Keep a gratitude journal. We tend to get what we focus on, and what we focus on expands. If you get in the daily habit of logging what you are grateful for, that will expand. Even on the worst day, we all have something to be grateful for: two legs, a functioning car, eyesight, etc.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Nancy Irwin.
Dr. Nancy Irwin is a licensed clinical psychologist, therapeutic hypnotist, and author, based on Los Angeles. She is a trauma and addictions specialist, who has been a frequent media guest on Anderson Cooper, The Doctors, Nightline, E!, and scores of radio, podcasts and local news segments on a variety of psychological topics.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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?
Born and raised in Atlanta, GA, I trained to be an opera singer. My the time I completed by Master of Music in Opera Performance degree, it was clear I was not destined for the “Big Time.” I didn’t want to teach, and I knew I had a flair for comedy and had good stage presence. I essentially changed my shingle to stand-up comic, moved to NYC, and enjoyed a career as a professional comedian for nearly 10 years. I moved to Los Angeles in 1994 after I heard Hollywood needed more blondes. I had a modicum of success in comedy, but only worked about 30 minutes a day. To relieve boredom, I began volunteering in the community for a shelter for sexually abused teens. I absolutely fell in love with it. This work waked up the healer in me, and prompted me to return to school (at age 44), earn my doctorate in psychology and specialize in trauma. I went on to write a non-fiction about reinvention, called YOU-TURN: CHANGING DIRECTION IN MIDLIFE (Amazon, 2008) to underscore that it is never too late to live a life you love.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I would love to, but that would involve breaking confidentiality. I can in general say, however, that I have been very blessed to be able to work with numerous professional athletes, creative artists, and major celebrities. I have learned so much and been inspired by these folks, and all the clients I’ve treated and feel very grateful to have such a meaningful and fulfilling professional life.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting?
I treated a young girl who was having trouble with potty training. Her mother was, shall we say, less than easy to communicate with, and seemed to be the very cause of her daughter’s retention issue. After one session of hypnosis, and providing the girl with a recording to listen to each night to allow her to “release” vs “hold in,” the girl did so very successfully. Unfortunately, she did so in the neighbor’s pool at a swimming party. What lesson or take-away did you learn from that? To listen to my intuition, and refer out when I know it will not end well. I cannot help everyone. I’ve often thought of that young girl and her very difficult mother. I hope she is well.
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?
I had a therapist in my early 40’s who helped me immensely on my path of sexual abuse recovery. She noted that I had the traits to be a therapist, and gently suggested that when I was reinventing. I’ll never forget that kindness. She has, unfortunately, passed away now, but was a real treasure to me.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Create balance, however that looks for YOU. Self-care is crucial for us healers, and how that looks for me is keeping health and fitness a priority. If I am not healthy and balanced, I am of no service to clients, my husband, or my self. I do my best to keep work, exercise, nutrition, fun, spiritual pursuits, volunteer work, and self-care in balance.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
It looks different for each individual. I am not a Type A personality, and work best with a small team or alone. Knowing what you need, how you are most comfortable is the first step to creating your vision of a fantastic work culture.
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.
1. Keep a positive supportive social system. Whether it is family or friends, or co-workers, we are all affected by our environment. Make sure you distance yourself from the difficult and/or toxic people; be compassionate with them, but protect yourself.
2. Commit to your health and fitness. A sound mind benefits from a sound body. The mind-body connection is undeniable.
3. Practice self-care. That may be getting out in nature, or playing with animals or children, or creative pursuits, or massages or travel, or board games with friends, or going to comedy clubs (I’m for that!) or concerts. Self-care allows us to offset stress. This may include therapy. If you have a history of depression or anxiety or any other mental disorder, management is key.
4. Love whatever you do. Not everyone has a “rock star job.” Purpose does not always come from your work. It is a great recipe for happiness to have a job that you do with integrity, but you get your “mojo” from your family, or a hobby, or your faith.
5. Keep a gratitude journal. We tend to get what we focus on, and what we focus on expands. If you get in the daily habit of logging what you are grateful for, that will expand. Even on the worst day, we all have something to be grateful for: two legs, a functioning car, eyesight, etc.
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.
Retirement can be a beautiful phase of life! It can be a time of discovering who you are as a human outside the role of physician, teacher, manager, etc. Staying committed to your health and fitness will allow you to explore your new life with energy and verve, and much fewer “demands” and responsibilities. It can be a time of travel, or earning another degree, or resuming an old hobby or starting a new one. Exercise your brain by challenging yourself with a new musical instrument or a new language or creative endeavor. Ask yourself what kind of “old lady” or “old man” do you want to be? Go against the stereotypes and do you boldly.
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?
Absolutely. The teen brain is an amazing and complicated thing. First of all, know that what is going on in the adolescent brain is perfectly natural, just like puberty. It is incredibly complex and frustrating, but change typically is. Read more about the brain and allow yourself to be fascinated with the neuronal pruning process that is occurring. As your body is shifting and releasing baby fat, the brain is sort of doing the same thing. The brain is not fully developed until about age 25 for males, and 22–23 for females. Give yourself a break, and trust that the awkwardness is finite pain. If you are being abused in any way, let me hasten to add, please seek professional help. Being bullied, or being verbally, physically or sexually abused in any way is never acceptable and is never your fault. Talk with a trusted professional who can help you deal with these issues, take appropriate action to halt it, and allow you to still feel good about yourself.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Oh, so many!!!! I’m an avid reader, but here are a few. BORN TO WIN! By Jongeward & James, which I found life-altering. Also Wayne Dyer’s YOU’LL SEE IT WHEN YOU BELIEVE IT and THE POWER OF YOUR SUBCONSCIOUS MIND by Dr. Joseph Murphy and of course any and everything by Malcolm Gladwell.
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. 🙂 Easy. It would be that every citizen would volunteer at least one hour per month to a worthy cause. With roughly 331 million US citizens (discounting those who are too young), can you imagine the positive differences that can be made in the areas of literacy, feeding the hungry, cleaning the environment, saving the whales, rescuing abused animals, reading to the blind, entertaining the hospitalized, etc? That would be nearly 2 billion man hours in healing, helping, serving, making a difference.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“I have learned to judge a man not by his success in life, but rather by what he has overcome while trying to succeed.” — — Booker T. Washington
This quote speaks to me because I have overcome several traumas. Part of me always felt “behind the curve” compared to many of my peers and siblings.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!