Dr. Kelly Donahue: “Listening is very powerful”

Joy behaviors. Doing little things that bring you joy every day can have a big impact on your health. When my client started taking a break to play with her dog for 15 minutes every afternoon, she felt less irritable and had more energy for the remainder of her day. Finding joy in simple things […]

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Joy behaviors. Doing little things that bring you joy every day can have a big impact on your health. When my client started taking a break to play with her dog for 15 minutes every afternoon, she felt less irritable and had more energy for the remainder of her day. Finding joy in simple things each day takes little time and has a big impact.

As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Kelly Donahue

Dr. Kelly Donahue is a clinical health psychologist and mind-body change expert. Her private psychology practice, established more than 14 years ago, specializes in the areas of anxiety, stress, depression, weight loss, and health issues. Dr. Donahue is the author of Everyday Self-Care: Your Proven, Holistic Guide to Feeling Better, has published in peer-reviewed journals as well as in the popular press, and has an online school called The Healthy Change School.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I fell in love with psychology in high school. In my psychology class, I learned that real reasons existed for why people behaved the way they did. What a concept! As a college psychology major, I learned about the connections between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. When I took a health psychology course, I knew I had found my niche. While in graduate school, categorizing people with neat diagnostic labels and treating them as “disorders” didn’t resonate with me. What did resonate was learning the intricacies of the mind-body connection during my research assistantship at the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine. Around this time, my dad was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. I dove into the mind-body literature with a new fervor. Under the stress of graduate classes, internships, and work, I experienced my own mind-body symptoms. I collaborated with my health psychology professor to get some insight. I was able to heal the symptoms quickly. I had found my life purpose in teaching others and helping them practice mind-body skills!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

I have pursued all types of mind-body training for my own personal growth and to develop more resources to help my clients. One of the best parts of my job is that what I learn helps my clients, but it also helps me, too. I attended yoga nidra training, and after four days of guided breathing and meditation, I was feeling very relaxed. Near the end of the fourth day, I had the strangest experience. For the briefest moment, I felt nothing and everything all at the same time. There was both lightness and darkness. It happened in a flash, and as soon as I tried to understand it, it was gone. I hurled myself toward the instructor in a mixed frenzy of awe and shock. She informed me that what I had experienced was called satori. In Zen Buddhism, it means “a glimpse of truth.” I’ve had other satori moments since then, but the first one was astounding and rededicated me to my own personal growth journey.

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started working with clients, I was eager to try my new tools. I couldn’t wait to use my cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) homework worksheets. As I eagerly reviewed worksheets and asked for homework that I had assigned, I received blank stares from my clients. They were not as excited about CBT as I was. Those assignments and worksheets weren’t appropriate for everyone, even if they had the same presenting issues. It was a palm-to-face experience! I learned that one-size-fits-all approach didn’t work. These were the top three lessons:

1. Bio individuality is a real thing. Each person had a different background, different genetic make-up, different stress tolerances, and different life stressors. I became skilled at meeting a person where they were and tailoring our work to fit their individual needs.

2. Listening is very powerful. I learned that I have a gift for listening. Like a chess master, we don’t often realize our talents because they come so easily to us. I learned the power of having my clients feel heard, often for the first time.

3. I needed more tools. I took many courses in mind-body medicine and holistic nutrition. Transformational coaching helped me individualize my work to truly meet my client’s needs.

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?

So many people have guided me along the way. It began with my grandmother who encouraged me at a very young age to follow my dreams. It was a radical idea that I could be something other than a nurse or a teacher, the two most common professions for women in my childhood town. It allowed me to think outside the box enough to explore other options.

The next person was Dr. John Astin, an amazing mind-body researcher. He taught me how to use the power of the mind-body connection to prevent and heal mind, body, and spirit.

Although I never had the pleasure of meeting him in person, Dr. Wayne Dyer had a huge influence on my life and my practice. Listening to his CDs on long commutes introduced me to personal growth work for which I am so grateful. And finally, I’m ever grateful to my clients who are truly my best teachers.

Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

I am passionate about health and wellness and about empowering men and women to take control of their health by making small, sustainable changes to their habits which creates a lifetime of change and health. I’ve taken my years of experience in working one-on-one with clients, leading groups, writing books and articles, and teaching webinars and seminars and created affordable ways for most everyone to access gold-standard lifestyle medicine and behavioral change materials and courses.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.

Lifestyle change starts with small changes, and the lifestyle tweaks that I recommend are small in size and big on impact.

  1. Sleep. Without sleep, it’s hard to feel good. Period. End of story. Tips for getting better sleep include having the same waketime and bedtime every day, even on the weekends; stopping the use of devices and screens two hours before bed; and making your room a zen den (cool and dark!).
  2. Breathe. Taking 8 deep breaths can switch you from the sympathetic stress response to the parasympathetic relaxation response. You can take deep breaths anywhere, anytime without anyone knowing what you are doing.
  3. Nutrition. We hear a lot about what we “should” be eating, but we can also see a big impact on our health from focusing on what we don’t eat. Removing inflammatory foods like sugar, processed carbohydrates, caffeine, and alcohol can greatly improve your health without even adding anything to your diet.
  4. Self-talk. We have 60,000–90,000 thoughts per day, and most of those are negative. By paying attention to our thoughts and modifying them in a positive direction when possible, we can feel better and then do better.
  5. Joy behaviors. Doing little things that bring you joy every day can have a big impact on your health. When my client started taking a break to play with her dog for 15 minutes every afternoon, she felt less irritable and had more energy for the remainder of her day. Finding joy in simple things each day takes little time and has a big impact.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

The movement would be “Be kind to yourself.” If everyone were just a bit kinder to themselves, they’d show up better in the world. Self-compassion and self-kindness could have a huge ripple effect.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

We don’t know what we don’t know, and I’ve learned many things I didn’t know. Before I started in business and in the wellness field, I wish that I have known:

  1. I would fail…a lot. This is normal. But I didn’t realize it was part of the process when I began, and I saw failure as a stop sign rather than as a speed bump in the road.
  2. Don’t take things personally. When someone didn’t connect with me in therapy and coaching, when they didn’t like a product I developed, and when a collaboration didn’t work, I would take it personally and make it mean something negative about me. I would make it mean that I wasn’t enough. I’ve learned that others’ reactions are not my business. When I am doing good work, true to my passion, purpose, and talents, that is the marker of how I am doing in the world.
  3. Discomfort means growth. I’ve learned new software, new therapeutic and coaching techniques, and worked with talented professionals. At times, those things have been really uncomfortable. That discomfort is a normal part of growth. I didn’t know that growth would be uncomfortable.
  4. Not all people want to be healthier. When I began, I believed that I could help everyone and that everyone was ready for change. That was not true. People are in very different phases of readiness for change. Sometimes my job is just to be present with the person.
  5. Small changes are the key to health and to business success. Small changes change our trajectory for health and for business. If clients make small changes, the consistency of those changes will create growth and will help them to build integrity. When I made small steps in my business, it continued to grow.

Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

Mental health is very prominent in the world right now. The stresses of COVID-19 and the heightened attention on the ongoing racial injustice are stressful to many. The stress can show up as anxiety and depression. I view the impacts of stress on the body and mind as health, not mental health. I don’t think we can separate mental from physical health. They are really one in the same. When we start thinking about health as holistic and integrated (mental and physical), the unnecessary stigma of mental health will dissolve. And when we start treating what is now termed “mental” health with a lifestyle medicine approach that includes improving physical health, whole health improves exponentially.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Instagram — @kellydonahuephd @thehealthychageschool

Facebook — @kellydonahuephd @thehealthychangeschool

Thank you for these fantastic insights!

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