Noticing. While this may sound a bit obvious, most of us have become accustomed to ignoring our feelings and emotions and even our physical sensations in order to push through and to continue being productive/ get things done. We can’t address feelings of anxiety or stress unless we first slow down, take stock, and simply become aware of what we are feeling. This isn’t a long, laborious process. Simply taking a few deep breaths and asking, “what am I feeling right now?” is enough to accomplish Step 1.
As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Tonya Crombie.
Dr. Tonya Crombie is the best-selling author of Stop Worrying About Your Anxious Child and is a certified life coach who likes nothing more than teaching parents and adults how to overcome their struggles with stress and anxiety and how to help children. Tonya has a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and an MBA. However, in addition to being someone with letters behind her name, Tonya is the mom of two teenagers who have struggled with stress, overwhelm, and anxiety.
Her experience as a parent of anxious children informs all of her work as a coach, speaker, and writer. At the heart of everything she does is the desire to help people thrive in the high-pressure, stressful world in which we live.
Tonya lives just outside of New Orleans with her husband, two awesome teenagers, and two incredibly barky dogs.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, 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?
That is such a great question because my story is probably like so many of your readers’ stories. I took a circuitous path to reach my current destination. I didn’t set out to become a life coach or to focus on anxiety, but like Steve Jobs said, “you can only connect the dots looking backward.” I actually started out hoping to become a prosecutor like my idol Grace Van Owen on L.A. Law. To my teenaged mind, she had the perfect life. She wore cute clothes, had a cute boyfriend, and put bad guys in jail. So to better understand my future profession, I got a part-time clerical job in the district attorney’s office while I was studying undergraduate psychology with every intention of going to law school. However, by the time I was a junior year in college, I realized that the legal system was not at all as it appeared in L.A. Law- lol! I had to come up with a Plan B, and that Plan B was to pursue a Doctorate in Psychology. From there, I had some amazing experiences that led me to coaching, first executives, then young people about their strengths. When my child struggled with anxiety, I became passionate about teaching and coaching adults who felt just as overwhelmed and helpless as I did how to help children who struggle with anxiety. My passion now is to help everyone feel less anxious. One way I try to help is by simply giving people a few ways to think differently about anxiety.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I’d love to share one of the biggest transformational “ah-ha moments” I’ve had in my career. And like so many transformational moments, it sounds pretty simple but was actually very profound. What happened was that in a moment of pure desperation, I came from the realization that all of the practices I had been teaching and advocating for years would also help me if I actually practiced them instead of teaching others how to do them. That’s somewhat embarrassing to admit because it sounds so obvious. But I wonder if there might be others who know all of the things intellectually but tell themselves all kinds of stories about why it won’t work for them or why they are the right type of person, just like I did.
I told myself I wasn’t a meditator for years, only to discover that when I allowed myself NOT to be a meditator but just to practice observing my thoughts, I miraculously became a meditator. Giving up my stories about why I couldn’t do it and my need to do things perfectly or even well allowed me to make progress in a way I hadn’t ever been able to do before.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
As we have dealt with unprecedented challenges in 2020, everyone in what we typically think of as “giving” or “helping professions” is susceptible to burnout. With so many people are struggling right now, those in any sort of helping profession feel compelled to help as much as they possibly can. I see this in medical professionals, and especially in teachers. But of course, issues arise when the helpers fail to help themselves.
My first piece of advice not only to those in my specific industry but to anyone in any sort of helping profession right now is to double or even triple down on your own self-care practices. I give this advice to myself and also to my clients, my friends, and my family members all of the time.
However, the most common response I hear when I encourage people to engage in even more self-care practices right now is, “I don’t have time.” Many of us are convinced that self-care must be time-consuming. We think that we must take a day off, or take a long hike, or go to the spa, or the cliché long luxurious bubble bath. And all of those are wonderful examples of self-care, but they certainly are not inclusive of ALL self-care.
There are lots of quick and easy ways to practice self-care. My self-care goal at the moment is simply to offer myself lots of self-compassion. This is a goal that doesn’t have to take much time at all. But each small act of self-compassion can yield extraordinary results.
I realize that self-compassion might sound like “coachey” jargon, but to put it in very simple terms, I try to treat myself and speak to myself like I would treat or speak to someone I really like or, dare I say, love.
My self-care is as simple as asking myself things like, “would I say that to someone I love?” or “Would I feed this to someone I love?” Or “Would I ask someone I love to do this even if they were exhausted? Or not do this even if it would really make them happy?” When I ask myself those questions, I often realize I would never ask someone I love to keep working without taking a break. I wouldn’t feed someone I love more quick and easy junk food instead of taking a bit of time to prepare something more nutritious. I would never berate someone I love for making a mistake or for feeling a little sad. I would say kind and encouraging things to someone I love.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Culture always begins at the top and is simply a reflection of what is really valued, not simply stated in a corporate values statement. Just as our children do as we do, not as we say, our employees quickly adapt their behavior to match what the leaders do far more than to what they say.
In my experience, the quickest way to create a fantastic work culture is to loudly and visibly demonstrate that people are valued in the organization.
This is important because one of our fundamental needs as social animals is to feel included and valued by our group. In a work setting, leaders can help meet this basic human need AND create an amazing work culture at the same time by taking time to see and acknowledge employees. The trick, of course, is that the acknowledgment must be genuine.
And as so many employees are socially distancing or working remotely, this type of acknowledgment becomes even more important. When leaders are able to notice and acknowledge employees in ways that make them feel truly seen, understood, and valued, a motivating culture can result, even in remote work environments.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“The way of the miracle-worker is to see all human behavior as one two things: either love, or a call for love.” — Marianne Williamson
As a parent and someone who has worked with many parents over the years, this quote gives me a wonderful filter to help interpret children’s behavior, even terrible behavior. Outside the realm of parenting, when so many adults have struggled this year with very divisive issues and political ideologies, I find this quote helpful in considering adults’ behavior as well.
This quote also relates to my work regarding anxiety. When we think of anxiety as fight, flight, or freeze, we see elements of all of those around us. We see people fighting with each other. We see people escaping both literally into their homes and figuratively into baking sourdough bread and Netflix binges. And we see people frozen into indecision about the right course of action.
I think that love is always an act of courage. However, the scary and uncertain times in which we live are causing us to experience fear and anxiety. And that fear and anxiety are disconnecting us from our ability to love ourselves and others. When we consider so many of the bad behaviors we see in others as simply a call for love, we are able to respond as our best selves.
Of course, I fall short of that ideal all of the time. While I would love to always be a miracle-worker, I get frustrated and angry, just like everyone else. This quote helps me to consider how the bad behavior we see in ourselves and on the news or in our Facebook feed might actually be a call to love.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?
I recently had an amazing opportunity to work with a transformational leader in a school setting. As teachers were preparing to start the school year using a hybrid educational model where children would attend school virtually on some days and live in person other days, the superintendent realized that in addition to all of the technical aspects that teachers would need to master in order to successfully educate kids in this new and changing environment, teachers also needed tools in order to manage their own stress and anxiety as well as tools to assist their students.
In order to address this need, we worked together to teach teachers the following steps:
- Noticing. While this may sound a bit obvious, most of us have become accustomed to ignoring our feelings and emotions and even our physical sensations in order to push through and to continue being productive/ get things done. We can’t address feelings of anxiety or stress unless we first slow down, take stock, and simply become aware of what we are feeling. This isn’t a long, laborious process. Simply taking a few deep breaths and asking, “what am I feeling right now?” is enough to accomplish Step 1.
- Acknowledging, Naming, and Getting Curious. Once we become aware of whatever we are feeling, Step 2 is to simply name it. Are you feeling a physical sensation such as a headache, tightness in your shoulders? Queasiness in your stomach? Is there an emotion associated with the physical sensation? Perhaps you are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, afraid, or angry, or even a combination. As with Step 1, this is not a time-intensive or difficult process. It simply requires a short pause to check in with yourself and to get curious about what you are feeling and experiencing at the moment
- Remember that it’s all normal. Step 3 is crucial. There is a saying in life coaching “what we resist, persists.” When we accept our emotions as a normal part of being human, we actually begin to alleviate much or our discomfort. Our bodies and brains are designed to alert us when there is possible danger. There are many things our bodies and brains are alerting us to right now: the possibility of getting sick, the possibility of getting someone else sick, financial struggles, technology struggles, difficulty in performing the tasks of our job. It is completely normal to feel afraid, sad, even angry. When we remind ourselves that negative emotions are simply signals, much like the pain of touching a hot stove is a signal, it helps prevent the double whammy effect of feeling negative emotions and THEN feeling bad or about feeling those negative emotions or feeling as if the negative emotions are some sort of indicator that something is wrong with us. Negative emotions are normal. All humans experience negative emotions.
- Identifying things to do. Steps 1–3 help create a foundation from which we can move forward. Once we’ve taken a breath, noticed, and named what we are experiencing. Once we have reminded ourselves that our experience is normal, we can determine what might help us feel better. While we can’t control circumstances or other people, we can always control our reactions. From a calm place of awareness, we can select from a myriad of tried and true methods for making ourselves feel better. Research has consistently found things such as exercise, time in nature, meditation, laughter, deep breathing, and practicing gratitude are fairly simple and effective ways to deal with negative emotions.
- Being transparent and modeling all of the above with students. In the final step, teachers were encouraged to be very transparent with children as they practiced Steps 1–4. When adults actively model the four steps above, children are able to observe someone managing their emotions in real-time and learn some techniques to help them do the same. In Step 2, when adults name their emotions, children build their own emotional vocabulary. When an adult explains that negative emotions are normal, children learn to accept their own negative emotions as normal too. And in Step 4, children learn acceptable and effective tools for managing negative emotions when they occur.
The 5-steps above not only assist teachers in managing their own feelings of stress and overwhelm, they also assist children in building their own emotional intelligence and resilience.
These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?
I agree that these ideas aren’t commonplace. However, when one considers the importance of people- actual human beings- in every industry at every level, it is somewhat common sense that the mental health of those people is a significant factor in delivering bottom-line performance.
Unfortunately, many of us have been conditioned to think of mental health as a concept that only applies to those who are struggling. When in reality, mental health is no different than physical health in the sense that they are both indicators of well-being. Both mental and physical health affect us all. And just like physical health, the status of our mental health is not simply good or bad. It can be assessed on a continuum. Just as there have probably been times in each of our lives when we have felt in top physical health and times when we knew we needed to improve our physical health, there are also times when we feel great about the status of our mental health and times when we know we are struggling. Struggles with mental health affect us all.
The view that mental health is simply another measure of well-being leads me to the most basic suggestion I have for raising awareness of the importance of supporting the mental health of children, students, parents, employees, and all people. And that is to simply view mental health as a basic aspect of overall health. In doing so, we can begin to remove the stigma associated with common mental health complaints such as anxiety and depression. As we acknowledge mental health concerns as normal health concerns, no different than asthma or nearsightedness, we can remove the burden of shame from those who struggle at times, as so very many of us do.
From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us, as individuals, as a community, and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious, and having other mental health issues ? Can you explain?
From a personal or individual l standpoint, I recommend everyone who is struggling with difficult emotions to use the 5-step process I describe above. The beauty of those simple steps is that anyone can apply them anywhere. And from a community perspective, if each of us individually learns to manage our own negative emotions, we are far better able to assist others when they struggle. This is true of teachers, parents, health care workers, police officers, anyone.
And as I described in my previous response, at a societal level, one of the greatest ways we can support those who struggle with any mental health issues is to remove the stigma surrounding mental health. I learned of this stigma personally when I first began speaking out about my child’s struggles with anxiety. I was overwhelmed with responses from people I knew who were experiencing the same problems but had never felt comfortable admitting it to me or anyone. When we as a society begin to accept mental health struggles as “normal,” I feel we will make great strides in actually alleviating much of the struggle.
Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?
The simplest answer to how to form habits is to start small. What I have personally done wrong and have seen others do wrong is to expect too much of themselves. We all want to run miles each day or meditate for an hour or never eat sugar again, but those big goals tend to overwhelm us. Or because the goals are so large and ambitions, we fail to reach them and simply give up.
The antidote to overwhelming goals is to set goals that are so small that it’s almost impossible not to reach them. Success begets success. If you want to build more exercise into your life and create an exercise habit, start by setting a tiny goal and achieve it consistently.
As I mentioned, I’ve gotten this wrong many times, so I use this technique myself. When my yoga studio closed, I found I was not exercising regularly at home. I set the goal to do at least one downward dog pose every day. It was such a small goal; it was almost impossible not to achieve it. And I have found myself adding additional poses over time. However, had I started too big, the odds are good that I would have never done anything at all.
Do you use any meditation, breathing, or mind-calming practices that promote your mental well-being? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?
As I mentioned in my introduction, I spent many, many years telling myself that I was not a meditator. I would call myself type A. I am very achievement-oriented. I had a picture in my mind of meditators being like the very chill surfer-dude or a Buddhist Monk. And I knew I wasn’t that kind of a person and could never achieve that ideal, so I never tried.
Eventually, like many people, I encountered a time of very real struggle in my life that felt completely out of my control. I felt stressed, overwhelmed, and anxious. Out of sheer desperation, I turned to meditation with no expectation of success. I told myself I had nothing to lose. I released the idea that I needed to be “good at it.” My goal was to sit still for 20 minutes each day. Many days I thought about what I was going to have for lunch or how much laundry I needed to do, or what might happen next on Game of Thrones. However, I didn’t beat myself up for thinking about nonsense because I had already resigned myself to the fact that I didn’t have to be good at it. I simply tried to focus on my breath or a mantra. But I didn’t really sweat it when it didn’t work because I didn’t expect it to work. The 20-minute period was my time alone in silence, and that was enough.
And miraculously, I found myself getting better at meditation when I wasn’t really trying.
As I became better at sitting in silence for 20-minute stretches, I also found my ability to stop and take a breath to calm my emotions throughout the day improved as well. I found myself repeating my meditation mantra, “Right here, right now, I am ok. Right here, right now, I am safe.” whenever I felt myself getting anxious or stressed.
I also found myself noticing that I was anxious or stressed more often, as opposed to reacting in the moment and then realizing my bad behavior was the result of my own anxiety and not the circumstances.
I still don’t really consider myself a meditator because that word has too much meaning for me. But I now consider myself someone who needs to sit in silence on a daily basis in order to be the best coach, mom, and wife I can be. And much like my meditation practice, I don’t expect to be a perfect coach, wife, or mom either. I think the practice of something and the consistent failure to reach some ideal has actually allowed me to accept not reaching any ideal in these other areas of my life as well.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
There are so many books that have had a significant impact on me, from the Harry Potter series to my first introductory Psychology text to the Bible. I hardly know which one to pick. In terms of meditation, I consider “Why Buddhism is True” by Robert Wright instrumental in helping me create a meditation practice. Mr. Wright describes himself much the same way as I describe myself. Just like me, he is not being someone who seems naturally gifted in quieting thoughts and sitting in silence. And yet, he learned to meditate. His story gave me hope for myself. And he presented a clear, cogent argument for why it’s worth trying and continuing.
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. 🙂
Oh my goodness, where do I start? As I mentioned above, I am very passionate about changing the way people think and talk about anxiety.
I learned so much when my child struggled not only about what anxiety is and how it works but also about how people view it as a sign that something is very wrong, either with themselves or with someone else. I often say that if I could shout anything from the rooftops, it would be that anxiety is a normal aspect of being human. So many people, especially our teenagers, are walking around feeling anxious AND feeling like there is something wrong with them because they feel anxious. Feeling anxious is awful and can be debilitating for many people. AND, at the same time, it is normal. It is the way the brain and body are designed to work. There is no shame in feeling anxious. You are NOT broken if you feel anxious.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
You can find me at
https://guidanceforthefuture.com/. I also spend (some might say waste) a fair amount of time on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/guidancefuture and on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/tonyacrombie3/
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!