If you can learn lessons or achieve growth from difficult situations in your life, it will ultimately help you cope better and become more resilient.
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 interviewing Alexa Shank, MS, LPC, CEDS.
Alexa is a licensed psychotherapist in Texas, Illinois, and New Jersey, and is the owner of Relief & Recovery Psychotherapy in Houston, TX. Alexa is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and helps adults and adolescents improve their relationships with food, body image, and exercise. She is especially passionate about working with dancers, and athletes and also enjoys educating on mental health topics in the community.
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 grew up in a suburb of Houston and began dancing at the age of three. Dance was my main passion for many years and I went on to be the captain of my drill team in high school. During and after college I danced and cheered for teams in the NBA D-League as well as the NBA. In fact, I didn’t pursue my current career as a psychotherapist until after I decided to retire from dancing.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
When I was about sixteen, I had some of my own mental health struggles and started seeing a licensed counselor who helped me tremendously. This experience piqued my interest in the mental health industry and I started looking into options for a career where I could make an impact helping others in some way.
One of my friend’s parents had careers as a psychiatrist and a psychologist, so, I spent a lot of time talking with them about their work and the differences in their jobs. They shared how much they loved what they did, and about the different educational pursuits required of each job. Their passion for the mental health field inspired me and I decided I might like to pursue a similar path. I took my first psychology class my senior year of high school and absolutely loved it. I found the study of emotions and the mind to be fascinating. I went on to get my undergraduate degree in Psychology, and continued to stay in touch with my friend’s parents. They provided guidance and support while I worked to determine what I wanted to do once I earned my degree. They helped me narrow down my scope and make the decision to become a licensed psychotherapist. I took some time off of school to purse my dreams of being a professional dancer, and then I returned to get my Masters degree in Clinical Counseling. They continued to help and advise me throughout graduate school and provided encouragement as I began to establish my own career. I would not be in this field without them.
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?
My parents have always been incredibly supportive. They have encouraged me to try new things and follow my passions. When I decided I wanted to hold-off on graduate school to pursue my dream of becoming a professional dancer they were “on-board.” They came to performances and games and cheered me on. When I decided to retire from dance and return to school for my Master’s degree they helped me research the degrees and programs available and narrow down my my top choices. I’m extremely thankful to have had them so involved in my life.
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?
I have a lot of funny moments being educated on the latest lingo by my teen clients. I think I do a pretty good job keeping up on my own, but slang can change so quickly that sometimes I just need them to explain things to me. When I first started as a therapist, I had a client tell me about someone that “slid into their DMs” and I had no idea what that meant. They found it hilarious when I asked for an explanation. So, I’ve learned to laugh at myself with them, and just ask when I don’t know.
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?
Being involved in the dance world, I saw my friends struggle with dieting and body image issues, and I had to navigate through my own struggles as well. There’s just so much pressure in our society to eat certain things and look a specific way. When I became a psychotherapist, I knew that I wanted to be able to help my clients with these types of pressures. When I first read Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch it really shed a lot of light on how prevalent and deeply engrained diet culture is. It helped me shift my own viewpoint on food so that I could, in turn, better help my clients improve their relationship with food and their bodies. I highly recommend this book to everyone since most people have a hard time achieving balance in their diets.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
I really love the quote by Winston Churchill: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.” It reminds me that even if I fail at something, that doesn’t define what I can/can’t accomplish. It reminds me to take risks and persevere through difficulties.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I’ve been giving presentations for a number of High School drill teams, cheerleading squads, and college dance teams in the greater Houston area. I’m working to try and promote intuitive eating and healthier body image within the dance community. This is information I would have really benefitted from when I was younger and so I’m motivated to educate on these topics as much as possible. I hope to provide the foundation for teens to resist the urge to engage in restrictive dieting to fit into the dance world, and instead work on increasing self-compassion and improving self-esteem.
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.
- Journal regularly: Writing out your thoughts and being able to re-read them can be a very useful tool in processing them and improving decision-making skills. Even if you don’t like pen and paper or feel like you aren’t a good writer, try typing out some notes in your phone or on your computer.
- Prioritize your sleep: Getting enough sleep helps decrease stress and allows your mind to recharge for the next day.
- Manage your media intake: Constant comparison on social media and distressing stories on news channels can really take a toll on your thoughts. Cultivate your social media to reduce the amount of toxic images you see and monitor the amount of time you spend on apps like Instagram, Tik Tok, and even 24 hour news channels.
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 really love using a guided meditation called Leaves on a Stream. When I start to feel overwhelmed by my thoughts or am excessively worrying about something, I use this meditation. It stems from a technique called Cognitive Defusion, and helps me to separate myself from my thoughts so that I can look at them logically or choose not to engage with them at all. It really gives me a sense of peace and calmness and helps me to stay in the present moment, rather than obsessing about worries.
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.
- Practice intuitive eating: In order to be physically well, it’s really important to have a balanced relationship with food. Ditch any dieting or extreme weight loss practices; it’s not good for your body! Instead, focus on implementing balance, moderation, and variety in your diet. Don’t restrict yourself from certain foods. Instead, allow yourself to honor your cravings and your hunger. Really tuning in and listening to your body can help prevent both over and under-eating.
- Find exercise that’s fun: Don’t force yourself to do an activity that you don’t enjoy, simply because you think you should, because that won’t be sustainable in the long term. Instead try new activities and find something that you like to do, whether that’s yoga, rollerblading or cycling. You’re more likely to stick with exercise when it doesn’t feel like an obligation or punishment.
- Be intentional about rest: Contrary to many fitness instructors, and our culture that glorifies productivity, it’s critical to make sure you are resting enough. Whether you take days off from your workout routine, take naps when you’re feeling tired, or just relax at home on the weekend, give your body and mind time to decompress. Pushing yourself all the time without breaks can actually have negative impacts on your physical health and make you more prone to injury and illness.
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?
Diet culture is so incredibly pervasive in our society that everyone is constantly blaming themselves for lack of willpower in sticking to their latest diet or fitness regimen. If we could all start to embrace body positivity and accept that people come in different shapes and sizes, there would be less pressure to lose weight, gain muscle, or restrict our food intake. This would bring a huge shift to how people view the idea of healthy eating. It wouldn’t feel so all-or-nothing, and I think people would be more likely to have a diet full of balance and moderation instead of engaging in restriction and then possibly bingeing in an effort to fit a certain aesthetic.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum emotional wellness? Please share a story or example for each.
- Seek support: Whether it’s a family member, friend, or therapist, you should have someone in your life you can process your emotions with. Being able to talk with someone and receive care and validation is extremely powerful in coping with stress and negative feelings.
- Set boundaries: In order to help keep you from over-extending your schedule or your emotional capacity, learn to say no and ask for what you need from others assertively. Being an advocate for yourself can help prevent getting overwhelmed by other people’s demands.
- Prioritize yourself: Make time for activities you enjoy and that “recharge your batteries.” Things like reading a book, going for a walk, playing with your dog, etc. are necessary to prevent emotional burnout.
Do you have any particular thoughts about the power of smiling to improve emotional wellness? We’d love to hear it.
Smiling is a great tool when you’re trying to manage the intensity of negative emotions. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t allow yourself to feel sad or unhappy. But, sometimes those emotions can get out of control and be hard to cope with. So if you’re struggling, sometimes doing the opposite of what you feel like, and trying to smile and enjoy the day can actually help to put you in a better mindset.
Finally, can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum spiritual wellness? Please share a story or example for each.
- Pray or meditate: If you are religious, talking with your higher power can be extremely healing and comforting in times of stress. If you aren’t religious, practicing meditation can help you work on quieting your mind and striving for your own inner peace and tranquility.
- Practice self-compassion: Try and talk to yourself as you would your best friend. Being kinder to yourself can help you cultivate a more positive and encouraging mindset.
- Look for meaning: The famous psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl was quoted saying: “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” If you can learn lessons or achieve growth from difficult situations in your life, it will ultimately help you cope better and become more resilient.
Do you have any particular thoughts about how being “in nature” can help us to cultivate spiritual wellness?
There’s actually research that has shown significant benefits to spiritual health when spending time in nature. When we are exposed to new and beautiful settings, we often experience a sense of awe which can remind us that there are things much greater than ourselves. This can help us establish a sense of connection with God or a higher power. Being in nature also fosters creativity, gratitude for the picturesque places we spend time in, and compassion for others by reminding us of the immenseness of the world. There are countless spiritual benefits to spending time in nature.
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 would find a way to accelerate the de-bunking of diets in the dance industry. There’s so much misinformation about food, health, and weight that continue to perpetuate disordered eating and body image concerns in dancers. I would love to have a large enough platform to make the dance world a friendlier place to people of all shapes and sizes. Dancers should be working on fueling their bodies to optimize their performances not starving themselves to shrink their bodies.
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 love to meet with Lady Gaga. I find it inspiring that she has opened up about her own mental health struggles including being bullied growing up, and having an eating disorder herself. She continuously champions mental health treatment and shares about her own experiences with medication and therapy. The more that famous and influential people like her share about their own difficulties, the more the stigma around mental illness starts to fade and receiving treatment becomes normalized. Plus, she’s a fantastic dancer and performer!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My website is https://www.reliefandrecoverypllc.com/ and you can also find me on instagram.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.