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Dr. Rhonda Mattox: “Go outside and play”

Stop letting the world pass you by as you flip the channels on the television and surf the web. Go outside and play. I will never be found uttering the word “exercise” to anyone. I simply tell people what my mama used to tell me: “Go outside and play.” I don’t care what it is […]

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Stop letting the world pass you by as you flip the channels on the television and surf the web. Go outside and play. I will never be found uttering the word “exercise” to anyone. I simply tell people what my mama used to tell me: “Go outside and play.” I don’t care what it is but “get to getting”! Hula hoop. Play tag. Go on a nature walk. Go hiking. Line dance. Groove to Miley Cyrus or Beyonce or Mary Mary. Then come inside and have sex. Don’t take yourself so seriously. The big thing is to commit to doing something that brings you joy. My friends are serious about the gym and yoga. I would not lose an ounce of weight if it required me go to the gym. However, I will wii dance Michael Jackson and line dance to “take my horse to the old town road” until the cows come home.


As a part of our series about “How We Can Do To Cultivate Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Rhonda Mattox.

From Hollywood to Capitol Hill, Dr. Rhonda Mattox has been behind the scenes influencing attitudes about mental health and working to improve access to healthcare. She has served as a consultant to writers and executive producers on television shows like 902010, ER, Brothers and Sisters and other popular sitcoms. Dr. Mattox is an award winning board-certified physician, researcher, and author. She is a public health champion that uses her gift of storytelling to shift the narrative around mental health and enhance access to healthcare. She has served as a policy advisor to state and federal agencies and elected officials including former Dean of the United States House of Representatives John Dingell.


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?

I had two mothers when it was not in vogue to have two mothers. I wasn’t raised by either of my birth parents. Instead I was raised by a porcupine-not literally but figuratively. I was never formally adopted by my forever mom (Bernice, my birth mother’s older sister) because Dorothy didn’t believe in formally giving her children away. Yet I was raised by her from the time I was two weeks old. Most people wouldn’t describe my mother as a warm cuddly teddy bear kind of person. She was more like a human porcupine. She was akin to those prickly animals that you can’t get too close to hug or you might get pricked.

Mom’s abusive childhood helped inform her porcupine demeanor and her survival strategy. This generation might characterize her as a feminist. I was mothered by a woman who was mothering without a history of being lovingly mothered. Mothering from unmothered space meant she was doing what she had not seen done. So she was not your traditional “baking cookies and drinking milk” kind of mom. Instead she was the “teach me how to drive” when my feet reached the pedal kind of mom; the “teach me how to shoot a 22 (gun) from the time my hands could remain steady even before I was a teenager kind of mom; and the “teach me how to budget and write a check” as soon as I could read and count in the second grade kind of mom. I realized later when I discovered how abusive her childhood home and her marriage had been, that she was teaching me how to kill an abusive man; how to get away from said abusive man; and how to not need a man. And she began doing this around the age of eight or nine as a child. Mom wanted me to be independent and in control of my own destiny. She did not want me to need anyone-not even her. She believed education and birth control were a poor girl’s guide out of poverty. That was her guiding principle while raising me.

Mom always told me that she wanted more for me than what she had. She let me know that she wanted to give me the world. As a child I thought that meant designer clothes and cars that my mother could not afford. But as far back as I can remember she bought me books and read to me. What neither of us realized at the time was that she was giving me the world. It was just one book at a time. Reading took me worlds away from Stamps, AR. I used reading to escape and read away from my reality. Those books that she gave me opened the world to me and caused me to dream of bigger and better.

In short, my childhood can best be summed up as a “a bittersweet poisonous delicacy that was seasoned with a dash of wisdom, a whole lot of toxicity, and a big heaping of laughter”. It was probably half baked in an easy bake oven by my perfectly imperfect rejected saviors. But it was definitely served up with a lot of love. Thankfully I survived my childhood adventures with a measure of sanity and a tender and compassionate heart towards broken people.

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

Maya Angeou inspired me to want to become a doctor. As a little girl I lived in her childhood home. I met her when I was in the 2nd or grade when she came back to Stamps to film “where it all began.” Then everyone was making a fuss over her but I didn’t understand why. It wasn’t until later when I stumbled upon her book “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” that I realized what a big deal she was. When I got to the end of the book and realized that she was a doctor, I decided that day that I wanted to be a doctor. Around that time or shortly thereafter I was taking a career orientation class taught by Dianna Funderburg. She was urging my class to choose a career that we would love everyday whether the money was there or not. She said that we would do it so well that people would take notice and the money would come.

At that time, as an 8th grader, I had people talking to me about abortions, rape, domestic violence. In part because I could keep a secret and did not judge them. When I learned that mental health was a field and I could get paid for listening as a psychiatrist or a psychologist, I knew that mental health was the industry I wanted to go into.

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?

Yes

Can you share a story about that?

Yes, Dr. Greer Sullivan. She is a psychiatrist and was a research mentor of mine while I was in residency. Greer saw something in me that I didn’t. She saw my potential and she saw much more potential in me than I did. She insisted that I apply to the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program (RWJCSP). RWJCSPfosters the development of physician-leaders who will transform health and health care in this country. Scholars are equipped to work with communities, organizations, practitioners and policy makers to conduct innovative research important to enhancing the health and well being in these communities. Well, to me that was like applying to Harvard. I didn’t believe that I had a snowball’s chance in Hades to get into such a prestigious program. She encouraged (read hounded me) about applying to the program for two years. Finally, I applied to the program to shut her up. I thought “I won’t get in and she will have to leave me alone”. I was flabbergasted when I was invited to not one but all of the programs to interview. I declined invites to interview at Yale, University of Michigan, and U. Penn and only interviewed at University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA). I was told that was suicide because everyone wanted to go to sunny UCLA and it was one of the best. I got in. There was no one more surprised because I truly did not see me as others saw me and I did not think of the work that I was doing as impressive as others thought it was. I had no idea what a truly big deal that admission to the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program at UCLA was until I began getting calls from major players in Arkansas and across the nation congratulating me before I had told others that I got in.

When I applied to the program at Greer’s insistence, I did not realize that I had been invited to learn from the cream of the crop. I was meeting and being mentored by the nation’s leading physicians and health policy advisors. It was nothing for me to have a meeting with a Surgeon General, former Surgeon General, or the CEO from California Endowment one day and be accompanying a small group of physicians to Universal Studios to screen an episode of Executive Director Neal Baer’s Law and Order Special Victims Unit episode with a storyline about PTSD the next. Generally speaking, I really got what a big deal this was in real time.

That Robert Wood Johnson opportunity that I was introduced to by Dr. Sullivan had the greatest impact on how I practice medicine and how I navigate policy. It led to a mindshift that eliminated “impossible” from my vocabulary forever. That opportunity eliminated “playing small” from my strategy toolbox forever. I am forever thankful to Dr. Greer Sullivan, Dr. Ken Wells, Dr. Robert Ross, and Dr. Robert (Bob) Brooks and my RWJCS family for their role in my leadership development. I can call any of them to this day and still count on some amazing insights and an invitation to connect me to whomever they think can help me reach my goals.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career?

While I was at UCLA, I remember being invited by a colleague to breakfast with the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. I didn’t know who he was and did not recognize what an opportunity this was. I initially turned it down BECAUSE I HAD CLASS. I quickly realized the error of my ways and decided that I could miss a single class to meet him. Ultimately Secretary Ban Ki-moon had to cancel because of the economic crisis. I learned that you have to recognize

What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I learned that you have to recognize when a once in a lifetime opportunity comes around and seize it. There are some opportunities worth skipping class or cancelling work for.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you?

Yes. The book “ I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, written by Dr. Maya Angelou changed the course of my career from teacher to doctor.

Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

From the time that I was knee high to a gnat, I wanted to be a teacher because I loved school. Being raised as an only child, school was that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow where playmates resided and the walls were decorated with letters and numbers. Teaching is most certainly what I would have pursued if I had not met Dr. Maya Angeou as a child or stumbled upon her book. When I stumbled upon her book in the library, the stories that I heard about her and her family over the years flooded my mind.

Reading that book was a game changer for me. When I got to the end of it and realized that Maya Angelou was a doctor and I saw her image (that regal black woman that I met as a child that spoke like she had oil wells pumping in her backyard), that was the day that the glass ceiling shattered for me. Honestly, I didn’t even realize the ceiling was there. But it was the day that I realized that being a doctor was an option for me too. If Dr. Angeou had been from any other place, maybe that book would not have been so transformative for me. But I grew up in Stamps, AR, Maya Angelou’s hometown. The house that she wrote about in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was the house that I lived in when I was in the 2nd and 3rd grade. As I read her book, I realized that she was describing my childhood home and the place that my dog Sonny and I had frequently played beside — her family’s mercantile store beside our house that had been turned into a sanctified church when I lived there. I realized that she was the woman that my mom made me put my Sunday’s best dress on to meet so many years ago when she came to our house to film and reminisce. Of course, everyone was making a big deal when I met her then but I didn’t really understand why until that chance encounter in that old dusty Stamps school library. That’s when the bells went off.

I couldn’t understand why there were no namesakes there named after her and no big deal made of this jaw dropping, impactful woman on a single billboard or even a poster in the library or for that matter during Black History Month. I never met Dr. Angelou again in life. But we spoke before she died. I was trying to get a street named after her in Stamps. But one of the city’s leaders put up many roadblocks and life happened so I dropped it while I was in school. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t press back hard enough so that she could see that street named after her and experience people celebrating my hometown “shero”. Janis Kearney, former diarist to President Bill Clinton, has worked on CELEBRATE MAYA to keep her legacy alive.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

“To achieve greatness, start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” spoken by Arthur Ashe

my UCLA alum and African American tennis legend who was the first black player to win the Wimbledon.

Why does that resonate with you so much?

I normally quote this without the “to achieve greatness” to remind myself to start where I am; to use what I have; and to do what I can. Like many of your audience, when an important issue, a project or something seems “too big” for me, I can be tempted to do nothing about it because I feel overwhelmed. So many times issues like stigmatizing portrayals of mental illness or improving the nation’s access to quality and affordable health care or that house project can seem too big to tackle. And then we do nothing. That quote resonates with me because it helps me to avoid being apathetic and reminds me to do “something” even if it’s a little something.

So many times we think that “somebody” needs to do something. We think the problem is so big that it requires big credentials or letters behind your name to do something about ‘it’. I think many of us don’t understand our own power and the major impact that we can have together or even alone with consistent effort and communicating effectively with the strategic use of our voice. I may not be able to solve the problem entirely. But if I can contribute to the solution of the problem; if I can connect people who can chip away at it, we can do amazing things. Whenever I’m in a rut about a situation, I remember Dorothy Dix, a woman in the 1800’s whose work influenced and reformed the prison and mental health systems. I’m reminded of my lessons learned while working as a policy advisor to a former Dean of the United States House of Representatives. This Dean held the record for longest-ever serving member of Congress in American history and was in Congress for more than 59 years. He had a “never give up” and “I never lost” mentality. He taught me to not be limited by winning or losing but to assess our victories by if we made some friends along the way, built some partnerships and allies, and if we were closer to our destination before we started. He believed that if we had done those things and we were closer to our goals then the bill that he sponsored may not have passed but it had not failed. I learned from this congressman that I had not lost if I learned something new or made progress towards my goals. That philosophy served him well. He introduced his own national health insurance bill at the start of every Congress. And he is credited with enormous impact in protecting patients and making the nation’s health care affordable. Likewise, I have integrated his philosophy into my approach and it has served me well too.

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

My most exciting project that I’m working on now is a memoir and the publicity leading up to it. This book is by far the most important work that I have done for myself and others yet. It is a redemptive story that chronicles my early childhood struggles navigating a love triangle while being loved fiercely but imperfectly by two mothers. While reading it, you walk through every emotion on the spectrum and you laugh a lot. You sometimes feel guilty for laughing because I highlight the irony and comedy in some pretty grave situations. I think of the book as a mix between Maya Angelou’s epic “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and Tiffany Haddish’s jaw dropping comedy “The Last Black Unicorn”.

The lesson that I want people to take away is to give your children permission to love both of their parents even if the other is flawed and you hate them with all your might. I want the readers to take away that your pain does not have to be in vain. If you can let the pain be your teacher and grasp your lessons, you can pivot and profit from them if you don’t take the route of bitterness. I want this book to be placed in the hands of every parent who wants to be a good parent but is clueless because they have never been parented healthily. I want in the hands of every person who recalls feeling less than as a child because their names didn’t match or their dads weren’t there. I think every educator teaching high risk children should read this book. I started working on it in 2007. I took my time and walked through it slowly because the places I wrote about were painful for me to visit. Anyone who has written a memoir knows that sometimes you can sink while writing it. At times, I had to have a mental health professional hold a light and help me find my way back because some of the places were so dark. I cried a lot and told God that I was not the right person to write this book. But ultimately writing it was cathartic and it has helped enhance my parenting strategies. It also helped me understand my mother’s parenting strategies and recognize unhealed places that needed more attention. So far, the best part of writing this book has been my healing and helping me to see my daughter-really see her.

My memoir could have been published already but I don’t want just any publisher, I’m looking for a great fit with a house that sees value in investing in my story and my audience. So I’m currently shopping it for publishers right now. I’m really excited about it and those who have read it are anxious for me to hurry up and publish. If I have not found the right fit by April, I may consider self-publishing because it’s time. I think it hits on some universal themes of rejection, trauma, parenting from a fragmented place, and identity issues. I really believe that it adds value to the reader. My “wish on a star” is that Oprah Winfrey, the “daughter” of my “mentor” Maya Angelou would consider writing the foreword. I’m also pairing it with a series of journals and planners from the series based on my memoir that’s scheduled for release in September. These planners are to remind people to practice gratitude, self care, and to plan for financial freedom. They range from gratitude journals; to planners for self care; for mothers, for entrepreneurs.If you want to stay posted on the timeline for release, go to www.drrhondamattox.com to learn about upcoming events and read a free chapter.

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.

  1. Choosing your mate wisely based on respect and their ability to listen and willingness to invest in your commitment or marriage. If they will not commit to investing in relationship counseling and counseling intermittently throughout the relationship, they may be the source of great distress throughout your life. They may be signaling to you very early on that they are unwilling to seek help and that they are unwilling to prioritize learning how to relate better. I know this seems like an unlikely placement for mental wellness but when we commit to a lifelong relationship, we spend half our days with that person when we aren’t out working. While this may seem misplaced, the fact that nearly half of women who are murdered are murdered by their romantic partners makes this an issue that every woman should consider whether she realizes it or not.
  2. Prioritize investing in learning to communicate effectively. If you do not learn how to communicate effectively, you will keep things to yourself that you should share to seek solutions. This will lead to problems at work, home, and in your relationships with others as well as yourself. Learning to speak your truth openly and in a healthy way would likely lead to far fewer ulcers, headaches, and chronic conditions associated with emotional dis”ease”. I went to my first Toastmasters meeting in 1993. I have been a member off and on of Toastmasters since 2004. I initially joined to cut out the “ahhs and you knows” and become a better speaker for an upcoming presentation. I stayed because I got lessons on how to speak impromptu, evaluate others’ speeches, and give feedback. While I originally joined to help me speak for career opportunities, what happened was that I learned to give those important to me impromptu feedback in a healthier, constructive way that led to them hearing me as I communicated in non-offensive ways. Rejoining Toastmasters was one of the best things that I could have done for my parenting and intimate relationships. The first was perhaps therapy to heal those unhealed places.
  3. I recommend that any and everyone see a therapist at least four times a year. And trust me this psychiatrist is not trying to drum up business. But honestly, for optimal mental wellness. I think you should not wait until you hit rock bottom to select a therapist. That’s a time when they will not be able to see your strengths and your genius clearly. I think you select your best fit long before then so that you can benefit from less biased people with a scope of expertise. I traditionally recommend using therapists when you are in the midst of transitions (work, retirement, job promotion, job stress, family, divorce, marriage, birth, highlights and lowlights like family member’s pending death, before heading off to college, while in college, etc). Getting a therapist that shares your culture and background when possible that has a scope of expertise in the areas that are hot spots for you. I’m gifted, experienced, and educated in childhood trauma, head injuries, relationships. My genius is in working with women and mothers. I was actually really good with sexual abuse victims and perpetrators. However, after my daughter, I could no longer do that without becoming ill. I say that to say that certain patients will trigger the clinicians and certain clinicians will trigger the patient. So finding a good fit BEFORE you need it is desirable when possible. In certain communities, there is so much stigma associated with seeing a therapist. Some see it as not being strong or being weak. I see it as being human and having the courage to invest in yourself and your family. That investment into your emotional well being has the potential to yield huge dividends. How do I know that? Because I get it and as they say “I’ve been there and done that.”

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

Not especially. In the mornings, I go to the music room with my notebook. I sit still, clear my mind, and just look outside. I don’t pray or read. I try to tune everything out so I can hear the divine and allow Him to download into my spirit. I can also hear that small still voice inside of me that is my moral compass. That is when I reconnect with my purpose and invite the creator to help order my footsteps in purpose and passion. That is the time when I’m most receptive. I receive strategies that make no sense to anyone — not even to me many times. But those divinely inspired strategies that sometimes seem completely illogical have propelled me forward and made me look brilliant.

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.

  1. Choosing a work environment that is not toxic to your health-emotionally or physically. Sometimes one should seriously consider a lateral move or even a pay cut after you have exhausted your bandwidth at a particular company. You can not put a price tag on your peace and mental health. Definitely reconsider your employment while navigating therapy if your hair is falling out; you have developed ulcers or some time of cardiovascular condition related to stress. That said, there were times when I wanted to leave; when I had written my letter of resignation but a still small voice inside me let me know that my assignment there was not complete. When I learned all that job was placed there to teach me and fully completed the assignment I felt inner peace with tendering my letter. If I had quit prematurely, I would have had to repeat that course. And Lord knows, I wanted to finish that course and never revisit the syllabus.
  2. Rest physically and mentally. (Sit still. Calm your mind. Slow those thoughts down. Get sleep and take mental vacations.) I challenge all of my superheroes to get rest this weekend. If only more superheroes, pastors, therapists, parents, and doctors felt liberated to tell others when they are tired and then have the courage to take a mental day (or week) off, the world would be a much healthier and happier place. When we fail to rest, our bodies become immunocompromised and we have a higher risk of becoming ill. Our spirits need rest as well so that we can dream, create, and be inspired. Let’s model taking a day off instead of the “I’ll sleep when I die philosophy.” Keep it up and you will die much sooner than you should. Let’s model getting your rest and not abandoning sleep. Let’s model telling others no when we have nothing else to give. Your bodies will thank you. You only have one. Take care of it.
  3. Stop letting the world pass you by as you flip the channels on the television and surf the web. Go outside and play. I will never be found uttering the word “exercise” to anyone. I simply tell people what my mama used to tell me: “Go outside and play.” I don’t care what it is but “get to getting”! Hula hoop. Play tag. Go on a nature walk. Go hiking. Line dance. Groove to Miley Cyrus or Beyonce or Mary Mary. Then come inside and have sex. Don’t take yourself so seriously. The big thing is to commit to doing something that brings you joy. My friends are serious about the gym and yoga. I would not lose an ounce of weight if it required me go to the gym. However, I will wii dance Michael Jackson and line dance to “take my horse to the old town road” until the cows come home.

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 associate honey buns and chocolate milk with my Sunday mornings with my granddad. The smell of coffee takes me back to drinking coffee with my grandmother as a wee toddler. (Mine was mostly milk with a hint of coffee for color.). Pork chops and sweet tea with my mother. So much of who we are and sweet childhood nostalgia can be traced back to food. When we were happy we ate. When we were sad we ate. In college, we sat around after we finished dinner and packed on the freshman 15 not because we were hungry but because we were socializing. So we have to shift our thinking around the social aspects of eating and replace the socializing component with something else or our choices may not be sustainable if we don’t shift our mindsets around that part of the equation. In the South, I see that a lot. We tend to gravitate towards foods that we grew up eating, you know our comfort foods.

A few years ago, I noticed that my circle of friends and associates had shifted. It happened so gradually that I didn’t realize that most of them were vegans who are heavily into exercise and yoga. My habits shifted along with my friends. As I spent more time with them, I picked up more of their healthier cooking strategies. My food choices expanded and I chose more plant based foods. I never imagined that I would enjoy avocado toast or Morningstar spicy “burgers”. I’m not vegan but I sometimes describe myself as a “part-timer” though I’m really plant based-more pescatarian-ish ways. I didn’t quite uptake their propensity for the gym. But I started to prioritize dancing with my daughter on wii dance and doing line dancing. I really do believe that the key to my longevity is a less sedentary lifestyle and intaking premium food. I try not to skimp on the quality of the food that I put in my body.

I pay attention to what I’m eating because it signals where I am on my “to do list”. When I’m eating unhealthy foods, most of the time it means that I’m not even on MY list. It means that I am not getting enough rest to prioritize planning my meals or grocery shopping/delivery. Instead I’m grabbing them without forethought. That is my signal to prioritize resting and planning meals more. If it’s going to take me 15–30 minutes in a drive through, I can take that same amount of time and whip up a healthier stir fry or a healthier version of a quesadilla if I plan and shop accordingly.

I really think planning, socializing, and childhood nostalgia represent more blocks than we give them credit for.

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

Burn your superhero cape and begin to “fail forward” and flourish. I laugh at myself and don’t take myself or my image too seriously. Unlearn your need to be perfect will take the weight of the world off your shoulders. Just burn your superhero cape. I allow myself to be adventurous and “fail” by the world’s standards. But here is the deal. I don’t think of anything that I’ve done as failure as long as I learn from it. Likewise, I encourage others to acknowledge their pain but strip search it for lessons. It is my philosophy that when life hands me lemons that I’m nearly drowning in lemonade, I take that lemonade, make the best freaking lemonade cocktail; patent the machinery that made it; build a lemonade franchise and allow others to profit with me. In other words, I take the bitter lessons that almost killed me; learn from them; and share them. That’s why I’m especially impactful at bereavement, career counseling, and relationships,

I schedule regular doses of belly laughter into my day throughout the day. My very small inner circle is filled with people who stretch me in my world views, my health, and deliver their honesty with liberal doses of laughter. At the end of the day, I journal. I keep a journal beside my nightstand and journal about at least 3 things that I’m thankful for as well as those who have made me belly laugh. Judeo-Christian belief is that “Laughter doth good like a medicine”. That’s pretty cheap so I prioritize laughing a lot. I have not done the day right if I can’t recall something or someone that made me laugh out loud. That’s how I got into creating gratitude journals. I have a nightstand full of gratitude journals. I needed a distraction from my book and thought let me create one that has a space for the stuff that’s important to me instead of writing it in the margins. So in my journals, there’s a space for who made you laugh and what you are thankful for. It’s my reminder to magnify the best parts of my day.

Release yourself and the people that got you there. And when I say release, I could easily say forgive. But what I mean is don’t keep meditating on that event. As you meditate on it, your shoulders get tense, your heart starts racing, your stomach starts gurgling and it’s like you are reliving the whole event. You are releasing all of these chemicals that are literally poisoning your body so to speak each time you ruminate on it. So you have to choose to learn as much as you can from it-grab the healthy lessons and then pivot from that point and figure out a way to profit from that pain-either by making money from the lessons you learned or never taking that “bitter course” again. A healthy start to letting go does not begin with the lie of “I already forgave you”. It begins with acknowledging the wound, the trauma, the consequences and the need to move forward for the sake of those things that you treasure-your health, your relationships, your sanity.

Forgiveness and releasing is not your “stamp of approval” that what they did was ok. It’s not picking up with them where “they left off”. Forgiveness of the healthy kind is a gift to yourself, a gift to your health, your eating choices, your sleep, your heart. And you are worth it. Sometimes, many times, you have to extend that forgiveness to yourself because you remained in the situation much longer than it served you. That’s about kindness and judgment free good will to yourself.

For me, my mother’s death was that thing. It paralyzed me with pain and anger and I hit a roadblock for a few years-even taking time off from medical school. Now I am especially impactful in the area of parental loss. Who knew I would be leading bereavement groups or writing grief journals. I did not originally intend to do that. But after I was well, I did not want anyone else to stay in the pit as long as I had. I definitely choose to profit from my pain. I try to help others do the same. Working hard to slice up life’s lemons, make a killer lemonade cocktail, patent the machinery that helped you make it, build a lemonade franchise and help others profit off your lemons and theirs too. What I mean is don’t allow the craziness that you go through to shame you. Examine it for the seeds. Plant those seeds and grow lemons and help others grow from your bitter lessons so that no one has to be taken out by what could have killed you. That gives you a sense of purpose and PROFIT.

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

Smiling causes your brain to release “feel good” neurotransmitters. Those neurotransmitters help with your mood. They help with your positive thoughts. It’s a painless stress reliever and immune booster with only one side effect-smile lines. But that’s one that I’m willing to live with. I keep a running record of who makes me “belly laugh” and I’m like the dog who returns to the neighbor’s house who feeds them. I consider those who provide me laughter as those who feed my soul. I keep going back to them.

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

For me, that entails 1. Releasing yourself from the pain of your past. 2. Learning every lesson that you can from your pain. And 3. Pivoting from your pain and pity part to profiting from the products that come from your pain.

Nothing taught me that better than my childhood love triangle with my mothers who loved me fiercely but fought each other tooth and nail. My relationship with God and my psychiatrist was central to releasing that and them. But in order to do so I had to begin cultivating an attitude of gratitude through everything that happened in my life-the good, the bad, and the ugly. I had to realize that my perception of childhood was my childhood perception but it was incomplete and it was inaccurate at times. I had to recognize that if I had been raised by my birth mother, I would not be a physician today because her values were different than my forever mom. I am now thankful that I was not raised by her even though early on I wondered what was wrong with me because my brother lived with her. That making peace process was essential to help me be a better clinician and a better mother to my heaven sent daughter.

I grieved the absence of the traditional mother-daughter relationship for years and did not recognize that what I had with each of them was special in its own right. On my nightstand is a gratitude journal and a “blessing jar”. In my nightstand are dozens of journals. I try to write at least 3 things that I’m thankful for each day or at the very least think about those 3 things before I go to bed. I want to rehearse that and my successes before I go to sleep.

After my mother’s death (Bernice). Anger is a part of the grief process and I was A.N.G.R.Y. It took me years to understand that my pain was not in vain in that area. But I had to sit with my pain in therapy and reframe. I had to learn from the pain. I had to own my contributions to my pain instead of pointing fingers at others. I practice forgiving myself for my contributions to my pain and that allows me to release others as I identify with not being perfect either. That I’m able to do as I sit quietly at the beginning of the day. I pray a lot. Not like-the praying on your knees kind of prayer. But while I’m in motion, being thankful and asking for wisdom and insight kind of prayers. After I came through those tragedies, I wanted to be to others what I needed during those times in my life. So I was passionate about helping others through the pain of rejection, bereavement, public failure. And my life’s motto truly is “Pivot from pain and all of it’s pity parties to processing it, and profiting from it.” My profit is that I feel good helping others navigate their pain points and not lose as many years avoiding or numbing it. I don’t want anyone to lose years of their life trying to ignore it. I help them grab it by the horns, take away the power that pain has over them so they can live their best life. I initially started doing this with simply sharing my story; then patient care; now I enjoy sharing it from the stage and writing what I hope is a New York Time’s Best Seller.

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

Being outside or even being seated and looking outside brings me peace. Nature stills me and brings awe to me. I hear myself more clearly and hear that small still voice that serves as a moral compass for myself. It let’s me clear out the noise and hear from my divine self so that I can be true to myself.

Being in nature also exposes me to the wonderful world of vitamin sunshine. Sunshine helps boost your body’s serotonin levels and helps to regulate melatonin production. That means that making nature and sunlight a point to get outside a few times a day even in the cold and perhaps especially in the morning can enhance your mood and your sleep.

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 have worked on domestic violence for years. Unfortunately, it has tended to be after the abuse has happened. I would love to inspire a movement of prevention. I envision it entitled: Leaving 4 Good: Sock it to domestic violence. Many victims of domestic violence stay with their partners because they think staying is good for the children. But one of the single greatest predictors of being a victim or perpetrator of domestic violence is witnessing domestic violence as a child. A person’s decision to stay and subject their children to ongoing emotional, physical, or verbal abuse is more likely to cause more harm than the good the victims hope for. For instance, children exposed at an early age to trauma like domestic violence, have a smaller hippocampus. That’s the brain area related to learning and memory formation and also a risk factor for PTSD. Those exposed to domestic violence are more at risk for obesity, mental health and substance abuse issues. Likewise they have a higher propensity to make unhealthy life choices. Researchers estimate that between 4- 15 million children are exposed to physical violence in the home. The rates can be difficult to know because of underreporting. While we may not know the exact rates, what we do know is that domestic violence frequently spans generations. Domestic violence is likely to continue unless acted upon by an external force. With that in mind, I would partner with the force of the NBA to raise awareness about domestic violence. Many times we focus on the women. But it is equally, if not more important, to navigate this conversation with men to men and that other men respect or trust. I think it is important for males to learn that they are more at risk to perpetrate abuse if they have witnessed their mother’s be abused. Partnering with the NBA and WNBA would be an ideal platform to promote awareness about the impact of domestic violence. I envision LEAVE FOR GOOD as an ever growing partnership that supports financial literacy, education, and mental health treatment to help support spouses and children leaving abusive homes.

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 have lunch with the television producer Shonda Rhimes. I consider Ms. Rhimes my successful twin. Like her, I am an avid reader and a writer. I have never been much of a television watcher. I did not even own a television for twelve years in my early adulthood. My reason is because I thought that I should be producing results and not consuming. I counted television as a time sink that would hinder my productivity and impact. But I had a mindshift after a respected psychiatrist talked me into sharing my family’s story around suicide. I did a 30 second commercial about postpartum depression sharing how my birth mother had attempted suicide when she was pregnant with me and how that informed how and why I practice psychiatry. After I made that 30 second commercial, I had people come out of the wood works sharing with me their experiences around post partum depression and suicide. In fact, my real estate agent told me she had been contemplating suicide and had her gun in hand. She asked God for a sign if she wasn’t supposed to kill herself. Then she heard my voice in the other room talking about how “when my mother was pregnant with me that she had such severe depression that she tried to kill herself. We lived. That’s why I devote my life to helping others prevent the tragedy of suicide.” According to her, that commercial saved her life.

That 30 second commercial taught me the transformative impact that media can have on shifting attitudes about mental illness, their willingness to talk about it. That commercial in Arkansas was almost as impactful to some about mental health as what Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington and Philadelphia were around HIV. Certainly that is an overstatement for some. But not for my former real estate agent. The impact factor of the media as a tool was solidified for me. While I was at UCLA, Neal Baer connected me to Hollywood Health & Society and I began working to integrate messages about mental health into storylines in popular shows like ER, Brothers & Sisters, soap operas, and others. I am most proud of the five or six episodes that I worked on with writers from 90210. Perhaps, the most impactful was the episode “Off the Tracks” that I worked on around bipolar disorder that reached more than a million people. But the best part was that following the episode, the character Silva was featured in a public service announcement sponsored by SAMHSA. The impact of that one minutes public service announcement garnered much interest via SAMHSA website clicks and hotline traffic of those in learning more about bipolar disorder. When I see a patient, I impact that patient directly and their family and the community indirectly. That’s a big impact. When I work to integrate messages about mental health storylines, we change social norms, attitudes, and beliefs about mental health and those who seek treatment. Those mindshift opportunities are created by Ms. Rhimes every single day. That’s why I would love to have a rap session with Ms. Rhimes because she is a creative genius with a heart of gold. She is making a global impact with her storylines. Grey’s Anatomy! I’m looking forward to seeing where she takes that. I would love to work with her writers team to shatter stereotypes about what mental illness is; who has it; and why it’s so important to get treatment EARLY and also look at storylines about domestic violence/intimate partner violence within the physician community.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

drrhondamattox.com and @drrhondamattox on social platforms like twitter, facebook, linked in and instagram.

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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