Thank you so much for doing this with us. What is your backstory?
My life experiences such as being born without an ear, overcoming paralysis in my late teens, facing suicide and a hunt for purpose have led me to where I am today: helping others help others. I believe that everyone’s journey plays into their purpose. We all have a story, but it is what we choose to do as a result of our journey that makes a difference. I journeyed into the “light side” in order to help myself. As a result, I came out with education, training and life experiences.
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?
Actually, difficult and unhealthy can be the same or different.
A difficult dynamic can simply mean you have a difficult time communicating with someone. An unhealthy dynamic can cause someone to spiral and spark maladaptive coping mechanisms.
A difficult dynamic is exactly how it sounds — difficult. An unhealthy dynamic is one that can cause lasting effects for days or weeks.
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?
Plan ahead. Mindfulness is key here. If you are aware of your triggers prior to entering the situation and have a plan on how to cope, you will be much better off. For example, if your grandfather always makes you feel like crap, have a plan. Enter the room, say “hi” and then gracefully keep your distance the rest of the evening. Find the relatives that are supportive and fun and stick with them. Be mindful and cautious in the conversations you engage in as well. Give yourself mental hugs and breaks when needed.
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?
Toxic families are the downfall for a lot of people. Unhealthy families and toxic families are pretty much the same. I believe the only difference is that the toxic family should be avoided. A toxic family can cause you to be your worst self. It is often impossible to break these dynamics.
Can you share about a time where you helped someone overcome a challenging family member?
I have had many clients who have learned how to manage their dynamics more gracefully and with self-preservation. The biggest factor in helping is creating awareness and role playing. I find that clients feel empowered when they have the tools to approach family time. It doesn’t mean they don’t get triggered but the outcome is drastically altered for the better. They often walk away feeling like they have handled the situation much better. Anything different from what they have been experiencing, where they feel in control of themselves, is much better than feeling like a victim to the triggers of an unhealthy or toxic family dynamics.
Managing mental health in high stress situations is challenging and although gatherings are only a few days 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?
1. Become aware of yourself and your triggers. We can’t address anything if we aren’t aware of it.
2. Learn to use mindfulness as a tool. This gives you the ability to make a choice once you are aware.
3. Breathe. It helps to self-soothe and calm our fight or flight system which often gets triggered in family situations.
4. Have an internal dialogue about the situation in order to calm any anxiety.
5. Remove yourself from anything negative and find something positive to do.
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?
There is nothing wrong with checking in with someone and asking how they are doing.
Support them by being positive. There is no need to cause friction. Also, give them outs. If you see them hyperventilating in the corner, suggest they take a walk or distract them with a funny conversation. Allow them space if needed.
What is your favorite mental health quote? Why do you find it so impactful?
Viktor Frankl — “Between stimulus and response in space. In the space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” I believe this quote speaks for itself. It means you have the power of choice in any given moment on how you choose to think, be, act, etc. You can choose to be a victim or you can choose to be you.
If you could inspire a movement or a change in mental wellness, what would it be? How can people support you in this mission?
My movement would be a mental and physical health movement. By that I mean we should stop looking at mental and physical health independently. Without the mind, the body does not function and without the body, the mind does not function. If we stop treating them differently, perhaps the stigma around mental health would lessen. Why is it okay to regularly go to the doctor for our brain or body but it is not okay to regularly get check-ups and see someone for our mind? They are not inextricable.
We spend so much time in school as kids learning about biology and human health but very little of that time is focused on mental health. What if we have one week per year, at the very least, where kids learn about mind and body health? Why is psychology less important than physical health? One might even argue that the mind is most important to our overall health. We are finding more and more that stress is a trigger for many illnesses. Stress is a direct result of how the mind is processing incoming stimuli. Therefore, we need now, more than ever, to start looking at the mind and body as one.
For more information on Katie Sandler, please visit: www.katiesandler.com