Sleep. When you don’t sleep, you can’t function at your best. Sleep deprivation reduces your ability to regulate your emotions and exert executive functioning skills necessary for planning, organizing, and goal setting. A lack of sleep can cause a domino effect that ripples throughout your day. It is easy to neglect sleep when we are busy and working against a deadline but it is the most important thing we can do to set ourselves up for success.
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. Sopagna Eap Braje. Dr. Braje is a licensed psychologist who works with children, adolescents, and their families. She completed her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oregon and her clinical internship at the Medical University of South Carolina. She was formerly a university faculty member but is now in private practice as a psychologist in the San Diego area.
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?
Thanks for the opportunity! I was an avid reader when I was young and watched a lot of movies so I developed an interest and curiosity about how people feel and respond to different situations and lived events. My experiences were narrow-Asian American family living in the inner city- but very different than what I saw on TV. The differences between my experiences and the experiences of others, as well as the similarities, made me want to study human behavior. I wanted to better understand the universal experiences that unite us and make us human while exploring the unique events that distinguish us.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
At the risk of sounding overly nerdy, my most interesting moments involve reading about something new or working with a client who has just experienced a moment of insight. Not interesting to the average person but they reinforce why I love what I do. The small things can have the most emotional impacts.
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?
This isn’t exactly a mistake but like many young people starting out in academia, I was often mistaken for a student rather than a professor. I also am small in stature, which makes me appear younger than I am. One time, I was standing in line at the campus post office at the college where I was just hired as an Assistant Professor and found myself surrounded by college freshmen who were picking up their backpacks, their welcome present from the school. One of the college staff members stood in line behind me, smiled, and asked if I was excited for my first year of college. I told her I was very excited to start my first year as a college professor and we both had a good laugh.
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 have been fortunate to work with so many smart, talented, and kind people throughout the course of my career but I would have to say my roommate from internship helped me make a very difficult decision. When we were interns nearly 15 years ago, we both rented a room from one of the faculty members. We didn’t know each other beforehand. We both had husbands and lives in faraway cities and moved to Charleston, SC, for our twelve-month internship training. The internship requirement to earn your Ph.D. can be quite disruptive for graduate students. During our year together, we were one another’s support system. We had many late-night conversations and went through so much together during that year. We had completely different perspectives on therapy but our debates only fueled our mutual respect for one another. A few years ago, we finally crossed paths after 10 years. It was like we were transported back in time and nothing had changed between us. As we talked, I expressed the desire to leave academia and do more clinical work. She sensed my hesitancy and trepidation and immediately made me feel like I could do it. I have always been cautious and thoughtful, at times to a detriment. She was always the gale-force wind that pushed me out of my comfort zone. I was terrified because I had spent 7 years in academia and was unsure whether leaving was the right decision.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
It is important to build a support network both inside and outside the industry. It is easy to lose perspective on the things you love and enjoy about your job when you are dealing with little stressors throughout the day. We all need to have someone who we can vent to who understands what we are going through but also to have someone who can offer an alternative view of what we’re struggling with.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Good leaders make the people who work for them feel valued. Research shows that people are willing to forgo money for other intangible benefits. One of the most important ways that leaders can motivate people is to reinforce that every person is contributing to an important broader mission. People want to feel that the work they do is meaningful.
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 a 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.
- Sleep. When you don’t sleep, you can’t function at your best. Sleep deprivation reduces your ability to regulate your emotions and exert executive functioning skills necessary for planning, organizing, and goal setting. A lack of sleep can cause a domino effect that ripples throughout your day. It is easy to neglect sleep when we are busy and working against a deadline but it is the most important thing we can do to set ourselves up for success.
- Exercise. Many people know that exercising has significant benefits for mental health. The effects of exercise on our mood is similar to that of antidepressants. Most people, however, have a narrow view of what constitutes exercise. They are also unrealistic in terms of what they can reasonably do in the limited amount of time they have. An early morning brisk walk can elevate your mood in the same way that a 30-minute walk on the treadmill can. If people feel that only certain things “count” as exercise, they are limiting their ability to benefit from an activity that is freely available to everyone. Exercising with people is even better because you have someone to be accountable to and everything is more fun when you are doing it with friends.
- Find something you are passionate about. “Flow” describes the psychological experience of losing yourself in an activity. When people experience “flow,” they describe losing all sense of time and space. People who experience “flow” on a daily basis report feeling happier than people who don’t. We experience this when we are engaged in an activity that we love. It can be playing music, running, or cooking a meal. When we are in a state of “flow,” we feel more energized and engaged with the world around us.
- Take a break from technology. The web is replete with mindfulness apps to help us do something that should come naturally, which is experience the world around us without distractions. This has become increasingly more difficult. We now have exceptionally easy and accessible ways to distract ourselves. When we are glued to our smartphones, we are less aware and engaged with our surroundings. Whether we are standing in the check-out line at the grocery store or waiting for an appointment, it is easy to gratify our need to be stimulated. But it is important that we take some time to smile at other people, let our minds wander, or just sit silently. When I take my son to the park, I notice many parents off to the sides scrolling through their social media. I do it too, so I realize how tempting it is when your child is happily distracting himself to tune out. I put away my phone because my phone will always be there, but these precious moments are fleeting.
- Do a good deed. When we do something nice for someone, not only do they benefit but we benefit as well. It doesn’t have to be anything major. Smile at someone, be respectful, be patient, open a door for a fellow shopper at the grocery store. Kindness can come in small acts. Research suggests that our culture’s emphasis on achievement may be contributing to a generation of people who are less able to adopt the perspective of others or experience empathy. Just like exercise can result in a “runner’s high,” kindness can result in a “helper’s high.”
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.
Retirement is a significant life transition that can conjure both positive and negative feelings. In a way, retirement shares something in common with the stage experienced by adolescents as they transition to adulthood. These transitions force people to redefine who they are and cause them to question their purpose in life. Retirement may bring about a loss of identity as many people define themselves by the type of job they have. To cope with this identity loss, people nearing retirement may seek out a new role or expand an existing one. Many people take this opportunity to volunteer or learn a new skill. This is a good way to keep your mind active while also maintaining social contact. Retirement can bring about a sense of isolation. Social relationships and connectedness are the most important predictors of well-being. If retirement means that the individual no longer has consistent social interactions, then it is important to re-establish that as soon as possible. People can also develop a new routine for themselves. Routines make people happy because they give them a sense of purpose and predictability.
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?
Disconnecting from technology is even more important for teenagers because their brain is more sensitive to environmental inputs. There have been a number of books written about the role of technology in affecting the mental health of our teenagers. Books like Jean Twenge’s “Igen” and Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together” point out the negative influence technology has had our ability to communicate with one another. There is no shortage of research studies that point to the effects social media has on lowering our self-esteem and reducing the quality of our social relationships. Many parents report that their teenagers seem better able to regulate their emotions when they have taken away social media, screens, and video games for just a short time. Parents can have rules around when teenagers can have access to technology. Like any source of gratification, it is important to practice moderation.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” has been very influential in how I think about human behavior. His book describes the Nobel Prize research he conducted with the late Amos Tversky. They are in the field of social science called decision making so they are not clinical psychologists but they do study human behavior in a different way, namely, how do people evaluate risks, benefits, and preferences. One of the most important lessons of their work is that people often make decisions based on flawed logic or cognitive biases. These biases shape the way we perceive reality and drive how we interpret the world. For instance, a depressed person can think, “no one likes me” and then all information is filtered through this lens. The most important message of the book is that reality and perception are not always the same thing. It has helped me understand that I can’t help people change their lives until I understand the perceptions that affect their decision making.
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 have read about some restaurants starting to do this, but I would ban smartphones at restaurants, bars, and playgrounds or anyplace where the goal is to be social. We have started to view social interactions as existing through a device: texting, Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter have replaced actual conversations. As a psychologist, I have noticed that people struggle with the format of therapy more than they used to. I see more resistance from teenagers because talking to a person without a smartphone feels awkward for them. As soon as therapy ends, people are back on their phones. They do not let themselves think about or reflect on what was discussed in therapy. I once left my phone in my office to have lunch with colleagues and everyone was on their phones. It was a good example of how people can be “alone together.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
When my husband and I started dating in graduate school, he had a post-it with a quote which he had taped onto his laptop. It said, “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” I didn’t think it was relevant to me at the time because I didn’t think I was afraid of failure. But then I would find myself predicting the outcome of a decision before I even attempted something. I didn’t apply to jobs I didn’t think I could get, I didn’t submit articles that I thought would be rejected, I didn’t ask people for things because I thought they would say no. This quote reminds me to make decisions based on what I want to accomplish, not based on a fear of failure.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
You can follow me on Twitter (@SopagnaB)
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!