I would invite everyone to step outdoors and practice Presence in nature. Hmmm, have you heard me say that before?! It is such a simple thing (although nature may be a balcony at your apartment, buying a plant for your home, or cuddling with your dog in the winter) that has a tremendous impact on our well-being. It gives our mind peace and fills us with joy. Putting those two practices together is amazing. And they’re mostly free. When we feel that peace and happiness within, we’re much more likely to make a difference in the world. One by one, we can make a difference by “first putting on your own oxygen mask”, as they say when you’re on an airplane. Fill yourself with meaningful, healing experiences; then, when you’re full, you’ll have the overflow to share with others.

As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Rev. Connie L. Habash, LMFT. Rev. Habash, is a spiritual mentor, licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, interfaith minister, yoga & meditation teacher, and seasoned group facilitator. She is the author of Awakening from Anxiety: A Spiritual Guide to Living a More Calm, Confident, Courageous Life, which synthesizes 26 years of working with clients and students into a simple, accessible, yet profound process to release stress and anxiety and return to your True Self. Find out about her offerings on her website: www.AwakeningSelf.com

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?

Becoming a psychotherapist, spiritual mentor, and yoga teacher (and even more recently, an ecotherapist) has been a surprising path. I didn’t imagine as a teen to be doing the work I do today. But in college, I knew I wanted a career that would meaningfully touch other lives. I wanted to help others heal and grow in every way — mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Being clear about that vision was a guiding light, leading me to graduate school, yoga, many spiritual paths, and out into nature. I am a natural synthesizer, so I bring these many facets together in my counseling work and the programs that I create. It’s very fulfilling and I see myself treating and awakening the whole person.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

It’s actually very recent — last year, when I wrote my book, Awakening from Anxiety. It was a series of synchronicities that came together. I went to see an author speak at a local bookstore and thought, hey, if she can do this, so could I! I have always wanted to write a book.

So after that night, I cut her photo and talk description out of the program, taped it to my computer, and used it as inspiration to get it done. The following week, my husband saw an ad for The Author Incubator on You Tube. He ran in my room and said, “this is for you!” 45 minutes later her webinar began, and two weeks later I signed up for the program. That was August 2018; in 3 months, I had my manuscript done, and in a year, my book was released! All because I set a clear intent, trusted the process, and didn’t give up until it was finished. So magical — I am grateful!

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

Honestly, I can’t think right of any mistakes that were funny, but I have made plenty of them! I tend to be hard on myself, so my lessons are usually around self-forgiveness. But I’ve learned that owning up to my mistakes, talking honestly with those affected by them, and sharing in our humanness not only can resolve the situation, but more deeply connects us to one another. It also makes others feel safe to be human with me, too. I remind myself that I’m human, while always striving for my highest and best.

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?

There have been many people who have helped me along the way. I always think first of my spiritual teachers. Because it’s been my inner development that has made the biggest difference in my success. When I’m feeling whole and vibrant, most things fall into place. I’m grateful to my spiritual teacher, Amma, who shows me what true love and service are about. Leslie Temple-Thurston, for showing me how to mediate and the most powerful synergy of psychology and yoga philosophy that I know of. Lynda Caesara for teaching me about energy and the energetic defensive patterns, that have transformed my relationships and my work with clients. And Leonard Jacobson, for teaching me the powerful gift of Presence, which has permeated everything I do.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Listen to your heart, soul, and body. We too often are run by our heads, telling us what we “should” do. Your body is the most direct access to your truth. It doesn’t lie. If you are thinking about doing something, offering something, committing to something, etc., check in with how it feels in your body. I have a lot of challenges with over-committing myself, and whenever I feel how my body responds to a new event I want to add or an invitation I’m considering, I pay attention to the sensations I have. I also give myself at least a full day to sit with it.

Another suggestion, which shouldn’t be surprising, is self-care. Balance, balance, balance. We need the proper balance in our lives in order to be at our best. If you’re leaving out fun, joy, and time with loved ones, you won’t feel fulfilled with your work, no matter how “successful” you are. It can’t fill those other places in you.

Lastly, spend some time doing nothing. Absolutely nothing. You may have heard about how this boosts creativity and improves well-being. It also brings me joy. I sit outside in my garden, just listen, and watch whatever is happening with the birds and other animals. I tend to my plants and notice how they grow and the changes through the seasons. Simply being outdoors, wherever you are, without an agenda is renewing.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Remember that everyone is a person — heart and soul. Workplaces that facilitate meaningful connection between employees of all levels are more sustainable. People will want to come to work and want to work together. Offer activities, leadership styles, and conversations that support connection.

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.

There is an epidemic of loneliness, stress, and anxiety among millenials, and I see this rampant in all age groups in Silicon Valley. Perhaps because of our dominantly online culture via social media, plus long work hours and commutes, and general stress in our lives, people are feeling disconnected, with higher rates of depression and anxiety. It’s why I wrote my book, Awakening from Anxiety. Anxiety and despair arise from feeling disconnected on many levels. For us to feel happy, joyful, and fulfilled, we need to cultivate a sense of connection in our lives.

There are 5 ways for us to reawaken and develop a sense of connection:

1 . Connect with Yourself

Many people that I see in my counseling practice admit that they don’t really know themselves. There’s precious little time in their life, and they tend to put themselves last on their list. Yet we all need time for ourselves, and to develop a healthy relationship with oneself. Do you spend time on yourself, just you? I’m not only talking about going to a yoga class or getting a massage. I’m referring to time spent getting to know yourself, listening to your thoughts, feeling what is in your heart, and attending to your body in a mindful way.

All relationships need quality time to spend together to foster connection and intimacy, and that includes your relationship with you. Be there for yourself when you’re feeling low. Often, we abandon ourselves when we’re distressed, looking for someone else to make it better. Of course, it’s fine to seek out support. But we have the capacity to truly be present with what we feel and support ourselves through difficulty — it’s our inner resilience. Journal, reflect, ponder, and vision your life intentionally. When you have a solid relationship with yourself, you’ll also have more to share with others.

2 . Connect with others

Humans need each other. It’s hard-wired into us to want friendships, family, and intimate relationships. When we have healthy relationships in our lives, we feel fulfilled and supported.

Make the time not only for a phone call or an email; get together in person. Some people live too far away to do this on a regular basis, but there is no substitute for real, face to face connections with others. Seeing and feeling someone right here with you, focused on time together, is essential. Touch is important, too. We need others to listen to us, and it feels good to be there for a friend in need. Shared experiences together, like taking a hike, going out on the town, or traveling, bring us joy. Those in-person experiences create memories that last and fulfill us. Don’t let the device or “being too busy” cut you off from the sustenance that relationships offer us.

3 . Connect with Community

As an extension of connecting to others we care about, we all need a sense of community. Community is a place we belong within a larger group of like-minded individuals. For some of us, we find community in extended family or cultural gatherings. But many of us don’t have that larger family system nearby, or perhaps not at all. We need communities to engage in and feel we have a place where we belong.

Community can be created through spiritual traditions, political activism, volunteer organizations, or right in your neighborhood. You can also find community through activities that you enjoy, such as sports or art classes.

Many of us have attempted to find community through social media, and this can certainly help when we are feeling isolated or unable to get out. Online community, while it does have benefits, will not fill the need for an in-person sense of belonging. However, you can use some online portals, such as NextDoor or MeetUp, to find communities of common interest near you. Don’t be afraid to try them out. Or start your own! The more you invest in creating community, the more you will feel supported and connected, increasing mental and emotional well-being.

4 . Connect with Nature

Our society is suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder. Author Richard Louv introduced this term in the book Last Child in the Woods in 2005. It’s the idea that human beings are spending less and less time in nature, with a detrimental impact on our health and happiness. Current research is confirming the importance of connecting to nature, for both children and adults, to increase our physical and emotional wellness. Time outdoors, particularly near trees and green spaces, has been shown to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, bolster the immune system, and improve mood.

It’s not just spending time outdoors, but feeling a sense of connection to these natural places that is the rejuvenative, healing component. Find a forest near you, or a local park. Engage your senses; notice what you see, feel the bark or the dewy grass, smell the fresh salt air at the beach. Linger for a while. Sit and listen to birdsong. Get to know a place in nature, and return there regularly.

We are part of this beautiful planet we live on, and everything that gives us life comes from her. When you cultivate connection with nature, you’ll develop a sense of being at home on Earth, and part of all life.

5 . Connect with the Divine

Lastly, but no less important, is having a connection with something greater than you. That’s how I define spirituality. It is a relationship with a Higher Power, based on what you truly believe. For many, that may be known as “God” in some form. But for others, it could be The Universe, Great Spirit, Nature, or a quality such as Love or Truth.

When we have a connection to the Divine (as I like to call it), we feel a part of something much greater than ourselves. We have a guiding principle to shine the light during the tough times. It gives us the ability to trust, have resilience, and a deep feeling of inner connection that is beyond other relationships in our lives.

You can cultivate a connection with the Divine through prayer, reading inspirational books, meditation, soulful reflection, chanting, or attending spiritual community gatherings. You can also find spiritual connection through art, dance, singing, and poetry. Find what speaks to your soul and expands your awareness of a guiding force for good in your life.

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.

All of my previous suggestions would be essential for people in their retirement years. What I would add is practicing Presence. Presence is a mindfulness skill that brings our awareness and attention into the present moment. This awareness is with a quiet mind and an open heart. The more we are present, the more we experience the beauty and joy of what life offers us. We step out of judgments, comparisons, lingering in the past or projecting into the future, and see what is available to us right now. It also greatly reduces stress and anxiety — so much so, that I made it the first key to overcoming anxiety in my book, Awakening from Anxiety.

This present moment has so much to offer, if we allow ourselves to see what we have, rather than what we lack. We have our breath, this chair, the window, the computer. Outside there may be a cloud; with a loved one there may be a warm hand. The more we develop Presence, the more we feel filled and fulfilled with what is here, right now.

This benefits everyone, but especially as we head into retirement, we may linger in the past or what is missing now. While beautiful memories can warm our hearts, often they can make us feel we are lacking with what is available to us. Instead, shift your attention to living in and appreciating this moment, and life feels richer.

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?

I have a teenage daughter, and have dealt first-hand with some of the challenges teens face today. Anxiety and depression are on the rise. Teens are under a lot of pressure, from higher demands at school (than when I was in high school!) to peer pressure, drug culture, and of course the stresses of social media. While they may insist that they’re having fun on social media, it also feeds teens with images that they compare themselves to. We might remember how much comparison and “fitting in” were on our minds when we were teens. I’ve seen a lot of kids at my daughter’s high school struggle with high anxiety. It’s so hard to keep up with everything, and the requirements to get into college are much more demanding.

I think teens need meaningful rituals to ease stress and unplug a bit from the constant stimulation, distraction, and agitation from social media, gaming, and the pressures of school. Find some activities to blow off steam that involve the physical body. I know, a lot of teens don’t want to be physically active, but there isn’t a substitute for it for releasing stress and increasing well-being. Talk to your parents or another safe adult — perhaps a neighbor, teacher, or the parent of a friend. And share what you’re going through with friends. You may be surprised to find out that they have similar feelings and experiences.

Lastly, I highly recommend time outdoors in nature. It is one of the most healing, calming, and stress-relieving practices I know. I instilled the love of nature in my daughter when she was younger, and it’s been her healing salve ever since. A hike through the forest, listening to birdsong, touching a feather you found on the ground, looking for fish in a stream, and smelling fresh bay leaves or wild herbs awakens the senses and calms the nervous system. Or go to the beach, jump in the waves and look for seashells (but leave them on the beach!). Being off devices for a few hours and outside in a sensory experience refreshes the mind, calms emotions, and reduces stress.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

It’s hard to pick just one! In the last few years I have been deeply affected by the practice of Presence from the book, Journey Into Now by Leonard Jacobson.

I had an experience after deeply practicing Presence for a couple of days. I was walking around outside in a beautiful area, and I was overcome with the feeling of love for everything around me. Not just the flowers and trees, but even the railing, the stone wall, the weeds. I wanted to stop and thank everything for being so beautiful, and tears streamed down my face. My thoughts arose, and I wondered how long it would last, which was the beginning of taking me out of the experience. But it was about 10 minutes of this incredible joy and love. Although I don’t often have such intense experiences, I tap into a little taste of that bliss whenever my mind quiets and I can be present wherever I am. I’m tremendously grateful for it, and as a result I don’t need very much to feel happy in my life.

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 invite everyone to step outdoors and practice Presence in nature. Hmmm, have you heard me say that before?! It is such a simple thing (although nature may be a balcony at your apartment, buying a plant for your home, or cuddling with your dog in the winter) that has a tremendous impact on our well-being. It gives our mind peace and fills us with joy. Putting those two practices together is amazing. And they’re mostly free.

When we feel that peace and happiness within, we’re much more likely to make a difference in the world. One by one, we can make a difference by “first putting on your own oxygen mask”, as they say when you’re on an airplane. Fill yourself with meaningful, healing experiences; then, when you’re full, you’ll have the overflow to share with others.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

The quote that I live my life by is “Trust the Process.” I don’t know where I first heard it, but many of my teachers live by this philosophy. When I look at life this way, I have faith that whatever arises has good in it, even if it is a difficult or painful situation. I find that when I Trust the Process, I relax and things flow. If there are challenges, I navigate them more easily, and otherwise, life tends to reveal itself beautifully and naturally. I don’t have to control it or figure it all out — I trust in something greater than me to guide my life.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

I’d love to connect with you through my Awakening Self page https://www.facebook.com/AwakeningSelf/ or personal page https://www.facebook.com/connie.habash on Facebook. You’re also welcome to explore my website, https://www.AwakeningSelf.com/

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

It’s been a joy to share and connect with you, Beau!