I would love to see a world where we don’t just destigmatize mental health by making it acceptable to seek out, but we actually celebrate it and are proud of our association with a therapist.

As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jenny Maenpaa LCSW, EdM, is a licensed clinical therapist and author of Forward in Heels.

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?

Ibegan my social work career in juvenile justice, victims’ advocacy and community mental health, which highlighted how many social issues disproportionately affect women. As a result, when I founded my own private practice, Forward in Heels, in 2018, I knew I would primarily serve women and female-identifying persons in helping them learn to excel at what they do and stand tall so they could light up the world.

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

Mental health providers are taught to put everyone else first, often leaving nothing for themselves. We embody the complete opposite of the advice to “put the oxygen mask on yourself first.” If we’re on the plane, we’re putting oxygen masks on everyone else, handing out snacks and landing the plane before we remember we need to breathe, too. Early on in my social work career, I had a close relative pass away, and I tried to continue carrying on business as usual in my very intense job in the field of juvenile justice. My colleague told my boss what had happened, and my boss made me cancel all of my family sessions for the rest of the week, despite my protests. Afterwards, my colleague said to me, “You are not going to fix the dysfunction within a family in one day. But if you are in the wrong headspace, you can do permanent damage.” Prior to that moment, I had only considered what obligation I had to others, but I had never considered how my own mental and emotional wellness would impact those I was trying to help. Since that day, I have tried to consistently focus on my own health first so that I can be the best version of myself for others.

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. Meditate — This doesn’t mean sitting in a silent room and clearing all thoughts from your mind. It means envisioning thoughts like a stick floating down a river. If you try to push the stick away, it will keep coming back. If you try to grab the stick, you will flail in the water. The best strategy for meditation is to envision that river, embrace its ebbs and flows, and acknowledge the stick (thought) as it floats by. Your thoughts are meant to be experienced, embraced and then encouraged on their way. Sitting with discomfort is how we build distress tolerance over time.
  2. Journal — We need to process our emotions and experiences to make sense of them and to understand why we reacted a certain way or what triggered us. If we don’t examine these things, they will continue to occur, and we will feel helpless and out of control in our own lives.
  3. Sleep — All of the strategies we have built over our lifetimes to help us control our primitive emotional reactions will be forgotten when we are overtired. We have slower reaction times, are able to pay less attention to nuances in situations and have a lowered ability to control our immediate emotional reactions.
  4. Exercise — Elle Woods said it best in Legally Blonde: “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands. They just don’t.” All jokes aside, endorphins are structurally similar to the drug morphine and can be considered natural painkillers because they activate receptors in the brain that help minimize discomfort and increase feelings of euphoria and general well-being.
  5. Practice Positive Self-Talk — When a situation is overwhelming or stressful, our primitive brains can revert back to our childlike states when we are feeling exhausted or out of control. Our brains may believe that we are engaged in a ‘fight-flight-or-freeze’ situation and shut down all nonessential functions that would be unnecessary in a near-death situation. When we can pause and talk ourselves through the fear, saying things like, “There are things I can control and things I can’t right now. Here is what I can control.” we are able to focus on what actions to take that are productive instead of panic-inducing.

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 love to see a world where we don’t just destigmatize mental health by making it acceptable to seek out, but we actually celebrate it and are proud of our association with a therapist. In the same way that people are proud to be members of SoulCycle and wear their merchandise to show how seriously they take their physical health; I would love to see people proudly display the name of their mental health provider!

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

You can follow me on Instagram. My practice is at @ForwardinHeels.

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