Getting enough sleep and staying hydrated, are also crucial to total health and wellness — including mental health and wellness. Dehydration may increase your risk for depression and anxiety: when you’re dehydrated, the physical experience is very similar to the physical experience of being anxious, including an increased heart rate, fatigue, fogginess, headaches, and nausea.
Often when we refer to wellness, we assume that we are talking about physical wellbeing. But one can be physically very healthy but still be unwell, emotionally or mentally. What are the steps we can take to cultivate optimal wellness in all areas of our life; to develop Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing?
As a part of our series about “How We Can Cultivate Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Khoudari.
Laura Khoudari is a trauma practitioner, certified personal trainer, and corrective exercise specialist. Widely recognized within the trauma and fitness communities, she is passionate about giving people the tools they need to heal from trauma and cultivate wellness. She is the author of the new book Lifting Heavy Things: Healing Trauma One Rep at a Time.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Thank you for having me. Like most people, I could fill volumes with my childhood backstory, but what’s most relevant to my work now is that I was the kind of kid who was picked last in gym class and became the teenager who cut gym to smoke cigarettes in the park. I really hated being in my body. I was bullied growing up, and my body was often the target. It started with name-calling and, as I got older, it became a bit physical. It made me want to have as little to do with my body as possible.
I internalized the bullies, and by adolescence I began to think terrible things about myself. I also showed almost no innate athletic ability, so gym teachers overlooked me. I only started working out to manage my chronic back pain at 27 years old, and I didn’t take up a sport until 34. That’s when I began to truly love being in my body, being active, and strength training.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
I fell in love with Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting in my mid-30s. Training with a barbell was fun and empowering; it made me feel great. However, shortly after I began to train in strength sports, I experienced an acute trauma outside of the gym and subsequently developed PTSD. As my symptoms worsened, my life felt totally out of control, and I felt unsafe almost everywhere. I felt best in the gym.
Unfortunately, I began to overtrain, ignoring signals from my body that I needed to rest. I treated my body like a machine — not like the living, breathing, and vulnerable thing it is. Fitness culture enabled this behavior and coaches pointed to me as an example of discipline. I looked great and showed up to the gym no matter what.
But my appearance was deceiving. I was scared all the time. I withdrew from my family and was filled with explosive rage. After a few months of training 10 times per week — through the very back pain that brought me to the gym in the first place — I woke up one morning with such severe sciatica that I had partial paralysis in my left leg. I was barely able to walk across my own house, which frightened me even more. I thought I had lost the one thing I had relied on so heavily to feel some sense of safety: my strength.
It took a lot of physical therapy for me to return to any movement besides going to appointments and making dinner. When I was ready, I tried trauma-sensitive yoga yet found it too triggering, thanks to my PTSD. I knew I had to figure out a new way to strength train, one that would truly honor my body and what it needed. And I did — with the help of a great physical therapist, massage therapists, and talk therapist.
Eventually, I began to deepen my study of trauma, how it affects our physiology, and how to use body-based approaches to work through moments of feeling overwhelmed. I’ve always been an eager student, a keen researcher, and a systems thinker. Using my strengths other than physical strength, I was able to demystify what was an otherwise scary experience. By applying what I’d learned, I was able to return to strength training and strength sports.
One hot summer afternoon, I was lying on my bedroom floor after a workout, thinking about how far I’d come. I was training again. It felt OK to be in the gym. I was taking a more balanced approach to my life and doing good work in therapy, too. As I was lying there, I had one of those aha moments. I rushed to my phone and called one of my oldest friends. “I realized what I have to do!” I said. “I have to become a trauma-informed personal trainer and start a nonprofit program to help people living with trauma use strength training to heal!”
And that’s precisely what I did.
It took some time, of course! I drew on my own experiences, my trauma healing, and my professional background in management. My friends and family cheered me on as I deepened my trauma studies and became a certified personal trainer, coach, and corrective exercise specialist. I started a program with a New York City-based nonprofit and eventually branched out on my own. I created a model, which I use to design and implement programs for clients, that draws from Somatic Experiencing, a body-based approach to healing from trauma and other stress-related disorders. Helping others heal has become part of my own healing path.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
It takes a village! I couldn’t be doing this work without my therapist, teachers, mentors, and family. Following my trauma, I only felt safe in my kitchen, bedroom, and therapist’s office. Trauma is isolating and leaves people feeling disconnected and misunderstood. In order to heal, we need to be met with reciprocity by at least one person. For me, that person was my therapist. Though I didn’t feel she completely understood my experience at first, I could see she was trying to — and without judgment. That was enough for me to feel safe and begin to reconnect with the world.
To be clear, it wasn’t that my loved ones weren’t trying to understand me; it was that I didn’t trust them to. Eventually, I came around and opened up to my family and friends. My husband and daughter have been my top cheerleaders as I’ve healed and embarked on my professional path.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
I can’t think of a specific story, but I will say that as I’ve been navigating a new career (and activities like promotion and marketing), I’ve learned the best thing I can do when I don’t know what to do is to pause, check in with myself, and then act from a place that aligns with my values. I make mistakes, and I hate it when I do. It’s an area where I need to have more compassion for myself! But one thing that has made failure, mistakes, and missteps easier to sit with is making sure that when I make choices, I do so in a way that honors my morals and principles.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The Body Keeps the Score, by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, changed my life. When I was stuck in bed with PTSD and severe sciatica, I began to suspect that my trauma disorder may be related to my back injury. I went online looking for John Sarno’s book Healing Back Pain, and The Body Keeps the Score had just come out and was a suggested related title. I was curious, so I ordered it.
Well, I read that book the way other folks might read a good murder mystery. It’s not a light read, but I read it in a few sittings because I saw myself in its pages. It normalized my confusing and scary experience of navigating the world and dealing with my injury while coping with PTSD. This book made me feel seen. It taught me that a book can be a powerful tool to help people living with trauma and stress disorders, and it inspired me to write my own book, Lifting Heavy Things.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
Jillian Pransky, an author and yoga and mindfulness teacher, shares the following equation as part of her teaching: “A little + often = a lot.” Part of my approach as a trauma-informed personal trainer is to help my clients add self-care and recovery practices to their daily routines outside of the gym. I’m someone who’s hesitant to change my own routine, so I understand how hard it can be. Jillian’s advice sums up my approach. Doing a little bit of self-care (or other hard things) adds up, and it’s gentle enough to become sustainable.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I’ve written a book, Lifting Heavy Things: Healing Trauma One Rep at a Time, which comes out on May 25, 2021. It combines self-help, personal narrative, and the latest research to explain what trauma is, how it affects our physiology, and how we can use movement to foster both physical and mental health. I made an effort to make the book approachable, accessible, and relatable in a way that many trauma books aren’t. One of my objectives in my work is to be the coach I wanted when I was dealing with PTSD, and I write from that place.
Everyone, at some point, experiences trauma. Trauma is a normal response to an event that was emotionally or physically overwhelming. Lifting Heavy Things empowers readers to use any form of exercise as a tool to heal. In the book, I guide readers through creating a movement practice if they don’t have one, and then I teach them how to turn it into a healing practice. I also address navigating your relationships with the people in your life as you do the difficult and brave work of healing.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. In this interview series we’d like to discuss cultivating wellness habits in four areas of our lives, Mental wellness, Physical wellness, Emotional wellness, & Spiritual wellness. Let’s dive deeper into these together. Based on your research or experience, can you share with our readers three good habits that can lead to optimum mental wellness? Please share a story or example for each.
Three excellent habits are making time to process your thoughts and feelings, getting enough sleep, and staying hydrated. The second two suggestions may seem a little out of place, so bear with me as I explain more.
So first up is making time to process your thoughts and feelings. I go to therapy regularly. Sometimes, I have a situation I feel compelled to address. But other times, therapy is just a time, space, and outlet I know I can count on to process my emotional experiences. Now, talk therapy may not resonate with you, and that’s OK. But I do think we all need an outlet.
For many people, journaling does the trick. So does a spiritual counselor or even a good friend one can confide in. While this all works, I firmly believe that if we don’t stop to honor our emotional selves and express our feelings in appropriate and healthy ways, we’ll begin to express or avoid our emotions in maladaptive ways, like picking fights, using substances, or hiding in our work. To be well, we need to make space for our emotions and let them pass through like the weather.
The next two habits, getting enough sleep and staying hydrated, are also crucial to total health and wellness — including mental health and wellness. Dehydration may increase your risk for depression and anxiety: when you’re dehydrated, the physical experience is very similar to the physical experience of being anxious, including an increased heart rate, fatigue, fogginess, headaches, and nausea.
As a trauma practitioner, I also help my clients make sleep hygiene a priority. Many people don’t realize that sleep disturbances are a symptom of trauma and stress disorders. In her seminal book on treating trauma, Trauma and Recovery, Dr. Judith Herman breaks trauma healing into three stages, the first of which is creating a sense of safety in the body and then outward into the environment. One way to do this is by bringing regulation to basic bodily functions, which includes sleep! Rest is when we recover, replenish, and integrate new information.
Do you have a specific type of meditation practice or Yoga practice that you have found helpful? We’d love to hear about it.
Strength training is my primary mindful movement practice. I bring a mindful approach to my training, and I add other practices as needed. For example, for the past few months, I’ve started every day with a 10- to 30-minute yoga practice. I get up before anyone else in my household, and I take advantage of that time to check in with myself, see how my body feels, and determine what it needs to start the day. On warm days, I then pour myself a cup of coffee, which I set to brew during my practice, and I drink it on my balcony.
Thank you for that. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum physical wellness? Please share a story or example for each.
As I noted earlier, regulation of our body’s primary functions is fundamental to wellness, and that’s most obvious in our physical wellness. We need to get plenty of sleep and nourish our bodies with food and movement! When people are busy, the first place they look for “more time” is in their sleep budget. We’re often willing to sacrifice an hour or more of sleep to cross off more on our to-do lists. Once in a while, that’s OK. But the truth is, insufficient sleep has a cost: our health. Lack of sleep can suppress the body’s immune system and may increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Also, when we’re tired, it impairs our ability to do crucial things, like drive safely.
We also need to nourish our bodies with foods we enjoy and movement we love. When I’m feeling a little off physically, I pause and really listen to my body’s cues for what it is I want to eat and how I want to move — or maybe not move. I think some people are afraid that if they honor these signals, they’ll make detrimental choices. But I’ve found that with each step toward a more intuitive approach to addressing my physical needs, I feel better in all areas of my life.
Do you have any particular thoughts about healthy eating? We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?
Dr. Marney White, a licensed clinical psychologist and eating disorder specialist, was once interviewed for an abnormal psychology course I was taking. She hit the nail on the head when she said, “We have so many problems with respect to weight stigma, weight bias, and a very strange pinpointing of blame, when I think it’s actually individuals functioning in a pathological environment.” In other words, we’re set up to struggle with food not because there’s something wrong with us, but because we’re trying to adapt to an environment that’s damaged. Right now, I’m working with a nutritionist to sort out my own relationship with food, which has been warped over the years by plenty of well-meaning wellness professionals.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum emotional wellness? Please share a story or example for each.
Well, I think that all the things we’ve talked about — sleep, movement, and food — can contribute to emotional wellness. So can making time to connect with others, making time to connect with yourself, and engaging in a hobby.
When we first began periods of COVID-19 quarantine, the mental health community came together to talk about how we could address the negative impact of isolation on people’s emotional well-being. Social isolation can lead to loneliness, and loneliness is associated with increased anxiety, depression, and suicide rates. Loneliness takes a toll.
The best way to combat it is to be in the company of someone (or a community) that gets you. This may look like talking on the phone with an old friend regularly, attending a group fitness class you like, or taking part in spiritual services. You can do many of these things online now, and though it’s not the same as doing them in person, sometimes it’s the safer choice for your health.
For those of us who extend ourselves by frequently tending to and connecting with others, you may need to put more “me time” on the calendar. My good friend Wendy Fisher, creator of Work Your Happy, taught me to honor time for myself by blocking it off in my planner and labeling it as “busy.” Those of us who are in support professions or act as primary caregivers often give away our free time if we see it as free. While I don’t have a standing appointment with myself, each Sunday I block out time, pretty much daily, for the upcoming week. When someone asks if I’m free during that block of time, even if I have no formal self-care plans scheduled in that timeslot, I say “no.”
This brings me to hobbies. Hobbies are something you can do with that free time. Research has found that people with hobbies are less likely to suffer from stress and low moods. Hobbies can help us connect with others through classes or team sports, and they can help us connect with ourselves when engaging in creative arts. When I’m feeling stressed out or have some “me time” on the schedule, I tend to get creative in the kitchen. I love making delicious, colorful, new-to-me foods and then writing about the process. I’ve taken to keeping a journal in my kitchen!
Do you have any particular thoughts about the power of smiling to improve emotional wellness? We’d love to hear it.
An authentic smile can really boost someone else’s mood. And when you witness that shift, it can boost your mood, too, giving a lovely little moment of positive emotional co-regulation. But the smile has to be authentic. I don’t believe in faking our feelings. I believe in being genuine and kind.
Finally, can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum spiritual wellness? Please share a story or example for each.
Strength training, specifically moving big loads of weight, is a spiritual practice for me. Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to get cozy with barbells and kettlebells. I’m suggesting that everyone find a mindfulness practice that works for them. This may be a seated mindfulness practice, tai chi, yoga, walking, running, washing the dishes mindfully, or, in my case, lifting heavy things. Having a practice that allows us to connect with our insides — and all the information that our bodies hold — can support our spiritual wellness.
Engaging in simple rituals, like being intentional with making your morning tea or coffee, also supports spiritual health. As I mentioned earlier, on warm days, I drink my first cup of coffee outside. It’s a ritual that allows me to connect with the environment around me as well as the internal experience of enjoying that first cup of joe.
Lastly, I think acting in alignment with your values in all areas of your life contributes to spiritual wellness. When I take risks in a way that aligns with my beliefs and principles, I feel better than when I sit on the sidelines out of fear. For example, it can be hard for me to stand up to people who aren’t respecting others, but I feel much better taking action than silently standing by as people hurt each other. Being able to take courageous action strikes me as a sign of spiritual health. Now, acting in alignment with our values doesn’t mean we’re not accountable for causing harm to others. We are. We must always hold ourselves accountable.
Do you have any particular thoughts about how being “in nature” can help us to cultivate spiritual wellness?
As a born-and-bred New York City girl, I’ve learned that even I do better when I get out of town periodically and hug a tree — or better yet, climb one. I’m particularly fond of old trees. I have a few trees around the Northeast that I like to visit and sit with. When I don’t have the luxury of getting out of town, I make my way to Washington Square Park and pick a tree to sit with for a bit. Once I’m there, I tune into the natural sounds around me to get grounded and really come back into myself — not just into my thoughts or my head, but into my whole body. Interestingly, my two favorite poses in yoga are tree pose and mountain pose! Both grounding, natural elements.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think of my work as a trauma educator as political work. I believe that if policymakers understood trauma — and how traumatic and adverse experiences affect people’s development, physical health, and decision-making — we’d begin to see public policies that actually treat trauma and promote public health. With accessible trauma care and mental health care, we’d see a higher quality of life for all people, lower incarceration rates, and a healthier economy. Children would learn better, and people would be less afraid of pulling together in times of crisis and peace.
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, especially if we both tag them :-)
I would love to break bread with Brené Brown. That is quite alliterative, isn’t it? I love how she’s an authentic storyteller and systems thinker who combines these skills to support millions of people who are dealing with hard things! Her honesty and work inspire me.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thanks for asking! On my website, laurakhoudari.com, you can learn more about my work, my book, and sign up for my newsletter. I’m also on Instagram at @laurakhoudariFacebook at @laurakcpt, and Twitter at @laurakhoudari
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.