Dr. Kari Groff of The Bright Siders: “Take the time to honor and practice your spiritual beliefs”

Take the time to honor and practice your spiritual beliefs. That might be through prayer or meditation. But it will no doubt involve creating space in a busy life or schedule. I like some of the religious traditions that set aside a certain day or time just for prayer and reflection. Even if you are […]

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Take the time to honor and practice your spiritual beliefs. That might be through prayer or meditation. But it will no doubt involve creating space in a busy life or schedule. I like some of the religious traditions that set aside a certain day or time just for prayer and reflection. Even if you are not of a particular faith, you could establish your own routine and that could be very healthy and strengthening.

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 Dr. Kari Groff.

Dr. Kari Groff is an accomplished physician running a child psychiatry practice in Brooklyn, New York. She has always had a passion as well for songwriting and playing the fiddle. Through her clinical work as a child psychiatrist, Dr. Groff has seen first-hand how powerful music can be in helping children to process emotions. When she was a young doctor, she started writing her own material based on the issues brought to her by her patients, weaving psychiatric advice into her catchy lyrics. Together with musician Kristin Andreassen, Groff formed The Bright Siders, and they just released their first album A Mind of Your Own with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

Each theme on the album was carefully chosen by Dr. Groff, reflecting her practice as a psychiatrist, which involves speaking with hundreds of kids and parents and hearing the common emotional concerns and threads in their lives. The songs and skits, along with Dr. Groff’s “Try this at home…” suggestions contained in the liner notes, are all intended to set the stage for conversations with children about these emotions and the experiences the kids are likely to have while growing up.

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

Thanks for having me! I had a warm and nurturing childhood. It was filled with creativity, friendship, family, nature, spirituality, and music. My mom and dad were both elementary school music teachers. They made sure making and enjoying music was a part of our everyday lives. We also were lucky to live around the corner from the Children’s Science Museum of Connecticut and they had a preschool there that I and many of the neighborhood kids attended. So, my earliest school memories are of learning about the natural world at that school and gazing up at the stars in the museum planetarium. So, I had a great mix of music and science from an early age.

I also had the natural background of New England’s beautiful seasons to appreciate. I found serenity walking through the woods and sitting by the ocean on the rocky coast, listening to the waves. I just was fortunate to grow up in this mix of positive role models, nature, and artistic influences.

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

Come to think of it, I didn’t really know any women physicians growing up. However, certain artistic and media forces influenced me quite a bit. Many of these came out of a progressive 1970s era of programming. You might recall Marlo Thomas’ “Free to be You and Me.” It really changed my life. I listened to that album over and over, letting its messages penetrate deep into my consciousness. And I never forgot the messages in that music. It encouraged me to pursue my goals and potential regardless of gender and taught me to appreciate the uniqueness of each person.

As I got older, I read a lot of novels that featured female scientists as protagonists and watched TV shows with women physicians. The field called to me from a young age. When it came time to choose a specialty, I chose psychiatry because I thought it offered a unique opportunity to meaningfully connect to patients because of the time you are allowed to take with someone. I also liked that the doctor-patient relationships evolve over many years, especially in child psychiatry. I love the work. And it continues to challenge me as I search for new ways to think about how people move through life, solve problems, take care of themselves, and discover meaning.

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?

So many have helped me. Two people overseeing my psychiatry training programs were critical. Medical school and residency were very stressful and that was a time I could have really allowed music to get away from me. But during my residency at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Anthony Rostain encouraged me to find time in my schedule to practice and reminded me to prioritize making music. He was the head of the Penn Psychiatry Residency. While I was at NYU, Dr. Jess Shatkin did the same and strongly encouraged me to pursue some of my ideas for songwriting. Both are excellent musicians by the way. Both strongly encouraged finding balance between the arts and science, noting that each can cross-pollinate the other.

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

Nashville- singer song writer, Kristin Andreassen and I have just released an album on the Smithsonian Folkways label. And I am super excited to be partnering with the Smithsonian because I have been a Smithsonian fan since I was a kid.

So the album is called A Mind of Your Own. In the spirit of Marlo Thomas’ “Free to be You and Me,” we wrote and recorded songs and skits that address different emotions that children experience growing up. We created the album for children, but adults seem to also really love the music! I encourage people to check it out at www.thebrightsiders.com

Kristin is an amazing singer songwriter with just a lot of psychological depth to her songwriting based on her own difficult experiences growing up. I was a fan of her music before I met her so it was a really great thing when she agreed to co-create this album. On the album, we feature a diverse and talented crew of Americana artists including, The War and Treaty, Gaby Moreno, Ed Helms, The Punch Brothers and Chris Eldridge (who co-produced the album), and many more. We draw our lyrics from mindfulness-based stress reduction, cognitive behavioral therapy and acceptance and commitment-based approaches.

Each album comes with extensive liner notes explaining the background of each song and ideas that could be used at home or at school.

I am hoping this album can be useful at home or in schools just like the Marlo Thomas album was for me. I would love to inspire children to have an early sense of emotional health and awareness, and I hope that the music helps parents and teachers talk to children about social-emotional issues.

I want them to realize that ideas like self-compassion, kindness towards others, and acceptance of different emotions can be incredibly helpful as they grow up and become the people that they really ideally would like to be. I would love to be that inspirational person to children that shows them the importance of listening to oneself and believing in oneself. I want children to know that their emotional experiences are valid and to remind adults to listen closely to the children that they are caring for.

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?

When I was 21, I was given a copy of Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh.” It was a life-changing introduction to mindfulness. I have likely used mindfulness in some way (in nature, meditation, music, etc.) since I was a young child, but his words really made me much more aware of mindfulness techniques and how to “mindfully” incorporate them into everyday life. In my music and my psychiatry work with patients, I encourage people to tap into this very powerful inner resource.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

It’s not so much a life lesson quote, but one that I keep coming back to. It’s from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness. He says, “Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”

I love this quote because I try to teach patients the importance of finding their breath and their internal sense of calm in difficult situations. Connecting with the breath is a very important way to tolerate and embrace feelings of all types both negative and positive.

That quote is a nice tie in to the remainder 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. Do you have a specific type of meditation practice or Yoga practice that you have found helpful? We’d love to hear about it.

My personal practice is eclectic and draws from a range of practices including some interpretations of Hatha Yoga. I like the Hatha Yoga Book, Moving into Stillness by Erich Schiffmann. Funny enough, I first found it on Kristin’s bookshelf when I was visiting Kristin in Nashville during one of our album recording sessions of Mind of Your Own. She said I could take it home with me to New York City because I seemed so taken with the book. Schiffman combines meditation with Hatha Yoga. This book offers a great introduction into the practice.

I do think strong morning routines are important and I often enjoy sipping tea in the early morning while reading the book. I then move into a few poises. Though I don’t think yoga is the absolute answer to everything, I do think that developing and pursuing a regular practice is very beneficial to many people for many different reasons. This is especially so if people do it at their own pace and in their own particular way that suits their emotional and physical needs. I think that is what I like about Schiffman’s approach. He encourages people to find what works for them. I hope that idea comes across in my work with patients. Find a movement and meditation practice that works for you. There are so many out there…try different approaches until you find something that really helps you and enriches your life.

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.

As a physician, I recommend to all my patients: First, take daily walks. Even if you don’t like to exercise, I recommend taking a daily walk just to appreciate the natural world and to feel connected to the inner self. There is also something very important and meaningful about carving out the time for oneself. It is a very good way to practice mindfulness and to center yourself.

Second, listen to your body. I have worked with different bodywork clinicians over the years and one of the best ones that I worked with was Jennifer Sokolov, a brilliant mind-body clinician in NYC. She encouraged me to truly listen to what my body was telling me. If my feet were hurting me, it meant that I needed to rest. Don’t push your body when it is trying to tell you to rest.

Third, I recommend that my patients establish excellent sleep hygiene. There are amazing books and websites available to guide you into better sleep habits but a few things to get started: reduce caffeine, try to go to sleep and get up around the same time, use meditative practices to relax the mind and body into a sleep state, and of course avoid things like television and screens before sleeping.

These are just a few ideas but there are so many great habits to build into your life.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum emotional wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

Let me take it back to the new album that I am so excited about! I am hoping that my recommendations come out pretty clearly in the lyrics. In Mind of Your Own, I tried to be clear in my message to children and parent about a few things. First, live a life of compassion towards yourself and other. This involves really quieting the inner critical voice (of both criticizing yourself and other people) that can often be a strong force preventing feeling more contentment. Second, recognize and validate difficult experiences, learning when you can from them, and when possible, appreciate your own resilience. Third, remember that you do have a choice in determining the person that you want to be. That you can live a life that is very true to the values that are most important to you be it courage, kindness, leadership, creativity, etc.

Finally, can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum spiritual wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

Not everyone has a spiritual belief or practice but for those who do I encourage people to:

First, take the time to honor and practice your spiritual beliefs. That might be through prayer or meditation. But it will no doubt involve creating space in a busy life or schedule. I like some of the religious traditions that set aside a certain day or time just for prayer and reflection. Even if you are not of a particular faith, you could establish your own routine and that could be very healthy and strengthening.

Second, seek out and frequent places that feel spiritually nourishing to you. Even if you don’t have a particular spiritual belief, there are places that everyone finds peaceful or restorative. For me, it is the forest. For some people, it is the top of a mountain or near the water.

Finally, to me, spiritual wellness involves compassion, forgiveness, appreciation of what you have, kindness towards others…just to name a few qualities. For people looking for more optimal spiritual wellness, it is important to think about the human qualities that you think might create a deeper sense of spirituality for yourself and be very mindful of them as you live your life day to day.

Do you have any particular thoughts about how being “in nature” can help us to cultivate spiritual wellness?

I personally find being in nature to be incredibly special and healing. It is where I am often most connected to both my inner voice and just a sense of wholeness or belonging. But I have also encountered people that say they are definitively “not into nature,” and I have learned to respect that. For me, I love the serenity that comes from appreciating the natural world. But no matter what your perspective is about being “in nature,’ I think that a global commitment from each person to well-being of the planet is extremely important.

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.

We must try to figure out a way to meet our deepest needs as humans while also taking care of the planet in a way that far exceeds and transforms what we are currently doing. Perhaps a mindfulness-compassionate living meets climate change revolution would aid in this transformation.

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 🙂

Please tag Marlo Thomas. I want her to know how inspirational her album was to people and still is. I am so appreciative of her work and have tremendous respect for the project that she created. It inspired me to write and release A Mind of Your Own.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I would love to keep in touch! I invite all the readers to sign up for our Bright Siders mailing list at www.brightsiders.com. We will announce new music, webinars, shows, etc. all year.

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