Have 20 minutes of quiet ‘me-time’ a day. Sit down quietly for 20 minutes after you return home from work — no talking, phone, tv, reading or music. Make sure you find a space where you are completely alone. The lack of stimulation is important to allow your brain and body to recharge and it has been shown in scientific studies to increase levels of empathy and creativity. You’ll be amazed at what a difference it can make to the way you feel.
Asa part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Morris. Sarah Morris is a qualified performance coach and career coach. As a former international school science teacher, she spent five years in Africa and has lived in eight different countries. She is now the founder and director of Brain Happy, a training and consultancy company that specializes in mental health and wellbeing in workplaces and schools — https://brainhappy.co.uk/. Her flagship program helps people create positive habits and build skills in self-care, resilience and stress-reduction. Sarah is also passionate about animal welfare and lives with her two rescue dogs; Jenny whom she found starved in a drain in Sierra Leone, and Percy whom she found sick in a park in Havana, Cuba.
Thank you so much for doing this with us, Sarah! 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?
Igrew up with lots of animals on a farm in England but as a child, I always wanted to live abroad. In my early twenties, I spent a lot of time as a backpacker, travelling all over the world and often volunteering in different jobs in different countries. I discovered that if I qualified as a teacher in the UK, I could work in pretty much any country I liked as an international school teacher, and still have over four months a year to travel and visit my family. I spent four fabulous years in Nairobi, Kenya, before spending some time as a teacher-trainer in Sierra Leone, and then on to Cuba and the Cayman Islands, where I am currently residing.
After teaching for around eight years, I decided that I would like to train as a coach. The area of wellbeing coaching interested me as I had suffered from stress-related health problems since I was a child and had only, in my early thirties, realized that it was stress that had been causing my muscle aches, sore throats, headaches, fatigue and nausea. I had been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome as a teenager, and I had only really got over it when I went travelling. It had briefly returned at university again, but it went away again as I escaped the chains of deadlines and essays. I was a conscientious worker, and always pushed myself hard to achieve. There was a clear link, but back in the early 2000s, there wasn’t much of a recognition amongst health professionals of the bodily effects of stress, and when others had asked me if I thought it could be stress, I felt it belittled the fact that I was feeling so sick with real symptoms. I had spent years looking for a parasite, deficiency or some other cause.
It was only in my early thirties when I was going through a period of burnout (but thinking it was a tropical disease) when I was grateful to see the right professional: a psychotherapist called Liz Hancock, who works with people who have chronic fatigue syndrome, and other health problems. I finally had some tests which showed that my adrenal glands were under-functioning, confirming the stress element. I saw the right professionals and started focusing heavily on my wellbeing by making a lot of lifestyle changes. So, with this experience of education, training, coaching and wellbeing combined, Brain Happy was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I’ve been lucky to have had a really interesting journey in my career up to now. I started out doing a job in London that wasn’t aligned to my values at all: fundamentally it involved helping large, Fortune 500 companies become richer. Worse, was that my boss was a bully and left me without any confidence in myself whatsoever. I hadn’t realized when I joined that he was known for bullying, having affairs with young staff members and not being able to keep employees. Luckily, I escaped and got a job as a cameleer (camel handler) on an indigenous community in a remote part of Australia. I found a lifestyle that made me truly happy and this enabled me to make better decisions about my career after that. What I’ve found interesting is that by leaving myself open to any opportunities that arise, my life and career have taken so many unexpected and interesting turns. I remember the old ‘me’ attending job interviews and being asked (the very outdated question): “where do you want to be in five years?”. I could never answer that question and still couldn’t. Every decision leads to a new set of options that I never knew existed previously. Life is an opportunity to discover and experience: it is like travelling up a tree, with new branches constantly growing.
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?
I started Brain Happy on a budget, which meant that I had to get to grips with web design really quickly. I find the coding community very friendly and people would often give me advice or offer to make little changes to code inside my site for free. I still hadn’t fully understood how things were put together on my website when I had been emailing this one support email for some time. I thought that I had a product on my site that I had bought from this particular company so was pretty free about emailing them about lots of technical issues I was struggling with. It wasn’t until the very helpful support guy told me politely that he could no longer deal with my questions that I realized my many queries had nothing to do with his software. He had been too nice at the beginning to tell me that he couldn’t help! I am still learning new things about web design every day and still count myself a beginner.
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?
For this, I would have to thank my mother and late father, who gave me a great education and enabled me to feel that there is always a home to go back to. For this reason, I have always felt free to pursue my interests.
I am also very grateful to two of my school teachers in particular, who believed in me, when I didn’t believe in myself, and encouraged me to pursue endeavors that I wasn’t confident in at the time.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
The education sector has a very high prevalence of burnout. For teachers and other education-sector employees, it is particularly important to focus on mental health and wellbeing. By having a self-care routine where you take time to concentrate on your wellbeing, you are training your brain to become more resilient to stressors so that you can cope better with what life throws at you. This self-care routine might include mindfulness, walking in nature, deep breathing, journaling, laughter or any number of other activities that promote resilience and relieve stress, depending on what works for each person. There are lots of useful books on self-care out there right now.
Where schools offer wellbeing programs for their employees, I would advise everyone to take advantage. These programs do need to be long-term, however, not one-off training days which often leave people feeling proactive when they go home, but a few days later they have forgotten what was learnt or lost the motivation to follow it up.
For teachers, it is often the workload that people find causes them the most stress. Many teachers take work home and work into the evening but this means people get very little ‘down-time’, with something to do always on their mind. I would advise teachers to try to have a cut-off time where no matter what work there is, they put the work away. People who struggle with high work-loads could also try prioritizing tools such as an importance-urgency grid. Make sure you only work on one thing at once (no multi-tasking), avoid all distractions and ensure phones are out of sight and sound.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Having a great work culture is about letting people be themselves and showing your appreciation for others. This means trusting people to do their best, being flexible, and allowing people to develop themselves by providing further training and career opportunities. Celebrating the achievements, personalities and skills of different individuals allows employees to feel valued and creates an environment where people can relax and form good relationships with their co-workers. It is worth keeping in mind that people who feel appreciated will always go the extra mile.
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 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.
Absolutely. For me, focusing on one’s own wellbeing is as important as having a routine of exercise such as going to the gym. The mind and body are part of the same thing, so keeping yourself healthy means ensuring you are feeling happy and relatively stress-free as much as eating well and exercising regularly.
I’m going to offer five suggestions that can easily be incorporated into anyone’s daily routine without having to make significant changes.
– Stand up tall and smile. Standing in an assertive, ‘power’ posture is shown to decrease the levels of stress hormones (conversely, standing in a depressed, hunched posture is shown to increase the levels of stress hormones). In addition, smiling releases endorphins, regardless of your reason for doing it. Try it while you drive, sit at your desk, or cook your dinner.
– Breathe. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system (your ‘rest and digest’ set of nerve pathways) which triggers a lowering of heart rate and blood pressure, and increased immunity. Try one of the following breathing cycles two or three times a day. Push your stomach out when you breathe in to maximise lung space: a) Breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, breathe out for 4 counts; b) In for 5, hold for 6, out for 8. Deep breathing can be particularly effective to calm yourself down when you are facing a situation that is acutely stressful, such as during an argument or right before you go on stage for a speech or performance.
– Mindfulness.People who do regular mindfulness (and it has to be regular — several times each week) have been shown in brain scans to have reductions in the anxiety and stress-producing areas of the brain. Get an app such as HeadSpace to start you off. Mindfulness is probably one of the most valuable activities for reducing stress and anxiety and well worth your time.
– Take control of your thoughts: think positively. Whenever you have a negative thought, add a positive thought to the end: e.g. “I am so bored at work today, ….but at least I will have fun at my friend’s birthday party tonight”. You could also incorporate some positive self-talk into your bathroom routine. Every time you go to the bathroom, look in the mirror and tell yourself one good thing. For example, “you look great in that dress; you should wear it more often.” By doing these exercises repeatedly, you are training your brain to think more positively. After doing this over and over, your brain will start to naturally have less negative thoughts and more positive thoughts without you making any effort.
– Have 20 minutes of quiet ‘me-time’ a day. Sit down quietly for 20 minutes after you return home from work — no talking, phone, tv, reading or music. Make sure you find a space where you are completely alone. The lack of stimulation is important to allow your brain and body to recharge and it has been shown in scientific studies to increase levels of empathy and creativity. You’ll be amazed at what a difference it can make to the way you feel.
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.
Yes. Retirement can be a tricky period to navigate, especially when people have had a busy lifestyle or career prior to retiring. There is some research to suggest that in order to by happy, we need to focus on activities or thoughts that we either find fun or purposeful. After retirement, people can struggle to find a purpose to their day, which is what can make people suddenly unhappy, unfulfilled or lonely.
But retirement can be a great time for people to realize their true values and start a project related to what they really value and enjoy, especially if they have not been able to find true enjoyment during their working career. This could mean a new hobby, volunteer opportunity, employment, or even starting a small business. For instance, I know a doctor who will retire in two years and wants to start a cake business.
I would recommend taking some time to think very thoroughly about what you want out of your retirement years. You could ask yourself questions such as: “what did I always want to do when I was a child?”. Release your limits of thinking and imagine you could do anything you want. You could keep a list of ideas in a journal or notepad and keep adding to it over the course of weeks or months. You could also consider hiring a coach to help you get to know your values, understand the steps needed to achieve your goals, and work with you to overcome any challenges.
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?
Encouraging teens and pre-teens to have a self-care routine can be especially effective at increasing their self-esteem and resilience. They could start with some mindfulness apps that are specially designed for their age-group (for example, HeadSpace, which has a kids’ version).
You could lead by example and set up a self-care routine that includes all the family. Encourage kids to have quiet time away from screens every day. You could, for example, start a routine whereby everybody in the household stops using their phone/laptop/tablet after 8pm. As a family, get out in nature as often as possible. Encourage one another to listen to the sounds of nature and observe the beauty.
As an educator, I have seen so many young people extremely stressed from a young age by the pressures of school. I think it is important for teachers and parents to work together to ensure that kids keep their stress levels under control. This means both parents and teachers ensuring that students feel valued when they try hard, no matter what grade they achieve.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
When thinking about starting my own business I found ‘Be a Free Range Human: Escape the 9–5, Create a Life You Love and Still Pay the Bills’ by Marianne Cantwell a really motivating read. It was recommended to me by a girl I met at a yoga class who was trying to quit her job working for the British government in Kenya. The book was packed full of useful information which triggered a lot of my ideas and thoughts at the time. The girl I met now manages a travel company across the African continent.
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. 🙂
If you are reading this article, it means that you can read, and the chances are that you’ve been to school, and probably have electricity in your house, clean water and access to healthcare. Although we all suffer some adversity, unhappiness and difficulty in life, I think it’s important to remember that we are a privileged minority, and for billions of people, life is much more difficult. We live in a world where one in every four people globally do not have access to a running toilet and one in ten people live on an income of less than $1.90 a day (according to World Bank/UNICEF/WHO figures, 2019). That’s something that should make us all think a little about what we should be grateful for. Having lived and travelled in the developing world for over fifteen years now, I have seen some of the dire poverty that exists for humans and animals.
I love organizations like Watsi, where you can view people who need medical treatment, in many cases life-saving, and donate directly to their medical treatment (all fully monitored, with 100% of your donation going to its purpose), or Kiva, where you provide a micro-loan to people who need a little to improve their lives, such as to open a shop or buy seeds for their farm. Even $50 here and there can make a massive difference to someone who has never had more than $10 in their pocket.
Most of us have the power to help others more than we do, and I would urge everybody to replace one of their leisure or gift purchases with an act or donation to help someone else. The chances are that what you will spend on Christmas gifts for your closest family members this year could actually provide medical treatment to someone that could save a life. Even for example, reducing your coffee purchase by one each week and donating the money to a cause would still come to over $10 a month — a very worthwhile amount.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Oscar Wilde quoted: “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” This resonates with me because I really believe each of us has the power to take control of our lives and make what we want to happen, happen. It will for sure involve creating some new habits, getting totally out of our comfort zone and taking some risks, but it’s absolutely within reach. We just need to let go of the mental constraints that hold us back from achieving our dreams and realising our potential.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Find me on Instagram @brainhappyglobal or LinkedIn
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!