“5 Ways To Optimize Wellness After Retirement”, with Kelly Donahue and Beau Henderson

Beau Henderson
Nov 14 · 12 min read

Sleep. Sleep is so foundational to mental (and physical) health. Many of my clients resist working on their sleep because sleep is non-doing, and they feel as if they should be starting with things that they can be doing. But, without a foundation of good sleep, optimal health is unachievable. A simple way to improve sleep includes adhering to a consistent bedtime and wake time. Also, creating a bedtime routine and choosing non-screen activities two hours before bed. Sleep in a cool and dark room. Don’t drink caffeine after noon (or earlier depending on your genetic predisposition to process caffeine). Get activity/exercise during the day (but not too close to bedtime). Lastly, expose yourself to natural morning light to regulate the circadian rhythm.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly Donahue, PhD. Kelly Donahue, Ph.D. is a working mom, entrepreneur, recovering Type-A perfectionist, and lifelong student. She has spent more than a decade immersed in mind-body health research. She teaches, speaks, writes, and works with individuals and groups. Kelly is passionate about empowering others to practice essential self-care strategies that nourish the mind and body.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I fell in love with psychology in high school. In my psychology class, I learned that real reasons existed for why people behaved the way they did. What a concept! As a college psychology major, I learned about the connections between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. When I took a health psychology course, I knew I had found my niche. While in graduate school, categorizing people with neat diagnostic labels and treating them as “disorders” didn’t resonate with me. What did resonate was learning the intricacies of the mind-body connection during my research assistantship at the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine. Around this time, my dad was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. I dove into the mind-body literature with a new fervor. Under the stress of graduate classes, internships, and work, I experienced my own mind-body symptoms. I collaborated with my health psychology professor to get some insight. I was able to heal the symptoms quickly. I had found my life purpose in teaching others and helping them practice mind-body skills!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I have pursued all types of mind-body training for my own personal growth and to develop more resources to help my clients. One of the best parts of my job is that what I learn helps my clients, but it also helps me, too. I attended yoga nidra training, and after four days of guided breathing and meditation, I was feeling very relaxed. Near the end of the fourth day, I had the strangest experience. For the briefest moment, I felt nothing and everything all at the same time. There was both lightness and darkness. It happened in a flash, and as soon as I tried to understand it, it was gone. I hurled myself toward the instructor in a mixed frenzy of awe and shock. She informed me that what I had experienced was called satori. In Zen Buddhuism, it means “a glimpse of truth.” I’ve had other satori moments since then, but the first one was astounding and rededicated me to my own personal growth journey.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or takeaway did you learn from that?

When I first started working with clients, I was eager to try my new tools. I couldn’t wait to use my cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) homework worksheets. As I eagerly reviewed worksheets and asked for homework that I had assigned, I received blank stares from my clients. They were not as excited about CBT as I was. Those assignments and worksheets weren’t appropriate for everyone, even if they had the same presenting issues. It was a palm-to-face experience! I learned that one-size-fits-all approach didn’t work. These were the top three lessons:

1. Bio individuality is a real thing. Each person had a different background, different genetic make-up, different stress tolerances, and different life stressors. I became skilled at meeting a person where they were and tailoring our work to fit their individual needs.

2. Listening is very powerful. I learned that I have a gift for listening. Like a chess master, we don’t often realize our talents because they come so easily to us. I learned the power of having my clients feel heard, often for the first time.

3. I needed more tools. I took many courses in mind-body medicine and holistic nutrition. Transformational coaching helped me individualize my work to truly meet my client’s needs.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

So many people have guided me along the way. It began with my grandmother who encouraged me at a very young age to follow my dreams. It was a radical idea that I could be something other than a nurse or a teacher, the two most common professions for women in my childhood town. It allowed me to think outside the box enough to explore other options.

The next person was Dr. John Astin, an amazing mind-body researcher. He taught me how to use the power of the mind-body connection to prevent and heal mind, body, and spirit.

Although I never had the pleasure of meeting him in person, Dr. Wayne Dyer had a huge influence on my life and my practice. Listening to his CDs on long commutes introduced me to personal growth work for which I am so grateful. And finally, I’m ever grateful to my clients who are truly my best teachers.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Be kind to yourself. The advice is simple but not easy to implement. Many of my colleagues have achieved their current status despite self-criticism, and lack of self-care. Being kind to one’s self and focusing on self-care can seem too simple to make a difference, but it is the magic elixir to health and happiness. Once we are kind to ourselves and care for ourselves, we can then see how the world can be kind and caring, too. It shifts our perspective and mindset. Simple but not easy.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

I’ve worked as a consultant in corporate wellness. I’ve seen how challenging it is to lead a team and a company while creating an enjoyable place to work. I have balanced the bottom line while attracting and retaining productive employees. This is achieved when we can acknowledge employee needs. Focusing on the employee’s needs can shift how they see their work. Successful companies have added a lifestyle medicine approach to their culture. The lifestyle medicine approach in the workplace is very similar to the approach I recommend for improving the health and wellness of all of my clients. In the workplace, the lifestyle medicine approach involves teaching clients about the importance of sleep, nutrition, self-talk, relaxation strategies, and exercise. The workplace helps employees feel well and becomes a hub for health information and practice. When employees are healthy, they are happy to stay and produce.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In some cases, retirement can reduce health, and in others it can improve health. From your point of view or experience, what are a few of the reasons that retirement can reduce one’s health?

Retirement is a huge life transition. I don’t think that can be overstated. The definition and expectations of retirement have shifted dramatically in recent years. Many components of health are impacted when an individual retires. From a lifestyle medicine perspective, optimal health involves:

· Sleep

· Nutrition

· Relationships

· Activity

· Managing stress

· Joy

· Meaning

Many of those factors “should” improve in retirement, but often that is not the case. In theory, retirement affords more time to focus on many of those lifestyle components. It includes much less structure and removes built-in social networking, accountability, and routine.

Retired clients often develop sleeping difficulties because they no longer have a set sleep-time and wake-time. Inconsistent or insufficient sleep can cause negative health.

With more time to prepare healthy food, but without the structure of having to prep on a schedule, retired eating becomes less mindful, less structured, and often less nutrient-dense. This, too, can have a negative impact.

The workplace provides a reservoir for social contact. Many of my retiree clients have had great friendships at work. In retirement, without seeing those friends throughout the day, the friendships fizzle. Often my retirees had relied heavily on their work network to meet their social needs, and as a consequence, they didn’t have a robust personal social network. This can lead to loneliness and isolation which are as dangerous as smoking and obesity.

Retirees should have ample time for activity and exercise, but many don’t have the structure in place. Without leaving the house, walking to and from work, or even moving around the workplace, a retiree’s level of activity can markedly decrease.

Although retirement offers a refuge from work-related stress, retirees often trade this for increased life stressors. If a retiree’s partner is at home full-time, spending time with them can be lovely. But it causes stress because the at-home partner is not used to having the new retiree home. Nor does he or she necessarily want to shift life routines in such a way to accommodate the partner. New life stresses and responsibilities may be added. Household chores, grocery shopping, family care, and finances can seem tedious and be stressful.

And finally, many of my retiree clients found a sense of joy and meaning in their work. They tied their joy and meaning to their work, and when work is removed, there is a huge dearth of joy and meaning. This lack of purpose can quickly spiral into a negative mental and physical health.

Can you share with our readers 5 things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.

I encourage retirees to acknowledge their disappointment if their retirement experience hasn’t lived up to their expectations thus far. After working for most of their life, having unoccupied time stretched before them seems like a dream. But it can feel more like a nightmare. Acknowledging this allows them to move forward to a place of optimizing their life rather than running from a place of fear. With that shift in perspective, the retiree can set out to create the life they want! Focusing on these five fundamentals will get the retiree started.

Sleep. Sleep is so foundational to mental (and physical) health. Many of my clients resist working on their sleep because sleep is non-doing, and they feel as if they should be starting with things that they can be doing. But, without a foundation of good sleep, optimal health is unachievable. A simple way to improve sleep includes adhering to a consistent bedtime and wake time. Also, creating a bedtime routine and choosing non-screen activities two hours before bed. Sleep in a cool and dark room. Don’t drink caffeine after noon (or earlier depending on your genetic predisposition to process caffeine). Get activity/exercise during the day (but not too close to bedtime). Lastly, expose yourself to natural morning light to regulate the circadian rhythm.

Nutrition. If an employee has eaten a nutritious, whole-foods diet, then their retirement goal is to maintain it. My retiree clients find themselves with time to cook but have no idea what healthy cooking means. I like to keep it simple and focus on healthy protein, carbs, and fat at each meal. As we age, we begin to lose muscle. Adequate dietary protein can sustain and build muscle. Adequate protein provides the body with the amino acids necessary to create feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. Many diets reduce the number of carbohydrates in the diet. This can work for some but can be disastrous for others. No matter how many carbohydrates you include, you’ll likely feel better when your carbohydrates are derived from unprocessed foods. Healthy fats are needed to create healthy hormones, which help with both physical and mental health!

Activity. The best kind of exercise and activity for retirement is the kind that they like and will do regularly. That might look like regular walks or hikes, joining a class at the gym, or taking up golf or yoga. To stave off muscle loss as we age, resistance training can be included in weekly exercise. Resistance training doesn’t have to mean throwing weights around like a Cross-fitter or setting new PRs for deadlifting. It can be as simple as using your own bodyweight as resistance.

Meaning and connection. So many retirees found meaning and connection in their work. Finding it outside of the profession they’ve dedicated their life to can be daunting. If my clients feel lost, I ask them to start by looking at their values. Once we identify what they value, finding meaning in their life is not far behind. Meaning and connection go hand in hand. Often meaning is found, at least in part, by connecting with others. Connection to friends, family, and/or a higher power enhances mental health.

Gratitude. By now, we’ve all read something or seen a cute Instagram quote about the power of gratitude for our health. As a retiree shifts into this brave new world, focusing on the positive can help them see the world through a more accurate lens. It can also help them see and create more good experiences in the future.

In your experience, what are 3 or 4 things that people wish someone told them before they retired?

1. Retirement may not be what they expected, and that’s okay.

2. Approach retirement with a positive attitude, an attitude of curiosity.

3. Don’t be afraid to re-invent yourself in retirement. It doesn’t have to be the end. Let it be a new beginning.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

I love reading, and my weighted bookshelves hold a collection of impactful books. If I had to pick one, I’d share one that I don’t hear much about. The title is How Yoga Works by Michael Roach and Christie McNally. I learned about this book early on my personal growth journey during a work trip to Seattle. I stayed with a former co-worker in a little town on the Puget Sound. The former co-worker was a yoga instructor, a fabulous cook, and an all-round beautiful human being. After attending her yoga class and eating fresh salmon while overlooking the water, she said spontaneously, “You should read this book.” I did. And it was powerful. It’s not only about the physical aspects of yoga, which was what I knew yoga to be at the time. Rather, it is an education on the power of the mind-body connection told via a simple story of a man on a journey to heal.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

The movement to be kind to yourself. Think about it. If we learned how to respond to our inner critic with empathy, we’d be kinder to others. Our ability to regulate our emotions would improve, and our anxiety and depression would decrease. What an even more amazing place the world would be with those changes!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

One of my favorite life lesson quotes is from entrepreneur and coach Marie Forleo. She often says, “Clarity comes from engagement, not thought.” I remind myself of that whenever I’m feeling stuck or find myself too caught up in my head and my thoughts. When we take action, even if the action is in the “wrong” direction, we’ll get feedback that will inform our next step. If we continue to sit in thought (which usually veers in the direction of negativity), we will continue to feel stuck and paralyzed.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

Oprah. Not only is she an amazing businesswoman and a kind, conscious soul, but she has also been in the presence of and learned from the most influential people in business, personal growth, health, and well-being. Her remarkable ability to connect with such a wide variety of people is amazing. Oprah is an example of personal evolution and life-long learning.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

You can find me at @kellydonahuephd on IG, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter and on itunes with my Everyday Wellness podcast. I also have a monthly email newsletter announcing new blog posts, events, and my latest podcasts. To get connected via that method, head over to kellydonahuephd.com and sign up. As a bonus, you’ll get two chapters of my book Everyday Self-Care for FREE!

Thank you for all of these great insights!

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Beau Henderson

Written by

Authority Magazine
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