Develop and maintain healthy relationships. Social interaction is absolutely necessary for our overall wellbeing, yet, we’re in a time where more and more people feel isolated and disconnected from others. I’ve been so lucky to have the most amazing family and friends and find it easy to meet cool people everywhere I go. I recognize how much better off my life is for that so I have a huge soft spot for those who struggle with this. I’ve developed a lot of mindful socialization practices for my clients to allow them to become more comfortable with being vulnerable and putting themselves out there with other people. As a result they develop a support network that allows them to be able to step away from therapy.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Amanda Stemen. Amanda is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and owner of FUNdaMENTALGrowth, a therapy, coaching, and consulting business in Los Angeles, CA that is based on mindfulness, body/movement awareness, the outdoors, and creative exploration. She has two master’s degrees, one in Social Work and another in Recreation Administration with a specialty in Therapeutic Recreation, which led her to combine her passions for play and helping others into a healing practice. Her insights have been featured in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post, Glamour, Women’s Running, Self magazine, Bustle, The Reader’s Digest and The Huffington Post.
Thank you so much for doing this with us, Amanda! 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?
It was a culmination of all of my life experiences that brought me to my specific career path. Since I started working at the age of 11, I’ve always worked with people in the fields of recreation, education, and social welfare, often overlapping. As well, I’ve always had a passion for the outdoors, movement-based activities, play, and creative expression. After years of working for others and running into road block after road block while trying to help people in ways I knew to be even more effective, I finally decided to strike out on my own and combine all of my experience and passions into my daily work. I’d always known it was possible to do what you love and get paid for it, but it took awhile to figure out how to make it all happen. I feel very blessed that I’ve been able to do just that and now run a business centered around all of my passions.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Gosh, in my line of work, there’s always something interesting going on. Probably the most interesting experience I’ve had occurred right after I graduated with my Master of Social Work at UCLA. I still needed to complete 3,000 supervised clinical hours to become a licensed therapist, so I took a job at Twin Towers Correctional Facility, which is the mental health housing for the Los Angeles county men’s jail and the largest mental health facility in the United States. While I can’t share any specifics about the clients I worked with due to privacy and confidentiality, I will say I saw and heard things you can’t see or hear anywhere else in the world. I worked with people who were dealing with active psychosis and manic episodes, as well as those attempting to fake mental illness to avoid dealing with legal issues. I learned a lot about forensic psychology, the legal and correctional systems, and the reasons people are incarcerated, whether rightly or wrongly. It’s been the most fascinating learning experience of my life.
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 man, there were so many mistakes, many of which didn’t seem all that humorous at the time. I’m still making tons of mistakes. The most humorous mistake I can think of from starting out was my reactions to clients who would say negative things to me. I’m a highly sensitive person, which is obviously a helpful trait to have as a therapist, but also left me taking a lot of what my clients said to me personally. I generally surround myself with kind folks so I was completely unprepared for clients blaming me for not making progress, make assumptions about how I must think based on my looks, become defensive, go on the attack, etc. It felt awful and I may or may not have cried once or twice. Over time (and working in a jail), I became much more skilled in directly addressing these negative reactions toward me, which assisted greatly in their progress in therapy, as well as helped me develop a thicker skin. While generally, my clients are kind, I’m now able to laugh when they say not so nice things to me (In my head so they don’t think I’m laughing at them.) and it’s helped both myself and my clients to not take myself so seriously.
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?
I had a difficult time in my Master of Social Work program as my interests and career goals were very different from what my graduate program was familiar with. If it hadn’t been for my first year internship supervisor, Brad Stevens, LCSW, I’m sure I would have decided this wasn’t the path for me and quit. The internship was with the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health in an outpatient community mental health program working with people with mental illness who are under-served in the community. That meant there often weren’t enough resources and we were dealing with some pretty serious issues. While every professional I encountered there was amazing, Brad was particularly calm, thoughtful, kind, wise, humorous, professional, and supremely dedicated to serving others. Some of our co-workers referred to him as “Brad Buddha.” It was this training program and Brad that my interest in mindfulness was fully piqued and I have him to thank for not only inspiring my career, but also my life.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
See your own therapist when you need to. We also need someone to go to with our struggles and pain. Develop a professional support network too. As well, maintain a mindfulness practice, spend time in quiet, get outdoors as often as you can, move your body, create things, continually seek joy and grace in as many moments as you can, and don’t take yourself or anything that seriously. Working with others at their most vulnerable is an honor and can also create a lot of pressure. If you can’t laugh and have some fun with it, you’ll be of no use to anyone else. And our clients appreciate a laugh and a little lightness too.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Truly listen. None of us have all the answers and everyone needs to heard, seen, and understood. When we’re fully present with others and our environment, we more easily know what we need to do to handle things in the best way possible. That being said, it’s also incredibly important to create space (both physically and mentally) for creativity, connection, and quiet. I think every office space should have a quiet room and a play room. That might sound like a preschool, but us grownups aren’t so different from children. We still need timeouts and we need to play. Research has shown how important this is to reducing burnout in the workplace as well as stimulating innovation and fulfillment on the job. Breaks should be encouraged, as well as work on things that each employee is passionate about, even if it’s seemingly unrelated to their job description.
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.
- Practice mindfulness. Try to be with the present moment as much as possible. While I’ve been practicing this for my entire life (Although, I didn’t have the words for it until much later in my journey.), my aha moment with mindfulness occurred several years ago right after I’d had a major knee surgery. This was after a couple months on crutches and I was over it. The hard core pain meds made me feel awful so I’d stopped taking them and the pain seemed unbearable. Then, I had this thought, “Well, you’re always telling your clients to be mindful and feel the pain and it will ease up, so freaking feel the pain.” So I did. It wasn’t entirely pleasant to say the least, but I felt it so completely that after a minute or so the pain literally disappeared and all I felt was a vibrating sensation. It also made me realize how much of my life I’d missed by trying to avoid pain (whether physical or emotional) and I no longer wanted to miss a single moment of my life. While I’m by no means present all the time, I am far more often, even when it’s uncomfortable, and my life is much sweeter for it.
- Spend time in nature. We all know that we feel better when we spend time outdoors and now science is able to tell us why. Green space literally heals our brain from the fatigue caused by ongoing directed attention or what we like to refer to as “stress.” I work with my clients outdoors as often as possible and have noticed that they feel better and grow more quickly than the clients I work with indoors, as well their progress seems to be more permanent. I also lead community mindfulness and forest bathing hikes that aren’t directly therapy, but provide significant therapeutic value.
- Create. You don’t have to be an artist to make things. We’re all naturally creative beings and when we don’t express ourselves in creative ways, we experience increased depression and anxiety. I spend a lot of time with my clients on developing increased creative expression for this reason. There are a million ways to creatively express ourselves, paint, write, cook, dance, make music, play sports, program computers, do puzzles, invent things, plan trips, act, engage with others in a different way, and on and on and on. Even the seemingly most mundane tasks can be done a little more creatively if we just think outside of the box. I’ve been a writer my entire life, but shifted from creative writing to more academic writing as a student and social science researcher in higher education. When I left that I longed to get back into more creative writing, but felt so stuck in finding that voice again. I started writing a haiku a day as a blog to practice that and mindfulness and now seven years later am still doing it (Although, no longer every day.). I can say that it changed my life, allowing me to pay more attention to and capture moments in creative ways, which has also influenced how I practice as a therapist.
- Move and pay attention to your body. Our mind and body aren’t actually separate from one another. They’re so intricately linked that in some ways it’s ironic that we have separate terms for them. Our bodies will often communicate things to us that we aren’t yet intellectually aware of. We also need to burn the extra energy daily stressors cause us to accumulate in our bodies. If we don’t do this the energy will remain in the form of anxiety, depression, and anger. Through exercise of any kind we can transform that energy into something more positive and develop a healthier relationship with our mind and body. I am a much better person when I’m engaging in my favorite physical activities on a regular basis.
- Develop and maintain healthy relationships. Social interaction is absolutely necessary for our overall wellbeing, yet, we’re in a time where more and more people feel isolated and disconnected from others. I’ve been so lucky to have the most amazing family and friends and find it easy to meet cool people everywhere I go. I recognize how much better off my life is for that so I have a huge soft spot for those who struggle with this. I’ve developed a lot of mindful socialization practices for my clients to allow them to become more comfortable with being vulnerable and putting themselves out there with other people. As a result they develop a support network that allows them to be able to step away from therapy.
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.
I think all of the above are important for the entirety of our lives. But in addition I’d also add:
Create purpose. Often people who struggle with retirement do so because they believe they no longer have a purpose in life. Purpose and mastery is necessary for us to feel good about ourselves and our life. I read a story a long time ago about a preschool that was being operated out of a retirement home and became fascinated by this concept because it gave purpose and life to the retirees to create intergenerational connections that benefitted both them and the children they worked with.
How about teens and preteens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and preteens to optimize their mental wellness?
Again, they can also benefit from all of the above, but I’d also add:
Disconnect from electronics in order to truly connect with others. So many teens and pre-teens socialize through a screen and research is beginning to show that this actually decreases the feeling of connection with others and increases mental health issues. Teens and preteens need to join extracurricular activities that they’re interested in. This allows them to connect with other youth with similar interests, as well as develop skills that can only be developed from working together as a team.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
I love to read so there are many books that have made an impact on me. Right now, the one that stands out the most is “The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself” by Michael A. Singer. Periodically throughout the book he says things like, “You’re just standing on one little ball of dirt and spinning around one of the stars” to illustrate how much of what we worry about is useless and that we might as well enjoy our time on this ball of dirt as much as possible. I think of this often when I’m getting worked up about something that really isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things and it brings me right back to this ball of dirt.
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. 🙂
The movement I’m most passionate about creating is conserving our natural world and getting people outdoors more. I know the word therapy in and of itself is still a big turnoff for many people so if people can boost their mental health simply by spending more time in nature, it could benefit the entire world. I’m currently working with the Sierra Club and the Los Angeles city attorney’s office to utilize the outdoors in a restorative justice program that would also expose many young people to the outdoors who haven’t had much access to it. I truly believe that if we all spent just a little more time outdoors, we’d have more fuller outlook on life and connection to ourselves, others, and something greater than ourselves. Nature gives us a perspective that we can’t get anywhere else and when we experience its benefits, we want to protect it with all we have.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I’m not a religious person, spiritual, yes, but not religious. However, the Serenity Prayer is my go-to: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I often struggle with the three areas this prayer addresses so I say it to myself sometimes several times a day.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Thank you for all of these great insights!