LeAnne Stuver of Virtual Brain Health Center: How Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness
An Interview With Tyler Gallagher
Incorporate spirituality or prayer into your day — Prayer is another way to express our gratitude. Whatever you believe in — prayer can help us to bring those things we are most thankful for into focus. It can even be a prayer to the universe/nature for all the awe inspiring events we encounter every day.
As we all know, times are tough right now. In addition to the acute medical crisis caused by the Pandemic, in our post COVID world, we are also experiencing what some have called a “mental health pandemic”.
What can each of us do to get out of this “Pandemic Induced Mental and Emotional Funk”?
One tool that each of us has access to is the simple power of daily gratitude. As a part of our series about the “How Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing LeAnne Stuver, Director of Lifelong Learning at the Virtual Brain Health Center (VBHC)).
LeAnne Stuver is a registered nurse with an extensive background in health education. She worked as a hospital nurse for 10 years before earning her master’s degree in Education. She has many years’ experience in the planning and implementation of adult education programs on a senior living campus. LeAnne has taught a wealth of educational programs throughout her career to both adults and professional audiences. She put her knowledge into practice in a publication from the American Society on Aging which highlighted educational opportunities for older adults in senior living settings. LeAnne is also a trained facilitator for the evidence-based Savvy Caregiver Program. She has first-hand caregiver experience with her live-in aging parents, helping them to maintain their quality of life despite complex health care needs. LeAnne is passionate about educating the community in practical ways they can learn to support their health and wellness. She brings her educational background and innovative practices to the VBHC students, enabling them to successfully achieve their personal brain wellness goals.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about you and about what brought you to your specific career path?
For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a nurse. My grandmother was always the one in my family that came to the rescue when we were sick or injured. Although she never worked outside the home, my mother always said she would have been a great nurse. Perhaps I inherited that trait to want to help others from her.
During nursing school, I wasn’t sure that I had chosen the right career path. I did not enjoy my clinical rotations in the hospital like my classmates did. Finally, I had a rotation on the pediatric ward. It was then that I knew I had found my calling! My classmates hated that rotation.
During my ten years as a pediatric nurse, it was always the educational part of nursing that I felt was my strength. I enjoyed teaching parents about their child’s illness and ways they could learn to manage at home. I did not have the necessary time to truly help these parents in the hospital setting, however. That is when I decided to return to school to obtain my master’s degree in Education — specifically Health Education. My goal was to find a community health education position after graduation.
I never imagined working in a senior living environment, but I saw an interesting job posting for an assistant in a lifelong learning program on a senior living campus. I was looking for a part-time job — as my boys were still young — and it seemed like a perfect fit. I was inspired by the mature students I came to know and love. They never turned away from a chance to learn something new or ask questions of the lifelong learning instructors. I made it my goal to learn more about lifelong learning and its benefit for our brains as we age. I worked there for 20 years, becoming the director within the first year and grew the program into an award-winning model of senior adult learning.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I was inspired by so many of my students who attended the lifelong learning program that I managed. There was one woman who was a holocaust survivor that holds the most prominent spot in my memory. She was from Hungary and had been sent to a concentration camp as a child along with her entire family. She was the only survivor from her family. She was raised by extended relatives after the war and later married and emigrated to the United States. I do not believe she ever had any formal higher education, but she was the most intelligent and thoughtful student I have ever encountered. She was thankful for every opportunity she was given to learn something new!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why do you think that resonates with you? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Everything happens for a reason” is my favorite life quote. I always used this with my boys whenever they faced a challenging time (my younger son even has it tattooed on his body). I truly believe there is a higher power guiding our lives, and although we sometimes struggle to understand why we face challenges — we often learn things along the way or are steered in a direction we had never considered before because of the challenge!
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story about why that resonated with you?
I heard Dr. Paul Nussbaum speak about brain health at a conference in Chicago around the year 2000. He really got me thinking about brain health and I was able to see how the mature adults I worked with were examples of what he spoke about. I knew he was an author, and I purchased his book “Brain Health and Wellness” a few years later. At the time, he was a real pioneer as a proponent of a brain healthy lifestyle. He inspired me to continue my work in this area.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am very proud to currently be a part of the Virtual Brain Health Center. A former colleague — Dr. Krystal Culler — called me early in the pandemic. We were both currently between jobs and she wondered if I would be interested in joining her to create a “virtual” brain health center. We had worked together for several years providing brain health education to community dwelling adults and to those living on a senior living campus. We were both passionate about this work and were concerned about older adults being isolated at home due to the pandemic and the consequences that would result in the area of their brain health. We worked together on a shoestring budget to take the important information about the effect of our lifestyle choices on brain health and design educational programs that older adults could access at a reasonable price from their own home. Most senior centers and recreation centers were closed — and we wanted to bring this vital programming directly to our students! We have seen the benefit of having exercise programs, cognitive engagement classes and opportunities for social interactions with others through our virtual programs. We feel that these virtual opportunities will remain important even once the pandemic is over.
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 two wonderful supervisors (Gloria and Steve) when I was growing the lifelong learning programs on the senior living campus. They encouraged me to “think outside the box” and to experiment with different ways of doing things to make the lives of the campus residents the best that they could be. They had the vision to bring exciting ideas to our campus and supported me to bring them to fruition.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now that we are on the topic of gratitude, let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. We would like to explore together how every one of us can use gratitude to improve our mental wellness. Let’s start with a basic definition of terms. How do you define the concept of Gratitude? Can you explain what you mean?
To me, gratitude means being aware and thankful for the many blessings and opportunities in our lives every single day. Perhaps it is our family, friends, or pets. Maybe it is our ability to provide financially for our family. It could be as simple as being able to get out of bed in the morning and watch the sun brighten our back yard.
Why do you think so many people do not feel gratitude? How would you articulate why a simple emotion can be so elusive?
We live in a world of instant gratification. The internet, social media, and television put a multitude of people and lifestyles on display for us throughout the day. I believe that many people fall into the trap of comparing themselves to these people. We often see what other people have and think we need to have the same things in order to be happy. We need to slow down and look inside ourselves to find what truly makes us happy — and we need to be grateful for what we have and look for what we can share with others who are less fortunate (time, talents, or finances).
This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be constructive to help spell it out. Can you share with us a few ways that increased gratitude can benefit and enhance our life?
Gratitude can impact many areas of our life. It can improve our emotional health by making us more resilient and relaxed. It can improve our personality by making us less self-centered and more optimistic. It can improve our social interactions and improve our productivity at our job. Most importantly, it can improve the health of our body and our brain!
Let’s talk about mental wellness in particular. Can you share with us a few examples of how gratitude can help improve mental wellness?
A high level of gratitude increases our self-esteem and decreases feelings of depression. Those who show more gratitude tend to have better relationships and more friends which leads to a larger support network. This gives us more people to turn to in times of stress and also gives us the chance to help others in our network.
Ok wonderful. Now here is the main question of our discussion. From your experience or research, what are “Five Ways That Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness”. Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Write thank you notes — My mother always instilled the need to hand-write thank you notes for any gifts we received as children. She still keeps a stack of thank you notes handy to drop in the mail to people who show kindness to her! I may not always hand-write a thank you note, but I try to always call or email/text to let someone know I appreciate their kindness.
- Keep a gratitude journal — There are many research studies that report that recording those things for which we are grateful can impact many areas of our life. It can reduce our stress, give us more energy, and improve our interpersonal relationships. Some people prefer to journal first thing in the morning, others before bed (which is shown to improve sleep), and others whenever during the day they are feeling grateful.
- Incorporate spirituality or prayer into your day — Prayer is another way to express our gratitude. Whatever you believe in — prayer can help us to bring those things we are most thankful for into focus. It can even be a prayer to the universe/nature for all the awe inspiring events we encounter every day.
- Practice mindfulness meditation — Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment — and blocking out all of our other concerns for a short period of time. Even 5 minutes can improve our health and well-being — reducing our heartrate and blood pressure, lowering our stress hormones, and often improving pain and sleep.
- Pay it forward! — This is my favorite suggestion. There is always a way to look around and try to find a way to help someone who is less fortunate than yourself. By helping someone else, we improve our feelings of self-worth. It doesn’t even have to cost any money; offer to load someone’s heavy grocery bags into their car, help a lonely neighbor with a task around their house or just spend a few minutes visiting with them, hold the door for someone else, let someone go ahead of you in line, the opportunities are endless!
Is there a particular practice that can be used during a time when one is feeling really down, really vulnerable, or really sensitive?
For beginners, I find that the gratitude journal and mindfulness meditation can be the most helpful in challenging times. It doesn’t take a huge amount of energy or time to fit these practices into your day and they can be done anywhere.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that you would recommend to our readers to help them to live with gratitude?
I am really trying to become a consistent practitioner of mindfulness meditation. There are several free apps that I use (Insight Timer, Calm, and Headspace). Headspace is also on Netflix with programs about meditation, calming your mind, and improving your sleep — which I have found very helpful as a beginner.
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. :-)
I would love to see more people “paying it forward”. I loved the “Pay if Forward” movie from the year 2000. I think this movie inspired many people to try to pay it forward. On a regular basis, however, I think we don’t think about this concept — except maybe around Christmas. I would like it to be a regular thing we each try to do at least once each day in some small way!
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
Our Virtual Brain Health Center can be found online at https://www.virtualbrainhealthcenter.com/
We can be found on LindedIn, Instagram and Facebook: @VirtualBrainHealthCenter
We can be found on Twitter: @VirtualBrainCtr
Our classes and events can be found on Eventbrite: Virtual Brain Health Center
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!