A habit that helps create physical wellness is taking time for organization and planning. Since creating physical wellness takes time, and time is one of our most valuable commodities, we think it is nearly impossible to achieve physical wellness without proactively organizing and planning ahead…meal planning, exercise scheduling, and solid time management are precursors to healthy eating, increased physical activity and healthy bedtimes.
As a part of our series about “How We Can Do To Cultivate Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewingDr. Robyn Pashby and Dr. Kelly Donahue.
Dr. Robyn Pashby and Dr. Kelly Donahue are licensed clinical health psychologists, coaches, and mind-body change experts. Their private psychology and coaching practices, each established nearly 15 years ago, specialize in weight management/obesity treatment, anxiety, stress, depression, behavior change, and chronic health issues. They are passionate about using the science of psychology and behavioral medicine to help people who have been struggling with health and weight-related issues find the REAL path for sustained health behavior change and optimized health. Frustrated by watching hundreds of clients struggle through incomplete and often pejorative health programs which left them feeling worse about themselves, Drs. Pashby and Donahue decided to create a solution. Together, they co-founded The Healthy Change School and then the REALize Health program to empower women to create REAL and sustainable healthy change.
Dr. Pashby earned her MS and PhD in medical and clinical psychology from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, F Edward Hebert Medical School. She has extensive clinical training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Interpersonal Psychotherapy. Dr. Pashby has worked with a variety of institutions in the Washington DC Metro region including the George Washington University, the National Center for Weight and Wellness, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and others. She has authored or co-authored peer-reviewed scientific articles and book chapters, and her work has been featured in numerous popular press outlets. She previously served as the Vice President of Professional Affairs for the Board of the DC Psychological Association. Dr. Pashby lives in Washington DC with her husband, daughter and dog. She enjoys living an active lifestyle that balances the cultural and educational opportunities of the city with lots of time in nature.
Dr. Donahue earned her MA and PhD in clinical psychology and behavioral medicine from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her training includes mind-body medicine, coaching, integrative mental health, and holistic nutrition. Dr. Donahue worked in public health for the U.S. Army for many years, spending one of those years as a psychologist and resiliency trainer for health care providers at a military hospital in Germany. Dr. Donahue is the author of Everyday Self-Care: Your Proven, Holistic Guide to Feeling Better. Dr. Donahue has published her research in peer-reviewed journals as well as in the popular press. Dr. Donahue loves spending time outside, traveling, and reading.
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?
We’ve discussed our own backstories quite a bit over the years. One of the reasons we think we were drawn to one another when we first met was our shared experiences as children. Both raised in small, rural towns (Robyn in Maine, Kelly in Pennsylvania), we were raised not to expect anything to be handed to us. We worked hard to excel in school, partly because we were naturally interested in learning, but also (we later realized) because we were both driven by a scarcity mentality. Growing up in small towns, on limited resources, we thought we were always prepared for what life would throw our way: a flat tire on an empty bank account or scrambling for funds for college. But in truth, we had adopted a scarcity mindset, which is a dangerous trap for the naturally competitive, overachiever types. Our scarcity mindsets created a myopic focus on seeking security through achievement, while contradictorily convincing us that there would never be enough. It bred competitiveness, perfectionism and an unhealthy willingness to sacrifice at all costs. When we met in our 30s, we were both working hard to evolve beyond this scarcity mentality because it had taken a toll on our health and wellbeing. Our shared journeys away from scarcity and towards mindsets of abundance, opportunity and safety brought us closer.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
It wasn’t an accident that we both ended up studying Health Psychology, a specialized and boutique field that is nestled somewhere in between medicine and psychology. Growing up in rural areas, we saw first hand how hard it was for people to prioritize their own health while struggling to make ends meet. As young adults, we both fell into those same patterns ourselves. We didn’t yet understand that self-care wasn’t laziness or selfish. We hadn’t yet learned that pausing to prioritize our own health and wellbeing was part of the formula for success and happiness. Not surprisingly, we each found ourselves facing unique chronic health challenges. At first we thought we just had to push harder, work more, and power through, but wise mentors helped us to see that there was another way. We didn’t learn the lesson of adopting an abundance mentality, and of prioritizing self-care on the first, second or even third try. But, eventually, when we realized the power of putting our own personal health and well-being first, we not only felt amazing, but we became even more successful, we felt calmer and less stressed, and we became dedicated to sharing that message with anyone who would listen.
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?
Kelly: I think there were a series of people who helped at different phases of life, but I might not have left rural Pennsylvania without the encouragement and example of my grandmother. She told me that I could be or do anything I wanted. She was a working mom long before it was acceptable to do so.
Robyn: I was raised by two women in the seventies in rural Maine, long before same-sex parenting was ackowleged or accepted. When I was young, I remember telling people that my moms were roommates, unsure of how to explain my unique family circumstances. As I matured, I realized that my parents were actually trailblazers who overcame hurdles far greater than I would ever have to face. They struggled, they suffered, and they endured. I vowed to do the same.
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?
We were both raised with a “do it yourself” mentality. So, it was challenging for us to engage with coaches and programs to help us understand areas of business and marketing that were unfamiliar as we looked to expand our reach. When we did hire coaches and enroll in programs, we learned a great deal about marketing, tech, and software, which was good. However, we also made a costly mistake; we allowed those business/marketing coaches to influence the type and presentation of the content we aimed to provide. We ignored our internal sense that the advice we were given didn’t really resonate with what we were experiencing on a daily basis with our clients. Instead, we assumed that they knew best because they were the ‘experts,’ and we took their advice. After several dead ends, a lot of wasted time, energy and money, we realized that we needed to return to what we knew was true. When we did that, we were led to other coaches who respected us as the experts in the content area and provided us with the support we needed in other areas. This was a costly lesson but one that we hope we won’t repeat. We had to learn the hard way to trust ourselves as the true experts in our field, and we will now stay true to what feels aligned!
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?
Robyn: Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning remains the most influential book I’ve ever read. The notion that we are able to choose to find meaning, purpose and even hope in spite of impossible circumstances changed my view of life. I realized how much mental energy is spent trying to avoid suffering; we avoid risk for fear of failure, we withdraw from connection for fear of abandonment. Reading this book helped me recognize that suffering cannot be avoided but that we are most empowered when we realize we get to choose how we cope when faced with pain. This book solidified my interest in psychology, which ultimately shaped my career.
Kelly: How Yoga Works by Michael Roach was given to me by a wise mentor who was also a yoga teacher. At the time I was taking yoga classes to get flexible and fit. This book helped me see well beyond that and gave me a taste of the power of the mind body connection as well as an introduction to Eastern philosophies that shaped how I now work with my clients.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
Robyn: Early in my psychology training, I was presented with an extremely challenging clinical situation which stretched me beyond my clinical expertise and comfort. The case kept me awake all night; but as a young trainee, I felt ashamed that I didn’t know how to handle it. I thought that asking for help would make me look unskilled or incompetent to my supervisor. Classic imposter syndrome. The next day during my supervision meeting, I sheepishly opened up about my anxiety over the case. My supervisor very calmly said to me “Never worry alone.” I have since passed on this simple sentiment to numerous colleagues, clients and friends. It symbolized the power of connection and how shared experience always lightens the burden. Moreover, it normalized and validated the idea of asking for help.
Kelly: So many of the people with whom we work are thinkers, myself included! Trying to think about every possible scenario is not only exhausting but also generates more anxiety and worry. When I heard Marie Forleo say, “Clarity comes from engagement, not thought,” fireworks went off in my brain. So many of my clients feel stuck in some aspect of life or health. Thinking more does not help them feel less stuck. Imparting this simple piece of advice has helped them move out of stuck-ness. Engagement doesn’t mean figuring it all out or getting it right with one action. It means taking a small step forward and gathering data to inform the next step. This frees us from the idea that we need to have it all figured out before we take action. Taking action leads to understanding the next step.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Because of our unique expertise as health psychologists, we work primarily with clients whose mental health is negatively affected by serious physical health conditions such as chronic pain, obesity, diabetes, and others. In the past few years, as our psychology practices grew and we received more and more referrals from local physicians and other health care providers, we quickly realized that we needed to reach more people. There are so many people that need support and adding one, two or even ten new clients to our personal caseloads was never going to meet the need.
Given our passion for community health, we decided to translate our work into a new platform that would create a larger community and improve access to science-informed tools offered in a non-judgemental way. There is so much shame and stigma in the world of mental health alone, and then when you couple that with the stigma associated with health conditions like obesity, the need for person-first approaches is great.
We created REALize Health because we are fed up with unsustainable programs and plans being sold as solutions to serious health problems. Our clients generally know what to do to be healthier and they almost always understand that health is important. Yet so many people find themselves stuck in cycles of fleeting motivation followed by disappointment and feelings of failure. It’s not that these people are failures. It’s that we have been conditioned to focus on outcomes (# of pounds lost, for example), and we rarely acknowledge the necessary processes upstream of outcomes. Health is a compilation of many small pieces, but we’ve only been given part of the puzzle. To become fully aware of, or to REALize that health is a process not an outcome, is a game changer. And helping people move beyond knowing and understanding into fully realizing their full health potential is what we’re best at. REALize Health is an online membership program and virtual community that harnesses the power of motivation, mindset and mode to help women REALize their health with support, empathy, and REAL change.
Our tagline “Learn to live like you love your body so you can love your life” sums up the goal of our work. Through this virtual membership community, we can offer users the latest behavioral medicine science translated into real-life practical tools all while offering ongoing and long-term support for health behavior change. We are so passionate about sharing our knowledge of health, wellness, and sustainable behavior change, and this new platform gives us the opportunity to help many more people who have been struggling to make and MAINTAIN change in their life. Our formula for change harnesses the power of psychology and behavioral medicine by starting with the three Ms of sustainable change: motivation, mindset, and mode. We then apply those components across a broad spectrum of health and wellbeing with which we see others struggling the most, including weight, sleep, stress, anxiety, pain, and more!
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. In our work, we talk alot about 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.
First, pay attention to your self talk. If we talked to friends the way we talk to ourselves, we would be very lonely! Unfortunately, many people worry that positive or compassionate self-talk equals complacency. They erroneously believe that they need to be hard or harsh with themselves to inspire change. But we can honestly say that in our combined 25+ years of clinical experience, we have NEVER heard of a person coming up with just the right insult to inspire them to change. Instead, when our clients see that they can talk to themselves in a kind way AND achieve their goals, their lives change.
Next, affirm yourself. Although seemingly similar to navigating self-talk, affirming yourself means offering yourself acknowledgment, respect and empathy that what you are thinking, feeling and wanting matters. You can learn to provide yourself your own reassurance, whether or not you are/were offered it by your parents, partners or bosses. You can learn to believe that you are capable to positively cope with whatever comes your way- that you can handle hardship and struggle.
Finally, understand and seek your intrinsic motivation. So many of our efforts in life are driven by externally motivated outcomes and goals. A promotion or raise, a new car, a smaller pants size. These motivations are powerful. Unfortunately, they rarely last. Sometimes, we achieve our goal and get comfortable (or bored) and end up falling back on old patterns, habits and ways of living which undoes our progress at change. Other times, we fail to reach the goal and decide it isn’t worth pursuing anymore. These outcomes occur mainly because externally motivated goals make us feel that we have to act or be different from who we really are to perform the behavior. Thus, when the goal is met, changed, or abandoned, we revert back to being our old selves. It is no wonder that health behavior changes are so often on-again/off-again. By understanding and shifting to an intrinsic motivation, we do actions and work towards goals because it feels right. We get reward from the very act of doing the behavior, not from achieving the goal. A common example of this shift occurs when people stop ‘working out’ because they want to lose weight and instead start moving their bodies in ways that they deeply enjoy. Love to dance? Taking a dance class likely feels very different than slogging it out on the elliptical, making behavior change possible and sustainable.
Do you have a specific type of meditation practice or Yoga practice that you have found helpful? We’d love to hear about it.
Robyn: Loving kindness meditations were a breakthrough for me. I didn’t find them until later in my life. I was going through some very hard times — one of my closest childhood friends was terminally ill with cancer, my mom had just been diagnosed with an ultimately terminal lung condition, I was starting a new business venture while working another job, and my long term relationship was in a very rough patch. I was desperate to feel better. I had used meditation at other points in my life, but mostly body scans and other guided practices. I actually heard my first loving kindness meditation while laying on my office floor, trying to gather the steam to finish my day. I remember distinctly feeling like something inside me opened. I realized in that moment just how hard I was being on myself. I listened to my own self-talk with honesty and clarity that I hadn’t had before. I realized that I was shaming myself for not being enough — not a good enough friend, daughter, partner, professional…the list went on. When I offered myself loving kindness, I started to heal. Until that point, I believed that my healing needed something outside me to change- my friend to live, my mom to heal, my business to succeed, my relationship to last. Of course, I had little control over any of those things. What I could do was allow myself the space to heal, even if nothing around me changed.
Kelly: I’ve played with many types of meditation and yoga. As my life changes, so do my practices. I was introduced to yoga nidra while working for the military. After a weekend retreat of nothing but yoga nidra, I emerged with a different view of the world and myself. I had tapped into an internal sense of stillness and peace that I didn’t know existed. I began to listen to my body and not punish myself with exercise and turned to activity in nature that filled me up rather than left me depleted. A few years ago, a friend who was a meditation teacher taught me transcendental meditation, and I have used that as an anchor throughout the tumultuous 2020.
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.
The obvious answers here are healthy eating, regular exercise and getting quality sleep. But almost everyone knows that those habits are important for physical wellness. So instead of telling people to eat well, exercise, and get more sleep, we view our job as trying to understand why people don’t do the actions they know are ‘good’ for them. What we’ve learned is that after socioeconomic status and accessibility, mental health is what drives people’s behavior. So the first habit we believe leads to optimum physical wellness is to prioritize mental health. Whether that means treating depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions, or just learning to manage stress and develop healthy coping skills, mental health must be cared for first if a person is to develop optimum physical wellness.
A second habit that helps create physical wellness is taking time for organization and planning. Since creating physical wellness takes time, and time is one of our most valuable commodities, we think it is nearly impossible to achieve physical wellness without proactively organizing and planning ahead…meal planning, exercise scheduling, and solid time management are precursors to healthy eating, increased physical activity and healthy bedtimes.
Finally, practicing flexible thinking is a habit of the mind required for optimal physical wellbeing. Rigid thinking, often expressed as all-or-none thinking, interferes with physical wellness. Since the secret weapon of physical wellbeing is consistency of behaviors, we have to understand what drives consistency. It may seem counterintuitive, but the more flexible you can be in how you think about your behaviors, the more likely you are to stick with them. Missed your planned morning spin class? No problem, go for a walk later that afternoon instead of deciding you will just skip your workout today and “start again tomorrow.” Forgot your planned lunch at home and now you’re stuck at the office wondering what to eat? Just choose the best option available to you now, rather than adopting the “I’ve already blown it” mentality and ending up overeating. These are just a few examples of how rigid thinking interferes with consistency while flexible thinking supports it.
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?
“I know what to do. I just can’t seem to DO it in my life.” We hear this from our clients every single day and feel it ourselves at times, too. We believe there are many reasons that it’s challenging to transform behavior changes into sustainable habits and ways of living.
- Information fueled paralysis- We are living in an information-rich time. Information from Google, IG, FB, tv, podcasts, books, etc. is overwhelming and often conflicting. When humans receive too much information, especially information that is inconsistent, our brain goes into the stress response (fight, flight, or freeze). We can’t take in new information or think rationally from the stress response. And so, rather than trying any one of the options to make us healthier or happier, we freeze and try none.
- Stress — Information overload can cause stress, but stress comes from all sorts of sources from things as small as our fast-paced lives to as large as living through a global pandemic. Chronic stress can cause us to freeze, too. Physically, stress causes us to feel tired, maybe all the time, achy, and uncomfortable. Emotionally, we may feel irritable, short tempered, and exhausted. It’s very challenging to do healthy things and make healthy choices when we are feeling so bad.
- Support — Look around at the five people closest to you, and ask yourself if they are as healthy as you want to be. Lack of support from those around us can make it challenging to engage in healthy changes regularly. And worse yet, people close to you may see you considering a healthy change and try to dissuade you from doing so because that shines a light on where they need to make change. If your support network is too small or is composed of people who are not living the way you want to live, then you may face even greater challenges.
- Mindset — Mindset has been given a lot of airtime lately and with good reason. If you don’t think you can succeed and your mindset is trained to find all the reasons why you will fail, you will fail. And unfortunately, human brains are notorious for seeking information that supports your current beliefs rather than challenges them, which partly explains some of the great divisions in our current socio-political climate. Changing your mindset is simple but it’s not easy, but the ease with which behavior change occurs when you believe you CAN and are WORTHY of a change is astounding.
- Values and specificity — Many people say that they want to be healthy, but health hasn’t been adequately defined or tied to their values. When we can get clear on what we want and understand how it aligns with what we actually value (rather than what an IG influencer tells us we should value), change happens.
- A Powerful WHY. Before we start with the WHAT, HOW, or WHEN, we must get clear on the WHY. There are lots of WHYs that feel important — fitting into your favorite jeans or looking good for your high school reunion. But those whys are externally driven and are fleeting. They rarely inspire sustainable change. With a powerful, soul-inspired why in mind, it can pull you through the difficult times in your journey.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum emotional wellness? Please share a story or example for each.
First, learn to name your emotions. Of all the lessons learned in school, naming and understanding emotions rarely makes the list. Yet humans have rich emotional lives that are important guides for understanding ourselves, our relationships and how to cope with life’s challenges. Greater specificity in naming emotions helps with specificity in responding to that emotion. If the only emotion words you have are stressed and bad, then it follows that you will respond to those feelings with behaviors that help you feel the opposite- relaxed or good. These quick fix behaviors are short term and often unhealthy in the long run: eating, drinking, smoking or shopping for example. With a richer emotional vocabulary, we enhance our coping resources as well. Feeling lonely? Reach out for support. Feeling remorseful? Make amends.
Second, trust that you are worthy of asking for what you need from others. A major barrier in people asking for help or support is not believing they are worthy of having help. Asking for help makes us vulnerable, shows our imperfections, and risks exposing us to disappointment. Perhaps that is why it feels easier to expect others to read our minds and to predict what we need. If someone else is to blame for not meeting our needs, then we can focus our frustration away from ourselves and avoid the risks inherent in asking. Of course the truth is that people aren’t mind-readers, and they can’t know what we are thinking or what we need. It is hard enough for us to pay attention to our own needs!
Finally, align your attention with your intention or values. One of the greatest causes of discomfort, frustration, and anxiety is when we spend our time and energy doing things that are not aligned with what we value. The greater the misalignment between how we are living and how we want to be living, the greater the distress. Sometimes this misalignment is created when we focus on what we think others (family, society, cultural norms) deem important. Other times, it stems from struggling to understand and define our own values system. When we tune in to what we want in life and see the changes we want to make in life as moving into closer alignment with our values, we feel in the flow, less anxious, more content.
Do you have any particular thoughts about the power of smiling to improve emotional wellness? We’d love to hear it.
Smiling has been shown to increase dopamine and serotonin (brain chemicals that make us feel good). Unlike other methods of increasing these powerful mood boosters, smiling has no side effects and is free. And smiling has a ripple effect. Due to specialized brain cells called “mirror neurons,” when you smile at someone else, not only do you feel good, but the other person’s brain literally has a neuronal reaction, causing their mirror neurons for smiling to activate, which starts the whole cascade of emotions connected with smiling. In addition, when we feel good, it’s easier to do good things for ourselves and for others.
Finally, can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum spiritual wellness? Please share a story or example for each.
First, create a morning routine. A morning routine doesn’t have to be time-consuming, complex, or done at sunrise. No matter what your circadian rhythm is, you can develop a small routine or set of habits that you perform each morning. By starting your day with a positive intention and action, the tone is set for your entire day, making it less likely that the day’s demands (work, family, etc.) will dictate your mood and pace. We have very similar morning routines. We both wake up early, before our other family members, move our body, spend time meditating or in nature, and eat a healthy breakfast with protein (and often a cup of coffee or tea and several glasses of water).
Second, meditate. If there are any non-believers still out there, our plea to you is to open your mind to trying meditation. Meditation. has been a game changer for both of us. Spending a few minutes each day in meditation, reflection, or in nature shapes the way we respond to the people and events in our life for the rest of the day. Some days we take time to sit for a still meditation. Other days, we do a walking meditation. Simply choosing to dedicate time to tune into our thoughts, to be present and mindful, and to focus on our breath is all it takes.
Finally, we see spiritual wellness as a sense of being at peace. And, as psychologists, we know that much of what dictates our sense of (or lack of) peace is our self-talk. So, the final habit for optimum spiritual wellness is to take charge of our own narrative. It is estimated that we have 60,000 to 90,000 thoughts each day! And thanks to the human’s inherent negativity bias, approximately 80% of those are negative and 95% are the same thoughts we’ve had the day before. We encourage people to pay attention to their self-talk and learn to take charge of thoughts that do not serve them by asking three simple questions: 1) Is this thought true? 2) Is this thought helpful? 3) Would I recommend this thought to a friend? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then modify the thought. Learning this skill offers peace no matter the circumstances we face.
Do you have any particular thoughts about how being “in nature” can help us to cultivate spiritual wellness?
Nature is so powerful. Not only is nature beneficial for our immune system, but the fractals (patterns) our eyes see in nature have a stress-reducing effect. Nature also makes it easier to be in the present moment. The visual stimuli, silence, and grounding effects of nature are powerful vehicles for spiritual growth. Plus, being in nature just feels good to your body. Nature allows our bodies to return to a level of homeostasis which allows us to see things more clearly.
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.
“Live like you love your body.” This sentiment is our motto for our new REALize Health Program and we hope it takes off!
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 🙂
It’s true that there are numerous strong figures that have inspired us over the years, but Michelle Obama is number one on both our lists. Not only is she intelligent, determined, and driven, but she also is open about how hard she works to live the qualities and healthy lifestyle values that we practice ourselves and share with our clients. Her “Let’s Move” campaign launched in 2010 inspired families to see being healthy as a fun, proactive choice. Seeing a powerful working mother who prioritizes her health and self-care, values her relationships and her work, and is willing to be vulnerable and authentic. In 2016, in an article in Vogue magazine, she was quoted as saying “We need to do a better job of putting ourselves higher on our own ‘to do’ list” and we couldn’t agree more.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Our website is www.realize-health.com
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.