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Total Health: Lisa McGrath On How We Can Optimize Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing

Starting the day with a prayer of thanksgiving sets up my day in a positive way. Deciding to start the day with a grateful heart and positive attitude sets the tone for everything else I encounter throughout the day. It lowers my stress levels, motivates me to accomplish my tasks, and elevates my mood. Prayer is a personal choice that can include prayers of worship, supplication, confession, or adoration. Having a prayer practice doesn’t mean you must adhere to one religion over another, but it is a way to connect with the Universe, Spirit, Higher Source, or God.

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 Lisa McGrath

Lisa McGrath is an International Bestselling Author and Speaker, National Board Certified Teacher, and Achievement Coach who offers inspirational, practical, and spiritual guidance. She helps busy individuals find clarity, purpose, and direction with the intentional acts that help them achieve their goals and live an Intentional Life. Her coaching and lifestyle membership teach the systems, techniques, and strategies that accelerate progress, align with goals, and lead to personal growth and professional success.

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?

My childhood lasted a quick minute but included a lifetime of experiences, some good and some not so good. I was raised in a dysfunctional household that was a far cry from my expectations and hopes of living in a family like the Cleavers or the Brady Bunch. Each year I looked forward to the week respite from the chaos of abuse and sadness when we had our family vacation on Lake Winnepesaukee in New Hampshire. Most of my childhood was spent weeding the garden, doing chores, and working in my dad’s jewelry factory. By the time I was fourteen, I was on my own; I worked in a factory and continued to attend school. It was my goal to finish school because the family authorities in my life believed I wouldn’t graduate or “amount to anything”. It wasn’t easy, but I learned a lot, and I continue to learn lessons as I reflect back on these times.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

Because the library was my oasis, I spent a lot of time quietly reading and learning; it was a safe place that seemed to hold many of the answers I needed to figure things out about life. I fell in love with learning, started reading everything from cookbooks to textbooks, discovering different arts and crafts, and gaining a thirst for travel. Much of my earlier education was achieved by reading and motivated by the negative feedback I had received from my family. I wanted to prove them wrong, so if they wouldn’t “teach” me, I would seek out others; I found mentors, teachers, and coaches that helped me navigate my way. As I developed personal values, I came to understand and appreciate the value of individual powers such as will, love, strength, faith, and wisdom. This gratitude inspired me to become a teacher and coach to encourage others to have the curiosity to build knowledge about themselves and the world they live in. The hardship of being out on my own at a young age inspired my desire to guide those on similar paths I’d traveled on to discover personal passions and set the goals that would allow them to achieve success. I’ve learned this achievement generates more than external results by producing positive internal benefits like bolstering self-esteem, confidence, and wisdom…all great life management tools.

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?

Thankfully the Universe sends the right people into our lives when we most need them and I believe everyone comes into our lives for a reason; the secret is remaining open to the lessons, especially when meeting people that challenge us in some way. When I think about this question, many people, from family and friends to mentors, coaches, and teachers, have had a great influence on my success, yet one college professor comes to mind as memoires resurface in this moment.

I was thriving as a student, but personally, my life was falling apart and I was struggling to make some lifechanging decisions. My professor, a kind and caring friend, listened to me as I tried to sort out my thoughts and encouraged me to self-reflect on where I was in life, how far I’d come, and where I wanted to be. The dialogue always gave me thoughts to ponder and questions to answer. Having someone that gets to know you, listens and questions you, and offers encouragement makes it easier to take risks and take advantage of opportunities. It’s as if they draw the curtains away from a window to give you a view of the possibilities, but what you see is really of your own creation.

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’ve made so many mistakes over the years, and I hope I continue to recognize the mistakes and learn from them because that’s when real growth happens. As a young girl, I often heard family members say they “could’ve, would’ve, should’ve” done this, that, or the other. It usually sounded like an excuse as it dismissed one’s actions, regrets, or worries.

Then as I learned more about personal development and communication I came to realize that the “could’ve, would’ve, should’ve” can be a type of reflective response that acknowledges something didn’t work out as planned; it opens the door to seeing that there are other options; however, that’s only the first step of a reflective practice. It’s important for the individual to glean a lesson, recognize a consequence, and understand a connection.

I think this experience led me to my reflective practice and the development of my lifestyle planner. I made space in my planner to investigate the big ideas I could achieve, analyze and design a plan that would lead to progress, and schedule the action steps that should provide successful outcomes. I wanted my planner to cover all the “could’ve, would’ve, should’ve” from my youth and set me up in a positive way to accomplish my goals.

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?

Mitch Albom’s book Tuesdays with Morrie has had a significant impact on me because of the life philosophy presented in the lessons: love and forgive everyone for everything (including yourself), live a life of meaning and purpose, and give back to your community.

Just like my professor I mentioned earlier, Morrie inspires Mitch through thoughtful inquiry and wisdom. As someone who always sought out teachers and mentors, I felt as if I sat alongside Morrie myself and gleaned the ideas he imparted. And when Jack Lemmon brought Morrie to life on the screen in Oprah Winfrey’s production, the lessons reverberated in my head, and even after all these years, I hear Jack Lemmon’s voice speaking the words of wisdom Mitch and Morrie shared.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

One of my favorite quotes comes from Benjamin Franklin: An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.

As an educator and entrepreneur, I’m all about the investment of knowledge because it has a compound effect that can have a huge impact on lives. I love hearing rags to riches stories because I understand and connect to them; I love cheering people on that have a dream and invest in themselves with time, money, and energy to achieve their goals. It’s inspiring, and each success story models the possibilities that many of us can use for motivation to go after our own dreams. Yes, knowledge is powerful and can be gained through education and experience; it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

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

Right now I’m spending a lot of time in the kitchen creating recipes, learning about food preservation, and healthy eating for a cookbook project I’m excited about. I’m loving combining my love of food and travel with easy to prepare meals that are budget friendly. And even though I’m a home cook with no formal culinary training, it’s a fun challenge to take on this project.

Another opportunity that I’m honored to be participating with are invitations to speak at several book clubs as the women work through my book A House With Four Rooms: A Guide to Intentional Living for Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual Wellbeing. The book is part memoir and part instructional guide with journaling exercises that spark conversations that lead readers on a journey of discovering purpose, life-work balance, and satisfying goals. It’s a heartwarming experience to meet the people impacted by my work.

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 good habits that can lead to optimum mental wellness include self-awareness, a commitment to learning, and engaging in intellectual activities.

I’ll start with self-awareness because it’s important to understand why it’s essential to be mindful of our thoughts because they create our feelings and actions or inaction. Think of your mind as a garden filled with beautiful plants and blooms representing your knowledge, wisdom, integrity, strength, and other positive attributes. Within this garden are the occasional weeds of self-doubt, sabotage, and negativity that can suffocate the beautiful blooms. For some, the weeds take over and choke the flowers and plants from the constant destruction of negative self-talk, anxiety, and depression. There are several ways to observe your thoughts, but a few of my favorites are setting an alarm on my phone that reminds me to pause and become a witness to my thoughts in that moment. If it’s necessary, I reframe my thoughts so that they align with my intentions and values. Other times I like to pause and observe my thoughts are when the phone rings, around mealtimes, and before bed. It’s just a simple practice of asking yourself, “What am I thinking?” Knowing that you are 100% responsible for your thoughts, feelings, and actions has a profound effect on how you choose to perceive life around you, how you feel about it, and what action you take.

As I mentioned earlier, I follow the philosophy of the Indian Proverb A House With Four Rooms that suggests we think of ourselves as being four rooms: a physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual room; it is necessary to do something daily in each of these rooms to be a complete person. A commitment to learning is a priority for the mental room because as Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better, you do better.” The perspective of a life-long learner is not limited to an assigned school curriculum but is a commitment to expanding one’s knowledge about themselves, the global society in which they live, and seeks to answer the questions of how and why. As an educator, I encourage curiosity and inquiry, and I model this for my students and clients.

Intellectual activities that support mental wellness include reading, researching, writing, taking courses, engaging in conversation, practicing a new hobby, completing puzzles and mind games, and maintaining an open mind while continuing to learn. These activities exercise thinking processes and help you develop new skills that can enrich your life. I always find a trip to the library or bookstore a rewarding experience and love wandering around the aisles to find my next read.

Do you have a specific type of meditation practice or Yoga practice that you have found helpful? We’d love to hear about it.

My 5-part morning meditation practice is a daily routine that begins with a simple prayer of thanksgiving upon awakening. This leads into breathing exercises that may include a 4x4 box breathing technique of inhaling for a count of four; holding the breath for a count of four, exhaling for a count of four, and another hold for a count of four or a 4,6,8 technique of inhaling for a count of four, holding for a count of six, and exhaling for a count of eight. The breathing exercises can be repeated from four to ten times. This practice makes me feel grounded and centered so I can meditate quietly for an additional ten to thirty minutes. Beginning meditation time with a breathing exercise calms the mind and limits the interrupting thoughts that often bubble up, especially for those just developing a meditation practice.

The 4th part of my practice transitions to mindfully setting my daily intentions with a review of my Top 3 goals. These are often a mix of personal and professional long-range goals. This practice is about keeping your goals front and center rather than just writing them down like New Year’s Resolutions that often get forgotten. I teach a strategy of identifying your Top 3 goals, designing a plan for accomplishing them, and then developing milestones on the way to achieving them. So during my morning meditation, I visualize the end results I want to achieve and take a “mental” walk down the design timeline that includes a quick look back at the starting point as a reminder of how far I’ve come and a longer look at the current point of my process and the next milestones markers I’ve identified. In this way, the end of my quiet morning meditation is used to celebrate and motivate me start the day. I end my meditation with another prayer asking for guidance, wisdom, and right action for my day.

So upon waking, the 5-part meditation ritual begins with a prayer of thanksgiving to start the day with gratitude, 2) breathing exercises for a calm and peaceful transition for 3) quiet meditation often focusing on the breath, 4) visualization intention practice that reviews goals, milestones, and next steps, and 5) a prayer of gratitude, celebration, and guidance.

During the day, I return to any or all of the above steps for a quick boost that restores my energy, focus, and gratitude.

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.

Three habits that make an impact on optimum physical wellness are monitoring water and food intake, movement, and decluttering.

Even with additional health education, personal experience really guides my answer here. We all hear about the importance of staying hydrated, watching our diets, and engaging in exercise, but do we do it? For me, I didn’t really take it seriously until I decided to walk the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage across northern Spain, and then with life-threatening bilateral pulmonary emboli and emergency open-heart surgery in 2015. Walking has always been my exercise of choice, but when I decided to take on the 500 miles of the Camino, I geared up and started walking as much as twenty miles per day in preparation. I quickly learned the need to drink water before feeling thirsty because my energy level and ability to climb over the mountains was so strained. I revisited this lesson when I had the health scare that turned my “physical room” upside down. Not only did I have to monitor my water intake for dehydration problems, I had to watch my vitamin K intake because of blood thinners. My kitchen routines and meal prep changed quite a bit as I worked with my health coach to improve my overall health.

Another health lesson soon followed in 2018 when I fell down two steps and broke my leg and ankle. Months of recovery and physical therapy helped me get back on my feet so I could walk again. I once again had a daily 10,000 step goal, and then, the pandemic hit. Just like most people, I found my routines and habits changed when I started working remotely. Even though I missed my work environment, meeting with people, and taking my daily walk, I loved working from home. I became more productive because I focused on tasks at hand and worked during my normal commute time. As an Achievement Coach, I fell into one of the traps I warn my clients about: routine interruptus. This occurs when one doesn’t stick to routines and they eventually fall to the wayside. Think of someone with a commitment to go to the gym. One day, not in the mood, they skip the gym, and then another day is skipped because of an excuse or schedule conflict. Excuses, reasons, and justifications become easier and continue until the habit is broken. When we break our routine, we replace the time commitment with something else. For me, my morning walk became time exchanged in front of the computer writing, doing Zoom calls, and answering emails before most folks were getting to the office. This lack of exercise and movement collided with my physical wellness and complicated my health issues. So I’m making a renewed commitment to movement and exercise has once again become a personal priority for optimum physical wellness.

The third habit isn’t always thought of as having an impact on physical wellness, but studies show that clutter in our minds, homes, and community environments has a direct effect on our wellbeing. These physical spaces are included in the “physical room” described by the Indian Proverb A House With Four Rooms and the lifestyle philosophy I teach. For some, it’s a surprise how quickly clutter can take over our lives. Negative self-talk and thoughts have a way of expanding and suffocating more positive and encouraging ones, so being mindful is important. Our homes and workplaces, the places we spend our time, have a way of collapsing our energy, motivation, and productiveness if cluttered. The clutter has a way of overwhelming us. Some of my most successful clients are experts in minimalism; some of the strategies they use include having a capsule wardrobe, a routine of cleaning off their work areas at the end of the day, and making the bed first thing in the morning. There is a direct correlation between the routines and habits we have to our ultimate successes. We need to be aware that with time, we can have a blind eye to the clutter that surrounds us; we look past it without realizing it weighs us down. This is true on a larger scale with the global environment; we go about our lives without necessarily thinking about the bigger picture…the physical space in which we all live. If attention is not paid to the worldly clutter, things break down, air and water is polluted, and sustainable healthy living is in jeopardy.

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?

Most of the time it all comes down to making an intentional decision and a commitment to following through with that decision. It’s easy to do the right things: eat an apple, drink our water, or take a walk, but it is also easy not to do the right things. One strategy is to prepare for success and do what needs to be done, even when you don’t feel like it (which is the secret to achieving your goals…doing what you don’t want to do anyway). As for healthy eating, how much time do most people actually give to preparing their lives to accommodate their decision to eat better or follow through on healthier habits? Self-awareness places a role in making the decision, staying motivated, and following through. To eat healthier, shop healthier. Preparing for this decision may include cleaning out the refrigerator and cupboards. Make sure to prepare healthy snacks that are easy to grab, find food exchanges that work in your recipes, and choose meals from an online menu before getting to a restaurant. It’s easier to achieve your healthier goal if you make an intentional decision, prepare for success, and don’t make any excuses or try to justify why you can cheat. It’s easier to say no to having a handful of chips than it is to try to portion control your way through a bag. Instant gratification can be very powerful and sway our decisions; however, by making the right choices and following through with our healthy intentional decisions, we gain long-term benefits and ultimately, success. Another example, choosing to quit smoking: pick a date, clean all fabrics and air out the house and car, and choose activities to replace smoking. Keeping a savings jar of the money typically spent on cigarettes is a great visual aid that can be put towards a bigger celebratory reward. When we make an intentional decision, we choose the short-term pain of taking the action to experience the long-term results we want to achieve.

Mentor Jim Rohn once said that in life you will suffer one of two kinds of pain: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The pain of discipline weighs ounces (saying you’re sorry, going to the gym, eating healthier foods) while the pain of regret weighs tons (heartache, health issues, bankruptcy). It all boils down to our personal choices: what we think, feel, and do…we follow through with our behaviors.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum emotional wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

I’ll refer back to the philosophy of A House With Four Rooms because it not only suggests we think of ourselves as having physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual rooms, but it cautions us not to avoid or linger in one “room” over another. The “emotional room” can be the most difficult for a lot of people, myself included. So, three good habits that I often share are practicing breathing exercises, establishing healthy routines, and avoiding decision fatigue.

As mentioned earlier, breathing exercises are a great technique that calms and centers you, especially during bouts of anxiety, nervousness, or fear. With practice, you can observe your breath, relax your muscles, and choose how you respond in any given situation. Think about going into a job interview, speaking in front of a crowd, or having a difficult conversation…if you can approach a situation with a calmer interior, you’ll be able to focus on what you want to say and do. It’s a major stress reliever.

Another element to creating emotional wellness is being self-aware of your current behaviors. To start, keep a journal and write things down: want to get out of debt, write down everything you spend; want to lose weight, write down everything you consume; want to stop wasting time, write down everything you do. Now, evaluate what you’ve recorded: how have you been spending your money; how many calories have you consumed; or how have you been spending your time? With this knowledge, you are in a better position to establish new routines. These routines become your life management skills. Using these skills puts you in control, lessens anxiety, and moves you forward toward achieving your goals. Having healthy routines is a life management system that results in positive behaviors, more joy, and greater results.

Decision fatigue disrupts emotional wellness for so many unsuspecting people; there are so many decisions that must be made, from what to wear to how to raise children or choosing a life partner, career, or residence that folks become overwhelmed. One strategy to avoid decision fatigue and restore a sense of balance and emotional wellness is to limit choices and pre-make reoccurring decisions like what to eat, what to wear, and how to schedule your time. For example, do some planning and limit the weekly options: two or three choices for meals, identify work outfits or create a work uniform, and schedule appointments on the same day each week (use your birthday to set up yearly doctor appointments or do your grocery shopping or personal care appointments on a certain day of the week). Once decisions are made, it frees you up to think about other important details and makes life easier to navigate.

Do you have any particular thoughts about the power of smiling to improve emotional wellness? We’d love to hear it.

Smiling can be contagious and improve your health for a quick and natural boost. When we smile, the brain produces endorphins that can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and increase our happiness quota. Our brains are pretty powerful, and when we exercise them, they are healthier and stronger. So with little effort, smiling can coax our brain chemicals to make us feel good, relax our body, and elevate our mood. Imagine what twenty or thirty smiles a day would do for your life…you’d be healthier, look younger, and be in better spirits.

Finally, can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum spiritual wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

The three habits that I rely on for my spiritual wellness are prayer, meditation, and gratitude.

Starting the day with a prayer of thanksgiving sets up my day in a positive way. Deciding to start the day with a grateful heart and positive attitude sets the tone for everything else I encounter throughout the day. It lowers my stress levels, motivates me to accomplish my tasks, and elevates my mood. Prayer is a personal choice that can include prayers of worship, supplication, confession, or adoration. Having a prayer practice doesn’t mean you must adhere to one religion over another, but it is a way to connect with the Universe, Spirit, Higher Source, or God.

Developing a meditation practice has a positive impact on spiritual wellness and is not limited to sitting in a cross-legged pose while rhythmically chanting “om,” but it can certainly be worthwhile. Variations on this practice include concentrating on a single word that you can break down into syllables to add a focus when breathing or counting breaths. Some of the most beneficial practices include spiritual, mindfulness, chanting, visualization, movement, and focused meditation. One of my personal favorites is walking meditation and communing in nature.

One of the most transformational practices is a gratitude practice. The easiest way to start is with a journaling exercise in which you record five things you are grateful for each day. We’ve all been coached to count our blessings, but too many times we miss acknowledging our gratitude. By writing them down each day, not only are you on the lookout for the blessings, you receive more. It comes down to focusing on what you want more of…recognize and acknowledge your blessings and you’ll find you have more than five to write down in your gratitude journal. It really does work like magic.

Do you have any particular thoughts about how being “in nature” can help us to cultivate spiritual wellness?

There are moments that one connects with something larger than oneself by connecting to the feeling of the divine; spending time in nature provides these opportunities of inspiration and awe. I find immersing myself in nature has a way of nurturing the soul, connecting me to the sacred, and restoring my creative juices. I am thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to travel and see some of the most beautiful vistas that Mother Earth has to offer; I feel energized when I can walk along the beach, sit by a river, or hike through the mountains because it absolutely nurtures my spiritual wellbeing. Spending time in nature pays dividends to our spiritual wellness.

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.

Having been the beneficiary of acts of kindness, I am a great advocate of Random Acts of Kindness; matter of fact, I often encourage others to add this practice to their daily intentions. Acts of kindness don’t have to be expensive or too time consuming to be impactful. Adding Random Acts of Kindness to your daily routine has the potential to lower your blood pressure, increase oxytocin, connection with others, and improve mood and happiness…all of which can add to good health and longevity. These feel-good hormones enrich our lives in numerous ways. Imagine your acts of kindness causing a ripple as people start to care more for people. What an impact we could have on the world!

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 :-)

There have been many interesting influencers over the years, but the person that comes to mind right now is Rachel Rae. I’ve long had an interest in the slow food movement and farm to table lifestyle with a fascination of home gardening and homesteading. Recently, I’ve begun learning about food preservation and with my cookbook project, I’m interested in healthy and easy food preparation. I’ve only ever been a home cook, and I like creating nutritious meals that are time and budget friendly which Rachel became famous for with her 30 minute meals. I admire her energy, infectious laugh, and compassionate spirit. It would be a thrill to break bread with her.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

More information about my lifestyle coaching programs can be found at www.lisamcgrath.me. My international bestselling book A House With Four Rooms: A Guide for Living an Intentional Life for Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual Wellbeing and my daily journals are available at bookstores and Amazon; I am also on social media @coachlisamcgrath.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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