Dr. Gillian O’Shea Brown Of NYU: “Adequate restful sleep allows the brain to recover from the rigors of the day”

Adequate restful sleep allows the brain to recover from the rigors of the day. Not getting enough sleep has been found to increase the risk of obesity, heart disease and depression. According to the 2017 Journal of the National Sleep Foundation, the average adult requires 8 hours sleep (that is one third of your day). […]

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Adequate restful sleep allows the brain to recover from the rigors of the day. Not getting enough sleep has been found to increase the risk of obesity, heart disease and depression. According to the 2017 Journal of the National Sleep Foundation, the average adult requires 8 hours sleep (that is one third of your day). Practice good sleep hygiene and self-care rituals is paramount to renewal and wellness.

It sometimes feels like it is so hard to avoid feeling down or depressed these days. Between the sad news coming from world headlines, the impact of the ongoing raging pandemic, and the constant negative messages popping up on social and traditional media, it sometimes feels like the entire world is pulling you down. What do you do to feel happiness and joy during these troubled and turbulent times? In this interview series called “Finding Happiness and Joy During Turbulent Times” we are talking to experts, authors, and mental health professionals who share lessons from their research or experience about “How To Find Happiness and Joy During Troubled & Turbulent Times”.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Gillian O’Shea Brown.

Dr. Gillian O’Shea Brown, is a complex trauma psychotherapist based in NYC. She is author of the book, ‘Healing Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder’ and serves as an Adjunct Professor of Trauma Studies in NYU.

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?

Of course! Thanks for having me. I grew up in a small village in rural Ireland in the 1990s. It was a pretty homogenous place. Everyone was white, Irish, Catholic, working class, and heterosexual (or at least pretended to be). At that time, many women did not have full-time jobs. It was only about 20 years before I was born that women were forbidden by law from holding jobs after marriage so that they could focus on their ‘real career’ as a wife and mother in the home — according to the Irish constitution. Women were not really expected to have careers, let alone become entrepreneurs. Recently, however, Ireland has made great strides and become much more progressive.

As a kid, my teachers sometimes got frustrated with me, I was often referred to as being ‘disruptive’ and a ‘daydreamer’. Today I have forged an entire career out of being a disruptive daydreamer but back then, I internalized feelings of being an outlier. As a student, I found classes incredibly dull and the only thing that really intrigued me was the people around me and the stories they carried. I was happiest in conversation. When you talk, you repeat what you already know but when you listen carefully with an open heart every person has something interesting and impactful to share with you about their lived experiences. In my own household, I very much identified as the unseen child, the quiet observer. I had periods of rebellion in my adolescence. I wanted to meet everyone and experience everything that I could — this sometimes got me into trouble — but in retrospect I value my unceasing curiosity as an important part of my character. In friendships, I found myself becoming the listener, the nurturer and the compassionate witness to other’s pain. By listening to people from a place of compassion and deep soulful resonance I was also taking away my own pain. At parties, I could always be found huddled in the corner deep in conversation with an old friend or an intriguing stranger. I always hated small talk and thrived on having conversations of substance, the real gritty topics which the human existence is based on. I always saw it as a great privilege when someone would open up to me and I still do today.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I was heavily influenced by my environment, being a sponge and wanting to learn more deeply who people are beyond the social masks that we all wear. Becoming a therapist was a very natural progression, it is simply a way of me living my most authentic role in this world. It is not a job but a way of life for me — I bring it everywhere I go and I believe that it was always intended for me to serve in this way. I did not set out to become a trauma therapist, however those who presented themselves to me had all walked on the pathway of trauma. Through my service, I realized that for many people their deepest pain arises from complex relational trauma. That is, the emotional wounds that people endure from their relationships both past and present. I found that by expanding my healing toolbox to treatment areas such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), ego state work and somatic techniques, I was far better positioned to understand, treat and heal this complex trauma. It became apparent to me early in my career that to serve as a healer of trauma, I would need to expand my toolbox and my knowledge base. Moments of awe, resonance and compassion have motivated me to continue to train, seek new knowledge and grow professionally, so that I could serve in a way that feels meaningful and impactful. Research is always evolving and the field of trauma informed psychotherapy is rapidly growing, so I will continue to grow and learn in my role as a trauma healer and hopefully share this knowledge with my clients, students and on a wider scale through my books.

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?

Without doubt, I owe so much to my husband Grant. I was very fortunate to have met him early in life –when I think back at the other life choices I was making at 21 I do not know how I got to so lucky. I was immediately attracted to his character, he is kind, courageous and loyal. He champions me in a way I had never experienced before. He has a way of looking at every person through loving eyes, there is a warmth to his character that is so nourishing. But mostly we have a lot of fun together. He has always given me the wings to fly and safe space to land and for that I am eternally grateful. I am firm believer that if just one person believes in you with the conviction that you can triumph — all things are possible. As human beings, we cannot survive alone and the quality of our relationships is the most important building block in developing a life of meaning and purpose. I know I would not be where I am today without him.

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 wouldn’t categorize this as funny or interesting but I hope it is helpful. I made the mistake of working many jobs for the security, predictability and the low risk. Most people are afraid to start their own business — they tell themselves they’re too young until one day they begin to tell themselves they are too old. The truth is you will never feel absolutely ready to take the risk. It wasn’t until I really invested in myself and started my own practice that my career really began to take off. I do not regret the positions I held in the past, they allowed me to sample different areas. Having a job, you do not like gives you discernment in knowing what is not for you. Use every opportunity that you can to develop your eye and to demonstrate your gifts to the world. Just do not stay too long in a job that was not for you or you will become jaded. Abstract whatever wisdom you can from the experience and bring it forward. After that, bet on yourself and do what you love.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

My passion is teaching psychoeducation and self-empowerment techniques to help people heal from trauma. By healing I mean facilitating the compassionate witnessing of the self so that you can see beyond the wounds to who you truly are in the world. In the words of Rumi — “The wound is the place where the light enters you”. As counterintuitive as it may sound, I believe that from tragedy and trauma can come opportunity for growth, adaption and evolution. I recently released my first book, Healing Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Clinician’s Guide, and created a mini module at New York University to introduce future clinicians to the treatment of Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (“CPTSD”), which is a new diagnosis in the International Classification of Diseases, 11th revision. As endorsement of CPTSD begins in January 2022, I aim to educate therapists and trauma survivors on how to identify, treat and heal from complex trauma. I am also currently writing a second book — which is for anyone who is working towards healing from past relational trauma and provides a guide to empower readers to turn their wounds into wisdom. I also plan on creating self-directed workbooks and online courses for both therapists and survivors.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Thank you. No matter what path you take or career you choose, do so with a sense of responsibility to contribute to society. I believe everyone has the ability to be creative and useful in how they can share their unique skills with the world. Even if this contribution feels small it can have a significant ripple effect.

Curiosity is important, you need to identify what sparks your curiosity in life. Allow your curiosity to outweigh your fear. This will help you to find a deeper meaning in your work. Obsession breeds brilliance — so do what makes your heart content and do it really well. There are moments where you feel most yourself as if you were in a creative flow — it feels very natural — begin to be curious about those moments and intentionally make efforts to create opportunities to expand them in your life. If you focus on what your passionate about, your unceasing curiosity will make you a master in that field.

Collaboration –the more we help others, the more we help ourselves. Support others, appreciate them and send positive energy to them and this will flow back to you tenfold. Developing your network is crucial, look after your contacts and nurture those relationships. In terms of clients, people notice when your fully invested in them, always aim to over deliver. In terms of your peers, try to offer assistance wherever you can.

Decisive Action — learn to trust your inner wisdom. Beneath all of the racing thoughts, you have an inner guiding voice, this is your intuition. Make space to listen to it and follow it up with affirmative action. We need to trust our emotions just as we do our physiological responses, if you put your hand on a hot stove intense pain would prompt you to take it off (quickly!). Much the same painful emotions are prompting you to go within and make changes in your life. Sometimes this inner wisdom prompts you to say “no,” to move forward, to take a risk, or to just do more of what feels good.

For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of finding joy?

Yes, of course. I am a NYC based psychotherapist, author and adjunct professor at NYU, my entire career has been centered on helping people heal from trauma so that they can live life more fully. After over a decade of practice, I have become more effective at healing and compassionately witnessing those who are hurting. My favorite part of my work is having the privilege of witnessing the growth and healing of my clients and then to see them create a compelling future for themselves when they are no longer burdened from their fears. I am deeply grateful to have had the privilege of witnessing so many people’s deep healing journeys however, now I want to share my practice wisdom beyond the therapy suite so more people can benefit and grow.

Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about finding joy. Even before the pandemic hit, the United States was ranked at #19 in the World Happiness Report. Can you share a few reasons why you think the ranking is so low, despite all of the privileges and opportunities that we have in the US?

This is a complicated issue. America, though a country that offers more privilege and opportunities than most, is an individualistic culture rather than a collective one. When you grow up in a homogeneous island (as I did) there is this feeling that people are connected and looking out for one another; however, in the US it can feel like everyone is focused on themselves. Our relationships have a huge impact on our quality of life. The decline in social capital and social support has been heavily correlated to increased rates of loneliness and isolation. Not to mention the rise in use of social media, where most people only share the edited and polished versions of their lives. This has created an environment of peer comparison, unworthiness and even contempt. There is a loss of real face to face connection as screen time takes over and this is harming people’s emotional wellbeing.

On top of that a purposeful and meaningful life requires a healthy amount of challenge. When people are fed up with their routine, and life seems to have no aim and meaning, then people begin to feel depressed, despite having comforts. On the other hand, when we are governed by fear and obligation to work towards security and success this can lead to us becoming overwhelmed. Striking a balance of being lightly stretched and stimulated versus overwhelmed and burnt out is important but challenging in modern day America.

What are the main myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about finding joy and happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?

Happiness is often associated with immediate gratification, for example winning the lottery, the beginning of a new romance or even indulging in your favorite comfort food. According to research, however, happiness is influenced by your lifestyle choices and genetic disposition. This happiness ‘set-point’ that largely determines your well-being will fluctuate when something positive happens or the opposite, afterwards returning to equilibrium. Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Psychology Professor at University of California found through her intensive research that approximately 40 percent of our happiness is within our control suggesting that happiness is a choice that anyone can make. In the words of the influential Jim Rohn, ‘Happiness is not something you postpone for the future, it is something you design for the present’.

In a related, but slightly different question, what are the main mistakes you have seen people make when they try to find happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?

People are quick to blame others for their own discontentment rather than going within. Jealousy, resentment and contempt are without a doubt the biggest barriers to happiness. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “resentment is like drinking poison hoping your enemies will die”. Holding onto resentment and contempt will ensnare you in to a life of dissatisfaction. Empathy is the path to freedom. As an example, healing of childhood trauma often starts with a compassionate witnessing of yourself, then from there we zoom out building an appreciation of the nature of transgenerational trauma. This cultivated self-compassion shines outward and allows for you to develop deeper connections. In terms of jealousy, Shakespeare personified jealousy as the Green-Eyed Monster. An apt description as envy will eat up your personal satisfaction and confidence faster than any other negative thought process. If you are going to compare yourself, do not measure yourself against other people. My advice is to compare yourself to where you are today as opposed to where you were 6 months ago, or a year ago. What have you learned? Have you realized your personal goals? When you look to others to determine your personal goals, you make decisions out of a place of fear. Everyone is on their own unique journey. Fear can often motivate people to create a life for the spectators on the outside rather than for themselves. This fear can often motivate one to stay in abusive relationships, unfulfilling jobs and even incur credit card debt. Live your life for you, rather than the people on the outside. Try to focus on what feels right for you on a day to day basis

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share with our readers your “5 things you need to live with more Joie De Vivre, more joy and happiness in life, particularly during turbulent times?” (Please share a story or an example for each.)

A great question, especially during such turbulent and unpredictable times for all of us. In order to cultivate more joie de vivre in your life, I believe you must first begin with your physiology.

Exercise is well known to boost the immune system and stimulate release of endorphin. However, research has found that exercise is also effective in reducing stress and symptoms of anxiety, in addition to improving your overall mood. This is mainly attributed to reduced cortisol levels, a hormone that is released when you experience stress.

A Nutritious diet and how you fuel your body on a daily basis is an integral element to your emotional well-being. It is well researched that small but frequent meals best satisfy our body’s needs and that Omega 3 Fatty Acids, such as smoked salmon, enhance cognitive function and overall sense of satisfaction. As humans, we are primarily made up of water, so hydration and good nutrition are foundational in terms of cultivating energy, vitality and creativity in your life.

Adequate restful sleep allows the brain to recover from the rigors of the day. Not getting enough sleep has been found to increase the risk of obesity, heart disease and depression. According to the 2017 Journal of the National Sleep Foundation, the average adult requires 8 hours sleep (that is one third of your day). Practice good sleep hygiene and self-care rituals is paramount to renewal and wellness.

After physiology comes connection.

Maintaining strong social connections and laughter helps to alleviate symptoms of depression. Researchers from the University of Queensland conducted two experiments to research how social connections affect symptoms of depression. The findings are published in the Journal of Affective Disorders. This research found that joining groups and establishing strong social connections can alleviate symptoms of depression and poor self-esteem. However, it is important to choose your social group wisely. Jim Rohn set forth the theory that you become the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Though this theory is not yet scientifically proven, the premise of the law of averages is indeed sound. When you apply the law of averages to your social circle, you can see the importance of surrounding yourself with people you admire. Positive social connections will foster feelings of connectedness, empowerment and joy. Conversely, toxic friendships will evoke feelings of shame, self-doubt and even alienation. Becoming mindful of your social interactions and asking yourself if you admire the people you surround yourself with will prompt you to be more intentional about creating a strong and supportive social network.

And last but not least I recommend having a dream or a goal that both excites and scares you. One must always be striving towards their next aspiration but also taking in what they have already achieved. It is a delicate balance. Sometimes we run so far past the finish line in life, setting new goals and ambitions — without fully metabolizing the journey that we have been on. Without realizing that at one point what you have now was just an ambitious dream. That one compelling dream within you, can serve as a North Star getting you through bumps in the road and moments of self-doubt. Therefore, I believe that physiology, connection and a healthy amount challenge are really significant when it comes to cultivating happiness in your life.

What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to effectively help support someone they care about who is feeling down or depressed?

You may not be able to take their pain away but you can take that walk with them, compassionate witnessing goes along way. People need to be seen, heard and respected. The opposite of depression is expression. Try to create space and a felt sense of safety for people to come to you. When they do, it is important really listen them and ask them what they need (rather than tell them what you think they need).

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 want to continue to spread knowledge which will help people to heal from trauma so that they can recapture the joie de vivre in their lives and in turn live the life that they have always wanted. I will do this through every medium I can, in the hope that it creates a ripple effect and ends transgenerational relational trauma.

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 🙂

Wow such a great question and so many people come to mind. I would love to have breakfast with author and psychotherapist Esther Perel. In my work as a trauma therapist I see how trauma continues to haunt romantic partnerships — I would love to hear her thoughts on how we can advance complex trauma healing (with regard to intrusion trauma and the love/lust split). And because I have a huge appetite (for both knowledge and food) I would love to have lunch with Lewis Howes. I would like to learn more about how he is deconstructing toxic masculinity and creating a global conversation about normalizing emotional self-care for male survivors of childhood trauma.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Yes. I am on LinkedIn and Instagram as @ dr.gillianosheabrown

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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