Women in Wellness: Living Mindfully with Megan Gunnell from Thriving Well Institute
As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Megan Gunnell, LMSW, Founder & Director of the Thriving Well Institute
I believe that people are here in order to make a bigger impact in the world — and with my book, ‘Make an Impact’, I had the chance to prove that hundreds of people are using their influence to improve other people’s lives.
As the founder of the Health Bloggers Community, my mission is to support people with growing their passion into a business — and so many women are building businesses empires all over the world.
This series is a chance to spotlight some of these women
When we focus on self-care, mindfulness, gratitude practices and open, honest communication our quality of life increases and we start moving towards a life that feels balanced and joyful.
Megan Gunnell, LMSW, Founder & Director of the Thriving Well Institute, psychotherapist, international retreat leader, writer and speaker. A leading expert in wellness, self-care and mindfulness, her work helps clients reach their highest potential and move from surviving to thriving.Courage is her super-power and she attributes her success to the ability to tolerate fear and show up brave.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your ‘backstory’?
I’ve worked as a therapist for the past 23 years. Early on I was a music therapist in hospital settings where I worked with Integrative Medicine departments offering live harp music at the bedside of patients from labour and delivery to hospice. It was richly rewarding and I grew a lot as a therapist, but quickly discovered I longed to take my work to the next level and was ready to shake up my life and do something super unconventional.
So in 1999, my husband and I quit our jobs, packed everything into my grandmothers garage and moved to Munich, Germany with the intention of expanding our world view, immersing ourselves in a new language and culture and experiencing total freedom and adventure before settling down. Living in Munich for a year and a half taught me a lot about what it feels like to live in an optimal state of work/life balance. Having no car, we biked and walked everywhere in all seasons and all types of weather.
Our exercise and movement was built into our daily life. We shopped the freshest farmer’s market produce stands for only as much food that we could carry home, therefore, everything we ate was uber clean, fresh and healthy. Everything in Germany is closed on Sundays forcing everyone to collectively agree it’s a day of rest and play. Parks are designed for all people, not just children. It was common to see adults playing ball or Frisbee, enjoying a picnic lunch or biking through the trails of the Englischer Garten, the largest green space in all of Munich. Back in the states, my experience with parks was playscapes for children or state or national parks to camp in, but nothing in between.
The European lifestyle taught me a lot about living my best life. I appreciated the aesthetic beauty of everything from the architecture to the Alps and my life felt simple, healthy and free. When we returned to the states, it was incredibly difficult. I remember abandoning my grocery cart in the giant American supermarket totally overwhelmed by the devotion of an entire aisle to salad dressings.
Here I had lived happily for a year and a half with a tiny bottle of oil and vinegar. I never felt choice-overload in Europe.
Reintegration was tough, but we forged ahead. I applied to The University of Michigan School of Social Work and started my degree when our first child turned one. I wanted to get a MSW so I could move into private practice work and really take my work to the next level. I was pregnant with our second child when I graduated and dove into building a practice, but I never let go of the elements of our European lifestyle that made my life feel so richly joyful. My first office was within walking distance of our home and so was our local farmers market.
Since then, I’ve built a thriving practice, hosted international retreats, am writing a book and have been a keynote speaker nationwide on wellness, self-care and mindfulness. Most recently, I founded the Thriving Well Institute, a company designed to help people and businesses thrive through coaching, events and speaking. It’s the perfect umbrella for everything I’ve done both personally and professionally over the past 20 plus years and I’m devoted to helping my clients thrive in their lives, businesses and relationships.
Can you share your top three “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing?
- Self-care like crazy and don’t compromise! I’m not talking about a candle near your bathtub. I’m talking about the foundation of building resilience so when you hit a life stressor, your coping and capacity for tolerating distress increases. This means we pay attention to what I call the 5 pillars of self-care; sleep, exercise, hydration, nutrition and socialisation. When we’re not taking great care of ourselves, we end up resenting the people we’re trying to love and our relationships, work and life goals all take a toll.
- Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us live our healthiest, happiest life. When we learn how bring our awareness to the now, we move away from ruminating on the past or having anticipatory anxiety about the future. When we awaken our senses to what’s in front of us, it expands us into a state of awe, gratitude and humility. Mindfulness also helps us increase our awareness to discomfort and invites us to pay attention to thoughts and feelings that might require self-compassion and healing.
- Be grateful. Practising gratitude is the fastest way to re-frame our perspective and move us from scarcity to abundance. When we call up what we’re grateful for, in any given moment, it immediately reduces the perception of victimisation. Positive psychologists say that gratitude helps shift us away from negative bias thinking and helps train the brain to scan the world for hope, joy and positivity.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
The most interesting story that’s happened to me came through the most mundane of household chores. I call this story ‘the unforgettable load of laundry and how mindfulness changed my life.’
Back when I started grad school, I was working 20 hours a week at a local hospital, raising a 1 year old baby, driving 45 minutes to and from the University of Michigan for classes and I applied to present at a conference. In Finland. With a baby in tow. Full stop! I wouldn’t ever recommend that combination of stressors, but something inside of my superwoman mentality made me believe I could handle it all.
I was wrong.
Every time I was at work, I was thinking about my son. When I was in front of my son, I was thinking about the paper I had to write. When I was at school, I was thinking about a work deadline or that email I forgot to return. I was miserable and felt like a failure at everything because I was taking on too much and never fully present.
I remember leaving U of M after class one day and my mind was spinning in circles. As I got closer and closer to the parking garage, I started feeling physically ill. My legs became weak. My peripheral vision started to close in on me, my heart was racing, my breathing became rapid and shallow and I felt like crawling out of my skin. I was having an anxiety attack which became a huge wake up call for me both as a working mother and as a therapist.
The very next day, I found myself on a comfy couch in front of a wonderful therapist who taught me the foundation of mindfulness and what it really meant to be fully in front of what I was in front of.
She taught me how to bring my senses to the now and encouraged me to go home and practice these strategies immediately. Because I was a straight A student, I took this assignment very seriously and wanted to quickly heal from the horrible experience I had the day before.
On the way home from the her office, I was already running the list of what I had to do when I hit the door of my home. Write that paper, feed the baby, answer the email, review the Finland proposal.
But her words ran through my mind — “go home, slow down and just practice being in front of what you’re in front of tonight.” So as soon as I got home, I decided to flip the laundry.
How many loads have I done since 2002? Maybe 40,000? But this single load is seared in my brain! It was a pinnacle, life changing load of laundry that forever changed the way I lived my life.
I was about ready to move the wash to the dryer, but the dryer was full of clothes. I remember opening the dryer and using all my senses in that very moment. I noticed the warm glow of the little light shining on the soft hills and valleys of white t-shirts and socks. I scooped up my husbands warm white chef coats and pressed them to my body, my skin absorbing the heat of the load. I brought the cloths up to my face, closed my eyes and smelled the fresh scent of the laundry detergent and exhaled deeply. I felt miraculously alive, awake and full of gratitude.
Mindful. This was living mindfully.
It was a moment of bringing my attention to the most mundane of all household chores and feeling grateful and fully present in the now. Everything and nothing changed at once. Everything was forever different for me as I began bringing the practice of mindfulness into other everyday experiences which helped me feel more like I was wringing all the joy out of my life in a new way and yet I changed nothing about what I was committed to.
I still worked at the hospital, finished my graduate degree, presented in Finland and loved focusing on my family, but now I had a new tool in my toolbox to help me cope, build resilience and increase my life joy all at once.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As a very young therapist just starting out, I was overwhelmed by the thought that I had to have all the answers. I was fearful that I would never be capable of helping clients. How would I possibly know exactly what to say?
But then, over time, I began to realise that no therapist has all the answers. They simply know how to remain fully present, authentic and engaged and know how to foster support, build trust and ask the right questions.
Once I learned this, it became clear to me that clients who seek therapy are already wired with a deep sense of innate knowing about their own truth and answers and that a really good therapist facilitates a high level of support to help clients reveal and discover that for themselves.
When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
I give people permission to thrive. I think we’re living in a false narrative right now that we have to be busy and overwhelmed to be worthy. If we’re not constantly overloaded, we must be unsuccessful or ineffective. This is a myth and distorted belief that is responsible for perpetuating an increase in anxiety, situational depression, disconnection, loneliness and a life we’re just surviving.
Through my writing, speaking, retreats and blogging, I’m teaching people that if we return to a simple foundation of a few key components of healthy living, everything changes. When we focus on self-care, mindfulness, gratitude practices and open, honest communication our quality of life increases and we start moving towards a life that feels balanced and joyful.
After working with thousands of clients over the past 23 years, I’ve discovered there is a simple formula that works and I wanted this to be incredibly accessible to people so they can access their highest potential personally and professionally.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Gosh, this is a hard one to answer for me because there are many people I can think of who have helped me along the way! I’ve had incredible teachers, mentors and bosses in my past who have taught me a lot about what it means to strive for excellence and who have challenged me to push through my own resistance.
I’m also surrounded by an extended family who offers endless support and my best friend and colleague, Lori Lipten always by my side. They help me remember who I am when I falter, celebrate my victories and support my big dreams.
But I have to say both of my kids come to mind when I think of this question. Elliott (17) and Hannah (13) believe in me more than I believe in myself sometimes! They have this positive conviction that’s contagious. Nothing feels impossible to them which comes in handy when I feel doubt creep in. I believe our children reflect meaningful lessons back to us if we pay attention and it’s not wasted on me how fortunate I am mine showed up with a reflection of unconditional love, empathy and compassion.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Without a doubt, I’d start a self-care revolution. I’d love to reach the masses with a message that self-care matters and is the foundation of good mental health. When we take really good care of ourselves, our coping increases and we thrive. Many people have increased their tolerance to chronic sleep deprivation, they aren’t exercising on a regular basis, they eat a diet mostly comprised of processed food and they don’t have healthy outlets for their stress or socialisation needs. This is partly why addiction, obesity, anxiety and depression are on the rise in America.
When we start making self-care a priority, everything shifts. Our emotional reactivity changes, our distress tolerance increases, our resilience is higher, we feel more centered and calm, we operate on a higher plane. We can think more clearly and manage stress more effectively which can help improve our work satisfaction, productivity or income. When we model healthy self-care for those around us, we’re giving them permission to practice that too and we’re not inadvertently resenting them for compromising our boundaries. So many things improve when we self-care appropriately, it’s really that simple.
What is your ‘3 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started’ and why?
- Embrace your imperfections. I was plagued early on with perfectionism. I felt it was a pathway to being loved and accepted. When we aim for perfection, we’re swallowed by shame. We always feel that haunting “not enough” feeling and it creates a vicious cycle of continuously being harder on ourselves and aiming higher and higher next time.
Perfectionism functions like an imaginary shield, protecting us from our fear of being vulnerable. When I read Brené Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection many years ago, it really shifted me into self-acceptance. I learned that who I was and what I was doing was more than enough.
- Learn to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Life isn’t all about avoiding hardships and challenges. The fact is, if you’re human, you will suffer in this lifetime. We spend a lot of time trying hard to avoid, divert or escape pain. Instead, we should remember that most suffering we experience is temporary, normal and there are things we can do to improve our coping.
- Do it before you feel ready! If you wait until you think you’re ready, you’ll never do it. Everything I ever did of great significance in my lifetime, I did before I felt 100% prepared. From moving to Europe to grad school to having children to opening my practice to launching the Thriving Well Institute, I somehow had the courage to show up brave before I felt ready and that has made all the difference.
Do you have a “girl-crush” in this industry? If you could take one person to brunch, who would it be?
Hands down — Brené Brown! I literally gobble up her work and it would be a dream to share coffee and great conversation with her over brunch. I’m going to hold on to that vision! As a social worker, I really resonate with her approach. Her research in shame and vulnerability has transformed how
people have come to understand courage, empathy and connection.
I absolutely loves how she weaves clinical data into captivating storytelling and comes across so raw, honest, down to earth and approachable.
She’s a truth teller and I have ultimate respect for her.
In fact, in 2017 I flew from Michigan to Philadelphia just to hear her speak at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women. I bought a ticket to that event because I also thought she might be signing books there and hoped I might have the chance to meet her and in 30 seconds somehow tell her how much she’s influenced my life and career.
It turns out she wasn’t signing books, so I tried to leave her a letter and a small gift in the room where speakers were coming and going. Sadly, it never reached her. I’m kind of a crazy fan girl! My husband asked me what was going on recently when I was watching her Netflix special because I was cheering out loud like a football fan watching their team win the superbowl!
But, in all honesty, I’d love to just let her know how much I admire her work and that her contributions to our field have forever changed me as a person and a therapist.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
Mental health. Accessibility to mental health has significantly decreased and the need for mental health support has exponentially increased. Over the years we have tried to normalise and destigmatise mental health, but we could do better. We could also be intervening earlier and at critical junctions such as in schools and general primary care doctors offices to increase anxiety
and depression screenings and help people access more support sooner.
About the author:
Fab Giovanetti is a business mentor, published author, influencer-specialist, best known as the founder of the Health Bloggers Community and co-founder of the Register of Health and Wellness Influencers.
Serial start-up founder and professional troublemaker, she is obsessed with avocados and helping people making an impact in health and wellness. Sounds like you? Get daily tips on how to grow your influence via the HBC magazine.