“5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness”, with Dr. Nicola Harker

We have brains that, due to evolution, are hardwired to look for problems. We have a huge negativity bias, which means that when we do something well we dismiss it, but when we make a mistake we ruminate on it for days or weeks. To address this natural bias, we benefit from learning to consciously […]

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We have brains that, due to evolution, are hardwired to look for problems. We have a huge negativity bias, which means that when we do something well we dismiss it, but when we make a mistake we ruminate on it for days or weeks. To address this natural bias, we benefit from learning to consciously notice the good stuff. There is clear evidence that people who use gratitude diaries, or practices (such as noting down 3 things you feel proud of today, however small) feel happier. I’ve also found keeping a “done” list balances out the never-ending “to-do” list.

As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Nicola Harker. Nicola is a Doctor, Empowerment Coach and Teacher of Self-Compassion, living in the UK. She is on a mission to bring more compassion to the world having worked for over twenty years as a Family Doctor. She works particularly with exceptional women, coaching them to have clear boundaries, and to live their lives courageously with compassion and can be found at www.nicolaharkercoaching.com

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I loved working as a GP and what I most loved was hearing peoples’ stories, and listening for the narrative behind their illnesses. I’ve met many brave, courageous and interesting people and it has been humbling to be their doctor. However, I’ve also noticed how many people are not happy, and how often the stories we tell ourselves influence our experience of the world. As a doctor, it was often frustrating that I didn’t have time to explore these hidden narratives and help people to turn their lives around. My turning point came when two of my friends were diagnosed with cancer within the same week and sadly died very rapidly. I found it devastating to see these two energetic women struck down so quickly by cancer, and I resolved to dedicate the rest of my life to living fully, courageously and to helping the people I hadn’t been able to help as a busy doctor in the NHS.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

In addition to my one-to-one coaching, I lead a group training in Self-Compassion. I’ve had two participants who both had advanced cancer and who were struggling with relationships, and in particular with asking for what they needed. Watching their transformation as they began to understand how to be compassionate towards themselves and others in their lives, was very emotional. It was fantastic to see them regaining enjoyment in their lives and to see the change in their energy as a result. Even though they were facing death, they were living more than they had ever done.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

Oh my goodness, I make lots of mistakes and I guess that’s how I learn. The most embarrassing (and very funny with hindsight) mistake I made in my career, was as a doctor I had a patient that used to come to see me every week. He seemed to hate women and would enjoy asking me lots of questions about his health, whilst simultaneously making derogatory comments about women. “Women shouldn’t be doctors. Women should stay at home and cook.” I tried my best to be patient and professional, but one day after he left the room I stood behind the door and made a horrible face, just to let off steam. Unfortunately, he had forgotten his umbrella and, at that very moment, he popped back into the room, only to be greeted by me grimacing wildly! Difficult to explain that one!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My husband. When I announced that I was leaving my secure job as a doctor to follow my dreams it must have been very hard for him. We have young children, and starting a business as a coach isn’t financially an easy thing to do. But he trusted me and has supported me in doing this work. He hasn’t always understood the details, and I’m sure at times he wishes I’d get a regular job, but he understands that I have a mission, a passion for this work, and I’m very grateful that he has allowed me to go for it.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

My top advice is to get support. Working alone, defining your vision and turning that into success is a challenging thing to do. I believe we all have talents that are hidden within us, but we need to unpack the obstacles that we place in the way. We get stuck on assumed obligations or self-sabotaging thoughts. So having a good coach, even just for a few sessions or intermittently, is a great investment.

I would also say create structure, have a plan and a strategy, don’t just hope for the best. Much of the stress of being self-employed comes from not knowing when your income is coming in, so it makes sense to have a strategy to help your income become more predictable.

And I would encourage anyone who is multi-passionate (has millions of great ideas but struggles to complete) to recognize that working deeply on one task is much more efficient than multi-tasking. If you want to make a difference in the world, don’t spread yourself too thinly. So many of my clients approach me when they are edging towards burnout because they haven’t learned how to say no, or park projects, and they become overwhelmed. Something my clients learn is that developing self-compassion includes being clear about your boundaries.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

I’ve had a lot of experience in toxic work cultures! It took me a long time to realize that many of the bullying leaders were struggling themselves. One reason I’m so passionate about teaching self-compassion is that I realize that when we are self-critical we feel attacked, and when this is our internal landscape, it’s hard to lead compassionately. Developing a compassionate inner landscape helps us to see that others struggle too, that none of us are alone. This allows us to develop cultures of connection, of kindness, rather than judgement and blame. My advice to leaders of any organization is to invest in your self-development and recognize your human frailty. When you can turn towards your suffering and say “it’s ok to be me, I’m not alone, it’s normal to struggle and others struggle too” you will find it easier to see the people all around you, not as a threat, but as humans worth investing in. Connection is the biggest gift leaders can bring to an organization — when we feel part of something we all work hard together, increasing productivity and satisfaction.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.

1. Yes, the first step is to recognize that mental health/wellness is not binary (well, or sick, happy or sad), nor is it ever “fixed”. During our lives, we are going to experience difficult times. I’ve noticed that most of us believe the myth that if we are struggling, there’s something wrong with us. This is completely untrue. It is normal to struggle at times. It is part of the human experience. I used to feel that it was only me that struggled, and then berated myself for “making a fuss”. It took me a while to release this fixed belief, but in doing so I can move through struggle more easily. One of the first steps of learning self-compassion is to notice that we are struggling, name it, remind ourselves it’s normal to struggle, and then to take some positive action to support ourselves because we are struggling. This is a completely different approach from wishing we weren’t struggling or berating ourselves for being weak. It allows you to approach struggle proactively and supportively.

2. We have brains that, due to evolution, are hardwired to look for problems. We have a huge negativity bias, which means that when we do something well we dismiss it, but when we make a mistake we ruminate on it for days or weeks. To address this natural bias, we benefit from learning to consciously notice the good stuff. There is clear evidence that people who use gratitude diaries, or practices (such as noting down 3 things you feel proud of today, however small) feel happier. I’ve also found keeping a “done” list balances out the never-ending “to-do” list.

3. Our brains experience self-criticism as a threat. It can’t distinguish between external criticism and our inner voice. And when we feel threatened we go into “Fight, flight or freeze” mode. The resulting behavior may include blaming, avoidance, retreating from relationships, or procrastination, or we just start to feel bad about ourselves. Many of my clients are critical of themselves and feel they “should” be better, kinder, nicer. The word “should” tells me that they are making an assumption about what’s expected of them, and are criticizing themselves for not being “good enough”. Understanding this about our brains helps us to find solutions. What most of us don’t realise is that our inner critic is just trying to keep us safe (by getting the criticism in before someone else does, or by reminding us how to behave). There is another option, which also wants to keep us safe, which is to motivate ourselves from the perspective of “wanting the best for ourselves”. This option takes on the role of kindly best friend, supporting us to do the best we can, not running us down but inspiring us to do our best. Learning to swap self-criticism for compassionate motivation relieves much of the stress we experience.

4. Sleep! Our poor brains were not designed to be stimulated by technology and so if we are using screens until bedtime, our sleep suffers. Taking simple steps to improve your sleep hygiene makes a huge difference to how you will cope during the day. Many of my patients who were struggling with anxiety or low mood, were actually chronically tired due to poor sleep patterns. My advice is to switch off devices at least an hour before bedtime, don’t keep your phone in your bedroom, don’t watch TV in bed, as all have screens which emit light that stimulates your brain. Alcohol disrupts sleep as much as caffeine does, so avoid both of these too close to bedtime.

5. I used to feel so detached from my body. I dismissed my body’s signals and expected my body to work no matter how badly I treated it. When I started to use meditation I was struck by how many signals my body is giving, that I’d previously ignored. My digestive system was crying out for attention (and at the time I didn’t realize how important our gut is in mental health). The first step to addressing this is to start asking the question: “where do I feel this emotion in my body?” With practice, I learned to identify anger, shame, fatigue, hunger, thirst, sadness, loneliness, through the sensations in my body. This was a revelation to me — becoming tuned in to your body allows you to take action rather than be a passenger to your emotions. Burnout happens when we ignore the signals for too long, and our body decides it has had enough. Of course, sometimes burnout is due to intolerable working conditions, or life circumstances, but I discovered that even then burnout isn’t inevitable if we speak up, ask for help, take action, and take care of ourselves.

Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.

The biggest challenges I see when people retire are a loss of structure and status.

We think we are looking forward to free time, and then when retirement arrives we can’t decide what to do with ourselves. Our brains don’t respond well to too much choice, so creating some artificial structure is an important first step. By all means, take the holiday, but when you return, pepper your week with regular activities, that include exercise, connection, and brain stimulation.

The loss of status can feel crushing, but it isn’t inevitable. Volunteering allows you to bring your experience into the workplace so that you still feel valued and have the benefit of being part of a team. Humans need connection, at home and with wider society, so whatever your passion, I would encourage you to build opportunities for connection. Find a club with likeminded people, support the homeless, raise money for charity, support children with reading at the local primary school. You gain more than you give from these activities so that retirement can become life-enriching.

How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?

Social Media is both a force for good and misery. There are some key pointers for teens (or their parents) that in my opinion, encourage a healthy balance:

Social media use for more than 2 hours per day is associated with poorer wellbeing, so if you suspect you might be over-using, try an app like Moment (or the apple app) that monitors your usage and find ways to cut down.

What you are looking at online is more important than how long: as a parent, encourage the use of uplifting feeds and accounts that support a positive mindset. Remind teens that nothing online is private and it will last forever, so only say what you’d say in person (and even then remember that it is permanent, so be cautious), and only hang out with people that you’d like to spend time with in person. Encourage teens to notice any behavior that feels wrong online, and to talk to a trusted adult, or someone older that will give them good advice.

Finally, although social media creates a 24/7 connection, it is not the same as connecting with someone in person, so I would encourage teens to have conversations in person, offline, and share activities with friends where possible. Sport, music, creativity, as a shared activity is very uplifting. Feeling part of a team is helpful for wellbeing. It’s easy to forget that we experience our relationships through lots of subtle cues, such as facial expressions, hugs, laughter, honest conversations, so we are missing out on these connections by just speaking to friends online, which can result in feeling lonely, isolated and scared.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

The work of Brene Brown has influenced me strongly, but it was when I read Kristen Neff’s book “Self-Compassion” that I had the strangest reaction. I enjoyed the book, but after reading it I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I started to feel almost angry with the book — like it had opened a door in my mind that I couldn’t close, and I regretted reading it for a while. It brought up the question “what would my life be like if I was truly self-compassionate?” I felt very threatened by the whole idea, but couldn’t stop wondering.

I was a high achiever who had used self-criticism as a way to maintain my high standards. I was worried that self-compassion meant I would lose my motivation, become weak or self-indulgent.

Luckily for me, I didn’t stop exploring the question, went on to read the work of Paul Gilbert and Chris Germer amongst others, and now it has become my life’s work. I’ve realized that other people feel threatened by this question, just like me, but this is what makes it so important. I discovered that self-compassion didn’t make me weak — it made me more courageous, more daring, more myself. By learning to accept that we are imperfect, that we struggle, and that others do too, life is seen through a different lens. It’s ok to try and risk failure. It’s normal to struggle. It’s possible to calm our inner critic. And self-compassion is a powerful antidote to shame. Best of all, when we learn to speak to ourselves compassionately, our compassion for others increases.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could help the world to recognize the power of compassion, and in particular the benefits of turning towards ourselves with compassion first, I believe that we could change the world. Our leaders wouldn’t need to be defensive, lying, or aggressively attacking, they could lead with honesty and courage. We could create a happier society, where people connect in their struggles, rather than feeling isolated. We could stop the relentless pain of childhoods being replayed through generations because we could become more shame resilient, and be honest about our fears and struggles. We could teach these skills to our teachers, who would teach them to children. We could teach parents so that they can share their skills with their children. We could heal relationships instead of isolating ourselves in pain. We could turn towards our planet with compassion, rather than hiding from our shame of overusing and abusing nature. Yes, I feel very passionate about this work!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

I have many sources of inspiration, but “If I am not good to myself, how can I expect anyone else to be good to me?” Maya Angelou is an important quote for me.

For years I was very self-sufficient but when I struggled with something, I secretly hoped for others to notice and to help. It took me a long time to discover that to receive support from others, I first needed to acknowledge my struggle and to show myself some tenderness. Otherwise, I just gave the impression that I didn’t need any help. Learning to receive compassion starts with learning to give ourselves kindness. It’s an act of courage because we need to be prepared to be vulnerable and admit we are imperfect. However, the rewards are great, because once we take the first step, we realize we are not alone.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?


and Twitter @nhcancerccg

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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About the author:

Beau Henderson, editor of Rich Retirement Letter and CEO of RichLife Advisors LLC, is a best-selling author, national tv/radio resource, and retirement coach/advisor, with over 17 years’ experience. Beau is a pioneer in the strategy based new model of holistic retirement planning. He can be followed on Facebook here or on Instagram here

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