Create a morning ritual. Find those things that ground you and set the tone for the day ahead. A morning ritual typically starts with a slow launch into the world by spending time by yourself doing something like journal reflections on your gratitude, taking some time to read someone of interest to you, eating a healthy breakfast, and mentally preparing for the day ahead.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things, Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dana McNeil, who is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and is the founder of a group practice called The Relationship Place located in San Diego, California. Dana’s practice specializes in couples’ therapy and utilizes an evidence-based type of couples’ therapy which is known as the Gottman Method. Dana’s practice works with all types of relationship issues from pre-marital counseling, dealing with the aftermath of extramarital affairs, partners working through addiction recovery, the military deployed families, parents of special needs children, LGBTQ, and polyamorous clients.
Dana has been featured in publications such as the Business Insider, Authority Magazine, Eat This-Not That, Parade, Oprah Living, Martha Stewart Living, Ladders, and is the resident relationship expert on the Cox Communications show “I Do”.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Dana! 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?
My prior career before becoming a therapist was working as a property claims insurance adjuster for a large national insurance company. Part of my job was to travel to affected areas of the country in the wake of catastrophes such as hurricanes, floods, and tornados to provide on-the-ground assistance to clients whose homes had experienced damage.
As you can imagine, these clients were traumatized by their experiences. They were often in shock and some experienced guilt about having survived when so many in their community hadn’t.
Many of them also didn’t have access to mental health care.
I soon realized that before I could settle their insurance claims, I would need to provide my clients with support and empathy so they could process their shock and be able to participate in meaningful conversations with me about their property claims.
I found a great sense of purpose in listening to and validating my clients’ experiences as they shared how they had survived their trauma. I saw how helpful it was to them to debrief their feelings. My calling to be a therapist came from the sense of connection and being able to experience how valuable it can be in someone’s life to provide a safe place to process emotions and vulnerabilities.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I work as a volunteer for the Red Cross as a disaster mental health provider. The unit leader for the local chapter I work with and I have become wonderful friends and confidants. She and I were having a chat one day about our specializations in our individual practices. She shared with me that she works with first responders and was having a hard time finding good referral sources and the best kind of couples’ therapy for her clients who need more support. As it turned out, I practice an evidence-based method of couples’ therapy that works well with the kinds of clients she serves. I am also the daughter of a fire department captain, which provided me a unique perspective about the home life of a first responder and how their line of work impacts their partners and families.
Because of my life background and the therapy work I practice I became a good fit as the referral source for the fire relief assistance program for my city’s fire department. I still am amazed that you can think you are showing up for one thing in life and the universe takes you in a completely unexpected direction. I feel humbled and blessed to be able to provide service in unexpected ways to my community that simultaneously reverberate back to me and enrich my own life while serving others.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
Being human, I make at least one mistake a day, and the best gift is when I can find the humor in it.
One of the most humorous mistakes I made as a green therapist was freaking out when a cockroach ran across my shoe during a session. I was working as an intern at a non-profit organization that didn’t even have the funding for my clients and me to have office space to meet for sessions. My clients were in long-term residential care for substance abuse recovery, and many had lived very difficult lives being homeless and living on the street prior to coming to stay at the recovery home.
In the hopes of finding some privacy, my clients and I would meet in the breezeway outside of an elevator hallway that connected two buildings.
One day, as I was trying my best to convey to my client that I could relate to their difficult living conditions and portray myself as “worldly” in the ways of street life, a large cockroach crawled across my open-toed shoe.
It quickly became apparent to my client and myself that I am not a person who was accustomed to dealing with the creatures my client likely had to face on a nightly basis.
My lesson from that experience is that I don’t fake or embellish that my life experiences or imply that my privileges are not different than a client if that is the truth. I am myself with my clients, and I don’t apologize for having led a different life.
What I do hope to convey to my clients is that they are the experts of their life and I am a safe place to talk about what it was like for them to have survived it. I will provide my client's support and empathy and be free of judgment.
While my clients may be experts on their own lives, I learned to let them know that I as a therapist am an expert on coping skills and techniques to help them avoid relapse. I let them know that I didn’t need to have mirrored every aspect of what they had been through in life in order to help give them tools to make their lives better moving forward.
It was an important lesson to learn early in my career and one I have carried with me working with every client population.
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?
I had the most amazing supervisor when I was in training to obtain my licensure. During the journey of training to become a new therapist, it’s not uncommon to experience what we call “imposter syndrome.” My supervisor would patiently sit with me as I expressed my worries about my clients’ seeing me as a fraud.
She beautifully normalized my experience of worrying that I wasn’t in any position to provide relevant or helpful guidance because of my awareness of my own faults and issues. She helped me find the unique strengths that I had a person that I could bring into my therapy sessions with clients that conveyed my genuine admiration and gratitude of having them choose to work with me. She also helped me understand that about 80% of the work I do with clients comes from there feeling connected to me as a real person that they feel comfortable opening up to.
My supervisor also helped ease some of my over-achiever attitude about wanting to “fix” every client that came to sit on my couch. What I learned was that I can’t work harder than my clients. I can provide the tools, the support, and even lend my clients hope when they have lost their own. But I had to allow my clients to decide for themselves when it’s time to make changes and if they have the courage to begin. I will be here every step of the way, but I can’t do the work for them. I have carried this piece of advice with me throughout my career.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
I am a big fan of creating a morning ritual that sets the tone for the day ahead. My morning ritual starts with a slow launch into the world by spending time by myself journaling, reading, eating a healthy breakfast, and ten minutes of mediation.
This quiet wake up routine is followed by taking my dog for a walk while listening to a podcast and then about 20 minutes of yoga. I use an app called Insight Timer that has guided meditations that cover almost any topic or emotion I might be dealing with on a given day.
These practices are a non-negotiable part of starting my day. Yes, they absolutely require that I get up earlier in the morning and the trade-off is that I have taken time for myself, so I am able to start my day grounded and fulfilled.
I think I am doing not only myself but my clients and employee's service because taking this time gives me the opportunity to prepare to be fully present with the people in my life.
I am also a big fan of recognizing the things happening FOR ME in life, versus the things that are happening TO ME in life. My husband and I spend a few minutes each day telling each other the five best things that happened in each of our days. This works several purposes for us, it allows us to connect about the day each person had, changes the negatives of the day into a focus on the positive, and allows us to notice each day something amazing that the universe provided to make our lives better.
Time spent with quality friends reminds me that I am not alone in the world. Being a therapist can be a little isolating based on the nature of the one-way conversations happening in my office. Connecting with people who you have invested the time in creating deep and meaningful relationships with is one of the best self-care techniques you can do. Accepting that it’s not about how many people you know but how deeply you feel seen and appreciated makes all the difference in life.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
We often spend more time at work than we do at home so by default our co-workers become part of our family. I only want to spend time with people that make me a better version of myself and vice versa. There is not enough time in the world to work with negative attitudes or people who can’t be team players. No matter how much money an employee may bring into my business, if I don’t admire their character and what they stand for then I don’t want them as part of my practice.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
You are correct that mental wellness does exist on a spectrum. Much goes into influencing the way a person experiences mental health ranging from personality disorders that are congruent to how a person has always lived life, development of situational anxiety or depression because of life events, and the potential of developing a substance abuse disorder in response to attachment styles formed while living with their family of origin.
While we may not all be dealt the same hand in life when it comes to traumas or challenges that create suffering and potential reduced emotional resilience, there are things that all of us can do in response to these symptoms.
- Create a morning ritual. Find those things that ground you and set the tone for the day ahead. A morning ritual typically starts with a slow launch into the world by spending time by yourself doing something like journal reflections on your gratitude, taking some time to read someone of interest to you, eating a healthy breakfast, and mentally preparing for the day ahead.
- Meditation. Give yourself at least 5 minutes a day to start a practice. Many of my clients are hesitant to give meditation a try because they think the goal is to stop thinking and they believe they will screw it up because of their busy minds. The point of meditation is not to avoid thinking — our brains are wired to do just that. The goal is to notice how much we are thinking and how often our thoughts carry us away. Even if you stop and start 25 times in 5 minutes you are still doing it correctly if you notice how often you spin out and get lost in thought. Collecting those moments where you are in the moment is the only goal.
- Spend time in nature. I know you may not have time to go hiking or spend time at the beach every day. However, you can find the time to do something that allows you to breathe fresh air, take in the sights and sounds of your environment, and connect with the world you live in. Even taking your dog for a walk for twenty minutes counts on super busy days as being in nature.
- Develop quality friendships. Time spent with people who accept and appreciate you for all your quirks and flaws reminds you that you are not alone in the world. Connecting with people who you have invested the time in creating deep and meaningful relationships with is one of the best self-care techniques you can do. Accepting that it’s not about how many people you know but how deeply you feel seen and appreciated makes all the difference in your mental health.
- Get off social media. Minimize time spent on social media because it is a productivity sucker and an emotional vacuum. Most of us spend way too much time comparing our lives to what we see and believe is happening to other people. Teddy Roosevelt is quoted as saying, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” He’s right. The only healthy form of comparison comes from comparing ourselves to where we used to be in life. Spending reflection time noticing the ways in which we have progressed from the person we used to be is the only real motivational tool that comparison provides.
These practices are a non-negotiable part of starting my day and I recommend them to my clients as well. Yes, they absolutely require that I get up earlier in the morning. The tradeoff is that I have taken time for myself, so I am able to start my day grounded and fulfilled.
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
Productivity in later adulthood helps maintain healthy functioning when goals are meaningfully selected, and tasks are performed that work to optimize a person’s capacities and utilize abilities to find new means to achieve the goals. Favorable outcomes are found when the same person adapts to the cumulative changes associated with the passage of time while simultaneously experiencing a spiritual connective and sense of meaning or purpose in life.
Tips to optimize mental health during retirement:
- Volunteer or Find a Part-Time Job.
Now is the time in life to investigate and dabble in those areas of interest you have never had the ability to pursue while you were working full time. With the ability to set your own hours and invest energy in worthy or interesting pursuits you will open more of the creative parts of yourself. Also, having a commitment of your energy and time continues to create a sense of purpose and engagement in pursuits that lend to living with a sense of value.
2. Pursue a Hobby or Take a Class.
Continuing to cognitively grow and mentally challenge yourself is one of the best ways to keep a healthy and active mind. Taking the time and discipline to master a topic of interest allows the neuro pathways in the mind to continue creating links and expansions that impact cognitive decline.
3. Invest Time and Energy into Your Relationships.
One of the biggest determinations of successful aging is actively engaging in supportive emotional relationships. During our working years, many of us haven’t had the ability to be as emotionally connected and present with spouses and loved ones as we would have liked. Now is the time in life to rebuild those bonds and invest the energy into strengthening emotional ties.
Exercise works to provide both physical strength and bone density as well as providing psychological benefits that improve mood and overall mental wellness.
The chemical known as endorphin is produced while exercising and helps reduce anxiety and depression and adds to one’s sense of self-esteem.
5. Share Your Wisdom with the World.
One of the most impressive aspects of being an older adult is your ability to hold a perspective about life that is often balanced and wise. The beauty of this stage in life is that you can now share incredible insight about the challenges you have persevered through and relay information as to how these lessons in life could be applied to others who face similar difficulties. Consider writing a blog or giving talks to your community about these life events. These outlets allow you to share these nuggets of wisdom to those who may be inspired by your navigation of life.
How about teens and pre-teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre-teens to optimize their mental wellness?
Teens and pre-teens are experiencing mental health symptoms at an alarming rate and are experiencing bullying at higher rates than seen in any other prior generations. According to a study from 2017 by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, one out of every eight teens experiences the symptoms of depression.
Depression is the number one indicator of the development of substance use and is the driving force for most suicide attempts, so this is an issue we who work in the mental health world are extremely concerned about.
Mental health practices start at an early age, and discussions about how to create mental wellness should be both mirrored and brought up to our teenagers on a regular basis. We need to get comfortable discussing emotions and finding better ways to normalize them for our young adults.
We also need to develop patience and compassion for teenagers who are experiencing them because we adults sometimes forget that this is their first time experiencing many of these emotions. Because teens are inexperienced handling heavy emotions and disappointments, they may not have as much perspective or as may tool to navigate the difficult emotions as adults do.
I realize my comments are directed at the caregivers and mentors of our teens, but I do think the work can start providing direction by parents and important adults. The older members of a teen’s life can start the discussions from a place of genuine empathy and curiosity versus frustration and minimizing the depth of the emotions being felt by teens and pre-teens.
Certainly, all the techniques discussed in the section above on how to create morning rituals, get outside and evaluate the need to make self-care a priority could apply to any teen or pre-teen.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
I have always loved the book called “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway” by Susan Jeffers. I first read her book when I was a teenager and it was the first real “self-help” book I recall ever wanting to read.
The idea of it has stayed with me all my life and informs the way I approach life. We all have fears and we all have things that we are scared to fail at or that will end up in embarrassment.
What makes the difference between a person who is ruled by fear and the person who faces it is what we choose to do in those tender fear-based moments.
The book opened the idea for me that I should let myself feel the feelings, acknowledge them, honor, and respect the value fear has on how I feel at the moment. Once I notice it, I then have a choice about what to do with it once it is on board.
For me, this was an early introduction to acceptance of difficult emotions and created the ability for me to notice that feelings are not things but merely information. I have choices to accept or reject how what I am feeling will define me and rob me of opportunities. I allow myself to invite both negative and positive feelings along on the journey without giving any of the power to define the outcome.
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. :-)
When you are feeling defensive, find at least one thing you can take responsibility for.
People often tend to become defensive in order to protect themselves when getting into a conflict. I would advocate for a movement to help people notice when that happens and to do something about it.
By finding even one thing that I did that led to the disagreement and taking responsibility for it, I can completely defuse the negative energy of the moment.
I am not saying one should take responsibility for the whole issue or say they are at fault for the disagreement but finding something they did that contributed to it will help prevent escalation of the conflict. It doesn’t cost anything to say for instance, “I am sorry. I was distracted and wasn’t listening as carefully as you deserved,” or “I’m sorry. I didn’t eat lunch today and I’m sounding edgy.” Taking the first steps to bring down the stress level of a potential conflict also just feels good because it says, “I notice my part in things and I want to take responsibility for what I contributed to the conversation going sideways.”
This simple but powerful act helps to start to defuse any situation and model vulnerability and intention to reduce conflict and start repair attempts.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is by Byron Katie who has said, “Notice that everything is happening FOR me, NOT to me.” What she means by this is that everything happens exactly as it should in the right way, the right time, and in the right moment. Because if it wasn’t as it should be, then it wouldn’t be happening at all.
The only way to avoid suffering is to find a way to accept the reality of a situation. We can’t always avoid pain. Sometimes it is inevitable, but we can avoid suffering. The suffering comes from the way we think about a situation. If we get caught up in thinking that a situation should or shouldn’t be happening, then we are caught up in suffering.
The relief starts to come when we accept the situation as it is happening and become present at the moment. Only in presence can we see the next indicated step clearly. The next indicated step only materializes when we stop wasting energy and emotional space on denying or attempting to stop what is the reality.
This way of viewing the world doesn’t come easy, and I often must remind myself to accept what the reality of a situation is because I don’t like what is happening. I honestly believe that when we can accept our current moment then we are more likely to spot the blessings at the moment in ways that prove the universe did show up and look out for us.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!