Olga Phoenix: “Smiling is powerful, indeed!”

Smiling is powerful, indeed! It releases endorphins and serotonin which are natural chemicals that elevate our mood, help us relax, and even reduce physical pain. Interestingly enough, even if our smile is not genuine, just the physical act of smiling can help our bodies release endorphins and serotonin, thus boosting our mood. Watching a funny […]

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Smiling is powerful, indeed! It releases endorphins and serotonin which are natural chemicals that elevate our mood, help us relax, and even reduce physical pain. Interestingly enough, even if our smile is not genuine, just the physical act of smiling can help our bodies release endorphins and serotonin, thus boosting our mood. Watching a funny TV show, a comedy standup, or a feel-good animated movie may lead to smiles, a more positive outlook, and improved emotional wellness.

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 interviewingOlga Phoenix.

Olga Phoenix, MPA, MA is an internationally recognized resilience, wellbeing, and burnout prevention expert, speaker, and author. She is the creator of the Self-Care and the Resilience Wheels –some of the most searched, downloaded, and utilized wellbeing tools, translated in several languages, and featured widely in media outlets worldwide. Her keynotes, trainings, consulting programs, the online academy, and books empower individuals and organizations to grow and thrive via strategic planning, programming, and personal growth tools that foster resilience and wellbeing. To learn more, please visit www.olgaphoenix.com.

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 born and raised in a sleepy Russian port town at a time when the communist Soviet Union was still very much alive. At the age of 6, I was very fortunate to be accepted to the one of kind K-12 educational facility where kids focused on the study of several foreign languages, arts, and literature from the 1st grade through 12th. I loved it! Learning about other countries, customs, traditions, looking at textbook pictures of the Eiffel Tower, Acropolis, and Empire State Building was amazing but also bittersweet because as a citizen of a communist country with closed borders I knew I would never be able to visit any of these beautiful places in person.

When I was 11 years old my life profoundly changed. I lost my mother to domestic violence, received the label “ward of the state”, and entered the foster care system. A few months later the Soviet Union collapsed, bringing unspeakable poverty, the rise of organized crime, and country-wide social turmoil. Luckily, I was able to stay at the same school, where I had extraordinary support from my teachers.

In 1994 the US Department of State came to Russia with their highly competitive, merit-based scholarship program called “Future Leaders Student Exchange”. After multiple rounds of testing over one year, several scholarship winners would be selected to study in the United States. My English teacher entered me into the competition. I had all sorts of objections: why would an American program looking for “future leaders” choose me, a poverty-stricken orphan kid, from the middle of nowhere, Russia over thousands of other students? I’d be one of the youngest kids in the competition with no financial resources and no transportation to the city where the competition was held. But mainly, I could not fathom that a person like me could possibly have an opportunity to go to the United States, just a few short years after no citizen of the country could ever go abroad. Thankfully, my teacher convinced me to participate and personally took me to all of the competition events. And I won! In the summer of 1995, I stepped foot on American soil and my life has never been the same!

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

Because of my childhood experiences, I was drawn to a career in the domestic violence prevention field. I worked in various roles- advocate, counselor, but mainly, a trainer. The term self-care became the “it” word in the interpersonal violence prevention movement in the early 2000s. By that time, I was in great need of self-care in my life, and I wanted to learn everything there is to know about the topic. That led to me researching, creating, and facilitating self-care, wellness, and burnout prevention trainings.

Driven by my personal battles with burnout, I started including an anonymous group activity in all of my trainings called “How does your work affect you?” to see if there were other people who felt like I did. I most definitely wasn’t alone! My audience talked about complete and utter burnout on all life fronts- including strained personal relationships, declining mental and physical health, deep dissatisfaction with the quality of life- often as a direct result of pressures and stresses of their jobs. I thought “Surely, only victim service providers and crisis responders feel this way!” As my scope of work expanded to different fields- medical, criminal justice, journalism, education, military, the corporate world, I continued asking my audience the same question: “How does your work affect you?” Incredibly, year after year, thousands of people from various fields were telling me the same story victim advocates shared with me in the very beginning!

I started wondering if it was in fact true that personal and professional frustration, overwhelm, and exhaustion are inevitable parts of being human in the 21st century? Can we have full, healthy, purposeful, happy lives inside and outside of our work? After doing a tremendous amount of research, education, and work in the field, I learned that in fact, we can! There was a solution, and I set out to share the great news with the world! Since then, I’ve had a great privilege and an honor to be able to help hundreds of thousands of people to find their way to joy, happiness, and contentment, and to serve thousands of agencies in creating sustainable cultures of resilience and wellbeing. And what a wonderful ride it has been!

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’m so grateful that I’ve had so many cheerleaders along the way! People who really cared, and had my best interest in mind. One of the first and most important cheerleaders was my English teacher who signed me up to enter the “Future Leaders Student Exchange” scholarship program. She gave me permission to dream, to pursue the impossible, to show up for the opportunity that the universe laid out in front of my feet no matter how intimidated or scared I was. I said “Who am I to win this competition?” and she replied, “Who are you not?” She saw me as a talented capable student and that gave me the incredible emotional strength to rise to the level of her encouragement. She gave me the ability to see myself through her eyes, in a completely different, bright light, with a completely different, bright future. That woman changed my life, and I’m forever grateful.

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?

At one point I was on the road with my trainings so much, I haven’t seen my family in two weeks. I was sitting at yet another hotel, staring at yet another room service takeout, and thinking to myself: “Is this all my life has become? Planes, trainings, and hotels?” The road warrior lifestyle was my choice and really fun for me in the beginning, as it allowed for great professional growth and interesting collaborations, but it also made other very important things, like nurturing my personal relationships and taking care of myself, somewhat difficult for me to do.

Career took precedent in my life over relationships, self-care, and balance for many years. It took a nosedive in my overall health for me to change my ways. I was incredibly surprised that taking time for me, my loved ones, expanding my life purpose and meaning beyond my work- not only had a positive impact on the quality of my professional endeavors but naturally created more balance, more peace, more calm, more happiness in my life. Taking time to foster relationships and to take care of oneself is never optional, but in fact, a requirement for a full, enjoyable, high-quality life.

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?

“Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom” (2009) written by Dr. Rick Hanson, the neuropsychologist, Senior Fellow of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and New York Times best-selling author. In a very engaging and accessible way, Dr. Hanson explained how to change the neurochemistry of our brains by various mindfulness practices in order to achieve greater happiness, love, and wisdom. When I read this book as it first came out in 2009, I was simply blown away by the latest research in psychology and neuroscience which proved to me beyond any reasonable doubt that I hold the keys to my own happiness and wellbeing should I choose to engage in simple mindfulness practices. I believe that’s when I was completely and utterly sold on a notion that a strong health and overall wellbeing can be achieved by literally anyone with a little bit of effort and dedication to creating, developing, and practicing a personalized, sustainable, ongoing wellbeing routine. This book changed my life and led me to where I am today, personally and professionally. To this day I’m one of Dr. Hanson’s biggest fans and so very happy and grateful that he continually is coming out with new books, research, courses, and blogs that change people’s lives every day!

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

My favorite Life Lesson Quote is “To Thy Own Self Be True”. As a teenager, I heard the story about a dying man who said that his biggest regret was that he didn’t dare to pursue his dreams. Instead, he spent his life following the expectations of others. That affected me on a deep level. I didn’t want to be that person. I wanted to live life in freedom and authenticity, without regrets. I wanted to be in love with my life, full of energy, purpose and meaning. I didn’t want to exist in a “Groundhog Day” I saw adults in my life experience for years, just working to live, just surviving, just running on empty. I wanted to spend quality time with family and friends, pursuing my dreams, feeling strong, grounded, powerful, living my life on my terms, feeling like my future is bright, and my spirit is strong. And I wanted to be true to myself. I’ve been doing my best to live up to this goal ever since.

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

In the past year, I’ve been working incredibly hard to virtually connect with more people around the world and share a message of hope, healing, self-care, resilience, and wellbeing via our virtual events, trainings, and courses. One of my most popular tools, containing 88 self-care and wellbeing activities, called the Self-Care Wheel has been successfully used by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide since 2013. In April of 2020, as I was trying to find new ways to boost my own wellbeing during the lockdown, I came up with and released another tool, called the Resilience Wheel, containing 36 pandemic-friendly strategies to decrease stress and restore wellbeing. Over the past year, I’ve been creating industry-specific curriculums based on the Self-Care and the Resilience Wheels for schools, universities, hospitals, and mental health communities to help facilitate recovery, healing, and wellness in these difficult times with concrete tools that work. I’m also excited to report that two books based on both Self-Care and Resilience Wheels are in progress as well, and I cannot wait to share them with the world!

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.

In the past few decades, the concept of wellness or wellbeing was studied very extensively in an effort to find out why some people have it and others don’t; and, more importantly, how do we cultivate this precious commodity in our lives? The state of wellbeing- an experience of good physical and mental health, high life satisfaction, a sense of meaning or purpose, and improved ability to manage stress, was directly connected to sustainable, comprehensive, personalized, and ongoing wellbeing-building practices. People who engaged in their wellbeing routines regularly were feeling much less stressed, more happy, healthy, socially connected, and purposeful than those who didn’t.

Thus, we discovered that engaging in ongoing personalized well-rounded wellness practices offered us a priceless opportunity to not only be able to manage stress and adversity more effectively- but, with commitment and practice, could actually afford us a sustainable state of wellbeing, happiness, and overall life satisfaction regardless of what was happening in the world or our lives! It also meant, of course, that a consistent state of wellbeing is attainable by anyone!

What does a sustainable and well-rounded wellness routine look like in real life? There are thousands of practices and tools out there that nurture our wellbeing and I’ll mention many of them below-we just need to find what works for us, in this moment of our lives, in this stage of our relationships with ourselves and others. Discovering what works for us, what’s most important, creating a thorough wellbeing building plan, and engaging in ongoing practice- will result in improved physical, mental, emotional, spiritual health, nurturing relationships, and a sense of meaning or purpose- thus high life satisfaction. How exciting and hopeful is this?

Now that I covered the basics of how wellbeing fostering works, let’s talk about three good habits that can lead to optimum mental wellness.

A Habit of Practicing Gratitude. Time and time again, a gratitude practice was linked to better mental health and higher levels of happiness. Gratitude focuses on positive memories and experiences and builds up our internal positive reference bank, as well as creates a sense of fulfillment and appreciation of what we already have. As a result, gratitude creates a positive outlook on life, boosts wellbeing, improves relationships, and builds resiliency. Some of the ways we can practice gratitude: writing in a daily gratitude journal, expressing appreciation to important people in our lives, focusing on our strengths, making gratitude art and displaying it, reading inspirational literature, offering compliments and recognition, and reflecting on how far we’ve come.

A Habit of Setting Personal and Professional Goals. Intentionally pursuing our personal and professional growth, setting and achieving goals, learning or trying something new- boosts our mental wellness by producing a sense of personal accomplishment, improving self-confidence, raising self-esteem, and creating a sense of purpose in life. It could be as small as trying a new recipe and as large as going after an advanced degree or a new career- every effort to pursue something new and create meaning in our lives will increase our mental wellbeing. Some of the things we could do to stimulate our personal and professional growth: identifying short and long-term goals, creating a bucket list, getting mentored, attending a webinar, planning a vacation, setting a budget, joining a meetup, going on a date, and volunteering.

A Habit of Practicing Self-Love. Think about how we interact with our best friends. We support them, we feel compassion when they suffer, we accept them as they are. Self-love is about striving to treat yourself like your best friend. It’s a feeling of self-appreciation, self-kindness, and self-acceptance that grows over time as a result of continuous nurturing actions that support our wellbeing and growth. It’s difficult to practice self-love but it’s an integral part of our wellbeing and figuring out your self-love practices is incredibly important. Some things we could do to practice self-love: making a list of positive personal qualities and accomplishments, challenging inner critic, reaching out to a friend, pursuing personal healing, asking for help, learning nutrition basics, practicing digital detox, establishing good boundaries, and celebrating every win.

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’ve been a devout practitioner of guided meditation for many years now. For me, it’s one of those fail-proof tools in my wellbeing toolbox that always works, grounds, calms, relaxes, helps focus, and boosts overall outlook on life. I practice first thing in the morning, with my trusted Insight Timer app (in my opinion, the best meditation app on the market, offering an incredible number of excellent free meditations).

My relationship with meditation didn’t start out smoothly. At first, I had a tough time with it. But then, years ago, I had a wonderful and life-changing opportunity to chat with a real-life Buddhist monk on one of my trips to Thailand. I said to him: “Every time I sit down to meditate, my mind becomes a wild monkey, running around in circles, and chattering non-stop about the most random things like this month’s budget, my dentist appointment, or a work presentation 6 months from now. How do I get my mind to be still and think nothing at all?” He answered with the kindest smile, “I can relate. The idea of meditation is to get grounded in the present moment. But the mind will always wonder, we just become more skilled in bringing the mind back and enjoying the present moment more with practice”. That was the greatest lesson for me in mindfully and non-judgmentally accepting my monkey mind and lovingly guiding it back, time after time, to the present moment and peace.

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.

A Habit of Prioritizing Sleep. Sleep deficiency has several detrimental effects on our mental and physical health, including cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, and impaired cognitive functioning. Optimizing and prioritizing our sleep habits improves mood, mental and physical performance, metabolism, and energy levels. Getting on a consistent sleep schedule, monitoring caffeine intake, eliminating screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime, creating a before-bed relaxation routine- all can make a huge difference in the quality of our physical and mental health.

A Habit of Moving Your Body. Any activity will do, bonus points if you actually enjoy it and can fit in your schedule! Think solo dancing in your living room, walking up and down your stairs, Zumba class, pedaling a stationary bike for 15 minutes after lunch, doing jumping jacks in your office, or walking an extra loop at the mall. In other words, moving your body does not mean an hour-long advanced cycling class at 5 am (unless that’s your thing of course) but any realistic activity for your lifestyle, routine, and personal preference.

A Habit of Taking Time to Relax. The main goal here is to adopt a regular practice that helps us quiet our minds and reduces our stress levels. Relaxing and taking it easy does not come naturally to many people with our perpetually busy overloaded schedules, but every little bit helps improve our physical wellbeing. Some of the relaxation activities examples- coloring with your kids, watching a favorite show, taking a bubble bath, reading, getting some sun outside, yoga, journaling, cooking, turning off your phone, mindful meditation, and spending time in nature.

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 believe healthy eating starts with learning what our body needs to feel nourished and how we can fulfill these needs with something we like and enjoy. The next step is learning the nutritional basics about the foods we consume and what fuel the human body needs to be healthy and strong (I really like the free Fooducate app for learning nutritional values and benefits of different foods, and it also tracks your activity levels). There are so many foods and fad diet trends out there that are perceived to be healthy but in fact, are not good for us or not sustainable in the long term. Based on all this information we can make a personalized, educated, reasonable, and sustainable meal plan for ourselves. By reasonable and sustainable I mean making this plan accounting for our schedule, finances, cooking abilities, etc. For example, if I decide to make gourmet meals from scratch every evening but I work till 7.30 pm chances are this meal plan of mine won’t last long. But if I make a commitment to take a few hours every weekend to meal prep food for the entire week that could be easily reheated and thoroughly enjoyed- well, I got a recipe for long-term success! In other words, if we make a solid, educated, sustainable, and very easy-to-follow plan for ourselves- we have a much higher chance of integrating this new healthy routine into our lives.

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

A Habit of Practicing Self-soothing. We will always have stress in our lives. That’s just life, it comes with its ups and downs. As a result, we will have both positive and negative emotions. The trick is to discover ways to self-soothe and cope with those negative emotions when they come (because they will) in a positive, productive, and sustainable manner. Both negative and positive feelings have an equally important part in our human development and growth, and learning how to effectively manage difficult emotions strengthens our emotional wellbeing. Some of the self-soothing activities examples: journaling, meditation, mindful walking, exercising, coloring, taking a cold or hot shower, and saying positive coping statements to yourself.

A Habit of Practicing Self-compassion. Self-compassion is a positive, nurturing, forgiving, and accepting attitude we show ourselves. Dr. Kristin Neff introduced this concept to the world and defined it as being composed of self-kindness (it’s okay and normal to fail), common humanity (everybody fails and feels inadequate sometimes), and mindfulness (noticing inner critic and finding acceptance and balance). Some of the self-compassion in action examples: talking to yourself as you would to your best friend, challenging your inner critic, choosing to be tolerant of your shortcomings, nurturing yourself through hard times, and being patient with yourself.

A Habit of Nurturing Relationships. One of the greatest contributors to our emotional wellness is the quality of our relationships and our support groups. We are social animals and have the innate need for human contact and interaction. Strong social networks provide a sense of safety, create belonging, improve self-esteem, and as a result act as a protective barrier against life stresses. We can nurture our relationships by regularly planning fun activities with loved ones, by improving our interpersonal communication skills, by setting and sticking to our boundaries, by joining a support group, and by engaging in volunteering or important social causes. Real investment and commitment to nurturing our relationships with loved ones and our community greatly influence our overall wellbeing and health.

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

Smiling is powerful, indeed! It releases endorphins and serotonin which are natural chemicals that elevate our mood, help us relax, and even reduce physical pain. Interestingly enough, even if our smile is not genuine, just the physical act of smiling can help our bodies release endorphins and serotonin, thus boosting our mood. Watching a funny TV show, a comedy standup, or a feel-good animated movie may lead to smiles, a more positive outlook, and improved emotional wellness.

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

A Habit of Cultivating Life Purpose. Finding meaning and purpose are some of the most powerful and very spiritual activities we can do for our overall wellness. When we feel that our existence is meaningful and purposeful- the more empowered, centered, peaceful, and joyful we become. This is because purpose and meaning give us clarity in our lives, help us carry on when things get tough, give us a sense of personal accomplishment, and a strong feeling that we matter. Regardless of where we find our feeling of purpose and meaning- in nature, in work, in our family and friends, in spiritual practice, in a religious community, in expanding our worldview, in travels, in studies, in taking care of people around us- once we find it, we’ll immediately start enjoying its incredible wellbeing benefits.

A Habit of Contemplation and Self-Reflection. A contemplative practice, such as meditation, prayer, yoga, or journaling, not only strengthens our spiritual wellbeing but has amazing positive effects on our overall health. Taking time to reflect builds self-awareness, self-knowledge, and inner strength. It gives us a better understanding of what’s important to us and why, what are our pains and joys, and what are the parts of us that need healing and attention. In other words, with self-reflection, we have more clarity on who we are as human beings and what we need to live a life we love. Some of the things we can do to help us self-reflect: scheduling time for regular contemplation, getting a spiritual mentor, spending time in nature, finding a like-minded spiritual community, practicing mindful body scans, and listening to guided meditations.

A Habit of Seeking Spiritual Knowledge. The practice of expanding our spiritual knowledge can be life-long. Our beliefs, values, and desires change over time. Continually learning, experimenting, and practicing can not only improve our understanding of spirituality and our spiritual wellbeing but help cultivate life purpose and meaning, and improve our contemplation practice. Some of the things we can do to seek spiritual knowledge: reading spiritual literature, trying different spiritual communities, learning about and living by our values, taking an online course, joining a support group, seeking personal healing, practicing forgiveness, and expanding our worldview.

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

Nature gives us so many fantastic opportunities to be inspired by the beauty of the Universe, to experience a sense of gratitude for being alive and in awe, to reconnect with ourselves and our Higher Power (should we have one), to just be, here and now. Through nature, we have a wonderful chance to feel better, to improve the quality of our lives, and to boost our wellbeing.

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’m so happy and grateful that the concept of self-care as “an intentional ongoing lifestyle which allows us to be, feel, and live at our best” is finally getting traction around the world! Back in the early 2000s when I first started talking about this, I could not have imagined the magnitude of this incredible inspiring movement which now positively impacts the lives of so many people! My vision for the next step is for organizations around the world to intentionally and purposefully commit to making mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing of their employees the number one priority. My hope is that teams everywhere will have access to field and agency-specific sound organizational processes, policies, procedures, and programming that foster robust organizational cultures of sustainability, resilience, and wellbeing. My dream is that Wellbeing Cheerleardership becomes a part of every organization and that all employees will benefit greatly from it, both in their personal and professional lives. I work every day to make this a reality, and I invite you to join me!

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’d love to meet Brené Brown, a Texan research professor, podcaster, and bestselling author. I admire Brené for her ongoing commitment to living courageously, honestly, and authentically. For making a daily choice to bravely show up for life, to be real, to choose courage over comfort, and to let our true selves be seen. Brené role models how to live like this, and she does it in the public eye with such dignity and grace! I love it so much! She inspires me to strive for courageous vulnerability and to live up to my favorite quote “To thy own self be true”, no matter how tough it is sometimes or how much fear and ego get in the way. And for that, I’m incredibly grateful to her!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’d love to connect with your readers and see how I could be of service to them! For current and future trainings, webinars, courses, as well as to download our self-care, resilience, and wellbeing tools, or to request a keynote or strategy consultation-please visit my website www.olgaphoenix.com. You can also find me on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn under @theolgaphoenix. I very much looking forward to connecting with you!

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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