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D and his teachings on the neuroscience of happiness.

I began learning about rewiring the brain to break the anxiety cycle and create new neural pathways. I discovered that strong emotional intelligence — the conscious ability to regulate our emotions — contributes to better psychological health and lessens the risk of anxiety disorders and depression.

At the same time, I was also absorbing what Brene Brown was uncovering about shame, vulnerability and our need for true belonging. Her research revealed all the things we do to avoid revealing our imperfections — and how debilitating those things are to living a wholehearted life.

Numbing anxieties is not the solution. The point that Brene Brown makes that when you numb pain, you also numb joy was very evident in my personal life. I felt my joy draining from me like the battery on my iPhone when I was in high stress situations. We can numb pain with food, drugs, alcohol, work, suppression and avoidance. None of these choices will solve the root problem. And when we numb joy, we lose sight of the blessings in our lives, the love and support that is already present. Joy provides balance and ballast for our lives.

I have lived with family members who had very poor coping skills and tried numbing to ease their pain. It ultimately led to dysfunction in their day to day lives, illnesses and addictions. Not only did they suffer greatly both emotionally and physically, there was a lot of collateral damage to others whom they interacted with at home, work and even play.

Failure to address and manage our stress will only amplify anxieties and insecurities. It clouds our thinking, distorts reality and creates confusion. Ignoring our emotions and over-reacting to our emotions deteriorates our mental health and impacts our physical health. As Brene teaches, we armor up. In doing so, we just keep adding to our growing iceberg of our core issues. You’ve probably heard that saying “the body keeps the score.” Chronic and life-threatening health issues can develop due to stress overloads.

Here again I had personal experience — extended periods of high stress in my life were the precursors of breast cancer at age 40 and then 18 years later the sudden development of lymphedema in my right arm.

I began to clearly see the big picture and understand the direct correlation between physical health, mental health and overall quality of life. Focusing on getting to the healthy end of the mental health spectrum became a top priority for me. It was neuroscience and rewiring the brain that created the framework for my personal mental health improvement plan.

All mental activity — your thoughts and feelings, joys and sorrows –require neural activity. Neurons that fire together, wire together. Repeated patterns of mental activity require repeated patterns of brain activity. Repeated patterns of brain activity change neural structure and function. You can use your mind to change your brain to change your mind…..to benefit yourself and others. — Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D, Author of The Neuroscience of Lasting Happiness.

The infrastructure I built inside that neuroscience framework consisted of mindfulness to expand my awareness of my behavioral patterns; meditation practice to help me recognize and stop the patterns in their tracks; meditation practice to learn how to let go of racing thoughts, rumination loops, and attachment to strong emotions. I supported my mental health goals with a lot of reading, journaling and deep vulnerable conversations with my trust buddy, Judy.

Brene Brown calls friends that you can confide in with complete honesty and trust “marble jar friends”. You only need one or two of these deeply rooted friends to help you gain traction in personal growth work. They are life jackets and air bags for all of life’s turbulence.

Brene Brown’s grounded research reveals how we have similar behavioral patterns and how/why we developed them. Dr. Rick Hanson teaches us how to retrain our brains to let go of those old patterns and replace them with more beneficial responses. Behavioral science and neuroscience come together to help us diagnose the problems and then heal them.

I took myself out of the entanglement. I acknowledged to myself what was tripping me up. I asked my family to help support my efforts and I held myself accountable for needed change. I blogged about my experiences, the trial and error and the discoveries.

The greatest gift is being a much improved resource for my family and friends now. I was not able to do that in a meaningful way five years ago and I wasn’t even aware of it. The more I learn about myself, the more I am able to discern when others are in struggle. My empathy, acceptance and non-judgment of others has grown exponentially as a direct result of doing my own work.

I am grateful that there is a dedicated collective effort taking place to de-stigmatize mental health. It is a collective problem — we truly are impacting each other’s mental health in how we show up in life. If we continue to drag around unprocessed emotions and trauma, to numb or hide it, we will not break the cycle of impairment. Taking care of our mental health is as fundamental as taking care of our physical health.

We can become advocates of our own mental health just as we are for our physical health. We can also help advance the cause to destigmatize mental health. Mental health is not an “either or” proposition — you are either mentally healthy or you are not — is totally inaccurate. We are all on the spectrum of mental health, just as we are with our physical health. As events and circumstances in our lives change, so does our mental and physical health.

I started on my personal growth journey because I wanted to be “at my best” for whatever the future held for me. At the time, I envisioned grandchildren, milestones and health issues — the good and the bad. I naively thought that “at my best” meant being physically strong and well-rested, no drama and a positive attitude. I was blind to how my past was impacting my mental health and how I was unconsciously reacting to myself and others. I certainly was unaware of how interconnected we all are with regard to mental health. We can do a better job of taking care of each other.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

Greater Good Science Center, Berkley, CA – Four Things to do Everyday for your Mental Health https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/four_things_to_do_every_day_for_your_mental_health

Trauma experiences leave traces on minds, emotions and biology. Sadly, trauma sufferers frequently pass on their stress to partners and children. — Bessel van der Kolk, MD

https://www.rickhanson.net

Dr. Martin Seligman: Check out this interview:

https://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/positive-psychology