Veronica O’Brien of Truhugs: “Never stop learning”

Never stop learning. You are never too old or too much of an expert to learn more. I have been reading and researching mindfulness for more than six years, and I still learn new things about the practice in my readings. Think about how you can grow your knowledge. Is there a language you’ve always […]

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Never stop learning. You are never too old or too much of an expert to learn more. I have been reading and researching mindfulness for more than six years, and I still learn new things about the practice in my readings. Think about how you can grow your knowledge. Is there a language you’ve always wanted to learn? A hobby you’ve always wanted to pick up? An artform? Try it; the worst thing that will happen is you’ll hate it and move onto something else.

Often when we refer to wellness, we assume that we are talking about physical wellbeing. But one can be physically very healthy but still be unwell, emotionally or mentally. What are the steps we can take to cultivate optimal wellness in all areas of our life; to develop Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing?

As a part of our series about “How We Can Do To Cultivate Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Veronica O’Brien, MA, LCMHC

Veronica is a licensed mental health therapist who has worked with an underserved community for three years. She is currently enrolled in a Clinical Psychology doctoral program that emphasizes working with rural communities. Veronica’s research interests include holistic mental health interventions such as mindfulness; she has presented her research at several national conferences. She hopes to develop stricter protocols for mindfulness-based interventions to enhance its efficacy and understand its limitations. In addition to these roles, Veronica serves as the lead researcher at truHugs to provide objective evidence-based articles on the benefits of weighted blankets.

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

The path to my career is a bit unorthodox. I was a musician involved in both chorus and band throughout high school, and I participated in every theatrical opportunity. I was dead set on having a career in the music field, but several family members encouraged me to pursue something more practical. I took multiple career assessments which led me to psychology. Once I began my undergraduate degree in psychology, I was exposed to research methodology and fell in love with the investigative and problem-solving nature encompassed within research. From my exposure to the research and clinical side of mental health, I have found that there is a severe divide between clinicians and researchers — most people chose one path or the other. I saw a need to bridge that gap by combining clinical work with research; I believe clinical work can greatly inform research. The rest is history!

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?

I would be nowhere without my mentor, Dr. LW. I earned my master’s degree in counseling, which is not a very research-focused degree. Despite this, I wanted to complete a thesis, and I was met with a lot of resistance from the faculty. It wasn’t that they were against research, but they didn’t understand why I wanted to do all of that extra work. Dr. LW was the only one who met my request with excitement and support. She was and still is the most supportive person when it comes to my ambitious career aspirations. In addition to helping me pursue a thesis (and publish the manuscript later on), she was encouraging throughout my doctoral application process. It took me a couple of years before I was accepted into a doctoral program, but she remained supportive and willing to help throughout it all.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve made many mistakes in my lifetime and will probably make many more. Looking back, the funniest mistake that I’ve made is when during my first round of doctoral program interviews. For one particular program, the interview process lasted all day from 7:00 am until 5:00 pm, and of course, my nerves were shot by the afternoon. The biggest tip that people gave me was to be confident with my answers to the interviewers’ questions, which ended up being great advice, but there is such a thing as too much confidence. It was towards the end of the day, and I had my last meeting of the day with some faculty members. One of the questions they asked me was, “What do you think will be the hardest part about graduate school?” Without taking a second to pause, I answered, “Getting accepted into graduate school,” which was not the correct answer. Mind you, at the time, I had been working 40 hours a week as a therapist, 20 hours a week at a part-time job, and was heavily involved in a research lab, so I was used to the long days, mental fatigue, and strain. Ultimately, I was not accepted into their program; I strongly believe it was because of that answer, and I was distraught over the experience. Looking back now, the whole ordeal is somewhat comical and taught me some valuable lessons: (1) life does go on when things don’t work out as planned, and sometimes things work out better, (2) providing context is important in interviews, and (3) humor isn’t always appropriate. During that gap year, I traveled more and conducted more research in my area of interest, so I wouldn’t change anything.

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?

During undergrad, I was enrolled in a mindfulness-themed seminar for no other reason than that it was required we take a seminar at some point, and this particular one fit nicely into my schedule. The required book for the class was called Full Catastrophe Living by John Kabat-Zinn, and it changed my life. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Jon Kabat-Zinn, he’s a leader in the mindfulness field and infused traditional Buddhist mindfulness practice into mental health interventions. Up until reading this book, I wasn’t very familiar with holistic interventions, but I found it amazing that people were learning to overcome their stress and chronic pain by using their minds in an intentional practice. The seminar also had us go through the mindfulness-practice sequence that Kabat-Zinn lays out in his book and that practice, coupled with the readings, ignited my passion for mindfulness. Mindfulness as an intervention is still a relatively new niche in research, so it’s been amazing having the opportunity to explore novel questions and hypotheses around the practice.

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

As someone who has been met with a lot of rejection, I resonate with the quote, “A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying,” by B.F Skinner. I am incredibly goal-driven, and with that comes unsuccess, rejection, and the word “no.” For example, mindfulness did not come easy to me. When I started practicing in that mindfulness seminar, there were times where I didn’t want to practice and felt like the practice wasn’t doing anything and useless. I kept practicing and finding ways to integrate mindfulness within my lifestyle. Over time I learned to appreciate the time to notice and enjoy the present moment. Anyone who has applied to Clinical Psychology doctoral programs is well aware that it is a competitive and excruciating process. It took me two rounds and almost 30 total applications to gain admission, but the extra year presented me with invaluable experience and research opportunities that I otherwise wouldn’t have had. Publishing research is another example where many, including myself, are faced with rejection. I remind myself of this quote by Skinner often because someone can try their hardest and still be met with failure — that’s okay! There will be days where you feel down due to rejection or failures, but that shouldn’t deter you from trying again. If the goals are important to you, keep trying.

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

I have a few projects in the works currently. One is studying the relationship between parenting styles and trait mindfulness development. Mindfulness can be a protective factor for many mental health and physical health conditions, but the practice itself can be challenging, especially for children. I’m looking to see if specific parenting styles and techniques can increase a child’s trait mindfulness without them actually practicing mindfulness. Another ongoing project that I’m working on is investigating the relationship between substance use behaviors and mindfulness behaviors. There is a lot of mixed results in the mindfulness and substance use literature where sometimes participants with high levels of trait mindfulness report lower substance use, and sometimes participants with low levels of mindfulness report higher levels of substance use. My goal with this project is to add more contextualization to the mindfulness research by picking out what could be causing these mixed results. Mindfulness research is still relatively new, so there’s a lot we still don’t know when applying it to treatment.

In addition to these mindfulness-based projects, I am also constantly seeking out and writing about weighted-blanket research. I think a lot of the information surrounding weighted blankets is overinflated, so I’ve made it my mission to write about the facts that are backed up by science and demystify the actual mechanisms of action surrounding weighted blanket’s effectiveness. Above all, my goal is to use my clinical experiences to inform my research and use research to inform my clinical practice; that’s how it should be!

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. In this interview series, we’d like to discuss cultivating wellness habits in four areas of our lives, Mental wellness, Physical wellness, Emotional wellness, & Spiritual wellness. Let’s dive deeper into these together. Based on your research or experience, can you share with our readers three good habits that can lead to optimum mental wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Never stop learning. You are never too old or too much of an expert to learn more. I have been reading and researching mindfulness for more than six years, and I still learn new things about the practice in my readings. Think about how you can grow your knowledge. Is there a language you’ve always wanted to learn? A hobby you’ve always wanted to pick up? An artform? Try it; the worst thing that will happen is you’ll hate it and move onto something else.

2. Find a practice. Of course, I genuinely believe that the practice of mindfulness helps promote mental clarity and mental wellness. Mindfulness helps me focus on the day and be more present with my clients and students. I also completely understand that mindfulness is not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s okay! I firmly believe if you absolutely hate something, then you’ll likely not benefit from it. For example, I am not a fan of yoga, whereas some people love it and use it as their practice to gain mental clarity. Some people use prayer to center their mind; some people practice gratitude; some people work out; the options are endless. To achieve mental wellness, you should develop a practice that encourages insight and intention.

3. Make sure you get enough sleep. Sleep seems like an easy enough tip, but you’d be surprised how many people I talk to that don’t get enough sleep and suffer from mental fatigue or poor mental health as a result. The high prevalence of sleep issues is one reason I became interested in weighted blankets because there is evidence to support their effectiveness in promoting sleep, and they’re simple to use. Even missing out on just one night of good sleep can leave you feeling irritable and reduce your mental clarity, so make sure you take sleep seriously.

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

I practice mindfulness in some capacity each day, but I wouldn’t say that I have a favorite method of practicing it. I’d like to quickly differentiate between mindfulness and meditation because I think the two often get lumped together. Although there is no consensus on a definition for mindfulness, there are common themes that researchers agree upon, such that mindfulness is the act of becoming aware of the present moment and noticing thoughts nonjudgmentally. One can practice mindfulness informally or formally. For example, driving to work and intentionally being more present, and observing your surroundings during the commute is a way to practice mindfulness informally. However, meditation is a more involved technique and can include intentional breathing or self-reflection. Mindfulness and meditation can and often are paired as a formal mindfulness practice. For example, a mindfulness meditation practice might involve paying attention to their breath and noticing any thoughts that pop up in their minds.

I infuse mindfulness into my day informally and formally. As I’m walking to class, I intentionally pay attention to my surroundings and how my body moves as I’m going through the motions of walking; this is an informal practice. My formal practices vary day to day, but today I noticed my breath and focused in on each of my five senses. There are many variations of formal and informal mindfulness practice; if mindfulness is something that interests you, then try a few different types of practices and find something that works for you.

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.

This is a difficult question because what could be defined as “good” for me may look different for someone else. In the most general and watered-down way, I think that people can achieve optimal physical wellness from diet, movement, and mind. I want to be intentionally vague with my suggestions because everyone’s lifestyle and preferences look different; I want the readers to find value from this article and have the ability to apply tips to their lifestyle without committing to too much change because that can be overwhelming. For example, some people may find that yoga helps them achieve optimal physical wellness, but for me, it’s boring, and it’s a chore to motivate myself to do it, so if I were to read an article that recommended yoga, I’d be disinterested. I prefer taking walks outside on trails. I encourage readers to find some sort of daily movement that’s both enjoyable and feasible. Sometimes if I’m feeling particularly unmotivated, I’ll walk in place on my baby trampoline while watching TV. As with movement, everyone’s food preferences will look different. I prefer a pescatarian diet, but others may prefer a vegan diet or keto diet. For this suggestion, I recommend that readers adhere to their preference, but to make sure they’re including adequate nutrients and vitamins in their daily food consumption. Someone who consumes overly processed foods throughout the day is going to feel much more sluggish than someone who includes a few fruits or vegetables in their day. Of course, I understand no one is perfect, and convenience foods (such as a frozen pizza) are the only option some nights — I’ve been there! My recommendation is to try and incorporate nutrient-dense foods as often as you are able. My final categorical tip pertains to the mind. I don’t know about you, but if I watch TV or play on my phone for too long, my body doesn’t feel great. I feel physically better when I actively use my mind each day. Examples of ways to use your mind and promote mental wellness can be found in my spiel about mental wellness above, but in sum, find something to stimulate your mind each and every day.

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?

Cognitive dissonance is the term that describes what you’re talking about, and we ALL experience this. Someone who smokes cigarettes likely knows that they are inhaling carcinogens and doesn’t like that they are engaging in the habit, but also doesn’t want to stop. It’s a conflict. We as humans prefer familiarity — it’s comforting. Maybe those cookies that you turn to remind you of the before-times (pre-pandemic), or maybe that take out reminds you of a first date. There’s also the aspect of ease. A frozen pizza is 100 times easier to cook on a busy weekday night than sitting there chopping up vegetables to make stir-fry (believe me, I’ve been there!) We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, which can cause guilt. Sure, some pressure is good; it elicits change, but we also need to recognize that we don’t have to be perfect. Maybe two nights out of the week you are busy, so you pop in a frozen pizza, that’s okay! Perhaps you make it up by creating a home-cooked and nutrient-dense meal the next night. Life is about balance friends; without it, we’d all be balls of stress.

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

1. Self-care! Self-care! Self-care! Okay, now that I’ve drilled that point in, self-care is the act of doing something that elicits joy and relaxation. This tip sounds so obvious but is also so overlooked. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of engaging in self-care almost every single day. Self-care does not have to be anything crazy; it can be drinking your morning coffee while bird watching. Self-care can be 30 minutes of putting together a puzzle each night. Self-care can be putting on a face mask, closing your eyes, and reflecting on your day. Honestly, there are no limits to what self-care can be as long as it’s not a chore and helps you unwind. There was a time in my life where I needed to literally schedule self-care into my day every day to remind myself to relax. If you’re crazy busy, then I recommend setting aside 15–30 minutes every day to do something for self-care.

2. Organization. There is research to suggest that clutter and disorganization can cause distress. Think about it, have you ever walked into your house just after it has been cleaned and feel that light sensation of happiness. Clutter is overstimulating and can reduce productivity, which can make you feel overwhelmed and stressed. Many people are still working from home, so it’s even more essential to organize yourself. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you need to be a “neat freak,” but think about ways to organize your life, whether that be organizing your schedule, your kitchen, your bedroom, or your desk. Start small, organize one piece of your life, and notice how you feel.

3. Boundaries. I cannot stress boundaries enough. During my undergraduate and master’s degree, I had no boundaries and would say yes to every opportunity presented to me. As you can likely imagine, there were not enough hours in the day to get everything done. I experienced burnout and mental fatigue, which resulted in overall poorer mental health. It’s okay to tell your friends, “no, I don’t want to hang out today.” It’s okay not to have a good excuse as to why you don’t want to hang out. Sometimes, we all just need to recharge and have time for ourselves, even if we don’t do anything productive during that time. It’s okay to set your own boundaries. For me, I no longer work past a certain in the day. I have been asked, but I refuse because that’s setting a healthy boundary.

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

I think there is definitely some power that comes with smiling but smiling is a double-edged sword. How many females do you know that have been told to smile unsolicited? Also, the saying “fake it until you make it” can cause issues in it of itself. I am of the mindset that we, as humans, have varying degrees of complex emotions that each has a purpose. Thus, we should allow ourselves to experience those emotions. If I’m having a horrible day and someone tells me “just smile,” I’ll likely be irritated with them. On the other hand, there is research to suggest that purposely making yourself laugh when you’re angry or sad can improve your mood, so if you want to give yourself a boost before an event or situation, sure smiling can be effective, but I don’t think smiling should be construed as a magical tool to fix all unpleasant emotions; we should normalize allowing ourselves to feel all emotions.

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

1. Never stop setting goals for yourself. It can become easy to be stagnant and still in life but to feel like you have a sense of purpose, it’s helpful to work towards a greater goal continuously. For example, maybe you are working towards your dream job or working towards finishing school. Perhaps you have the intent to learn a new instrument each year. Whatever suits you, just never stop setting goals.

2. Having a ritual or practice that comforts you can increase spiritual wellness. My ritual is the daily practice of mindfulness, but you’re not limited to that. Maybe your ritual is cooking a new meal once a week, taking a few deep breaths when you wake up, or even prayer. Spirituality can be secular and inclusive of all beliefs; find a ritual to help ground you during uncertainty.

3. Connect with others. We literally cannot get through this life alone. Reach out to someone that’s been on your mind, give someone a heartfelt compliment, remind others that you are grateful for the role they play in your life. The opportunities are endless but creating space for intentional connections is another way to help you feel more grounded in reality.

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

I attended a seminar last year led by a neurologist who stated that we as humans need to be connected with the earth in some capacity to achieve overall wellness. He said that we don’t have much skin to ground exposure due to concrete and pavement, but we should allow our feet to touch grass or touch a mossy tree with our hand when given a chance. He explained that by doing this, we obtain energy from the earth, which acts as a natural anti-inflammatory agent. Ever since attending that seminar, I have made attempts to immerse myself in nature more frequently, and I think doing so can help cultivates spiritual wellness. Taking the time to appreciate nature and acknowledge all of the intricacies and phenomena that have organically occurred can help you feel connected with the world. Give it a shot and see what you think!

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 think that there is a lot of ongoing tragedy and despair in our world right now, and it can cause a lot of tension and anxiety. This pandemic has made more people seclude as isolation continues, so I would encourage people to reach out to someone you haven’t talked to in a while. Strike up a conversation about something interesting or ask them a random philosophical question. Human connection is essential to overall wellbeing, and we are fortunate that we still can connect virtually despite contact restrictions. I encourage everyone to connect with others as much as they can. You never know if it’s the one thing that will brighten someone’s day.

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 love to learn from people. I think everyone I meet has a tidbit of knowledge that I can learn from; this is why I love attending conferences and meeting people! There are so many people that I would love to have a conversation with, but if I had to choose just one, I would choose John Kabat-Zinn because his work is what started my interest in mindfulness. I’d love to pick his brain on the construct of mindfulness and hear about his experiences bringing the practice to western cultures.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers can follow my research regarding mindfulness on my ResearchGate and my research on weighted blankets at I’m also happy to chat with anyone interested in learning more on improving general well-being. Feel free to connect with me via LinkedIn.

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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