Sometimes we can go through adversity and wish we did not experience these negative life events. At times, we may feel sorry for ourselves; feel our lives will be irrevocably altered in a negative way; see these obstacles as creating a “weakness” or “personal deficit.” However, what I have learned from being a two-time breast cancer survivor is that we would not have become the evolved, impactful people we have become had we not gone through these negative experiences. They helped shape us. We learned from them. We became deeper, richer, and hopefully better because of them.
As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Renee Exelbert.
Dr. Renee Exelbert, Ph.D., CFT, is the Founding Director of The Metamorphosis Center for Psychological and Physical Change, where she integrates psychotherapy and exercise with a focus on the mind/body connection. In addition to maintaining a private practice, Dr. Exelbert is also an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Applied Psychology at the New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development where she teaches Masters-level psychology courses. She is the author of Chemo Muscles: Lessons Learned from Being a Psycho-Oncologist and Cancer Patient (Mascot Books, 2020).
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?
Igrew up with a sister who had Juvenile Diabetes. She was diagnosed at age 7, and I was 5, and we shared a room. I think having such a close connection to someone who was struggling in such a way fostered my natural ability to be a caregiver. I was exposed to a lot of medical trauma, and some of the emotional experiences that accompanied that. I think that being mindful of the human emotional experience was just something that became a part of who I am, and I found my skillset in being empathic to others. After becoming a psychologist, I spent the first 6 years of my career working in a pediatric cancer center with children diagnosed with cancer. It was a natural setting for me, in that so much of my childhood was being exposed to chronic illness. In 2007, I left that job, only to be diagnosed with breast cancer myself. I found that the one way I was able to feel back in control of my body was through exercise. The experience of exercise was so transformative and helpful in my coping with trauma that I believed it could help many of my patients suffering from anxiety, depression, and other emotional struggles. Research has found that exercise is beneficial for mental health; it reduces negative mood and improves self-esteem, quality of life, and cognitive functioning. I became certified as a Personal Trainer, and then combined psychotherapy and exercise to find The Metamorphosis Center for Psychological and Physical Change, an integrative center focused on the mind-body connection. The mind-body connection states that physical health is influenced by thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and conversely, our emotional well-being can be influenced by physical symptoms. I utilize a combination of traditional psychotherapy, visual imagery and exercise to help individuals on their journey towards greater emotional health, growth and empowerment.
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?
Thrive by Arianna Huffington made a significant impact on me. It illuminates for the reader the idea that success is not based on working excessive hours and getting little sleep at the cost of emotional and physical well-being. It endorses meditative practices and nature walks in the workplace, work vacations and paternity leave, amongst other more mindful activities, in order to live happier, more fulfilling lives while serendipitously increasing work productivity. This book resonated with me deeply because I have made shifts in my life since being diagnosed with breast cancer. I have become much more mindful in the way that I live my life and have prioritized self-care.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
We have, as a world, encountered pandemics before. And we have found treatments for them, learned from them, and survived: Antonine Plague (165 AD); Plague of Justinian (541); Bubonic Plague (1346); Third Cholera (1852); Asiatic Flu/ Russian Flu (1889); Sixth Cholera (1910); Influenza (1918); Asian Flu (1956); Hong Kong Flu (1968); HIV/AIDS (1976). As an epidemic is a disease specific to one city, region or country, a pandemic spreads beyond national borders, possibly worldwide. Although the health, social and economic consequences are absolutely devastating, a pandemic is simultaneously a symbol of how connected our world has become; how as human beings we have traversed geographic borders for business, travel, education, relationships. It demonstrates that despite vast political, religious and socioeconomic differences, our world has indeed become smaller and more unified. As I write in Chemo Muscles: Lessons Learned from Being a Psycho-Oncologist and Cancer Patient (Mascot Books, 2020) “human suffering is human suffering. It does not have to be the exact same in order for us to connect with and understand it. Human beings are a resilient species. We are capable of being malleable, bouncing back. We are all part of the chain, all here on earth for a brief period of time. We are more the same than different. We are here to help each other with our mutual journeys.”
Families are coming together again. When was the last time your family sat down and ate dinner together? Or parents sat down and played a board game with their kids? For me, this time with my loved ones has been an incredible gift. My eldest daughter, who had to return home from college, is with us again. This is enabling me to capture some more precious time in a bottle, as well as get confirmation that we are a strong family and can get through difficult experiences through our love for each other.
People are trying to help each other in whatever ways they can. I have seen countless posts on Facebook from individuals volunteering to help one another. One friend is volunteering to grocery shop for elderly or immunosuppressed individuals; one couple is starting a fund for those individuals who will now need food assistance due to job loss; my mental health colleagues are reaching out to one another to arrange an online peer support group; celebrities put together a song “What the World Needs Now is Love;” teachers are volunteering to tutor students who struggle with learning through online modalities; people are reaching out to their housekeepers, hair stylists, dog walkers and other individuals whose businesses will definitely be impacted, and are giving them some small payment, or buying gift certificates for the future to keep them in business; personal trainers are providing free online home exercise videos; community members have banded together to support their local restaurants so they stay in business. In adverse situations, we can see the best of people — how we can come together as a community, a state, a nation, a world, to learn from one another and support each other.
What we see at the individual level, in terms of benevolence and helping one another, we can also see at the entrepreneurial/business level. This pandemic has propelled individuals and companies to work collaboratively for a cure or treatment. This has spurred creativity, with scientists working around the clock to test antibodies and existing medications already in use for other illnesses; businesses sharing information for global benefit; the innovative creation of 3D printed masks for immunity protection against the virus; the facilitation of on-line virtual platforms to keep individuals connected to mental health resources; medical health resources; business platforms. Countries are sharing information to assist other countries that have a later diagnosis rate, to help arrest the spread of the disease.
Just as what often happens when someone experiences a life trauma, they frequently reevaluate what is truly important to them. I believe this will create a real shift in our priorities and what we deem important and necessary. We will learn new ways of being, turn more inward, listen more deeply, be more grateful. We will be more self-reflective and think about what we really need. And hopefully, we will become even more connected. As a result of the coronavirus, many individuals will reexamine how much time they spend at work, how little time they spend with their families, all the things they take for granted. They will think about the simple pleasures of reading a book; taking an interesting on-line course just for the sake of learning; baking cookies with their children; trying a new recipe; taking a bath; taking a walk at their local lake. In essence, all the things that they can “only do now” as they are quarantined in their homes, are the things that they will eventually miss. This will hopefully create what Sheryl Sandberg, (2017) labels a “post-trauma growth,” however, at a more universal level. This is when after a trauma, people not only are resilient and bounce back to their pre-trauma state, but actually grow. Victor Frankl, the famous Holocaust survivor and author wrote “when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” He further adds, “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”
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?
These are all coping techniques that someone can share with their friend or loved one to help them with their feelings of anxiety:
Do activities that enable you to feel a sense of control. The uncertainty in the world engenders feelings of powerlessness in each of us. Therefore, we must find ways to feel empowered. This can be as simple as deciding what we do each day; sticking to a routine; washing our hands frequently to minimize germs; curtailing our outside interaction.
Limit social media. Select one or two trusted sources for information and reduce your exposure. It’s like we are trying to feed ourselves with education to stay healthy, but are unfortunately exposed to a lot of junk food which will ultimately make us feel sick.
Exercise; eat healthy; enforce good sleep hygiene; practice good health habits like washing hands and drinking plenty of water.
Practice self-care with deep breathing; meditation; taking walks; getting out in nature, all of which have been found to decrease negative mood.
Reach out and connect to a loved one. Social support has been found to dramatically increase positive coping during times of distress. Call someone; drop off a baked good in their mailbox; write them a meaningful letter that you previously didn’t have time to write.
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?
- There is a plethora of apps that are designed for stress reduction including Headspace, Calm, and Buddhify.
- Watch meditations and relaxation exercises on Youtube
- Exercise, which has been shown to be as effective as some antidepressant medication. Go to a local gym, or find an on-line exercise program or app, or simply do exercises at home on your own.
- Nutrition: Examine diet more closely, as food can have powerful effects on our mood. Think clean eating — vegetables, fresh fruits, non-processed foods.
- Volunteer: reaching out to those less fortunate gives us a sense of meaning and purpose, and can often help us improve our own mood.
- Social connection: reach out to connect with others.
- Routine: Find one that is stabilizing and adhere to it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“We are who we are not in spite of the things that happen to us, but because of them.”
Sometimes we can go through adversity and wish we did not experience these negative life events. At times, we may feel sorry for ourselves; feel our lives will be irrevocably altered in a negative way; see these obstacles as creating a “weakness” or “personal deficit.” However, what I have learned from being a two-time breast cancer survivor is that we would not have become the evolved, impactful people we have become had we not gone through these negative experiences. They helped shape us. We learned from them. We became deeper, richer, and hopefully better because of them. Had we not had these misfortunes, we would have continued on our same path without being forced out of our comfort zone, and propelled to grow. Unfortunately, we will all encounter negative life events. It is our reaction to them, and the gifts we choose to garner from them, that will shape who we ultimately become.
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 platform like Facebook, where all people had to list one way that they could help someone else — a service they could provide — and in turn, request one service — or a way where they needed to receive help from another. This could be through teaching; cooking a meal; painting a picture; song-writing; math tutoring; being a friend; going grocery shopping for someone– so that every human being could contribute. Whether you are financially insolvent or affluent, a service like being a friend to someone else is an important commodity. There are people in the world who desperately want a friend, and there are people in the world who want to give their friendship. Therefore, this match system could be an opportunity for all to contribute, feel valuable, and experience some level of meaning, purpose and human connection.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Readers can follow me online at:
LinkedIn: Renee Exelbert
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!