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Self-Care & Mental Wellness: Dr Ellen Contente Of Heart-Centered Programs On The Top Five Selfcare Practices That Improve Mental Wellness

An Interview With Maria Angelova

Let’s face it. It seems that everyone is under a great deal of stress these days. This takes a toll on our mental wellness. What are some of the best self-care practices that we can use to help improve our mental wellness and mental well-being? In this interview series, we are talking to medical doctors, mental health professionals, health and wellness professionals, and experts about self-care or mental health who can share insights from their experience about How Each Of Us Can Use Self Care To Improve Our Mental Wellness. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Ellen Contente, Founder of Heart-Centered Programs.

Dr. Ellen Contente, creator of the “Banish Burnout Blueprint”, is a licensed stress relief expert with over decades of experience helping busy, overwhelmed professionals live a life of more Passion, Purpose and Play™.

After experiencing burnout in her technology sales management career, Ellen left Corporate America and founded Heart-Centered Programs, a training and consulting business, where she helps her clients find balance and reignite their zest for life.

She is the Amazon best-selling author of “M&M’s; Motivational Musings to Live an Inspired Life” and has worked with Fortune 500 companies, A-listers including a famous Reality TV star, and shares her expertise weekly with her LinkedIn and social media followers.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us. It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about you and your personal background. Can you please share your personal story? What has brought you to this point in your life?

I’m originally from New York; Long Island to be exact. We relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma when I was sixteen. It was culture shock to say the least. After graduating from high school, I moved back to New York to attend the State University of New York at Buffalo, where I graduated with a degree in Management. My first professional job was in sales which put me on a career path. I spent the next 25 years as a sales executive traveling and living around the country with various technology companies.

I had never heard of self-care so I was ill-equipped to handle the stress and burnout I would experience. It wasn’t taught in school, and it wasn’t practiced in my home. My parents were overweight, inactive and had traditional beliefs around work and life. I was raised to believe you go to school, get a good job, get married, have kids, then grandkids, then die. That’s all they knew. And it was the path I followed for many years; except I was more active. I enjoyed exercising and was frequently teased for doing leg lifts while watching television.

I met my first husband in Boston, and I was married for about eight years. After my marriage fell apart, I left the technology industry completely to pursue a passion. I moved back to NYC and studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I landed a few background roles and leads in student films. I still get calls from people asking if they saw me in “The Devil’s Advocate”. Yes — I was the lady in pink in the courtroom scenes. Ironically it was in that same courtroom where my divorce became final.

I loved performing in theatrical productions. It was in an off-off Broadway theatre, called “13 Street Repertory”, that I met my current husband. We were both starving artists, and it was fun for a while, but I wanted to start a family. I decided to go back to technology sales to earn a living and unfortunately started the burnout roller-coaster all-over again.

It would be ten more years before I would leave Corporate America, but I started planting seeds for a new life. And that new life included giving birth to twins at age forty. Five years later we moved to the City of Angels, and we began a new chapter.

Being a seeker by nature, I found a spiritual path in Los Angeles. I became a licensed Science of Mind Practitioner and earned my Masters in Spiritual Psychology. I began seeing major shifts in my life. My mental health greatly improved, and I saw there were many more paths to a happy life than the traditional one I was raised in.

I founded my company, Heart Centered Programs in 2011 and focused on Work/Life Balance training programs. I continued my education and earned my doctorate in Spiritual Studies and became a Religious Science Minister.

In my business, I help organizations and people like myself embrace good mental health, prevent burnout, and create a balanced life. I have been a guest speaker at various spiritual centers, and I am currently a regular speaker at Unity of Wilmington in North Carolina.

What is your “WHY” behind what you do? What fuels you?

What I do now is the perfect blend of my talents, skills, and experience. It fuels me to create a life I love while helping others do the same.

My “why” is like a diamond; it has many facets. The brightest is my children. My twins had mental health challenges and my mother lived with Bi-Polar disorder. Her diagnosis was kept a secret in my family to shield us from the stigma of mental illness.

I carried that shame and embarrassment for many years. The silver lining of my children’s struggles was recognizing the need to shine a light on mental health.

Every one of us has struggles. That’s why I’m very transparent about my life. I pull back the curtain and I let people see a real person. My aim is to create a safe haven to talk about mental health and open up the space for compassion, empathy and healing. If we keep it to ourselves, we shut out the possibility of getting the help we need. And everyone needs help sometimes! Including myself.

I’ve struggled with bouts of depression, anxiety, and chronic stress over the years. It’s another “why” behind what I do. Studies show that twenty percent of the population deal with a mental health challenge. We should be able to talk about it without shame. I’m open about what I’ve experienced in my workshops, but I’m also quick to share tips, strategies, and tools that I use to support my mental health.

Self-care is not about being selfish. It’s self-preservation. That’s what fuels me today. I taught my children when they were very young to do deep breathing when they were anxious. To choose a self-care tool like music or art when they were triggered, and to ask for help when they need it! And not to isolate themselves.

I am very grateful that we can have real conversations about our mental health. We encourage each other to talk about our feelings, our fears, and our needs. It’s important to normalize mental health conversations just as we have with physical health.

Things have greatly improved since I was young. Some schools now have mindfulness programs and teens are much more open about their mental health than my generation. There are many apps for stress relief and there’s easier access to online mental health resources. I’m hopeful for the future! That’s why I do what I do!

Sometimes our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about a mistake or failure which you now appreciate has taught you a valuable lesson?

Only One? I’ll do my best to choose! I agree that mistakes, failures, or unrealized expectations are our greatest teachers! The key is our willingness to learn their lessons and not let any of them stop you from moving forward.

One of the biggest mistakes I made first starting out in my business, was trying to cram an entrepreneur’s schedule into a 9–5 day. It’s impossible. Running a business requires more time, discipline, and work than any executive sales job I had in the past.

I wore myself out and felt guilty, ashamed and a bit of a fraud. How can I teach others to create work/life balance if I couldn’t do it myself. I was literally working round the clock, seven days a week: including guest speaking at spiritual centers on Sundays.

What I now appreciate as a valuable lesson is that work/life balance doesn’t exist. It is a myth. What we should be striving for instead is inner-balance and aligning our time with our key priorities and needs.

I opened to the idea of embracing a 24/7 day. That doesn’t mean working 24/7. It means all those hours are available to use as I see fit, which cleared more space for self-care. I choose how to spend each hour to support my needs. Sometimes those needs are the business, sometimes the family and sometimes me.

I would take whole mornings or afternoons off to spend time with my kids, go to the gym, or work on a personal project. This type of self-care allows me to ask the question — what do I need in this moment, what’s best for my mental health and overall well-being. When you honor the genuine need, you honor yourself!

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Thank-you. I believe success is relative to the individual. How I define it may be very different than another successful leader or society’s definition. That’s why it’s important to not compare yourself to others.

It’s scary putting yourself out there. Even being interviewed for this article and wanting it to be a success means exposing yourself to criticism. But being open to feedback is important to successful businesses. I want to be a better version of myself tomorrow than I am today. And I’d like to continue providing more value to my clients.

For me, success is a process and a journey, not a destination. It’s reaching different milestones along the way. Like launching my first program or writing my first book. Or figuring out how to edit a video (or just complete one!)

I used to think that there was something wrong when I’d reach a certain goal and immediately wanted something more. Now I understand that’s the success drive. The creative urge within us all that needs to be expressed.

There are obviously many character traits that are important to success, like confidence, resilience, and humility. But the three specific character traits that have been most instrumental are:

Adaptability:

If the past few years have taught me anything, it’s the importance of Adaptability. Successful people must be adaptable, and solution focused. Literally overnight I had to adapt my onsite training programs to a virtual format. I had to adapt my facilitation style from in-person to online. And, like the rest of the world, had to adapt to working remotely.

We all face unexpected situations. And change is inevitable! The key is to stay curious, flexible, and open to possibilities with a belief that things will work out. I use hope to build a bridge from where I am to where I need to be.

H.O.P.E. is: Having — Only — Positive — Expectancy! And that means that no matter what; I can adapt, adjust, and succeed!

Self-Reliant / Self-Aware:

I was taught to be Self-Reliant. I started earning money babysitting at twelve, selling magazines in high school, and enrolling people in my exercise classes in college! I learned that if I needed money for something I wanted, I had to earn it!

Learning how to be self-reliant has served me in all areas of my life. I didn’t wait for opportunities to come to me — I created them. When I was out of work, I offered my skills to entrepreneur friends. When I started my business, I conferred with others in similar fields and asked to shadow them.

Self-awareness has helped me seek areas for improvement and support from those who are stronger in those areas. I continue to self-educate, becoming licensed and certified in areas of my expertise. But I’ve also joined a mastermind and have accountability partners. I may love the independence of being a solopreneur, but that doesn’t mean I have to do everything myself.

When I launched my first online course, “Overcome your Overwhelm” I hired a graphic designer to create the logo and artwork. And then I took a course on how to launch a course! Those were not my areas of expertise!

Self-reliance and self-awareness mean knowing my strengths and weaknesses, opportunities, and challenges, and knowing what is mine to do!

Perseverance:

The third trait for success is Perseverance. It takes time, energy, and resources to run a business. You need to push through, forge ahead and stay focused on what’s important. And on the days when nothing is going right, you need to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and give yourself a pep talk!

My office is filled with affirmations, quotes, and posts to keep me moving forward. I have sticky notes that I’ve written to remind myself of my “why” that line the edges of my monitor! My two favorites are “Focus on what you want, not what you Fear” and “Problems Don’t Stop Me”!

When I first started out, the only people on my mailing list were my family and friends. My first workshop was at the local library, and nobody showed up. My second was at the Community College and four people attended. And it was no different with some of my online courses.

But you can’t give up. You must keep going. You never know what’s around the corner. One of those four attendees reached out years later and became a coaching client. And another invited me to be the keynote speaker at their association meeting!

I love Winston Churchill’s quote, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” When you are clear about your Passion, and your Purpose, it means keeping things in Play (like how I tied my business mantra there!)

What are some of the most interesting or exciting new projects you are working on now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m excited about the “Banish Burnout Blueprint” framework I developed. It’s a model of living that helps people replace unhealthy habits and routines with sustainable healthy living practices. It’s incorporated into my coaching programs and I’m working with a developer to create an App of it as well.

I’m co-launching “Dynamic Living Community” an online network with a close friend, Merete Bach-Larsen from Denmark. We met at a conference and we’re both passionate about health and wellness through natural modalities. We’re working on a podcast, virtual summit, and coaching programs.

I’m also facilitating the CORE Leadership Circle Mastermind. This is a twelve-month program for thought leaders, entrepreneurs, and influential businesspeople to develop whole-life success. I’m looking forward to working with a select group of like-minded people that are eager to grow personally and professionally.

My passion project is writing a book about my mom and capturing the experiences of living with someone with Bi-Polar disorder. It will be written through the voices of my siblings and myself. We each had different stories; some heart-breaking and some hilarious. They shaped our lives and left an indelible imprint.

Other writing projects in the works are the variety of books I’ve been writing. They include “Practical Spiritually — Daily Intentions for Mind, Body, and Soul”, “M&M’s; Motivational Musings Volume II”, “Lift your Spirits, Love your Life; 20 Proven Strategies to Improve your Mood” and “In the Pink: Lessons from my Cast; Human Challenges, Spiritual Truths”. And, I’m compiling a book of short essays I wrote for the now defunct blog called, “Drink your Juice”.

Finding the time to write is the challenge! My goal this year is to complete at least one book! I may not have a completely novel idea, but my take may be just the thing that helps someone else.

You know how sometimes someone says something you’ve heard a thousand times before but somehow it finally clicks the way they express it? The lightbulb goes off. That’s my hope. To shine a light, help people find insights, and provide nuggets of wisdom.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, about the interface between self-care and mental health. From where you stand personally or professionally, why are you so passionate about mental well-being?

Life is a balancing act! That was the very first workshop I created because personally and professionally it was evident to me that our mental health is directly impacted when our lives are out of balance.

We are juggling many priorities, responsibilities and needs in our daily lives. Trying to keep all the balls in the air, without losing our balance is near impossible! It means making choices every day to support our mental well-being.

There are seven key dimensions to overall wellbeing: Emotional, Physical, Social, Financial, Spiritual, Vocational, and Environmental. Mental well-being is impacted when any one of these is out of balance. You can have excellent physical health, a successful business, and tons of money in the bank and still be unhappy.

I realized there were gaps in some of these domains where I wasn’t practicing self-care. Focusing on my spiritual path, working on my marriage, and improving my home environment brought my life into balance. I went from feeling empty to feeling more fulfilled.

The specific self-care practices we employ will vary from person to person, but the intersection between self-care and mental well-being lies in that balance.

It may feel like you’re a high wire performer on a tightrope, but your self-care practice is your safety net. Never perform without one!

Based on your research or experience, how exactly does self-care impact our mental wellness?

I’ve read many studies on the importance of self-care and mental wellness. But until you experience it yourself, it’s like reading a book on parenting and thinking that’s the same thing as being one. It’s not. I know because I read every book on the subject. Nothing beats real life experience!

For me, the best research I did was in my own life. During the pandemic, like many remote workers, I started working longer hours, taking less breaks throughout the day. And, with nowhere to go outside, spent all my time inside at the computer. Self-care had gone out the window.

The first thing that was impacted was my physical health. Being stiff and sore from sitting all day. Then my mental health from doing very little except working. There were no breaks to rest, recharge, or have fun!

Many people think self-care is about being self-indulgent, going to the spa, getting a massage, taking a bubble-bath, etc. This is a distorted concept of self-care. The truth is it can be anything you need it to be.

My favorite definition of self-care is the “practice of taking action to improve one’s health, protect one’s well-being, prevent disease, and enjoy life.”

It’s learning when to say ‘No’ or when to say ‘Yes’. When to take a break or quit for the day. It means having healthy boundaries, advocating, and speaking up for yourself. Self-care can be running or taking a nap. Listening to classical music or rock. Meditating or dancing! Or — all of it!

When you feel good because you made better choices and see the correlation between your habits and your health, you connect the dots. Self-care then becomes second nature!

I absolutely see a huge difference in my mood when I focus on self-care. I have a virtual toolkit filled with different strategies, practices, and hacks that I pull from all day long!

Here is our primary question. Can you please share your “Top Five Selfcare Practices That Each Of Us Can Use To Improve Our Mental Wellness”?

I could easily share a long list of self-care practices, but these are my “Top Five”:

  1. Protect your Calendar:

Working remotely opened the ability to work 24/7. Don’t! Protect your calendar. Your time is precious whether you work or are retired. You may have more hours available to work, but that doesn’t mean you should. Be more intentional in how you spend them. Decide what is the best use of your time to support your work, family, or personal needs.

I block time on my calendar to exercise, spend time with my kids, or work on a personal project. If you don’t own your calendar, somebody, or something else will. There will always be more tasks than time. You must schedule self-care practices as if they were your most valued client or customer. Because they are!

Be intentional with how you spend digital time too. Instead of mindlessly scrolling through your feeds, practice being mindful of what you’re taking in and how it’s affecting your mental health. Disable those push notifications, unsubscribe from online groups, or just delete some of your apps. Your calendar will thank you!

2. Focus on The Three Pillars:

This is a 3-for-1 practice. The Three Pillars of Self-Care are Diet, Exercise, and Sleep. They are the foundation of all self-care practices. It’s important that we eat a well-balanced, nutrient rich diet. That doesn’t mean deprive yourself of your favorite snack foods; just eat them in moderation. I strive for balance myself. Cookies and Kale chips play nice in my pantry!

Movement is also important to our mental health. Exercise eases tension, relieves stress and releases endorphins. It’s frequently prescribed to improve mood. The goal is to find activities that you enjoy and do something every day. I like variety. Yoga, running, weights, swimming, elliptical machines, or just stretching out on the floor. Some days it’s an hour, some days thirty minutes, and some days it’s only ten minutes. I make it non-negotiable because I always feel mentally better after I exercise.

The third pillar is sleep and having a good bedtime routine is key. Unplug about an hour before bed and do more relaxing activities like reading, meditating, or taking a warm bath. I’ll wash up after dinner and get into my cozy clothes to set the tone. Make sure your bedroom is conducive to getting and staying asleep. I wear an eye mask to block out light. If you’re a light sleeper, consider ear plugs. And don’t dwell on your to-dos for tomorrow. Keep a notepad by your bed and write them down. You want to wake up mentally refreshed not frazzled!

3. Express Gratitude & Appreciation:

The adage goes that the more you express gratitude, the more things you find to be grateful for. I keep a gratitude journal on my nightstand. I find it not only helps end the day on a positive note, but also puts me in a calm state of mind to sleep. I also practice an ‘Attitude of Gratitude’ throughout the day whenever things don’t go as expected. Finding something to be grateful for in the mess helps shift negative energy and reminds you of your blessings. I remember when I had to go to an appointment and my car had a flat tire. After complaining and being upset, I was grateful it hadn’t happened on the road! Counting your blessings is good for your mental well-being!

4. Take Frequent Breaks:

This is a self-care practice that I learned the hard way. I originally thought that I should continue working on a task until it was complete before taking a break. However, many tasks took hours to finish. By then I was spent! No energy left for self-care! Now I set an alarm and get up about once an hour or ninety minutes and take a break. I leave my office and go get some fresh air, grab a snack, meditate, or just play with my cats.

It’s typically my cat Blue who will leave one of his favorite toys at my door! He’ll let me know if I’m overdue for a break. He’s better than my notifications!

Breaks are so important for your mental health because your mind needs a rest. Our brains are processing millions of bits of information all day long and it’s exhausting! Those breaks help you focus better. Plus, it’s imperative for the physical and emotional body to rest, recharge and refresh!

5. Make time for Play:

Last — but not least — is play! Making time to do things you enjoy, is a must for self-care and stress relief.

Play can take many forms and they’re all important for our mental health. Studies have shown that play can regulate moods, manage pain, improve problem-solving skills, and stimulate creativity.

Engage in a hobby. Learn an instrument. Take an art class. Play disc golf. Each weekend I carve out time to have fun. Depending on the weather and my mood, it could be anything from going to the beach to working on a collage of photos. The play list is endless. Find the ones that sing to you and take time to play as often as you can.

Can you please share a few of the main roadblocks that prevent people from making better self-care choices? What would you suggest can be done to overcome those roadblocks?

There are two main types of roadblocks: Self-Imposed and Outside Circumstances.

We have little control over outside circumstances and events, yet we blame them for our lack of self-care. I can blame working late for picking up fast food. I can blame the weather for not going for a run. I can blame the argument I had with my spouse for not feeling grateful. It’s easier to justify our behavior than take responsibility. I’m speaking from personal experience!

The solution is radical honesty! Be honest with yourself and accountable to your choices. It’s rarely what’s going on out there that stops us, it’s our limited way of thinking. If I’m willing to see how I’m sabotaging myself, then I can make a different — healthier — choice by rising above my circumstances. Now that’s self-care!

The biggest self-imposed roadblock is procrastination, putting things off until tomorrow. I’ll exercise tomorrow. I’ll eat better tomorrow. I’ll get to bed earlier tomorrow. And then tomorrow becomes a week, month, and years later. The longer you put off self-care, the harder it is to get started. The best tip is to start small taking baby steps. Commit to ten minutes. Anyone can spend ten minutes exercising. Go to bed ten minutes earlier. Spend ten minutes preparing a healthier breakfast. You’d be surprised at how much you can do in ten minutes!

Another self-imposed roadblock is our schedules. We run our day like a marathon instead of a series of sprints. We use up all our energy and then there’s nothing left in the tank at the end of the day for self-care. It’s like trying to push your car to the gas station because you didn’t stop to fill it up (which I’ve done!).

When you’re exhausted, the last thing you feel like doing is making a healthy meal. Fast food, glasses of wine, and binge watching your favorite series becomes your self-care. Your mind also convinces you that you deserve that because you worked hard all day (also done!).

Overcoming bad habits takes diligence, planning, and a strong “why”. Having an accountability partner doesn’t hurt either! I like to tie my self-care practice to a core value and benefit. For example, exercising firms my muscles, releases stress, and is a mood booster. That’s connected to my core value of being healthy and fit.

Taking frequent breaks helps me refresh, rejuvenate, and refocus. That’s tied to my core value of bringing my best self to each of my clients. And the benefit is improved mood and mental well-being.

When we experience the benefits of a self-care practice, we immediately experience the detriments from the absence of one. I’m not perfect of course. I’ve gone periods of time without following my self-care regime. I feel sluggish, foggy, and crabby when I allow roadblocks to detour my self-care practice. My family will the first to point that out to me!

The key is not to beat yourself up and get back on track. Refocus and recommit. It may require an adjustment in the original plan, but that’s life. We’re constantly course correcting as we move towards our goals!

In one sentence, what would you say to someone who doesn’t prioritize their mental well-being?

I conduct mental health awareness training programs and many people don’t see the correlation between their mental health and their habits. Or they fear the stigma, shame or embarrassment of mental health challenges, so they’re afraid to talk about it.

I would share with them one of my favorite quotes by Mel Robbins, “Your mental health is everything — prioritize it. Make the time like your life depends on it, because it does.”

Thank you for all that great insight! Let’s start wrapping up. Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does this quote resonate with you so much?

I studied with Mary Morrissey and one my favorite quotes of hers is, “Don’t wait for something big to occur. Start where you are, with what you have, and that will always lead to something greater.”

I really resonate with this quote because too often in the past I waited until I felt ready to do something. Or had enough money, time, or degrees! I’ve learned over the years that if fear, doubt, and insecurity are running your life, you will never be ready! Now I wear a wrist band that says, “Say Yes, and figure it out later.” I’ve learned to focus on what I want, take action, and trust that what I need will be there!

Life is a series of lessons. Some we ace, some we fail, and some stay with us a lifetime!

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? They might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-)

Wow — that’s a tough question! That’s like taking me to the library and saying you can only take out one book! Impossible! But, if I can only choose one, I’d really love to meet Jay Shetty. I discovered him doing my morning meditations on the Calm App, which I do religiously every day. I really connected to the simple wisdom of the Daily Jay and frequently shared his quotes on my Instagram page. I decided to learn more about him and was excited to find we had similar backgrounds; early corporate careers, spiritual paths (him as a Monk, me as a New Thought Minister) and new life chapters inspiring people. I’m listening to his book, “Think Like a Monk” and enjoy his podcast, “On Purpose with Jay Shetty”. Perhaps he can have me as a breakfast guest on his show. That would be a blessing!

I truly appreciate your time and valuable contribution. One last question. How can our readers best reach or follow you?

I love connecting with people! You can follow me, subscribe to my Stress Tips, download a free meditation, or schedule a free call! https://linktr.ee/drellen

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.

About The Interviewer: Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl. As a disruptor, Maria is on a mission to change the face of the wellness industry by shifting the self-care mindset for consumers and providers alike. As a mind-body coach, Maria’s superpower is alignment which helps clients create a strong body and a calm mind so they can live a life of freedom, happiness and fulfillment. Prior to founding Rebellious Intl, Maria was a Finance Director and a professional with 17+ years of progressive corporate experience in the Telecommunications, Finance, and Insurance industries. Born in Bulgaria, Maria moved to the United States in 1992. She graduated summa cum laude from both Georgia State University (MBA, Finance) and the University of Georgia (BBA, Finance). Maria’s favorite job is being a mom. Maria enjoys learning, coaching, creating authentic connections, working out, Latin dancing, traveling, and spending time with her tribe. To contact Maria, email her at angelova@rebellious-intl.com. To schedule a free consultation, click here.

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Maria Angelova, CEO of Rebellious Intl.

Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl.