Dr. Heather Bolton: “Connecting to something greater than yourself is another important one”

Connecting to something greater than yourself is another important one. For some people that will be religion but it might also be things like community, work, family or nature. Being part of something bigger than you can help cultivate that sense of meaning and purpose too. Often when we refer to wellness, we assume that we […]

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Connecting to something greater than yourself is another important one. For some people that will be religion but it might also be things like community, work, family or nature. Being part of something bigger than you can help cultivate that sense of meaning and purpose too.

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 Cultivate Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Heather Bolton.

Heather is a clinical psychologist and works as Head of Psychology at Unmind, a workplace mental health platform. She completed her doctorate in clinical psychology at University College London in 2010, followed by a post-graduate diploma in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) at London’s Institute for Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience. Prior to joining Unmind she spent around ten years working in the UK’s National Health Service helping to improve access to psychological therapies.

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 grew up in the suburbs of Glasgow in Scotland, with my parents and my younger sister and brother. We lived in the same house for my whole childhood and my most vivid memories are of playing outside for hours on end during the summer months. I loved animals and we had pet rabbits from about the age of eight. We had two initially but they really did multiply and we had about twenty bunnies hopping around at one point. Our back garden was a place where all our friends wanted to spend time for that reason! I loved school and had a close knit group of friends, who I’m still good friends with today. My university years were definitely more formative than my school years and I loved the freedom of that time, and the fun of living in a scrappy flatshare with friends, working in a supermarket and saving up to go backpacking in the summer breaks.

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

I always knew I wanted to work in a helping profession but I was never sure exactly what that would be. I considered vocational degrees like speech therapy and social work, but in the end I chose psychology as it was such an interesting subject. A psychology degree doesn’t really prepare you for being a practicing psychologist — it’s more about gaining a broad understanding of things like memory, learning, neuroscience and behavior — so there was no set path for me on graduating. After finishing my education in Scotland, I moved to London to work on a longitudinal twin study. The study followed 1,100 pairs of twin children living all over the UK, with the aim of better understanding how mental health problems develop over time. Working on the twin study, I became truly fascinated by human development and the nuanced ways we’re shaped by our life experiences. Clinical training felt like a natural progression from there.

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?

Temi Moffitt, the professor who led the twin study, was perhaps the most influential person in my early career. She was a real pioneer and very successful in our field and she made me feel so valued, even though I was a tiny cog in a huge study. I think she helped us all believe we could achieve anything we set our hearts on, and she was very encouraging of me pursuing clinical training.

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 spent a few years leading a therapy team in a London prison and I was naively optimistic when I started working there. All I wanted to do was make the biggest possible difference in people’s lives and I think I really overestimated the difference I could make. Perhaps not a mistake but I wasn’t prepared for the harshness of the environment or the brutality of the life stories I absorbed on a daily basis, and I felt pretty helpless in the face of huge systemic problems. I learned a lot from that time and it shaped my desire to step away from 1–1 work and into a role where I could make a difference on a more systemic level.

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?

Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman. I read it shortly after finishing university and it was a really refreshing change from the topics I’d encountered as part of my degree. It properly introduced me to the field of positive psychology, and the way that we can cultivate happiness, and I remember feeling like I’d stumbled on something really special.

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

It’s not strictly a quote but a question: “what’s the worst that could happen?”. It might sound basic but it’s a question that’s used a lot within CBT to help people experiment with facing things they’re afraid of. As humans, we tend to overestimate the likelihood of things going wrong in life and underestimate our ability to cope, so stepping back and really thinking about the worst case scenario can put things into perspective. I’ve learned that worrying too much about what might happen tends to get in the way of good things actually happening!

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

At Unmind I’m working on our first academic studies to evaluate the impact of our digital platform. Digital mental health is a relatively new field and the evidence base is still emerging so I hope our findings will contribute to the evidence base in a meaningful way. And of course our research will circle back and fuel continuous improvements of the platform itself. I’m also involved in a lot of exciting work within our content team. We really adapted to meet our users’ needs in the context of coronavirus and we’ve created a lot of content to help navigate the challenges of the pandemic. I find that really rewarding and I’m excited about what we’ll be producing in the coming months. We also recently launched an introductory mental health training program, to help employees learn to support others. It’s exciting to work with clients who want to roll it out across their workforce and we’re seeing great feedback coming from early adopters.

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. One big one is accepting that there are things we can’t control. It’s a very human experience to get caught up worrying about things that we can’t change but that’s often wasted energy, as it can generate a lot of anxiety and get in the way of us addressing the things within our sphere of influence. We often can’t change things like others’ behavior, or the state of politics and that’s when we need to focus on ourselves. It can be hard to apply this in practice but giving yourself permission to let go of the uncontrollables (even temporarily) can be immensely liberating.
  2. Practicing the art of gratitude is also proven to lead to greater mental wellbeing. As humans, we’re primed to notice threats and negativity but if we deliberately focus our attention on what we’re grateful for, it can shift our mindset and lead to lasting changes. At the end of each day, take five minutes to acknowledge three things that went well during that day. They don’t have to be life-changing things — maybe it’s having fresh sheets on your bed, the cup of tea you had earlier on, or a conversation with a friend. Write them down, along with the feelings associated with them, and try to pin down an explanation for why these things went well. If you can make this a habit it can have a lasting impact on your mental health.
  3. We also can’t underestimate the power of being in the present moment. Our minds are often caught up in future worry or busy dwelling on things from the past but, where we’re fully in the present our minds are more at rest. Practicing mindfulness meditation is one way to make this a habit, but there are many ways to be in the present — just noticing the rhythm of your breath, tuning into sounds around you, or bringing your awareness to your body. Even just a few minutes a day can have positive effects so it’s worth experimenting with.

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 definitely feel more grounded when I’m doing yoga but in reality I often struggle to make the time for it. I’ve recently started Adriene’s Breath program, a 30-day yoga journey that she streams for free online. She’s amazing and inspiring and, although I’m not doing it every day, it’s lovely to feel part of a global community.

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. Good exercise habits are definitely important for physical health but that means something different to all of us. I think the key to making exercise stick is to make sure that you’re not setting unrealistic expectations of yourself — if you hate running there’s no point trying to force yourself to go for a jog every morning before work but maybe you’re more likely to walk the long way home, or go a walk with a podcast at lunchtime. The key to exercise is factoring in cues to remind you to get going (e.g. leaving your trainers at the door) and rewards (so you’re more likely to do it again). But exercise also has intrinsic rewards as it helps release feel-good chemicals and often leads to a sense of satisfaction, so getting started is usually the hardest part.
  2. I think posture is another thing that’s becoming increasingly important for our bodies. We’re simply not designed to sit at desks all day. Sitting straight, with good back support and taking time away from the desk is super important for all of us. If you’re scheduling back-to-back zoom calls, try and finish each one 5 minutes early and get some movement in. A few of my colleagues strive to have walking meetings rather than desk ones, and I think that’s a brilliant way to let your body move and stretch during the working day.
  3. Sleeping well is key to all aspects of wellness. It’s normal to feel bad when the alarm goes off but if you wake up groggy and still feel sleepy an hour after getting up, you’re probably not getting enough sleep. Good sleep habits are partly about what you do in bed, for instance not looking at screens, but a huge part of it is about your daytime habits. Things like getting enough daylight, limiting caffeine, avoiding alcohol before bed and having a proper wind down routine in the evening can all make a huge difference to sleep quality.

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?

First of all I’m a great believer in a balanced diet and not depriving yourself of things you want. Holding yourself to an ideal of eating well all the time is unrealistic and life’s too short in my view! It’s also important to remember that food is necessary fuel for our brains and bodies and not some sort of reward for being a good person.

There are definitely things we should strive to do like drink enough water, eat enough vegetables, and limit refined sugars, caffeine and processed foods. There’s increasing evidence to show that our gut microbiome is very important (and impacts our mental health too) so eating a variety of foods that promote gut health is perhaps more important than what we strive to avoid.

When it comes to what we eat, I think part of the problem is that we’re saturated with so much information, which is often contradictory, and doesn’t always have our best intentions at heart, because it very often comes through advertising. We’re often sold an aspiration that’s designed to make us feel guilty or inadequate so we buy whatever product is on offer. But really, the best advice I can give to anyone is to listen to the needs of your body and try not to compare yourself to unrealistic ideals.

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

  1. When it comes to emotional distress, many of us quite naturally want to hide from strong negative feelings, but they’re not something to be afraid of. Feelings are there for a reason and we can learn a lot from them. Anger tells us that we’ve been wrong and can spur us into taking action; anxiety tells us that there’s a threat that needs our attention; sadness often means we’ve lost something and need to adjust. Something like shame can feel overpowering but can be harder to bear when we try to escape it. So rather than shy away from difficult feelings (or escape them with things like alcohol) aim to sit with them and treat them with curiosity.
  2. Finding an outlet for negative emotional energy is also important. We all need to burn off negative energy so find healthy ways to do that, whether that’s exercise, talking to friends, music or journaling. Knowing how to self-soothe is also very helpful — so when you’re upset you have ways to contain those feelings. Engaging your different senses can be a good way to do this, for instance focusing on comforting smells or wrapping yourself in comforting textures.
  3. Don’t estimate the power of the breath. When we’re stressed or emotional, we tend to take short shallow breaths into our chests. But breathing deep down into our abdomen can bring us into a state of deep relaxation. It’s worth being aware of your breathing and noticing when you’re in that stressed shallow state, and taking five minutes to slow it down and breathe deep into your belly, to bring you into a state where you feel calm and safe. Our breathing is a tool that will always be with us no matter where we are, so it’s worth befriending it as a useful tool.

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

The facial feedback hypothesis dates back to Darwin and states that our facial expressions directly affect our emotions — so as well as happiness making us smile, smiling should make us happy. And there’s evidence to show that smiling can have emotional benefits: when we smile our brains release neuropeptides that help fight off stress, along with feel-good hormones like endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. Of course smiling can’t solve everything but I think there’s some merit in using it for a temporary lift, or perhaps getting yourself into a positive state of mind before a meeting or phone call.

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

  1. Spirituality is different for everyone but for me one element is finding meaning and purpose in your day to day life. Finding that purpose isn’t something to overthink but it’s probably more of a gut feeling, like when you’re engaged in something you truly love and get into a state of flow (where time just seems to pass). If you’re living your purpose you’re not focused on an end goal, you’re just doing it, and that’s such a valuable way to live.
  2. Connecting to something greater than yourself is another important one. For some people that will be religion but it might also be things like community, work, family or nature. Being part of something bigger than you can help cultivate that sense of meaning and purpose too.
  3. Finally, I think continued growth is important. That might come in many forms, whether that’s travelling, learning or reading. But again it’s not about pursuing an end goal, or aiming for a certain success, it’s about being present in that process.

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

I absolutely think we need nature to keep us in balance and I find that green space restores me when I’m depleted. There’s lots of evidence to show that being in nature is good for our minds and bodies, for instance lowering blood pressure, reducing stress and aiding creativity. On a spiritual level, being in nature can also be very humbling and can remind us of the interconnectedness of everything.

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.

Goodness, if only we could! I still think that not enough people are actively taking care of their mental health, and many governments around the world don’t prioritize it. I’d make mental health part of the curriculum in every school around the world, so that it became an everyday, non-stigmatized topic that people have the language to talk about. Making it mainstream would mean better recognition of emerging problems and it would empower people to better take care of their own mental health, and support others to do the same.

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’m going to say Brené Brown because she’s so full of wisdom and compassion and she’s brought some really important topics to the fore. I feel like I’d be able to take on anything after brunch with Brené!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow Unmind’s mission via our website. We’re on LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter too. I’m not a huge social media user but you can find me on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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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