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Dr. Tola T’Sarumi of Harvard Medical School: “Be authentic”

Practicing forgiveness is a key strategy to freeing the person doing the forgiving from years of being held back in their life. It’s important to note that no one is perfect; therefore, we have to offer grace for those failings. I do emphasize this especially when it comes to parent –child relationships. It’s always important […]

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Practicing forgiveness is a key strategy to freeing the person doing the forgiving from years of being held back in their life. It’s important to note that no one is perfect; therefore, we have to offer grace for those failings. I do emphasize this especially when it comes to parent –child relationships. It’s always important for the child to forgive and let go of the past hurts. Parents didn’t come into the world with a parent manual and when we look at this through this lens it’s easier to forgive and be a better parent same in subordinate –managerial relationship.


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 Dr. Tola T’Sarumi, MD

Dr. Tola T’Sarumi is a licensed Psychiatrist and Emotional Wellness Strategist; an Addiction Psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital/ McLean hospital and a Faculty of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who is passionate about women’s issues and overcoming the stigmas associated with mental illness.

Dr. Tola is a recipient of numerous awards for her work on Alcohol Use Disorder; Physician Suicide: the Silent Epidemic and Synthetic Cannabinoid Use. She has been featured in Medscape, the Canadian Medical Journal, the American Association of Publishing Leadership, The American Journal on Addiction, Health eCareers, Thrive Global; The Washington Post and on podcast shows to name a few.

She is a sought after expert and mentor on addiction; substance use disorders and physician suicide. You can find her online at www.drtola.com or strolling the streets of Boston with her husband and twin children.


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 was sickly growing up, but enjoyed sports (track and field). I also learned about the suicide of an uncle, but wondered why no one talked about it. Over the years, I saw the devastation of what I now know as addiction- alcohol use disorder and the damage it causes in families and it broke my heart.

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

Growing up as a child, I had severe asthma and spent countless times in the ER. My memorable experiences where I would arrive at the ER in so much distress and recall leaving feeling much better. This was my first introduction to the medical field and a world I knew I wanted to be a part of. Over time the relationship with my family doctor grew and our families became close and his family and ours became family friends. At the age of 5, I told my parents that I wanted to be doctor and they encouraged me by getting me Fisher Price doctor sets and when I got a little older, I got my first real stethoscope. My family doctor also played a big role in my continued path in medicine. As soon as I became old enough to volunteer, I did at doctor clinics and the hospital.

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?

It would have to be my mother. Both my parents take getting an education very seriously and that was important to them in the way we were raised. My mother got her undergrad degree in Microbiology and a Master’s in Public Health and my dad Mechanical Engineering with a MBA. My mom’s passion to educate and train children in STEM led her to teaching and this was very captivating to me. I consider her the bedrock of my foundation. In my pursuit of going to medical school, she was there to support me all the way and has always been my greatest cheerleader. When I had twins in residency, she dropped everything to stay with me and help with the kids, so I could focus on my psychiatric residency program.

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 have a philosophy that everything in life is a learning opportunity for the next level, so when I gave my first presentation nerves and all, I forgot the introduction of the presentation, which I had rehearsed a thousand times. I learned how forgiving an audience can be and got to start over after getting my nerves under control.

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?

There are many books that have been instrumental in my life. However, the most interesting one I read recently is Beyond My Dreams by Olajumoke Adenowo. The book is about Leadership, Love, Family, Relationship and Spirituality.

I resonated with it because one of the character had unresolved trauma, which parlayed into his adult life and I could see the parallel as a psychiatrist who has to deal with patients that present with childhood trauma.

Essence of psychiatry lie with connectedness and this book shows how we cultivate our relationships; spirituality and the effects of childhood trauma on an individual.

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

I have two:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” Steve Jobs

“You can get anything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.” Zig Ziglar

Being a psychiatrist is not just a job, but a calling. As psychiatrists, we see so many who are suffering in silence and more work needs to be done to break the stigma with mental health in communities globally. My goal is to help as many people understand that it’s okay to ask for help by “Just asking.”

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

One of the most exciting projects, I’m working on is in my specific area of interest, which is how suicide continues to impact so many including physicians. There has been a sharp increase in suicide especially among the young adult population in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, so I have an increased focus and urgency to highlight the role of substance use; isolation and the impact on communities at large.

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. Be grateful daily
  2. Help One Person Everyday (H.O.P.E.)
  3. Be authentic

Be grateful daily:

The power of gratitude can change your entire outlook on life. The grateful trait has been suggested to be an important source of human strength in achieving and maintaining good mental health. This world isn’t perfect and so much has happened in the past year with so much loss and negative impact on the way we live. It’s so easy to start each day with the wrong attitude, but I have realized having a grateful journal goes a long way and helps one keep things in perspective. When I practice this exercise it totally lifts my spirits and if I was feeling overwhelmed, I can look at my journal and get overwhelmed with pure joy.

H.O.P.E. (Help One Person Everyday):

It’s so easy to get consumed with our lives, but if we take some time and a break from our busy lives, we’ll see that there is someone around that could use our help. It doesn’t have to be anything grandiose, something as simple as a phone call could make a difference on the mental state of a friend or family member and helping the elderly get their groceries also goes a long way. The bottom line we all can help no matter how small.

Be authentic:

It is more important than ever before to be real. Being authentic should just be a buzzword, but should be a part and parcel of one’s lifestyle. Being authentic frees the individual and allows them to tap into their true identity, value and spirit.

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 with a focus on visualization meditation. This gives me the opportunity to visualize how and where I see myself, my goal and plans. I also take deep breaths and I find it very relaxing, it helps in stress reduction and provides me with a sense of clarity and calm. And this is a technique I share with my patients.

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. Movement
  2. Preventive Care (Physical checkup)
  3. Stress Reduction

Movement:

Studies suggest 15 mins of movement a day is critical to our physical health. Finding what works for you either as an indoor or outdoor person is a good way to approach physical activity. Most people will say there is no time, but I say to anyone who says that, movement can be incorporated in activities of our daily lives. Taking the stairs, playing with your kids, parking further away are small but important examples of how one can promote good health habits. We all only have the same 24 hours, so we have to be intentional about incorporating physical activity big or small in our routines

Physical checkups. (preventative medicine):

Including regular yearly doctor checkup is so important as part of our wellness journey. Just like one would take a car for a tune-up, we do also have to get checked regularly. We do not have to wait till we have symptoms before seeing a doctor. An old adage that I live by is “health is wealth.” It’s important to visit your doctor, dentist, or other health care providers for routine care and monitoring for optimal health.

Stress Reduction:

Stress is an often overlooked factor that causes myriad of illnesses. It is a silent killer and its effect can be devastating. Following some simple stress reduction tips listed below is the start in the right direction

  • Set priorities
  • Manage your time well
  • Manage your space well (stay organized)
  • Plan ahead
  • Meditate and be mindful
  • Set boundaries
  • Take control and take responsibility
  • Learn to say no
  • Get plenty of sleep (rest)
  • Exercise

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?

Changing bad habits is difficult and things have only gotten worse with the pandemic. As a result of some of the preventative measures put in place to keep us safe from the virus, unfortunately bad habits have formed where the refrigerator has now become the bane of our existence. When it comes to habits that need to change it requires a lot of discipline and determination to desire that change in what we eat. Studies show we must do an activity repetitively before it becomes habitual and same goes with a choice to get into a healthy eating routine.

There is a myth about the cost of eating healthy and it’s important to break that misconception. A great way to address this will be to create a meal plan and shop with a grocery list that supports the weekly or bi-weekly meal plan. If there are tweens or teen children in your household engage them in the meal planning. The converse is to default to fast food, which may seem easier on the pocket book or time, but more damaging to our health. This is not an all-out ban on eating out, but a way to set intention that fosters great habits over time. The key thing is starting and modeling this way of life for your kids.

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

  1. Self-care
  2. Journal (written or audio)
  3. Movement

Self-care

Give yourself permission to put yourself first. It’s okay to say no and no you’re not being selfish. A good way to think about this, is every time you say, know that you’re saying no to your dreams and goals. An excellent reminder is on an airplane when the announcement is made about safety measures, the requirement is the adult flying with a child put on their oxygen mask first before putting on the child. This should also apply to how we operate in life because we cannot pour out of an empty cup.

Journal

Start writing in a journal and practice dropping ‘G-Bombs’ (Gratitude bombs) throughout your day. This will spark inner joy and an overall positive wellbeing. Pick a time of the day to journal and be consistent. Not much of a writer, then create an audio journal. This quick 30 to 60 second recordings of yourself reciting something you’re grateful for goes a long way and is available for reference when you need that boost. There are a myriad of tools to use for journaling from your phone voice recorder or notes to several cool apps in the app stores.

Movement

Incorporating movement into your day is really important and remains atop my list of micro habits to adopt. Movement doesn’t have to be anything strenuous nor does it require gym membership. It can be accomplished in so many ways like 5 minute bursts of movement incorporated throughout the day three or four times. I love this quote while it pertains to running, it can be modified for movement “running is cheaper than therapy.” Yes, intentional movement in any form is beneficial to the whole person.

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

Smiling does have a ripple effect and it can be contagious. When a smiling person enters a room, it changes the atmosphere compared to someone with a frown. Smiling helps in recovering faster from stress induced illnesses. Smiling when answering the phone can dispel a potential contentious issue and I love the quote that says “use your smile to change the world, don’t let the world change your smile.”

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

1. Purpose

2. Forgiveness

3. Affirmations

Purpose

When a person feels like they have a purpose or a cause they believe in, they are fueled by natural energy. That natural energy keeps them focused and they tend to experience less distraction or procrastination, which has eliminated a couple of bad habits and allowed them to imbibe a lifestyle that is disciplined. This purpose will also see you through obstacles that will arise to potentially derail.

Forgiveness

Practicing forgiveness is a key strategy to freeing the person doing the forgiving from years of being held back in their life. It’s important to note that no one is perfect; therefore, we have to offer grace for those failings. I do emphasize this especially when it comes to parent –child relationships. It’s always important for the child to forgive and let go of the past hurts. Parents didn’t come into the world with a parent manual and when we look at this through this lens it’s easier to forgive and be a better parent same in subordinate –managerial relationship.

Affirmations

Reciting affirmations daily is a great habit that fosters a positive energy. It provides inner peace and has a great impact on one’s outlook for their day. Reciting affirmations could also be incorporated into your journaling routine.

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

Nature has a way of bringing about a sense of calm and peace. A good walk/run outside provides a perspective that fosters an appreciation for the creator and is a way to reset when feelings of overwhelm tries to seep in. Seeing the birds and squirrels existing without cares or worries brings about an immediate mindset shift that heals.

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.

It would be a movement to challenge the global community that seeking therapy or help for mental health issues should not be a taboo. I would create a World Therapy Day or something to that effect. It’s ok to ask for help; seek help with the notion that having a therapist is okay

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 Dr. Oz because I know that he has a huge platform and is able to use that influence to spread the message of everyone getting help when it comes to mental illness just like someone with cancer will seek help, those suffering from mental illness should not experience stigma or shame. When celebrities and influencers start this dialogue it will go a long way to diffuse the associated stigma.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

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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