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How To Optimize Mental Wellness During Stressful Family Gatherings with Dr. Ron Ehrlich

had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Ron Ehrlich, one of Australia’s leading holistic-health advocates, author and podcaster. With over 35 years of clinical practice Dr Ron has developed a holistic approach to health and wellness, and a comprehensive model of stress, as outlined in his book A Life Less Stressed: The 5 Pillars of Health & […]

The decision to conceive, care for, love and support a child is arguable the biggest undertaking in an individual’s life.
The decision to conceive, care for, love and support a child is arguable the biggest undertaking in an individual’s life.

had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Ron Ehrlich, one of Australia’s leading holistic-health advocates, author and podcaster. With over 35 years of clinical practice Dr Ron has developed a holistic approach to health and wellness, and a comprehensive model of stress, as outlined in his book A Life Less Stressed: The 5 Pillars of Health & Wellness. He has a weekly podcast,Unstress with Dr Ron Ehrlichand deliverskeynotes and workshops.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! What is your backstory?

Within the first few years of clinical practice I became interested in chronic musculoskeletal pain, specifically chronic tension headaches, neck aches and jaw pain. Two things fascinated me: Firstly, very often people with these kinds of problems go through countless x-rays, CAT scans, MRI and a barrage of other tests often to be told there is nothing wrong with them and/or they are prescribed medications to mask the pain without ever understanding or addressing the cause. The second thing that fascinated me was that sometimes people, with similar histories of pain and diagnoses, reported that different modalities help them permanently resolve the issue. Some found nutritional interventions made a difference, while others found manual therapy (osteopaths, chiropractors or physiotherapists), podiatric support of foot structure and gait or dental appliance to relieve tension and chronic pain. Still others responded to meditation, yoga or exercise.

About 35 years ago I was presented with a model of stress that seem to make sense of all of these responses to a very common, and yet frustratingly intractable problem; chronic pain. It was a model outlining 5 stressors: emotional, environmental, nutritional, postural and dental. It’s a great model for asking all the right questions for chronic musculoskeletal pain but also relief from some common preventable chronic diseases, as well as maintaining health and wellness. It was a holistic view of how our health and the world worked.

My professional journey since then has explored these various stressors, identifying and minimizing them while also focusing on five pillars of health: sleep, breathe, nourish, movement and thought. The key is to minimize the stressors and focus on the pillars to build resilience to deal with the challenges of our modern world.

The more I learn, the more I realize there is to learn. After almost 40 years in practice that is still true.

With the holiday season almost over, many people have been visiting and connecting with relatives. While family is important, some of them can be incredibly challenging. How would you define the difference between a difficult dynamic and one that’s unhealthy?

Before embarking on a discussion about ‘difficult dynamics’ or ‘unhealthy family relationships,’ it’s worth reflecting on the bigger picture. Putting aside the added complexities of extended family, the parent/child relationship is the most fundamental and challenging relationship we are ever likely to encounter.

The decision to conceive, care for, love and support a child is arguable the biggest undertaking in an individual’s life.

The dependency of a new born child is complete, and as we move through infancy, adolescence and beyond, developing our independence both physically and emotionally also poses significant challenges, for both child and parent alike. It is a constantly changing dynamic by virtue of the varying and ever-changing ages involved, and level of dependency of both parent and child, requiring both understanding and respect, that is, at once aspirational but also dependent on the very nature of that relationship. What adds to that complexity is the parent’s own experience as a child and the influence their parents and upbringing had. We all come with baggage.

I would define a ‘difficult dynamic’ as a healthy but challenging exchange of views, values and expectations, within a changing dynamic (we are all growing older) and with mutual respect. It becomes ‘unhealthy’ when the relationship challenges the other person’s health and well-being, mentally and physically. It’s good to listen to each other and exchange ideas BUT it’s important to do it respectfully.

Families have a large part to play in our overall mental health. While some members may be champions for wellness, others may trip triggers. What advice would you give about engaging both types of relatives?

Firstly, carefully plan your seating arrangements, separating incompatibilities where possible. It’s important to acknowledge that people view their own health and wellness journey differently and there is always a complex interchange for each individual. Like religion and politics, people’s choices about their own health are often more complicated than just knowing what is right, and people feel very protective of the decisions they make.

Managing change is always easier when people feel they are in control of their own circumstances and health. While we all love certainty, things are seldom all right or all wrong. Finding what works for each individual is a challenge for us all, as health practitioners and the public alike.

Each family member has their own life experiences and influences. Each is exposed, in various degrees, to a variety of stressors that impact not only of their health, but their ability to respond to another person’s ‘evangelical’ pronouncements for better health. It’s worth also respecting the fact that people also often see celebrations in different ways. Celebrate the differences, holistically and respectfully.

We often hear about “toxic relationships.” Do you believe there is a difference between a toxic family and an unhealthy one? If so, how would you advise someone to handle a toxic family member?

I’ve defined an ‘unhealthy relationship’ as one where there is a lack of respect which can results in the physical and mental health being affected. Taking it to the next level, I would define ‘toxic’ as a relationship where there is an addiction to a substance or activity, which includes any form of physical or mental violence and abuse. I believe at this point it is clearly time to move beyond the family dynamic and seek professional help.

Can you share about a time where you helped someone overcome a challenging family member?

My father had dementia. He was 75 years old when he was officially diagnosed, and spent the last 3 years of his life in a medium to high care facility, dying at the age of 81. On reflection, he had probably shown the early signs of it starting in his early 70s.

To watch someone with dementia is to watch somebody die very slowly. For the person suffering dementia, I can only imagine it as if they are in a dream-like state from which a person may occasionally emerge, confused, frustrated and perhaps angry or aggressive, only to slip back into it and further deteriorate. The effect it had on my mother and the rest of the family was challenging to say the least. My sister-in-law, who was in her early 40s with two young children, was also dying of ovarian cancer at the same time. Both my father and sister-in-law died in the same week. Being in a generational sandwich, we also had a young family.

We, my wife and I, recognized that the years leading up to that week were going to be challenging, physically and emotionally. So, we decided to focus on our health and be as healthy as we could be, focusing on what I have since written about, the 5 pillars of health, sleep, breathe, nourish, move and think. The key was to build resilience. It helped us support those around us and make it through a very difficult time in our lives.

Managing mental health in high stress situations is challenging and although gatherings are only a few times a year, they can make a major impact on overall wellness. What 5 strategies do you suggest using to maintain mental health when faced with an unhealthy family dynamic?

  • Perspective — particularly when it comes to parents. From birth, whether we like it or not, we want to please our parents and have their approval. It’s quite natural and important in growing up, but at some point in our lives it really helps when we realize that our parents are only human, not always right, and that we may not share the same values as those that literally gave us life. That’s an important perspective from which to gain personal strength. It can make ‘listening and discussing with respect’ actually possible. It works in reverse as a parent too. At some point it’s okay for a child to have differing views or values to our own. We haven’t failed them, nor they us, it’s just part of life.
  • Build resilience — this is about putting your own ‘house’ in order. Mental health is often viewed as a purely psychological problem. There is no doubt that this is an important factor and seeking out the help of a professional counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist can be life altering and often lifesaving, but there are other significant factors to consider in mental health and they are often overlooked.
  • Focus on a consistently good night’s sleep — by every health measure a consistently good night’s sleep is the body’s very own built in life support system. A good night’s sleep is a function of quantity (for over 90% of the population that means 7–9 hours per night) and quality (breathing well while asleep). Every mental health issue is characterized by poor sleep, so to build physical, mental and emotional resilience to face the stresses of our modern world, a consistently good night’s sleep is a good place to start.
  • The gut is the second brain — it is where many of the body’s neurotransmitters that control our moods are produced. While we know there is a connection between ‘mood and food’, too often the leap to ‘mental health and food’ is ignored. It exists and is real. Often the first symptoms of a food sensitivity or intolerance is neurological, not digestive. Explore and harness the power of your second brain. Hippocrates said; “all disease starts in the gut. Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food”. He was right 2,500 years ago, and is still right today.
  • Environmental toxins affect us all — the question is how much? Like food we don’t realize the impact of environmental toxins, particularly in our home environment can have on our health in general, and mental health in particular. We are exposed to literally thousands of chemicals on an everyday basis, in the air, water, personal care products, household cleaning products, food, furniture and clothes. Household mould and dust mites are also a surprisingly common problem. They are all neurotoxic and often overlooked in health in general, and almost completely overlooked in mental health conditions. The good news is by making informed choices you can reduce your environmental toxic/neurotoxic load by 80–90%.

What advice would you give to family members who are allies of someone struggling with mental illness at these gatherings? How can they support strong mental health without causing friction with other members of the family?

Be patient, understanding and supportive, without feeling you need to solve all the problems.

Sometimes just listening is more than enough, and may actually be what’s needed.

Encourage professional help, but ensure you find help which fits. In the same way that not everyone can be your friend, not every professional may suit you. Don’t give up, recognize that finding the right professional may also be a journey, but finding that right person is worth the effort, can be life altering, and even lifesaving.

What is your favorite mental health quote? Why do you find it so impactful?

“It requires less mental effort to condemn than to think.”

In today’s world we are quick to put labels on people and conditions. Our attention span has become limited with major issues being dealt with in 140 or 280 characters. Abraham Lincoln gave a speech prior to his election in 1860 which ran for 7,500 words. It was published in all the national newspapers, read by many I the country, and the rest is history. We seem to have lost the ability to think beyond the superficial. This has serious implications when dealing with mental health issues, where medication is too often the first stop. It has implications for the way we approach global issues as well.

If you could inspire a movement or a change in mental wellness, what would it be? How can people support you in this mission?

Think holistically; we are all connected so we are all affected.

If we realized how interconnected our bodies are then our approach to all health problems would be empowering and we would be enjoying health and wellness, rather than focusing on chronic disease management. That is not healthcare. The same is true of the way the world works.

If we have one goal in life it should be to fulfill our potential, whatever your individual choice may be. If you are not involved actively in your own health, then that potential may be lost.

Take control, make informed decisions, vote everyday with how you spend your money and how you lead your life, and be the best you can be

What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?

My website is drronehrlich.com.

I have a weekly podcast called Unstress with Dr Ron Ehrlich

I can be reached directly at [email protected]

Thank you this was so inspiring!

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