Recognize that life is nothing more than a series of seasons. While we are currently in a state of crisis in uncharted waters, we can look back through history and note other trials and tragedies. As difficult as they were, people got through them, learned from them, and resumed life. The same will happen with the current pandemic. The urgency will pass in time, we will learn from it, and return to life to face the next season.
As a part of my series about the things we can do to develop serenity and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Michelle Bengtson.
Michelle is a neuropsychologist with more than 25 years of experience in the mental health field. In her private practice, she combines her professional expertise and personal experience with her faith to address her patients’ issues, both for those who suffer and the ones who care for them. She is an international speaker, cancer survivor, and author of two bestselling books, “Hope Prevails: Insights from A Doctor’s Personal Journey Through Depression” and “Breaking Anxiety’s Grip: How to Reclaim the Peace God Promises”.
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?
Asa child, I always knew I wanted to both write, and go into a helping profession. In my teen years, I served as a peer counselor which led me into the field of psychology. Once I began my doctoral training, I became intrigued by the specialty of neuropsychology, the study of brain-behavior relationships. Upon graduation, I worked in a pediatric hospital before transitioning to private practice for 20 years.
Once in private practice, I was frequently contacted online by people asking for my help, but they could not come into my office because of geographic distance. The best way I found to help them was writing books so that they, and others in need, could have resources in their hands despite the miles that separated us.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
One of my first patients was a little girl whose family followed me from the hospital to my private practice. She had autism and struggled socially and interpersonally. Her parents struggled to know how to parent her with her unusual idiosyncrasies. Yet we continued to work together for many years, sometimes weekly, and sometimes a month or two would pass before she needed my help. Over time, she became more comfortable socially, learned to manage her anxiety, and graduated from high school. She later sent me a letter after she successfully graduated from college to thank me for never giving up on her, and for giving her the tools she needed to navigate life in all its complexities.
There was another incident that stands out in my mind as I began to write books that would offer help beyond the four walls of my office. A couple of years after my first book was published, I received an email from a young woman in Africa. She explained that she had been terribly depressed and went to the pastor of her church for help, but sadly, he shared that he didn’t know how to help her. She then went to a therapist, but she wasn’t making much progress. On her birthday, she decided to treat herself by going to a bookstore that was going out of business. As she looked through the books, she came upon my first book, “Hope Prevails”, and picked it up sure that it was a sign because her name was Hope. It was on clearance, and she had just enough money to purchase it. She took the book home and devoured it. She began implementing my suggestions, and her depression started to improve. When she returned to her therapist a couple of weeks later, she took my book with her and proclaimed, “This is my source of hope!”
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
For my colleagues in the helping professions, especially in healthcare, it’s crucial that we don’t assume responsibility for everyone else’s outcome. We can offer assistance and guidance, but ultimately those we care for have to assume some level of responsibility for their own well-being. Prioritize your own rest, nutrition, and physical fitness, for you cannot give out what you do not possess. Self-care is not selfish, but rather critical to thrive and avoid burnout and be at your best for those you serve.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Leaders lead, but they also surround themselves with individuals who are gifted and talented in other areas than they are, and they draw upon the gifts, talents, and expertise of others. Forgive quickly and praise liberally.
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?
One of the books that made the most significant impact on me was “Foolproofing Your Life” by Jan Silvious. As one who has great compassion for others and wants to help them, I have often found myself in a position of either being taken advantage of or offering advice only for it never to be followed. Jan’s book helped me realize that situations and people like that are really more a window into them than an issue with me, and it helped me realize that sometimes the most loving and even respectful thing we can do is to step back without guilt or shame and let them go on their way.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious just from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
1. Breathe. So often during times of crisis or uncertainty, we internally panic and even literally hold our breath without even realizing it. Your brain cannot be relaxed and anxious at the same time. So step away from the stress and anxiety for just a few moments and breathe deep, being very aware of your breathing, how your body feels, what you taste, smell, and hear. Whereas anxiety tends to focus on the questionable future, paying attention to our breathing grounds us in the present.
2. Recognize that life is nothing more than a series of seasons. While we are currently in a state of crisis in uncharted waters, we can look back through history and note other trials and tragedies. As difficult as they were, people got through them, learned from them, and resumed life. The same will happen with the current pandemic. The urgency will pass in time, we will learn from it, and return to life to face the next season.
3. Each evening before going to bed plan something to look forward to the next day. This can be something as simple as taking photos during a walk, or something more involved like baking cookies with your children. When we face crisis situations, we tend to focus on the negative and lose perspective that there are still good things in our life we can enjoy.
4. Stop the “What Ifs?”. Uncertain times cause us to run every “what if?” question through our mind. Anxiety comes largely from a feeling of being out of control. Asking “what if” is our attempt to problem-solve every possible scenario in an effort to regain control where it has been lost. The problem is that we can never anticipate every possibility and dwelling on the unknowns costs us our serenity. Determine to do what you can today and leave tomorrow’s problems for tomorrow. When I received a cancer diagnosis, I sat in silence, stunned. Within seconds the “what ifs” began to flood my mind and anxiety started to rise. But I quickly determined to stop the “what ifs,” and take each day, each hour, and each moment one at a time, not borrowing worries from tomorrow that may never happen.
5. Practice Gratitude. When the crisis hit, our tendency is to focus on the negative, what we lack, and what is uncomfortable. Negativity breeds more negativity, and anxiety will continue to consume as much room in your life as you allow it. Taking the time to consciously list things we are grateful for shifts our mindset from the negative and what we may lack or risk losing, to the positive, and what we have. When I was extremely ill, confined to bed, my thoughts became more dark, despairing, and anxious. I started a gratitude journal, each day recording three different things that I was grateful for. Soon thereafter, my perspective started to shift toward a much more hopeful, peaceful mindset.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
1. Ask Questions. When we become anxious, we have a tendency to ruminate about things in our minds, but when we ask questions, it gives those around us a chance to process out loud.
2. Listen Without Judgment. Those struggling with anxiety will not benefit from us telling them not to be anxious. But when we listen to their concerns without judgment, we validate their experience and help them to feel they have a safe place to share.
3. Encourage Basic Self-Care. During stressful or anxious times, we tend to lose the rhythm of our usual self-care, which makes logical reasoning and appropriate problem solving less likely. Encourage good nutrition, adequate rest, and frequent physical exercise to help mitigate the effects of anxiety and decrease its threshold.
4. Discourage the Use of Alcohol and Drugs to Cope with Anxiety. Many who are anxious will turn to alcohol or drug use to lessen the sensation anxiety brings, but this just complicates their ability to cope with their external stressors and impairs their judgment and problem-solving abilities.
5. Provide Frequent Encouragement and Connection. When in stressful crisis type situations, and coping with worry, fear, and anxiety, it helps to know you aren’t alone and have a safe place to share and seek solace. Sending occasional encouraging texts or instant messages or calling just to check-in for a few minutes can help ground a person in the reality that they aren’t as alone as their anxiety might suggest.
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?
There are several resources I would recommend including:
“It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way: Finding Unexpected Strength When Disappointments Leave You Shattered” by Lysa Terkeurst
“Rhythms of Renewal: Trading Stress and Anxiety for a Life of Peace and Purpose” by Rebekah Lyons
“Breaking Anxiety’s Grip”, a seven-day devotional I wrote that is available for free in the Bible app
“Your Hope-Filled Perspective with Dr. Michelle Bengtson”, my podcast where I’ve interviewed some amazing guests who share their experiences through worry, fear, and anxiety.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
My favorite is “I have successfully made it through every difficult experience in my life 100% of the time.” This is such an encouragement to me because my husband and I have experienced more than our fair share of crises in our 30+ years of marriage, including miscarriage, job loss, multiple cancer diagnoses, and loss of more friends and loved ones to death than we can count. Each time a new crisis hits, I can still face each day with a smile and hold onto my hope of getting through it because I can look back and see how we’ve successfully endured every other previous trial.
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. 🙂
I would start a movement to help people understand that despite the fleeting circumstances that we face in life, #HopePrevails. We will all go through trials and difficulties over the course of our lifetime, but we can stay strong, persist, and cling to the hope that tomorrow will be a better day.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
I would love to connect with your readers wherever they may be hanging out online!
@drmichellebengtson on Instagram
@drmbengtson on Twitter
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!