Dr. Robin Hornstein: “Nature bathing is a wonderful way to cultivate spiritual wellness”

For me, optimum emotional wellness revolves around a few things. First, recognize your emotions as real, as information, as related to internal or external pain or trauma, anxiety, depression, loss and grief etc. How we react to our feelings, what we tell ourselves about what they mean, and how we get our needs met is […]

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For me, optimum emotional wellness revolves around a few things. First, recognize your emotions as real, as information, as related to internal or external pain or trauma, anxiety, depression, loss and grief etc. How we react to our feelings, what we tell ourselves about what they mean, and how we get our needs met is the journey from feeling to healing, from surviving to thriving. And, sometimes, emotional wellness is hard to attain when you are reacting to systemic oppression or living in an abusive situation that is hard to extricate yourself from.

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 Do To Cultivate Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Robin Hornstein.

A co-founder of Hornstein, Platt and Associates, Dr. Robin Hornstein has been a Licensed Psychologist and counselor for over 30 years. Prior to that, she completed a degree in Early Childhood Education and worked with young children. After earning a doctorate from the Counseling Psychology program at Temple University, she spent many years serving clients in recovery before entering private practice. Wanting to contribute to the Delaware Valley community in a more significant way, Dr. Hornstein co-founded Hornstein, Platt and Associates where she has been the Clinical Director, focusing on ensuring our therapists provide the most effective treatment possible and matching clients with therapists who will best meet their needs. HPA is and serves the diverse community around Philadelphia and suburbs with a focus on inclusive care.

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?

Sure, my childhood was a mish-mash of difficult and easy, much like anyone else’s, I suppose. I was raised in Philadelphia and had a mom, dad, and brother. We were white, Jewish, and lower-middle class in the 60’s. When I was young, there was extended family, but our family saga included a lot of secrets, lies, and abuse so many of us drifted away as soon as we could. Despite the downside, there was a lot of love and good memories that helped me heal. I would say that anxiety runs deep on both sides, so that was what I worked on in my own therapy when I began seeing a therapist at 16. I am a huge proponent of therapy for therapists and do not hire folks for my practice who have not had therapy. My best friend growing up is still in my life on a very regular basis despite being on opposite coasts!

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

I think being in therapy was one part of the inspiration, although I started out as a teacher, which was also a dream of mine. I taught for a few years and worked in day care before pursuing a masters in counseling followed by a doctorate. I think watching my own growth in therapy was what drove me in that direction. I also noticed, quite clearly, during my last year of teaching that I was more interested in the mental health of my class and less interested in lesson plans.

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?

I would credit my aunt. She is brilliant and accomplished a lot for her time and often told me I would be successful at whatever I tried. She was a huge piece of the puzzle for me as she traveled for her job and for pleasure which I wanted to do as well. She climbed pretty high in a company that was only managed by men. Her stories about leadership were inspiring and made me sure that I could make something out of my life that sustained and fulfilled me.

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?

Well, you asked. I was an intern and had no idea that common courtesy might be a mistake. I had a client who had just been released from inpatient. She had been caught after successfully impersonating a doctor on a unit in a hospital and was off all the medications that helped ground her in reality. It seemed she got caught when patients started talking about this kind doctor who helped them so much by listening. She was just so sweet. She came back into the partial hospital I worked in and was overly medicated and no one was listening to her. She took herself off some of the anti-psychotic medication and then left the program for a few days.

I was driving home early evening and saw her standing naked on the side of the road. There were no cell phones, just pay phones and she was clearly not okay. I didn’t even consider any possible repercussions, I just put her in my car and drove her to the nearest emergency room. I thought if I left to find a phone, she would bolt and could be harmed. When my supervisor found out they raised hell. You asked for a funny, which it was not, or interesting mistake. This came to mind, but I still think I was just being a concerned person, despite possible personal risk to me or her making up a story about me forcing her into the car etc. She was not centered in reality, she could have freaked out and not known who I was and who knows……These days, between law suits and cell phones, this scenario is unlikely, but I think others thought it was more of a mistake than I did.

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?

I think one book that totally got my sensibility about therapy going was Erving Polster’s book: Every Person’s Life is Worth a Novel. As an avid fiction reader, I am drawn to stories, and Polster was suggesting that each human life is unique and worth telling and being heard, so that is why it resonated. He is a Gestalt therapist, and that type of therapy is also a go to favorite of mine.

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

“The art of life is not controlling what happens to us, but using what happens to us.” — Gloria Steinem. I suppose it resonates because we really cannot write our life story, we live it. In therapy, I work with people to live with the broken as well as the strong pieces. Being proud of one’s resilience and overcoming trauma is the work I do every day with the people I am lucky enough to work with. ‬‬‬‬‬

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

I am trying to finish editing a book about living with eating disorders, but the book is very linked to the social justice issue and how it plays out in our bodies, particularly cis and non-cisgender women. I hope the book is a good read and makes people think about the how class, race, gender and age are part of the fabric of the world of ED, and that we marginalize folks even in the field. Further, we are driven mad by the diet and pharmaceutical industry selling us standards of youth and beauty that most people can never achieve.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus 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. Based on your research or experience, can you share with our readers three good habits that can lead to optimum mental wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

Mental wellness habits vary greatly and are not one size fits all. As a therapist, I go to the tried and true first and that includes sleep hygiene, journaling, and meditation. Our mind is not separate from our body, and we know that our gut holds neurotransmitters that affect mood. Therefore, for some people these are great go to things to do to change their anxiety or depression as we can shift mood with these activities.

Let’s start with sleep hygiene: there are specific things one can do to make it easier to fall asleep, stay asleep and not have early morning waking. The rules that work best are to limit screen time a few hours before bed, to use the bed for only sleep and sex, to not eat heavy meals close to bedtime, to limit caffeine, to keep the room cool and dark, and to be calm if a night of sleep eludes you. I think the last bit, is very important, as we all have a bad sleep from time to time. Not overreacting is helpful as you then don’t set up a worry cycle that affects your sleep. If we set the right conditions to sleep, it should be fairly easy to sleep most nights. Think about how we teach our children to sleep. We help them brush teeth, use the toilet, be in a darker room, we tuck them in after song or story, and we wish them good dreams. We do this regularly which is what makes their sleep the best it can be despite cutting teeth, night terrors, painful growth moments etc. We need to do the same for ourselves.

As for journaling, writing out what bugs us, writing things we are grateful for, or letting go of old wounds can be very healing. Our brains are wired to hold memories, and therapy and journaling can put those memories in storage (not repressed, just settled as part of our history) so they are not constant voices of shame or pain. I had a client who wrote one good thing from the day each night for a year and then spent NYE doing a read through. She was amazed at how much good she felt, how many successes etc. that would have been lost in day to day living and she continues that practice even now.

Finally, meditation. We all hear that word about a lot, but it is such an amazing tool. It changes your brain, allows for deep relaxation. Plus, there are so many ways to meditate. We think of sitting in a cross-legged position for an hour and breathing to reach a higher plane. But this isn’t the case for most of us. People can do sitting, walking, or guided meditations. They can use different types, like Mindfulness, that helps us detach from our thoughts and feelings or use a Mantra, such as in TM, which allows us going deeper. This allows us to let go in a different way. I like autogenic training and recently did that with a client, who found that making her body heavy and warm was the most grounding thing she had experienced in a long time.

Do you have a specific type of meditation practice or Yoga practice that you have found helpful? We’d love to hear about it.

I love Yoga and Meditation. This year, with Covid, I lost my Yoga home, so I started to play around with all of the great teachers loading their teachings on YouTube. I love Yoga With Adriene. She is playful, kind, and easy to follow. I love Vinyasa Yoga and Yin Yoga, as I can work out and then drape my muscles to rest. To be honest, I also love to recommend Trauma Informed Yoga for clients who have had trauma that would prevent them from feeling safe in their body and could use someone who is skilled to help them be comfortable.

As for meditation, I learned TM at 17, then Mindfulness later. I do some of both. I like using a mantra as well as learning to not grab onto thoughts that flit about in my mind. In either case, it is the breath work that helps ground me. I recently bought a Hatch for Sleep and they have guided meditations as well as sounds like waterfalls or rain, which get me right to sleep every night and have added to my feeling grounded and whole in my body.

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.

For physical wellness, I am big on exercise, following your hunger to nourish yourself, and making sure you are connected to a good PCP who can help manage any illness or disease process that occurs in your life cycle. Exercise can look like a million things. There is no restriction except your own interests and abilities. Four to five times a week, get in about 20 minutes or more of exercise, and you will be helping mind and body. There should be some stretching in there. AND, do not worry what you look like. I walk as many days as I can. It is so interesting to do when so many of us are masked in public now. I secretly love a mask in winter, my face is no longer cold. I also do dance videos on YouTube — trust me, I don’t look like the dancers in the videos but I get cardio. I recommend my clients do a combo of cardio and stretching and not worry about what they look like. Too many people won’t exercise because they believe only young and thin people can. I call BS on that and say we all need to exercise. I worked with someone who loved yoga and was ashamed as she was in a larger body. She started at a studio with teachers in bigger bodies and people of all sizes and she became a yoga addict!

Nourishment is another wellness tool. I am an Anti-Diet Health Coach as well as Health at Every Size Psychologist. I say that loud and proud. This world is run by diet companies making a lot of money off of the crap they sell like processed foods or elimination of other foods. They are selling RESTRICTION, and they are not slowing their roll on the way to the bank. We have no evidence that diets last long term, and we know people usually gain more than they lost because they felt deprived. I want people to nourish themselves using cues of hunger and satiety, not avoid foods or label some foods as bad. I also want to help people come to terms with their body. As one dietician put it, size is like height — we are not all supposed to be young and thin. Some of us are tall or fat and that is just who we are. Some of us are able-bodied, some of us are not. Our skin color and shape are not things we should feel anything but pride about, except that is not what we are told. When you eat food you enjoy, taking time to savor it with no GUILT, you tend to eat about what you need, and you can augment if you avoid certain foods you may need, like green leafy veggies and fruit.

Finally, I have worked with too many folks who have not seen a doctor out of shame or fear for years. We have check-ups yearly as prevention, so I always make sure my clients have a doctor and go for the routine tests that are recommended at their age or because of a genetic familial disorder they should keep an eye on. I worked with someone who had colon cancer that he had never found until it was pretty far along. Despite his age and family history he was avoiding a colonoscopy because he was convinced he would die anyway, like one of his parents. He finally went for a colonoscopy in his 50’s and, guess what, he lived! Had he gone earlier, he would not have had some of the complications he experienced, but that his fear had the best of him. Prevention is key and medical professionals are skilled at running the tests that catch a lot of diseases earlier and earlier.

Do you have any particular thoughts about healthy eating? We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?

I worry about the phrase healthy eating. The messages we have about increasing veggies and fiber or proteins, or adding in fats, is that we no longer know what healthy eating means. Healthy eating is a term that is a catchall with very little meaning these days. One person says no carbs, one says watch your emotions, one says your blood type is key, one says your lifestyle should be guided by your ayurvedic type. Certainly, there are diets or “lifestyles” who tout their vitamins as key to health and all of that, but Americans are obsessed with healthy eating and can easily fall into orthorexia, where they are using clean eating to control their food. Yes, don’t live on dessert, add in veggies, eat fruit, get proteins, fats and carbs into your system. Yes, whole grains are better than refined because they add fiber (but who doesn’t love a bagel?), and have some protein, but remember, we are also a society built on class, and not everyone can afford organic foods. Or they live in a food desert, and they would do well to not be shamed into eating out of their price range. A fortified white bread with peanut butter is delicious and maybe can be augmented with apple slices or raisins to add some fiber and iron. If we go back to following our hunger, we may eat better. When feeding kids, it is also useful to introduce lots of variety and sneak in things they may not be drawn to — my friend used to make mac and cheese with pureed squash or sweet potatoes in it to add extra nutrients. Kids didn’t know for a long time!

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

If we’re talking about distinguishing cognitive processes from emotional wellness, it’s important to understand how our habits can affect these each differently. I suppose the sleep, journaling and meditation I discussed in the mental wellness question could be applied here, but maybe we go deeper. Perhaps we are looking, all of us, to shift from unaware reactivity in our emotions and in automatic negative thoughts and narratives in our cognitive lives.

For me, optimum emotional wellness revolves around a few things. First, recognize your emotions as real, as information, as related to internal or external pain or trauma, anxiety, depression, loss and grief etc. How we react to our feelings, what we tell ourselves about what they mean, and how we get our needs met is the journey from feeling to healing, from surviving to thriving. And, sometimes, emotional wellness is hard to attain when you are reacting to systemic oppression or living in an abusive situation that is hard to extricate yourself from.

Habits for optimum emotional wellness would be listening to your feelings and learning to use them to help yourself: know where they came from and understand if they’re a younger part of you talking to you and so on. Making space to hold your emotions and have hard conversations with those who need to hear what you have to say is another habit. Take the time for intentional conversations and answers will emerge.

Finally, learn to map patterns of your own emotions to understand where you get triggered, what your go-to emotions are, and how to give voice to all of the other emotions you are probably unaware of. For example, I worked with someone who got angry at everything that touched on the concept of fairness. She would rage and people would ask her why she was so angry all of the time. We mapped a few weeks of those moments, noticed the trend of the concept of fairness and found that she was actually sad and scared each time she felt like the world was not being fair towards her or someone else. Deeper down was a true grief for old wounds, choices she made and people who she loved who she had lost, either by pushing them away with her anger or they were now deceased. She was using the anger to avoid attaching to people in order to escape more loss and this insight, adding a practice of noticing quieter emotions she had ignored and finding ways to rephrase her responses, got her a lot further than she had been previously in her alone time and her relationships.

Do you have any particular thoughts about the power of smiling to improve emotional wellness? We’d love to hear it.

There is research that shows us that the act of smiling releases neurotransmitters that improve mood, thus reducing stress and tension. This is good to know as I believe smiling feels good and sends a message to our brain that we are going to be okay. I led a workshop for teachers a few years ago and did a smiling and laughing meditation that people reported improved their sense of well-being right then and there! I am all for the smiles and the good feels!

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

Spirituality is personal and a word that for some people means religion and for others means rituals and practices of enlightenment and healing. For me, it means someone finds a greater good, universal sense of connectedness or practice/ritual that is connected to oneself/others or the earth. For some people it is the community that gathers in a meeting or spiritual center (most likely online right now).

Other people set up beautiful alters for meditation. I know a woman who does what she calls guided journal meditations where she lets flow what comes after meditation. The research shows that people with a spiritual practice, of any kind, tend to have a better sense of meaning, an understanding of their place in the world and higher self-esteem. I have a bedtime ritual of meditation right after I shut the light, it is often a guided meditation but I sometimes use a mantra, from my TM training. I have a client who is a true believer in prayer as meaningful and she prays a few times a day. Her prayers are non-petitionary, meaning she is not asking for anything for self or others that is tangible, like winning the lottery. She finds prayer grounding and has done so since she was a child.

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

Nature bathing is a wonderful way to cultivate spiritual wellness. I was thinking the other day, while reading Emergent Strategy, about patterns found in nature. These patterns are replicated via rituals and the structures we have for our day to day lives. Nature reminds us that there are things seen and unseen at work that live in community with each other. Trees entwine their roots deep in the ground to sustain their lives during a storm. Birds and animals use those trees to live and forage for their food. And we exchange the air we breathe with the trees to stay alive. It is such a monument to wholeness to be in nature. I recommend walking a path regularly to watch it change seasonally, just as we do.

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 neither invented this nor do I have a strategy for how to implement such a plan, however, I want to teach every living person on earth to be part of the nation of humanity and to practice radical compassion and acceptance. This would be a universal approach to how we manage the earth, each other and our feelings and behaviors. Are you interested in joining this movement?

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 🙂

Can this be the first question? Can this be the only question? Can my kick-ass daughter join? Don’t we all ask this all of the time? As if this is about to happen, this is incredibly hard, so let me make a list and then decide. Stacey Abrams, Adrienne Maree Brown, Michele Obama, Kamala Harris, Patti Smith, Theo Germaine, Tori Amos, and Lindy West come to mind pretty quickly. Each has contributed to my thinking, my sense of hope and resilience and my dream of collaboration with others who I think would have an incredible afternoon together. If I turn your question on its ear a few times, here is what I land on; may I please have a lunch with all of these incredible people? I want to see their energies collide. They have each brought a sense of wonder, artistry and bravery to positions that they chose to embody.

Why each of them? Stacey for her relentless quest for justice. Adrienne for blowing my mind in fractals and love. Michele for taking a job with no pay or power, being scrutinized daily, and then sharing her vulnerability as a gift. Kamala as she breaks a lot of sound barriers to be the first in so many ways. Patti because she has stayed true to the sung and spoken word for a lifetime and stands for peace, and, because we share having daughters who we love and respect immensely. Theo for being a gender matters hero and actor; they want to be hired for the right roles, not for being trans, yup! Tori — come on, who sings about rape, bullying, and abuse with such courage and makes it okay to have been broken in places and shine. Finally, Lindy for boldly being fat in a thin focused world and taking no prisoners, and for making me laugh out loud when I read her books.

Second, flip of your question: why on earth do they want to hang out with me? They have work to do! So, hit me up where and when this lunch with this group is scheduled! My wife is a chef, so maybe she can cook for us all. My treat!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

On Instagram @robinmindfulcounseling or @hpacounseling for now. More to come, trying to finish a book first! I have to say honestly, my post-menopausal ADD keeps me off Twitter and Tik-Tok as I get lost in a rabbit hole and lose my day.

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

Thank you, Robin

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