“It’s Easier To Spot Physical Illness Or Injury, But Mental Illness Is Invisible.” With Bianca L. Rodriguez And Katherine Tate

As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Katherine Tate, a mental wellness coach, podcaster and writer. As the founder of Worry Warrior, she guides women to overcome overwhelm, cultivate calm courage in business and life, and make anxiety […]

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As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Katherine Tate, a mental wellness coach, podcaster and writer. As the founder of Worry Warrior, she guides women to overcome overwhelm, cultivate calm courage in business and life, and make anxiety their superpower.

Website: www.worrywarrior.net

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve had anxiety all my life. As a kid, it manifested as severe worry of the future (like panicking I would fail my final high school exams…when I was eight!) and crippling fear in social situations. I grew ashamed and awkward about my sensitivities.

In my 20s, I contracted glandular fever, which led to post-viral depression — a deep, dark bleakness that enveloped me for about a year (co-existing with my ongoing anxiety). But determined to be ‘bigger than’ my mental struggles, I moved to a big city (Sydney), threw myself into a copywriting career, building my own business, and getting swept up in the stimulating, frantic city life.

In truth, I was running from my mind, pretending I was happy and could manage on my own.

And after a painful breakup, I ran as far as I could: selling my stuff, packing my bags, and taking off on a 3-year solo wander around the world.

Yet wherever I went, my anxiety went too. I carried it in my luggage. And its familiar voice cautioned me against stepping out of my comfort zone and really living. So one day, I decided to confront it. I couldn’t keep running. I made the choice to start making friends with my mind. To understand it, to figure out why it was there and what it was telling me, and to thank it for its concern but to go out and do the scary stuff anyway.

I climbed an 11,000ft volcano in Bali at midnight (with no training, no light, and no guide). I learnt to scuba dive, venturing deep into caves 40m down (and having a panic attack in one!). I said yes to everything. I pushed myself to speak to strangers and embrace new relationships. And I immersed myself in training, reading, and learning new ideas for working with anxiety — not against it.

Around that time, I started a blog to track my journey. That quickly evolved into an online community with a private Facebook support group of people united by the same struggles. I found myself stepping up to share what had worked and was still working for me (as well as the setbacks and realities of my ‘bad days’). So very naturally, I began my coaching practice (learning Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Neuro Linguistic Programming among other techniques), created a free online course to guide others. I also launched my podcast Mind You in 2018, and I run a local Meetup group for women with anxiety — we take group ‘support and share’ walks, craft, or simply connect over a cup of tea.

I mostly work in the realm of high-functioning anxiety. These are people who are high achievers, perfectionists, whose anxiety is applauded because society says, “Well done, you! You’re taking on so much and achieving so many amazing things! Keep going!” This is where I feel I can make the biggest difference, because I too am an anxious over-achiever!

According to Mental Health America’s report,over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

I think there are a lot of layers to this issue. It’s easier to spot physical illness or injury, but mental illness is invisible. It’s hidden. That makes it harder to get and give support — in our schools, workplaces, friendship circles, homes and communities.

We also have this strange separation of mind and body. But in truth, there is no separation. Anxiety and depression are accompanied by physical symptoms — like a racing heart or sweaty palms (anxiety), or fatigue or pain (depression). Mental health is physical health, and vice versa. And the foundation of health is the mind.

Collectively, we also need to re-write the shame script. We need to step up and say “it isn’t a weakness to feel this way — or to seek support. In fact, it takes enormous strength to live and go to work with mental murkiness — and a whole lotta bravery to ask for help.”

Awareness is a major part, too. Research suggests rates of mental illness continue to rise — especially in young people. And yet so many of us continue to feel alone in this. I encourage people to speak up or ‘come out’ — not only because it will empower and allow them to get help, but because they might be surprised by how many people say, “That’s me too!” The more conversations we have around this, the more we encourage others to speak up, and then we can smash that stigma.

I’m especially concerned about our young boys and men. Suicide is the most common cause of death in men under 50 (and three-quarters of all suicides are male). We’ve got to smash the “man up” narrative. We’ve got to let our boys know it’s OK to feel how you feel. And it’s OK to ask for help.

And lastly, we need to address the overprescribing of medication. Soon in the UK, doctors will start prescribing music, dance and movement before they write a script for antidepressants. This is a great start to shifting the stigma from “you’re broken, and only a pill will help” to “let’s get you playing, creating and connecting, and then see how you feel.”

Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?

I say, let’s start with acceptance. There’s so much shame and blame tied up in the stigma. But anxiety is part of the rich human experience — and can be a signal that something in your environment or life isn’t serving you. I say, “Listen in to what your anxiety is telling you.”

My mantra is, “make anxiety your superpower” because I want to show there is strength in saying, “OK, anxiety is here today. Now, what will I do with it?” That puts you in the driver’s seat of your mind.

This is all part of sparking or continuing the conversation. As we normalize anxiety and depression, and we start to share our struggles, speak up and get support, we can break the stigma and also develop better treatments.

I teach others how to release their resistance. To stop avoiding, acting out, or fighting against worry and fear. Once we loosen the grip and allow ourselves to sit with the feeling, then we are in a better position to manage it.

Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?

I felt alone in my experience of anxiety. And once I realised I wasn’t — and there were so many others who also felt the same — I felt a strong pull to bring those people together, to create a community and empower others to make friends with their mind.

I was also really frustrated with doctors handing over a prescription for pills, or a flyer for a local support group and saying “Ok, bye now”. I was dismayed that the message was: “Only pills will help you. But you’ll likely feel this way forever — and need these meds forever.” Yes, some people will need these treatments. There is undoubtedly a place for it (and antidepressants combined with talking therapy got me through my depression) But there’s SO much we can do to prevent that outcome, as well as support people alongside those treatments.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

I’d love to see these things happen:

Individuals, society, schools, workplaces (this is a biggie) and governments coming together to say “physical and mental health go hand in hand”.

I’d like to see a collective conversation around the strength it takes to both live with mental ill-health and reach out for support — especially when it comes to boys and men. And coupled with that, I’d like the message to be “you don’t have to be strong and pull your socks up, and be happy all the time. And here’s a safe space to share what you’re experiencing.”

I’d love for workplaces to see good mental health as essential to human performance, productivity and wellness — and for someone taking a sick day for the mind to be as normal as taking one for a cold or flu.

And I also advocate for more funding to raise awareness and get people the support they need, as soon as they need it. Depending on where you are in the world, governments can be so quick to cut spending on mental health, coupled with long waiting times, and ridiculous conditions on having to be close to completing suicide before being offered help.

What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

  1. I start and end every day by checking in with my mind. First thing in the morning, I journal all my mental gunk (in what I call my ‘Junk Journal’) to get my worries out of my head and onto the page, where I can deal with them or let them go. And I only allow the outside world in once I’ve got my head right for the day. It took a long time, but I finally realized the world won’t stop spinning if I take a little extra time to clear and focus my mind first.
  2. I meditate for stillness, and to train my mind to focus on the breath and connect to the present moment. Anxiety thrives in the future, but meditation brings you back to the here and now (and your brain can’t exist in both the present and future in the moment).
  3. I move my body every day to get those feelgood chemicals pumping — or to shake off anxious energy (stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin). Before a meeting or another experience that could trigger anxiety in my body, I might do 20 jumping jacks, a few pushups, or take a brisk walk around the block. Typically, I need to shake off anxious energy before I sit down to meditate…otherwise the stress chemicals stay in my body and make it harder to be still.
  4. Any time anxiety arises, I stop whatever I’m doing and check in with it. I close my eyes, place a hand on my belly and the other over my heart. And I breathe into where the anxiety exists (say, in my tight shoulders or racing heart). Dr Andrew Weil’s 4–7–8 breathing technique, and the 4–4–6–2 technique always work wonders for calming my sympathetic nervous system (the one that activates the fight-flight-freeze response) and switching on the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest-digest state). If it still doesn’t ease, I ask myself “What’s behind this feeling? What’s really going on here that I haven’t paid attention to?” Maybe I’ve been working too much, or haven’t connected with my partner, or need to work through an issue with my coach or therapist. So I always ask: “What’s really going on here?” And I allow my anxiety to answer.
  5. I take time each day to get grounded. Mindfulness allows my mind and body to be in the moment, and zoom out of future fears or projections. I might go for a walk, and tune in on my feet connecting with the earth. I might sit and tune in to one thing I can hear, one thing I can see, one thing I can touch, one thing I can taste, or one thing I can smell. Getting off digital devices and out into nature is medicine for the mind.
  6. I keep connected as much as possible. Reaching out to help others has been shown (by science, but also experience) to enhance health, wellness and mood. So I touch base to see how people in my network or social circles truly are. And often, I just listen. We all need someone we can trust to hold our emotions. And if I need that support myself, I’ll book in with a therapist or coach.

Bonus one! Sharing my experiences through my blog, writing and podcast has been vital to making friends with my mind and easing anxiety. There’s power in expressing our innermost thoughts and feelings in some creative way, or through play.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

There are so many incredible humans helping start and steer this conversation. Authors like Sarah Wilson and Matt Haig are heroes in this field. Podcasts like Mental Illness Happy Hour, Fun Therapy and Happy Hour — which has candid interviews with well-known people about their mental health — are also very inspiring.

But then, I’m also inspired by the everyday men, women and young people who are sharing their stories, struggles and setbacks — in social media and beyond. They may not realise it, but their contribution is so worthy as we work to smash the stigma and normalise mental health.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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