Dr. Naomi Torres-Mackie of The Mental Health Coalition: “Healthy eating is such a complex topic”

Healthy eating is such a complex topic. Everyone has their own ideas about what this means, and so what it means to me won’t be the same as what it means to you. For me, though, eating healthy means eating in a way that makes me feel physically and mentally well. It took some time […]

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Healthy eating is such a complex topic. Everyone has their own ideas about what this means, and so what it means to me won’t be the same as what it means to you. For me, though, eating healthy means eating in a way that makes me feel physically and mentally well. It took some time to figure out exactly what those foods are and when I need them, but this shift was the type of game changer that has had long-lasting positive effects.

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 interviewingDr. Naomi Torres-Mackie.

Dr. Naomi Torres-Mackie wears many hats as the Head of Research at the Mental Health Coalition (founded in early 2020 by Kenneth Cole), clinical psychology postdoctoral fellow at Lenox Hill Hospital, Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Columbia University, and Co-Founder of the social justice-focused consultancy Nascent Consulting. She earned her Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Columbia University, where she completed her dissertation on strength construction in the context of stigma and strain. Dr. Torres-Mackie, across all of her work, is driven by building bridges in a way that uproots systemic inequity in its various forms.

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?

Sure — I grew up in a small, close-knit community that modeled connection to the collective and fierce protection of those who experience hardship. My family was also small in size but big in love. For a few reasons, I had early and enduring firsthand experiences of what being cast as “other” feels like, and that stuck with me. Beyond that, my childhood was filled with a necessity for resourcefulness, imagination, and self-reliance. I was lucky in many ways that allowed me to thrive and eventually beak into academia — something that seemed completely impossible as a kid.

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

This is a big question. I took a nontraditional road to becoming a psychologist that involved a lot of surprises, setbacks, and adventures. More than a decade ago, I was doing well in the corporate world when I had the nagging feeling that my work didn’t align with my own mission-driven values. I was putting in long hours during the week and volunteering on the weekends because I wanted to be serving others in a meaningful way. Something had to give. I decided to completely switch direction and pursue a career that would allow me to focus on what felt the most meaningful to me.

I found the field of psychology by recognizing that, especially by attending a unique doctoral program at Columbia that focuses on social justice and systems-based approaches to care, I could utilize not only my intellectual interests and fascination with people, but my core personality traits to have a wellness-focused impact. Since then, my work has centered on that, and I’ve been lucky to find that in the field of psychology, I feel at home.

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 agree — everything I’ve done has been with the support of my tribe, and I am a firm believer that no success is built alone. I have to break the rules here a little because I can’t pinpoint one person… My family provided models for the values that led me to the field of psychology, my partner taught me how to combat self-doubt, my friends kept me laughing and connected to the world outside of psychology, and my brilliant early colleagues intimidated me just enough so that I remain inspired to never be done improving my clinical, research, and teaching skills.

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?

There have been so many mistakes! Triumphs, sure, but mistakes are what my partner and I have vowed to celebrate just as much as successes, so I appreciate this question. One that sticks out in my mind was early on — it was during second year of my doctoral program, which is known to be the toughest of them all. I was working on a 20-page neuropsychology report and flipping through the hundreds of pages of assessment protocols that had taken 15 hours to administer with a nervous and generous volunteer. I had a scented candle lit, naturally, because this was a stressful assignment that was due in 12 hours. I turned a bunch of protocol pages at once, and they landed directly in the flame. To my horror, a giant hole burned through the middle before I could stop it. In that moment, it felt like the sky had fallen. A lot was riding on this report, and the protocols were the only way to prove my work. Long story short, I survived the humiliation of turning in the documents looking like I had some serious anger management issues, and although it set me back somewhat, I was able to finish out my second year unscathed. Now whenever I have a “the world is on fire” moment in my professional life, I remember the incinerated protocols and feel assured that I’ll make it through.

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?

I mentioned it was a windy road to get to where I am, and Michelle Obama’s Becoming book was released at exactly the time I needed it. The year it came out, I was hit with a major medical crisis that completely derailed all of my carefully laid professional plans and expectations for what the next few years would look like. Since planning is gospel for me — or was until that point anyway — this felt earth-shattering. During my medical recovery, I read Becoming and will never forget the wave of relief that washed over me as the former FLOTUS described the importance of swerving. I hadn’t considered the value in being directionless and taking a more windy, unconventional path. I’m very thankful I did, and thankful for Mrs. Obama’s words that allowed me to embrace the swerving process rather than resist it. By doing this, I’ve found myself willingly and joyfully on a non-standard professional journey that’s more gratifying than any cookie cutter could have been.

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

Always leave a place better than you found it. I think I heard this from both my grandmother and mother during childhood. I like it because it speaks to a duty to the collective. It also discourages satisfaction with the status quo and encourages thinking about what can be different — better — more balanced — more equitable — and so on. Using both micro and macro lenses in my work, I constantly have an eye on this. In that way, remembering this quote gives me a sense of agency. “The die has been cast” is another that’s stuck with me, but you asked for only one so we’ll save that story for another time.

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

Last year, I joined The Mental Health Coalition as Head of Research and am so thrilled about where we’re headed. The coalition is able to reach so many people in a meaningful way in order to address the devastating stigma around mental health. Right now, we’re focusing on harnessing empathy and conversation in a way that tears down the stigma that gets in the way of so many people’s optimal functioning. The founding MHC team did a fantastic job of bringing together the brightest organizations in mental health in a way that hasn’t been done before. So stay tuned — I’m really excited for all that we’ve done and are gearing up to do.

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.

I’ve got lots of thoughts here but will do my best to summarize. Key to finding optimum mental wellness is discovering an approach that works for you. I’m happy to speak to what has worked for me, and what I see working for many of my current and former patients. The top three have to be: fostering playfulness, embracing vulnerability, and utilizing connection to heal.

As adults, we often lose our sense of play. The realities of life, though, don’t need to turn out the light on playfulness. I find that embracing this allows you to get in touch with the inner child that existed before the world got in the way of joy and carefreeness. Vulnerability is also terribly difficult in adulthood. Kids on the other hand are masters of it — “will you be my friend?” is asked without shame, and “I’m scared,” “I’m hurt,” “I need you” are spoken without hesitation. There are so many valid reasons why adults lose their inclination to be vulnerable, but tapping back into it is freeing. Typically, the more we show of ourselves to others, the easier it is to connect with others. That leads me to my last tip here — the importance of connection. American culture preaches the importance of rugged individualism, and sure, there’s merit to that, but healing is generally found in connection with others. We are social beings, and a sense of connection and belonging are essential to satisfaction in life. Making time and space for this while taking the risk to try to connect with others is the antidote to the loneliness and isolation that blocks so many of us from true mental wellness.

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

In this department, I don’t practice what I preach as much as I should, but I have been known to practice yoga nidra, or yogic sleep. It’s a powerful meditation technique that helps me transition from the busyness of my day to powering down for rest. Whenever I practice or advocate the practice of this, I try to remain mindful of the traditions I am borrowing from and attempt to do so in a respectful way.

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.

On the tails of what we were just talking about, the first thought I have is: sleep, sleep, sleep. I’m not sure there’s anything better for optimum physical wellness. We too often trade it for something else — more work, anxiety, or play — but it’s crucial for short and long-term health.

Also, know your body. So many of us are used to zipping along through the days and weeks that we don’t stop and notice how our physical bodies are feeling. Knowing your body means noticing your body and when it feels off. Only then can do you something to change it.

Lastly — find fun in taking care of your physical wellness. It too often becomes a chore. Creating fun in the care of your body could mean adding a social aspect (e.g., go for a walk with a loved one), a silly aspect (e.g., have a dance party for one to shake off stress), or an adventurous aspect (e.g., choose a hike over an indoor cycling class). Do whatever works for you, just make it fun.

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?

Healthy eating is such a complex topic. Everyone has their own ideas about what this means, and so what it means to me won’t be the same as what it means to you. For me, though, eating healthy means eating in a way that makes me feel physically and mentally well. It took some time to figure out exactly what those foods are and when I need them, but this shift was the type of game changer that has had long-lasting positive effects.

I think a big roadblock the keeps us from integrating health advice into our daily lives is that a lot of the advice out there is unrealistic — it doesn’t account for the real lives that people lead. It also typically is one-size-fits-all, and that approach does not work with 99% of people. Information that speaks to your specific lifestyle is hard to come by but important for understanding what will truly be useful for fostering more wellness in your life. Remembering this can also remove some of the sense of disappointment or failure when one of those “standard” approaches doesn’t work for you.

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

Oh yes — I talk about emotional wellness all day every day as a clinician. My first tip is to, as we say at The Mental Health Coalition, understand that it’s ok to not be ok. There’s so much pressure to constantly convey a picture-perfect image (hello, toxic positivity), and there’s so much stigma around not doing well. But, we all know what it feels like to not feel emotionally well, especially these days, and embracing that can bring about a great deal of acceptance and healing.

My second is to feel your feelings. Feelings are healthy — they are what make us human — and they are what gives life to life. We too often try to hide our feelings or not feel them. That just comes back to bite us in the end. Embrace your feelings, accept them for what they are, and try to let them go when they’re no longer serving you.

Lastly, find connection. Connect with yourself yes, but even better is to connect with others. Wellness is fostered in community. These days that might need to be created online, and that works too. Just put in effort to create emotional wellness by connecting with others. I’m not sure I can emphasize this enough. I also, by the way, recognize that these ideas are easier said than done. Be patient with yourself — wellness is a lifelong journey.

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

There are studies to back up the connection between smiling and emotional wellness, and it is interesting stuff. Just forming your mouth into a smile creates a physiological response that can improve your mood. There’s also a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT; Linehan, 2015) technique that I like a lot and not only teach my patients but use myself — it’s called “half-smiling and willing hands.” It is simple and it works. All you do is create a tiny smile (a “half smile”) and hold your arms loose by your side with your palms turned slightly outward. What this does is put your body in a physical position that’s willing and ready for whatever comes, and whatever stress you might be feeling in the moment actually becomes difficult to hold on to. Sure sounds silly but doesn’t take much and is one of those small things you can do anywhere.

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

I personally think of spiritual wellness as an integration. The point at which mental, emotional, physical, and intellectual wellness meet is, to me, spiritual wellness. To practice spiritual wellness, I ask clients to think of practices that touch on these various dimensions at once. Some of the most common mechanisms people seem to benefit from are connecting with others, spending time in nature, and practicing rest across all of these domains at once (i.e., simultaneously powering down your mental, emotional, physical, and intellectual systems).

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

Nature bathing, nature therapy, all these nature cures have become so trendy, but they’re not just trends — these practices go back centuries and are legit. We also now have empirical data showing how time in nature allows us to relax, foster creativity, and increase problem solving (Atchley, Strayer, & Atchley, 2012). This is because our brains, especially the frontal cortex, need to rest, but the hectic realities of modern living make that difficult unless we escape to nature. The wilderness also provides a sense of calm and awe — things that are associated with spiritual wellness. It only makes sense that in natural space we feel more connected with our spiritual selves.

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.

What pressure — this is a big question! I would have to say that mental health and mental health conditions are part of life and deserve the same amount of time, care, and attention as physical health and physical conditions. By allowing mental health stigma to run rampant, we neglect a large part of our society. People are silenced, ashamed, and stuck in a system that devalues their way of being. If we can eliminate mental health stigma, we can create an environment where people can thrive unencumbered by negative judgment.

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 definitely want a lunch (can it be cocktails?) with Aidy Bryant. I want to know her secrets, and we’d have a hoot.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Check out The Mental Health Coalition (thementalhealthcoalition.org) on all the usual platforms, sign up for my consultancy’s newsletter (https://www.nascent.consulting), and follow along as I try to figure out Twitter (@ntorresmackie).

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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