Ask an Expert: A Therapist’s Guide to Wellness and Mental Health

Ask an Expert: A Therapist’s Guide to Wellness and Mental Health

  • June 7, 2024

Fresh off a yoga class, Audrey squeezes us in in her busy schedule as she finishes her PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Ottawa. Although she is a therapist working under the supervision of a registered clinical psychologist in Ontario in her day-to-day life, today she’ll act as interviewee and be an honest resource in our launch of our new series on wellness and health.

“As you might guess from my job, I care deeply about people’s mental health! There is something very special about dedicating time for yourself—it’s an act of self-love that can have a significant positive impact on your vitality, physical health, relationships, and life satisfaction! Being allowed to witness and assist in one’s journey to build a life that works for them is a privilege.” 

How do you think our global mental health is doing right now?  

Mental health is being talked about more and more, with social media flooded by professionals and others sharing information. Funding and proactive workplace conversations on mental health are increasing, which I think is positive because it helps reduce stigma. At the same time, access to mental health services remains challenging due to systemic barriers like long waitlists for public services and high costs for private ones. So, folks who struggle can still find it difficult to get the help they need.  

We’re in this peculiar time now where talking about mental health has never been so easy, and yet actions towards better mental health are not necessarily easier! (Yet!)  That being said, it is important to take individual actions to facilitate and improve our mental health, so that we can sustain the challenges and stress of daily life. 

What’s a wellness practice? 

Effective wellness practices are regular or frequent activities that foster physical, mental and spiritual well-being. Another way that wellness practices have been referred to more casually is self-care.   

If you had to choose only one wellness practice to recommend, what would it be? 

Move your body and still your mind.  

Participate in aerobic and anaerobic physical exercise. This type of regular, intense, finite physical activity releases neurotransmitters in your brain (like serotonin) that are key to mental health. Physical activity has a protective effect against mental illnesses like mood and anxiety disorders. 

Practise the ability to still your thoughts and unhook from them. Try meditating. It helps let go of stress and regulates your nervous system. Once we can detach from our thoughts and emotions, we can observe them in the moment without judgment. That’s mindfulness.  

Alright, if you could choose a second wellness practice? 

Live in alignment with your values.  

Take the time to wonder what is important and meaningful in your life. How can you integrate more of those things in your life? Be selective (we can’t prioritize 15 values at once!) Adopting this wellness practice gives direction and purpose to your daily life. Ultimately, accumulating positive moments that resonate with your values builds a life that is fulfilling and worth living. 

Where does a wellness journey start?  

For a lot of people, gaining conscious awareness of your thoughts and feelings in real time is harder than it sounds. A lot of us live on “autopilot,” going from one engagement to the next and living moment to moment without really being meaningfully present. Gaining real-time awareness of how you’re feeling, thinking, and consequently acting in a given moment is very important to help guide what you want for yourself (e.g., quit that job you find unfulfilling; invest in that friendship that makes you feel connected; make time for working out because it makes you feel empowered; put limits with that person that you find drains your energy more than they replenish it, etc.). At a meta level, it helps us get in touch with our values and reassess how our current situation aligns with them—or doesn’t. 

For a lot of us, it starts there. Then we can learn other valuable skills to enhance our wellness, like regulating our emotions, communicating and making our needs known to others to help us build satisfying and sustainable relationships, live in alignment with our values, develop the ability to tolerate discomfort to surpass challenges, and so much more.  

What’s something that people might already do that they don’t realize is good for their mental health? 

In general, listening to what your body needs (vs. wants) is good for your health. If you are doing something that is good for you, either short or long term, you’re probably doing something good for your mental health and wellness! For example, participating in an activity you enjoy, like painting or cycling, spending time with friends and sharing feelings with people you trust.  

What’s your own top wellness habit? What does a therapist’s personal wellness routine look like? 

In the last couple years, I’ve become really good at staying consistent with physical activity! It’s important for me to find ways to stay active that are fun! I’ve realized that going to the gym and doing cardio on a machine or lifting weights is not a formula that works for me. So, when I rely on that to move my body, I tend not to do it and then get self-critical about it. 

What works for me is having accountability and connections through a group of people to practise physical exercise together! So, I changed the way I approached physical activity and practised CrossFit for a while. Since then, I’ve reduced the frequency of my CrossFit workouts and to make room for yoga. I find that having an instructor to guide me and others helps me want to participate, which makes it pleasurable and sustainable for me! 

My recommendation is to find things that work for you—if it’s cycling to work, do that! If it’s dancing—do that! Wellness doesn’t have to be a one size fits all. 

Are there any self-care activities you would like to add to that in the future? 

My next wellness practice will be to get better at maintaining a routine. I am very spontaneous, which is great for some things, but less so for being organized! I want to invest in habits that will help me stabilize the structure of my time, feel less disorganized and more rested overall. It will also help me redistribute my resources to be able to include even more other wellness practices in my life, like creativity! 

Any parting words or wisdom to send everyone on their wellness journey? 

The journey to well-being is a never ending one. It requires time and effort, curiosity, self-love and care. Sometimes, it might feel overwhelming. Sometimes you might think it’s too much work. But ultimately, it’s worth it. It’s worth it in the moment, but it’s especially worth it in the long run. You deserve wellness—go and make it happen! 

If you struggle with severe or chronic mental illness, wellness practices, although helpful and important, might not suffice to alleviate your symptoms. A consultation with a physician to discuss medication and with a psychologist to obtain treatment is warranted.