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Self-Care & Mental Wellness: Dr Michael Njunge Of Michaelnkw.com 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 Michael Njunge.

Dr Michael Njunge is a medical doctor whose love affair with health grew from his long background as a patient, as well as his ongoing practice as a medical doctor. He empowers readers with the knowledge and strategies they need to achieve feel-good high-performance health on his new blog michaelnkw.com.

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?

It’s an honour to be able to contribute to this interview, thank you for having me!

Well, my professional story is intimately connected to my personal story. To understand it we will have to rewind a fair amount to my childhood.

I suppose my encounter with healthcare really began in my second year of life when I became life-threateningly sick. I had developed sepsis from a lung infection that was resistant to antibiotics and required surgery. However, at the time we were still living in my home country of Kenya. Basic healthcare was costly, let alone the cost of a specialist surgeon and a prolonged stay in intensive care. However, with the support of amazing friends, family, and the local community, my parents managed to pool together the necessary funds to pay for the life-saving treatment. I underwent cardiothoracic (chest) surgery and weeks later I was discharged with a cool scar for my troubles. Now, of course, I don’t remember any of this. But reflecting on this story always reminds me of how incredibly fragile our health is.

A few years after my first major health encounter, we moved to the UK. And a few years after that, I found myself once again spending a lot of time in the hospital. What started off as simple appendicitis became repeated bowel blockages and surgeries. To top it off, I tore my meniscus (shock absorber in your knee) playing football and needed surgery for this. My cool scar collection grew a lot at this time. But eventually, with the help of surgeons, paediatricians, dieticians, physiotherapists, nurses, and many other incredible healthcare professionals, I walked out of the hospital in good health. It was this second set of health issues that made me realise the profound impact you can have on others’ lives as a healthcare professional. It’s cliche, but being a patient inspired me to become a doctor.

Skipping forward again, I eventually gained a place at a London medical school. And it was here that I began my deep dive into health and performance. I learnt about nutrition and how food impacts our physical and mental health. I decided I wanted to become stronger and more functional, so I began working out in different fitness disciplines, applying all I learnt about sports medicine along the way. And lastly, the demands of med school led me to become interested in productivity and the science of mental focus. Needing to study for up to twelve hours a day demanded that I get the best from my brain!

Fast forward again and I’m now years into full-time work as a doctor. And man, medicine has been an adventure like nothing I could have imagined. The job is challenging, but also incredibly satisfying. Having a direct role in helping people get back on their feet and leave the hospital, just like many others did for me in my childhood, has been an honour and a dream come true.

That said, medicine is also mentally and emotionally draining. In the first few years of work, I felt the weight of the job on my mental health. In my search for ways to cope, I stumbled upon mindfulness, meditation, and psychological philosophies like Stoicism. Altogether these had the effect of reducing stress, increasing resilience, and elevating my day-to-day happiness. Whilst I’d always understood the importance of mental health from a clinical perspective, it was this period of my life that gave me a more personal understanding of what it means to take care of one’s mental wellbeing.

All that brings us to today. I’m a practising full-time radiologist looking to further specialise in the field of musculoskeletal radiology and sports medicine. And very recently I decided to start a personal blog where I’ll be sharing all I’ve learnt over the years.

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

My “why” is simply that I’ve been exactly where so many other people find themselves with their health. I’ve been in the exact same hospital bed as them. I’ve struggled with: making healthy food choices, with how to start with working out, with how to manage chronic injuries, and with how to practice self-care. But I’ve also seen, both personally and professionally, what a profound improvement people can make when they’re empowered with the right knowledge. A big part of being a doctor is having that dialogue with patients, understanding their wants and needs, and providing the resources and knowledge they need to make it happen. There’s no better feeling than helping someone else reach their health goals.

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?

Know your limits. This is one I’ve had to learn the hard way, both in my personal and professional life. When I didn’t know my limits I would often end up pushing myself too hard when it came to my work or overdoing it in the gym. The result is that I burnt out, injured myself and ultimately set myself back. Our work and our health are a marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes it’s good to go fast but other times we need to give ourselves some time and grace. This can be extrapolated to all aspects of our health. Know the limits of your diet, your strength, or even how much you can take on at work without becoming overloaded. It’s better to get there a bit slower than to fail and never get there at all!

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?

The three traits I think have been the most instrumental to my career are: patience, a growth mindset, and rational optimism.

Anything worth having is worth being patient for. Case in point: medicine is a slow burn. 10+ years after I began medical school, I’m still studying for exams (whilst juggling full-time work). I do feel I’m ready to stop sitting exams, but I know in the end it will be worth it for both myself and my patients. As we work patiently towards our goals, however, it is inevitable that we will meet obstacles. You need to be able to meet an obstacle and realise that each obstacle presents an opportunity for growth. This is the mindset I’ve kept as I’ve continually dealt with health issues. The way I see it, having the resilience to meet each health hurdle and overcome it simply makes me stronger. And last, we need to be rationally optimistic. This means that I aim for the stars with my goals. But I’m also realistically aware of all that the hard work that it will take to get there. Rational optimists aren’t afraid to take on big dreams and big challenges, but manage the risks by always assessing how exactly to get from point A to B.

It sounds simple but honestly, if you can be patient with your ambitions, resilient in the face of obstacles, and continue to have a rationally optimistic outlook on life, you’ll be hard-pressed to not find success!

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

The most interesting thing I am working on currently is my blog! I’m not hugely experienced with writing however, I’m incredibly excited by the prospect of being able to share everything I’ve learnt about health with people from all over the world. The three pillars of the blog will be helping people think clearer, live healthier, and perform better.

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?

The reason I’m so passionate about mental well-being is that it is the first step to achieving anything else in life. Mental well-being is an all-encompassing term but when you break it down what we’re really talking about is the emotional, psychological, and cognitive health of your mind. A healthy mind is a precursor to having a healthy relationship with yourself and with others. And you definitely need to have your mind right before you can take on the challenges of the world and achieve your goals.

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

Self-care gets a bit of a bad rap for being solipsistic or self-indulgent. But really self-care is all about giving our minds and bodies what they need to function optimally. There are actually several different types of self-care: physical, mental, social, emotional, practical, and spiritual. As you can see, it is about more than just spoiling ourselves. When we take self-care seriously, we ensure our physical health is prioritised, our mind is given adequate stimulation, our relationships are given the necessary attention, and we take the time to nourish ourselves on an emotional and spiritual level. Altogether self-care gives us a great framework for holistic mental wellness and mental health.

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”?

5 Things video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7JAwcMlGrxI

My go-to self-care activities for increasing mental wellbeing are:

  • Exercise: Exercise is great for getting bigger, faster, and stronger. But beyond just the physical benefits, exercise releases feel-good hormones like serotonin. Serotonin makes makes you feel happier and more present. As well as boosts self-confidence, has a positive effect on our body image no matter your shape, and promotes feelings of self-love. Studies have even shown that exercise can reduce negative emotions such as anger or frustration, so you can literally sweat away the stress! (personally I like taking my stress out on a boxing bag).
  • Maintain a healthy diet: The standard american diet (SAD) is pretty lacking in the nutrition you need for your mind and body to function at their best. This means your performance will suffer both mentally and physically, which will of course have an effect on stress levels. I’ve found that maintaining a health diet boosts energy levels, increases focus, and helps me perform physically at my best. Not to mention when you eat healthily, you get rid of guilty feelings associated with poor food choices.
  • Mindfulness and meditation: These are scientifically proven stress-reducing practices which help you control your attention. When we control our attention, we turn our minds away from stressors and focus instead on the present moment. Focusing on the present promotes feelings of calm, happiness, and gratitude. Meditation and mindfulness have also been proven to have a slew of physical health benefits such as improving sleep, reducing heart rate and lowering blood pressure. It’s a win-win!
  • Sleep more: Poor quality and/or low amounts of sleep are strongly correlated with increased levels of stress. Better sleep hygiene and getting the recommended 7–8 hours is a quick win and also goes a long way to eradicating stress in the long run.
  • Journaling: Journaling has been shown to help with stress in two ways. Firstly, it’s a productivity tool which can help you organise your day and make your to-do list feel more manageable and less anxiety-inducing. Secondly, it can be a tool for reflection. Reflecting on stress can help you understand the stress triggers and why they have such an impact on you. When we understand the cause and nature of our stress, we find that that the stress naturally reduces and we are better equipped to tackle it in future.

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?

I think the most common roadblock that prevents people from making better self-care choices is information. We first have to be educated about something before we can make that positive change. Change always starts with awareness and education. I think if people make a self-conscious decision to educate themselves about how their mind and body work then they will be better equipped to build healthy self-care routines. There are many great free educational resources online you can use to educate yourself, pick whichever resonates with you the most. However, I would say always try to find one that can back up what it is saying with scientific evidence and is transparent about it’s authors. That way you can be assured you’re getting quality, unbiased information that is most likely to help you achieve the desired result.

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

Take care of your mind and it will take care of you.

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?

One of my all time favourite quotes is from Tyler Durden’s Fight Club, “This is your life, and it’s ending one moment at a time”. It serves as a piercing reminder that we really should make the most of the one mind, body, and life that we have. No one else will fix your mental wellbeing for you, you need to make it a priority. No one else will achieve our goals for you, and you must have a sense of urgency about achieving them. This is your life, so go and make it exactly how you want.

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 :-)

Ali Abdaal — he’s a fellow doctor however I love how he has branched out through his youtube channel by sharing ideas and tactics others can use to improve their lives. He’s definitely helped me on my wellbeing journey, and he’s been a big inspiration for me taking this leap into writing online.

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

The best place to follow my work is on my new blog at https://michaelnkw.com. If you’d like to connect with me then you can find me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelnjunge/.

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.