Emotional intelligence is another important aspect to mental health that is often overlooked. Do you understand your emotions? Can you articulate how you are feeling? Too often people will go most of their lives with a limited understanding of their emotional self. This can be problematic in that issues often go overlooked because as a society we are not in tune with our emotions. Learning more about yourself and improving your emotional intelligence can help you to handle difficult life transitions and prepare you if you are ever faced with a mental illness.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Victoria Woodruff. Victoria Woodruff is a licensed social worker in Maryland. Ms. Woodruff works in a group practice providing counseling services to those suffering from mental illness. Having been active in the field of mental health for nearly a decade, Ms. Woodruff draws upon her interactions with other professionals, her education, and her personal experiences to guide her clients.
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 always knew that I wanted to work in a helping profession. Initially, I thought that medicine was the path for me but after interning, I found myself far more intrigued by the stories of clients in the mental health field. I enjoyed listening to every patients’ unique experiences and was fascinated by how it shaped their outlook on life. From that moment, I realized that psychology and mental health was my calling. Social work was appropriate in that it combined my love for community, social change, justice, and my passion for working in mental health. I love what I do. Each day brings its unique challenges but that is also what keeps it interesting.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
My work is never dull. I have had the privilege of working with a diverse group of patients in terms of ethnicity, sexuality, age, diagnosis, and experiences. I can’t say that there is one monumental moment. Some of the most fascinating experiences have been watching patients come back to life. When dealing with serious mental illness, people can be overtaken by symptoms of delusions, hallucinations, depression, and more. Being able to witness clients getting healthier is amazing. I had a client who felt they were a danger to others when they entered treatment. They believed that their mind had been taken over by a demonic force and that this force could harm people with whom they interacted. I recall sitting down and saying, “I’m not afraid. Whatever happens I don’t care. I just want to get to know you.” I am forever grateful that I get the opportunity to connect and reach out to people when they are most in need. That client ultimately flourished. The patient who I helped through a dark time began helping others and became a beacon of hope for so many more. It was then that I realized what a ripple effect helping one person can have on society.
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?
I had a number of events happen when I was working with more acute clients- most of which were comical if for no other reason than there was nothing to do but laugh at the situation. One of the most eye-opening experiences for me was when I was asked to substitute for an anger management class. I often did psycho education groups related to depression, anxiety, resilience…but I had never done anger management. I made little of the request and gathered the materials and began prepping. Nothing could have prepared me for that class. I started teaching the material and immediately met resistance. I had worked with many of these individuals before and was shocked. The tensions continued to rise. We made it through the lesson…barely. I ran into my supervisor’s office and told her that I would never be able to lead an anger management course again. She respectfully asked why. I stated, “I think I might have an anger management problem.” She laughed and asked me to go on. I told her that I had never met such an angry group of patients and their frustrations were contagious and I found my temper getting shorter. She laughed and said something along the lines of, “What did you expect from an anger management group”. That experience taught me that emotions are contagious and just like doctors suit up and take universal precautions, so must therapists. I am more mindful about what I am walking into and how to monitor and adjust my own emotions accordingly. I still haven’t taught another anger management class, but who knows? It may happen.
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?
Fear can trap us. I was nervous about pursuing a master’s degree. I was particularly concerned that I would not have what it takes to be a therapist. I had a close friend who was a retired psychiatrist. He introduced me to the “Man in the Arena” speech by Teddy Roosevelt. He pushed me to realize that success and achievement is rarely found inside our comfort zones and that learning to embrace discomfort, fear, and vulnerability was necessary for growth.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Connect with others and know that you are not alone. Make sure that you have clear boundaries and carve out time in each day to do something for yourself. For me, I started taking slow hours (middle of the day) and go to the gym. It is time that I take for myself intentionally. The other thing I remind myself and others is that we are not stuck. As a social worker I choose to stay in mental health and continue as a therapist. I have been trained to work in so many capacities within mental health and within the broader community. Recognizing that this is a choice I actively make everyday helps me to feel less trapped.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Support is key in any work environment. Making sure that those that you work with and for are supported is necessary especially in an environment that is so naturally stressful. Support can come in all different forms, but I found that having colleagues that I could talk and joke around with was key to a healthy work environment. It was not unusual when I worked in the acute setting that we would play practical jokes, surprise someone for their birthday, or find some other way of connecting with one another.
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.
That is a great question and I’d like to start by reminding readers that the brain is an organ in the body. Many of us spend a great deal of energy and money to stay heart healthy. Even when in good health, we might exercise, choose to eat healthy, and work to protect our cardiovascular health. Why don’t we do the same for our brain?
1) Self-care is not selfish. Make yourself a priority; this can be especially difficult for working parents. You can’t take care of others if you have not first taken care of yourself. You will be more productive and more in tune with the needs of others if you have met your own needs. Some of you may already do this in small ways. Has anyone ever been caught saying don’t talk to me until I have my coffee? This is a culturally accepted norm that says, hey I am still waking up give me a few minutes. But, there is more that you can do, think of ways that you can schedule time to meet you emotional and physical needs.
2) Setting boundaries is essential. The growth of the tech industry has been a blessing and a curse. I love my iPhone as much as the next person, but I often catch myself answering business emails and calls when I am at home or on vacation. Technology is one example. Creating and maintaining boundaries can be difficult but over time most co-workers and family members will understand and respect your desire to be engaged in the present.
3) Sleep hygiene is another issue that most of us struggle with. There is a reason that smart watches are now tracking and rating our sleep. This comes back to basic sleep hygiene. Our bodies like a set schedule with a clear sleep and wake time, the closer we can stick to this the better. Bedrooms are for sleeping and intimacy. Televisions, food, and other activities can confuse our minds as to the purpose of the bedroom and throw off our sleep. Losing daylight only adds to sleep related issues, so make sure to talk with your doctor or therapist about sleep hygiene.
4) Your physical health is also an essential component. As I mentioned earlier, the brain is an organ in the body. The way that you feed and care for your body has a direct impact on your brain and thinking. I recently had a client who works as a teacher. She was explaining that given her heavy work load she had no time to eat or go to the bathroom. I asked how successful she was during her planning sessions. She remarked that she was struggling to get through them and found it frustrating. I get it. Sometimes we are just struggling to keep up, but stop and think for a moment. By not eating, drinking water, and attending to her physical needs, her brain was not able to focus and efficiently tackle the work. Taking care of yourself is critical!
5) Emotional intelligence is another important aspect to mental health that is often overlooked. Do you understand your emotions? Can you articulate how you are feeling? Too often people will go most of their lives with a limited understanding of their emotional self. This can be problematic in that issues often go overlooked because as a society we are not in tune with our emotions. Learning more about yourself and improving your emotional intelligence can help you to handle difficult life transitions and prepare you if you are ever faced with a mental illness.
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.
No matter what stage of life you are in, having purpose and value is important. How you define your purpose and value changes throughout life, but is essential. Why do you get out of bed? Do you have a family that you love and care for? A great group of friends you enjoy spending time with? Do you volunteer and give back? Whatever your passion it is important to find an outlet — someway in which you still feel connected and engaged. For instance, many professionals utilize their skills through volunteering. This can help you to stay engaged without the demands and responsibility of a 9–5 job. For others, it may be a great time to travel, spend time with loved ones. How your spend your time is completely up to you. The important part is making a plan and knowing what you will be doing and maintaining your identity.
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?
It can be confusing as you are trying to figure out what you want to do with your life, what friend groups you fit in with, and what after school activities that interest you. The important thing is to stay true to yourself. Know who you are and what matters most. If you are unsure, that is okay too. You’re not supposed to have it all figured out. You can try some simple things such as journaling, writing down positive affirmations, creating a vision board, and other such tools to help you find clarity.
Teen years can also be a challenging time in regards to sleep. There are a lot of demands when you consider after school activities, homework, and friends. Teens can often find that there is not enough time in the day to keep up. Phones and devices can be great tools for staying connected, but they need to stay turned off in the bedroom. Keep your room a device free space to maximize sleep. I promise that if you focus on improving sleep, school and homework will become easier because your brain will have gotten the break that it needed.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
There are two written works that have influenced me significantly. Kay Redfield Jamison wrote a book called an “Unquiet Mind”. The book discusses her personal experiences as a professional living with Bipolar disorder. Her bravery in coming out and discussing her condition was inspiring. Her descriptions of events in her life and the impact they had helped me to better understand the condition and some of the many obstacles people with a mental illness face. I was also strongly influenced by a speech given by Teddy Roosevelt. A section of the speech commonly referred to as the “Man in the Arena” has helped me to find the courage to step up in life. In the speech, he tells us that there is no failure in trying and there is no effort without error and shortcomings. He glorified not success but effort and resilience. Life has not been easy for me nor is it for many. To me this speech is an inspirational call to get back up and keep trying because after all what is the alternative?
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. 🙂
I want to change the way that people see mental illness. The way that we depict mental illness in stories, movies, and the news is not acceptable. There are common misconceptions that those with a mental illness are violent when the statistics show that less than 4% of violent crimes are committed by someone with a mental illness and that they are actually at increased risk of being the victim of a crime. Having a mental illness should not leave employers, friends, neighbors, and family questioning a person’s identity. People remain who they have always been. Just as you can be the friendly neighbor with a heart condition or the mean neighbor with a heart condition, so is true with mental illness. It is not the illness that defines the kind of person you are or can be.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” I have always loved this metaphor because it is so true. Life will throw everyone of us a curve ball. We face challenges big and small all the time. The key is how we react and what we make of these challenges. One of the most important lessons I have learned is that I have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I don’t always have to know where I am going. I just have to keep trying. Eventually things work themselves out and the path becomes more clear.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Facebook: Woodruff Counseling
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
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