My guest is therapist Tara Bixby. She is on a mission to participate in changing the way we treat mental health, anxiety, and depression. Tara has worked in the prison system and for young people in crisis, and believes that we can’t just throw medication at these individuals, but actually whenever possible give them real tools to heal or manage life’s challenges. I really appreciate Tara’s willingness to put herself out there especially against an establishment that is slow to change. She is young and does not let the fact that it’s scary or that people will talk down to you because you are young from speaking her truth about what she is witnessing firsthand. We need people like Tara in our world willing to go for the change. You can listen to her podcast courageously.u every Tuesday.
Listen to the episode here:
- Finding Courage [00:01:19]
- Blended Families [00:05:47]
- Deciphering Anxiety [00:07:39]
- Children’s Mental Health [00:10:38]
- The Root of Trauma [00:23:09]
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy [00:26:44]
- Holistic Approach [00:30:00]
- Experiencing Prison [00:31:14]
- Starting with Childhood [00:32:31]
- Improving Your Mental Health [00:36:43]
- Being a Step-Parent [00:44:59]
Tara Bixby – Anxiety, Stress, Therapist
My guest is Tara Bixby. She has a podcast that comes out every Tuesday called Courageously.U. Tara is a young therapist. She started working in the prison system and then young people in crises. Something was bothering her about the practices, which were labeling people, “You have anxiety. You have depression. You have ADHD.” We’re not always giving people the tools either to get over a trauma or to manage life’s challenges. We’re throwing medication and meds at them.
She’s ballsy. She’s on a mission to encourage our system to do a better job at supporting these people that go through so many challenges. Yes, there are people out there that medication is maybe the only way. She’s saying it’s a lot less than the amount of people getting medication. It’s about giving them more care and more tools. I give her a lot of credit. It is not easy to go against the establishment. Here is a young lady who is following her own beliefs. She’s in there, she’s seeing it, and she’s saying, “We can do better.” I hope you enjoy the conversation.
First of all, where did you get the courage to launch Courageously.U? Was it for you?
It’s funny because, in 2018, I had graduated from my Master’s degree. I had gotten married. In my Master’s program, I was a stressed out basket case, poor self-care, total burnout, quit a job, and just a mess. It was the fall of 2018 and my husband was duck hunting. It was early morning on a Saturday and I was reading Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection.
There was something in her book. I can’t even say it was a sentence. It was the idea that people struggle but they’re not talking about it. That’s how I felt in grad school. I was struggling, I would put it out on social media, I’d feel ashamed, and I would take it down. Something in that book ignited something in me and I was like, “I need to create something where people don’t feel they’re struggling alone in silence.”
It’s partly something I did for myself because I was tired of struggling alone. I honestly don’t have an answer. It was this feeling in my soul that I had to do more. That’s where Courageously.U comes from because Brené talks so much about courage. I didn’t want to be Courageously and then YOU. At the time, I wanted to do online courses. I was like, “U like university. Courageously.U.” That’s where it came from in a nutshell.
There are a lot of people out there who want to start something. The hardest thing is starting and taking that first step. Did you create a strategy? Did you do some homework before you started? How did you prepare for launching?
I get asked this a lot and I wish I had a cool answer. I go by the seat of my pants when it comes to things. I originally started with Courage With A Splash of Coffee and I deleted it because my self-talk told me like, “That’s dumb. Why are you doing this? Nobody’s going to care.” I deleted it. That’s when I came up with Courageously.U later because I could not silence that inner voice that was like, “You need to be doing this.”
I don’t even know how Jenna Kutcher’s podcast came into my life but it did. She talks a lot about courses, email lists, and things like that. I started listening to business podcasts that would teach me the business end because I knew nothing about that. That’s what started that. She has a thing called The Podcast Lab.
I used to listen to podcasts. I’m a therapist and I talk to myself all the time. One of the things I love doing when I’m stressed is I’ll process out loud while I’m driving. I’ll talk myself through it. I’m like, “I want to do a podcast. If I could talk to myself in a car, I can talk to a mic, to people that are listening.” I took her Podcast Lab and that’s what launched it.
You made the comment earlier about, why should anybody listen to me? I’ve reached out to some big people and I always get this thing like, “You have to have many followers. What’s your audience size?” Stuff like that. People with massive platforms may be delivering the wrong information where I’m this little fish in a big sea and I have a loud voice. It’s one of those things where I was like, “If I’m going to do it, I’m jumping all in.” I threw myself out there.
I’m curious. I want to drill down on something and I want you to help me with this. I’m going to take advantage that you are a young woman. Before I move into this, you met your husband when you were young but you weren’t married until later.
[bctt tweet=”We’re using medication and substances essentially because we’re lacking in self-care.”]
We met when we were in sixth grade. We went to private school together. There was nothing going on there. We went to separate high schools. When we were 21, we reconnected. It’s the whole bar scene when you’re 21. We reconnected there. There was no romance, just friends. I moved to California for a boy. I wouldn’t recommend doing that. He went, got married, and had kids.
When I broke up with my ex, I was moving back to Idaho. I found him on Facebook, how they suggest your friends to you. I reached out to him. Ironically, he was going through a divorce at the same time. Misery loves company so we hung out and it grew from there. I was 27 when we started dating. I felt older but I was still in my twenties. Step-parenthood is different. It’s a curveball but I’ve grown. Thank goodness I was in grad school. I was going to school for counseling. A ton of my research is on step-parenting because I was trying to help myself through the process.
If you’re coming into someone’s life for example and let’s say you’re the female and they have teenage daughters, that is a different dynamic than even a teenage son or a little younger kid.
It’s crazy because it helped that I was raised in a blended family. My parents split when I was six months old. All I’ve known is blended families. That narrative was something I knew. It was different being the adult in the blended family. His parents are still together. He has three sisters. They’re a nuclear family. If anything that’s helped, it’s me having that insight because I can help him a little bit. What’s crazy is how much it did bring up within myself my insecurities, my attachment issues with my dad, and things like that. That surprised me. I’ve had to work through that.
What has worked is that he’s supported me. There have been times where I’ve struggled through those moments and he’s been like, “Talk to me about it. How can we get through that?” In a lot of blended families, sometimes the bio-parent isn’t open to that communication. They get defensive, they respond poorly, and things like that. It was a hard journey for me. As a family, it was going to be rocky. Having his support was honestly the best thing that could have worked for us.
If somebody was feeling certain things in the way that we live today, how do we teach our young people coming up who are always on their devices? Scientifically, we already know it creates a ton of anxiety for a number of reasons whether it’s too much dopamine and you can’t release serotonin. I’m sure you’re well aware that the only thing that blocks your ability to produce serotonin is too much dopamine. You can’t get to feel good, peaceful, relaxed hormones because you’re banging on your dopamine all the time. How do we decipher what is truly anxiety and depression for real or, “I’m having a bad day. I’m having a bad week. This circumstance I’m in right now is highly stressful.”
What’s happening is we live in a society that is anxious. We have symbolic threats coming at us all the time, which are things that we are worried about or we’re anticipating. Elizabeth Stanley in Widen the Window talks about the analogy of us having a window of tolerance. I like to compare it to a glass. Imagine we all have different glasses or you can even say Starbucks sizes. We all have different Starbucks sizes that we can hold when it comes to stress.
I’ll use kiddos for example because that’s what we’re talking about. Every time a kid is stressed out and they don’t have the ability to recover that sympathetic activation that happened within them, that stress response that happened within them, it’s like a little bit of water gets poured into their cup. Another stressful situation comes along and they go through that same process, more water gets poured into that cup. Eventually, it’s going to fill up if they’re not ever recovering from it and it’s going to overflow. That’s where you start to have that mind-body system dysregulation where you start to have the presentation of mental, physical, spiritual, emotional, or whatever symptoms that you’re going through.
Kids aren’t taught how to self-regulate. Kids aren’t taught how to recover or process when they are triggered by anxiety. Unfortunately, they are bombarded with things that trigger their anxiety and trigger that stress arousal for them. Kiddos are highly anxious. I’m a therapist. Where I approach it is I don’t believe in the mental health model. I don’t believe that mental illness is a chemical imbalance. We become dysregulated and that is where symptoms present.
For kids, they’re being treated as if they have a chemical imbalance. They’re saying, “You have an anxiety disorder. You’re anxious.” They walk around and they’re like, “I have anxiety.” No, you don’t have anxiety. You live with anxiety. We are telling kids and giving them these labels. There’s so much research on the role that your gut health plays in depression or how you’re sleep-deprived or not moving or maybe you’re grieving the loss of somebody. We’re telling people, “You’re depressed. You have major depression,” stuff like that. They’re holding on to these labels and identifying as them.
We have so much more information. In a way, we’ve gotten further from the sources whether it be your microbiome, the dirt on the vegetables that used to take care of our guts, and not eating processed foods, and not being on electronics. We live in a modern world. We’re all trying to understand it and put all this framework around it. Some of it is the fact that we are living away from and against our source.
For example, let’s say I was a kid. Like everybody, I have my own things that are challenging. The fact that I didn’t grow up with a phone, that’s the thing for me sometimes where it gets sticky. Everything has to be deliberate because we’re always plugged in. We say, “You’re going to have to get off your phone so you can have some downtime.”
They’ll think you’re crazy.
When they say things like, “I’m uncomfortable when you talk like that.” Are we that precious? As an adult, as we’re trying to help young people, teenagers, and young adults navigate, what are some of the best ways to approach this? A lot of us are trying to learn and not be too harsh but then at a certain point, nature and life are hard. We got to deal with it.
Not everybody gives their kids mental health medications. There are a lot of people when they see their kids struggling, they instantly want to medicate them. If I could say anything, do what you need to do for your kid. If you feel that it’s life-threatening, do what you need to do. I’ve worked in an acute mental health unit inside a prison. I work with kiddos in an inpatient psych hospital. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen them start to present anxious or have a panic attack.
Immediately, meds are injected into you, “Take this pill. Take a PRN.” It makes my blood boil because all you’re doing is reinforcing the problem. You’re not teaching that kid how to cope with the symptoms. Why is that alarm going off? Why are they being triggered? Why are they being ignited? For people who have kiddos, the medication is going to be a band aid. It’s not addressing the fire. What’s causing this fire? That’s what you need to extinguish. I’d say start there first. Medications aren’t your first line of defense.
You have to think with kids too. Kids are stressed out. I cannot even imagine being a kid in today’s life because they have crazy hours of school. You think sports maybe or the pressures to get into college. You have bullying at school, social media, peer pressure, all these things coming at them all the time. They are living under chronic stress and they don’t have the tools to recover. They don’t know how to send that signal of safety to their survival brain that says, “I don’t need you to be activated right now. You can stand down.”
As parents, you have to recognize your kids can only do so much. If they’re young and they’re staying up for crazy hours at night doing homework because they had sports practice which is impacting their sleep, they’re going to be struggling with sleep deprivation. It might relate to the presentation of anxiety or the presentation of depression. Parents have to prioritize their kid’s schedules. You don’t have to be the Pinterest mom. You don’t have to have them involved in everything. Make sure sleep is a priority. Have them go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time. Are they eating gut-healthy food? Are they eating Lucky Charms for breakfast? Things like that.
Let’s break that down for a second. First of all, were you raised with this huge expectation of what you are going to do with your life and all of these things?
No. I didn’t feel that I had that pressure on me. I grew up in the country. I roamed. I played all the time. I never had this pressure of, “You have to get A’s because you have to go to college and you have to get a good job.”
I wonder where this changed. I feel like they can never unplug.
Back in the day, I got to come home and that stuff was outside my house. What’s happening now is these kids never have the opportunity to get away from it because it comes home with them. It’s now in the homes and they’re on their phones late at night. The phone has amplified the situation.
They talk to their teachers on the phone. It’s this weird thing that everything is happening on the phone. When you deal with young people, have you heard of any parents that have some system, something figured out about this? I’m telling you that this is the thing that we all wrestle with our children, which is like, “Please, put your phone down.” You can feel it. Even if it’s a reward system. At this point, you’d love to say, “We do it from there to there.” Everything is still about a threat of something or a reward of something. Have you heard of something where someone was getting this part right?
I haven’t. I haven’t worked a ton with kiddos with their actual parents in the community. I had a kiddo that was in the inpatient psych hospital. One of the things was helping her establish boundaries with herself when she got out and it was such a fight. I don’t even think we made progress on it. Kids’ cell phones are like their third limb. They can’t not have their phone.
I have seen in my older girls, young people, sometimes around 17 or 18, they seem to have a little bit more of a pull away. They notice a lot of them. I know some people that are in big tech businesses and jobs and they are intense about governing how their kids use it because they know more. I’m always fascinated about who’s getting it right.
Within the practice of communicating about things presenting as anxiety or depression but maybe not being those things, is there ever the opportunity to have that real talk with young people? It’s like, “You can’t always get everything curated how you want. Sometimes you have to speak live and in person. You can’t text it.” Is that incorporated in some of these practices?
[bctt tweet=”For people who have kiddos, medication is going to be a band-aid. It’s not addressing the fire.”]
I’m doing acute psychosis when they’re in crisis. I have noticed with them that we have instant gratification. We are used to things on demand. Everybody gets first place. There is no first-place winner anymore. We all get it. Kids don’t know how to lose. Kids don’t know how to self-regulate when they’re told no.
I don’t even know how to explain to kids. I’m working with kids and even me, I’m like, “You guys are like little aliens I don’t even know how to communicate with you.” They are used to everything immediately. They didn’t have the dial-up when we had the old-school internet. They got Wi-Fi immediately. There’s no patience anymore.
For them, when they get to that point where they feel they have no control or they’re powerless in a situation, that’s activating their stress response. That’s creating all that anxiety that’s coming. That’s doing the whole sympathetic nervous system when they’re not in danger, they’re not in threat because somebody told you no.
I’m not the only one who sees this or feels that way. Let’s move into some of the work that you’re doing that interests you. I’m also well aware that we especially are in an exaggerated time between COVID, politics, war. I couldn’t imagine being 13, 24, or 5 years old right now. I feel a lot of compassion. Something else is going to have to happen. I don’t think everyone can walk around being able to get their feelings hurt or everything sets them off.
People need to learn how to self-regulate. Most people don’t know how to self-soothe. I didn’t know how to self-soothe until I went to grad school. I would be triggered by something and my fight-flight would kick in and I would respond, I would throw something, I’d scream, and I would get in somebody’s face. I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t know how to practice that pause. I didn’t know how to step back, take a breath, recognize what’s happening, and calm myself. I feel the kids don’t know that.
Nowadays, our brains are hardwired for saber-toothed tigers. That’s the threat. It’s like, “Quick, there’s a tiger coming after you.” You activate and then you’re able to cool down after. Kids are activated all the time. Bullying is the new saber-toothed tiger. Not having a friend like you on Instagram is the new saber-toothed tiger. They don’t know how to self-regulate when the sympathetic nervous kicks in.
Honestly, until we can teach kiddos DBT skills, how can you practice mindfulness when you’re in distress? How can you have distress tolerance when you’re in distress? Without those skills, it’s going to escalate and get worse and then it’s going to snowball into a bigger problem down the future when they’re adults.
What prompted you to say, “I’m going to take a look at this and get some new tools,” for your personal experience?
I realized this is not healthy for me. Me getting escalated fast was not healthy. I started to learn about attachment, my own mental health struggles, and burnout. I learned DBT skills. I’m like, “This is something I can learn to cool myself off.” I would get ballsy where I wouldn’t be afraid to get in someone’s face and be like, “You’re not going to talk to me like that.”
If I was mad, I didn’t want to hit somebody or hurt somebody, I’d throw something. I had to get that energy out of me. I realized, “This is going to hurt my relationship if I don’t regulate this.” The other thing is the younger generation thinks that’s normal. They think that it’s normal to have that behavior when in reality, it’s not. You have become dysregulated.
Why do you think you got to that place? Was it too much stress from work? Was it unresolved things? You have a blended family. Was there some stuff you needed to get off your chest? How did you get to the root of what was triggering you?
I started learning about trauma work. I started to learn about triggers and how your amygdala will activate to anything that it perceives as dangerous or resembles a past trauma. Something happened to me in my senior year of high school and I found that I was only getting like that if a male was getting loud and posturing. I felt not threatened but may be trapped. I couldn’t escape the situation.
I was finding that I was triggered in those moments. That’s when I would have that fight-flight-freeze response. At the moment, I was trying to fight because my amygdala perceived that I was in danger. The reality was, your amygdala thinks, “I’m not seeing it. You’re still in that situation.” I’m not. I was in a safe environment. It was activating. Learning that helped me.
I took a ton of courses. I have a Bachelor’s in psychology, a Master’s in clinical accounting, and a Doctorate in self-education. I dove into the work. I learned about my behaviors from studying and taking courses. It was never anything bad. It would even be an argument with my husband. Because he has a louder voice, that triggered me to when I was in high school.
You had to be mindful. I’d have to be present with what’s going on. I was like, “We’re having a disagreement. Whatever.” As it would escalate, I would get into my body. You need to be able to send that signal of safety to your amygdala so that you can say, “I am okay. I am in an environment where I’m safe. I’m grounded in my body.” You have to breathe your way through it and feel your way through. I couldn’t talk myself out of it. I had to fill it. That’s where people go wrong. Having an argument with your husband is not a big deal. Don’t freak out.
The reality is once you’re activated, once your amygdala has ignited the fight-flight-freeze, it shuts off all thinking. It shuts down the thinking brain. You can only close that loop if you feel your way through it. You have to be in your body and you have to send a signal of safety. It took tons and tons of practice but I finally was able to ride through the wave. If we got into an argument, I would ride through the wave of emotions, chill in my body, and know that it would end.
Going back with DBT. With DBT, you’re trying to get people to operate from a wise mind as opposed to logical or emotional. You want to marry the two. It’s about distress tolerance, mindfulness, interpersonal relationships, and emotional intelligence. There are all tons of different skills that you can learn about but it’s helping people respond in those moments from a wise mind.
I’m not an expert at all in inner child work or inner bonding like that but I’m slowly starting to dive into it. It goes to what you’re saying, we need to learn how to respond where we can say, “Maybe we need to take an impasse on this,” or, “This is the goal we’re trying to get to. What do we need to get to it instead of it being an argument?”
With inner bonding, they say that when you respond angrily or you project out mean that you’re a wounded child. The wounded piece of yourself is the one responding. I’m throwing a million things out there. You have to get to that core. When you respond poorly to somebody and there is no logical talking about this, like, “We’re not going there.” What is going on with the wounded part of yourself that you are not receptive to hearing what the other person has to say?
In the work you’re doing with the adults, maybe you could share if someone comes in and sees you, how do you get them to look at the whole system?
My day job is working with kiddos and inpatients. I used to work with adults in the male prison. I’m also doing anxiety coaching. I’m working with anxious people in the community. I always want to know the whole picture. I want to know diet, lifestyle, trauma, what is going on, what’s your stress looks like? Some people’s anxiety can be ignited by their thoughts. Your amygdala watches your thoughts like a scary movie. If your thoughts are scary, it’s going to activate your anxiety.
If I feel that someone is struggling with worrisome thoughts, catastrophic thinking, and things like that, we will do an approach that focuses on thoughts. My biggest thing is the body. I want people to focus on the sensations of anxiety. What’s going on? When you’re anxious, your amygdala takes the phone off the hook. Your thoughts can’t call in and say, “Calm down. Stop activating.” Our number one goal when you’re anxious is we have to get you into your body so you can send a signal of safety to your amygdala that can stand down.
One easy thing that I always tell people is if you’re feeling anxious, have a solo dance party. Put on music and dance. If you’re at a party and you can’t do anything, go in the bathroom and jog in place for a little bit. Get your heart rate up because your amygdala will think you’re escaping danger and it’ll close that loop for you.
When you say people who have catastrophic thoughts, what does that look like?
The world is ending, or if they don’t text you back, “He hates me.” “They don’t like me.” It’s these massive thoughts that are blown out of proportion that have nothing to do with what’s going on. It’s the worst-case scenario. It can also be if you get a letter in the mail from a college university and you instantly tell yourself, “I didn’t get accepted.” They’re not rational and logical thoughts they are having. There’s a lot of anticipatory going on.
What for you is the most exciting part of the work that you see that maybe across the board the most people are navigating?
I’m liking that I’m seeing more wellness. I’m seeing a lot more people do holistic approaches to their treatment. In the past, holistic used to be woo-woo. It was some weird, mystical thing. We still have so far to come. The biochemical med management is the current narrative. We have the highest disability rates with mental health, which tells you something. I do like that more psychiatrists that are trained to prescribe meds are learning, “Maybe this isn’t working. Let’s have a different approach to it.” They’re focusing on nutrition.
To me, that’s exciting because it’s showing like, “What we’re doing is not working. Let’s focus on the whole you as opposed to treating your symptom.” It’s easier to take a pill. It’s easier to take something because it is hard work. You have to retrain your brain. You have to rewire it for it to help you de-escalate or you could pop a Xanax and you’re marrying on your way instantly. It’s where we’re at.
You worked with male prisoners. What was that experience like?
It was crazy because nobody thought I was going to survive it. They’re like, “You are way too nice. You’re too sensitive.” I went into a maximum-security prison. I was in the same prison that death row is in. I was working in an acute mental health unit. I was with individuals who are deemed dangerously mentally ill or not competent to stand trial. They were in prison in the acute unit.
[bctt tweet=”People need to learn how to self-regulate. Most people don’t know how to self-soothe.”]
I worked with murderers. I worked with sex offenders. I worked with people who were in there for drug possession. It changed everything for me because I saw people heavily medicated for mental health. I saw a B-Team SWAT team go in, hold people down, inject them with meds. I opened my eyes like, “What we’re doing is not working. This is not helping these people.”
I also got an insight into why our incarceration rate is high and why they are all struggling with mental health symptoms. Where are we going wrong? The prisons are modern-day asylums. I’ve learned through that work that you have the ACE scores, you have trauma, adversity, neglect, abandonment, parents who use substances while their babies are in utero.
I’ve had multiple people tell me, “I used heroin with my mom when I was 8 years old because it was the only way I could get her to pay attention to me.” That sets him on this trajectory of life and then he ends up incarcerated. It’s like, “Pump the brakes. What we are doing is not working.” There are people that go to prison that want help. They do the work and they do get better but I have found that the majority of them are set in their ways that they don’t even want to do the work. They don’t care.
When I did make progress, one of the things I found was psychoeducation. I was saying, “You’re struggling with anxiety. You’re struggling with depression. It’s not a mental illness. Let’s unpack your story.” I would sit with them and I’d listen to them. There was so much trauma and so much neglect. I would help them make the connection, “You were a little kid and you were going through all of these things. You had to do what you had to do at that moment to cope with it. You got older, those coping skills no longer served you.”
Also, helping them realize that the symptoms that they’re presenting and that they’re struggling with now have everything to do with the mind-body dysregulation from events that happened in their childhood that they’ve never processed. That’s been the biggest thing for me. What is crazy is, I left the prisons because I always asked them, “What do you guys need that you didn’t get that you think would have been helpful?” They always said, “I wish somebody would have intervened when I was a kid.” I was like, “Cool. I’m going to go work with kids in an inpatient psych hospital.” It is such a trip because I am seeing the adult versions in a little body. All these kids are those adults that I worked with. It is heartbreaking because I’m like, “This is where it started.”
Do you ever get kids where you can see that they might be able to make it?
Where I’m at, these are kiddos who have been in the hospitals for mental health reasons and they’re not getting better. They’re not stable. We become a hold for them. They’re with us for 30 days. Our job is to get these kiddos stable. Based on our mental health model, the problem with that is stability looks like med management.
It’s very much a medication approach and that’s where I struggle because these kids have been raped and neglected. A 9-year-old getting raped multiple times. Parents walking away saying, “I don’t want him anymore.” You have a lot of kids whose parents use meth and heroin when they’re pregnant. We’re not addressing the substance use. We’re not getting to do a deep dive trauma treatment with them, which isn’t something you can do in 30 days. It takes a long time to unpack that.
With these kids, sadly, I don’t see that. I don’t feel that I am able to make that progress with them and that’s where I’m struggling with our mental health model. When this kid acts up and you give them medication, that doesn’t teach them anything. That didn’t give them any insight as to why they responded the way they responded. All you did was teach them, “When I am in pain, take medication and the pain will go away.”
Anna Lembke wrote a book called Dopamine Nation. I interviewed her for the Courageously.U Podcast. It’s an amazing book. Everybody should read it because she says that we are using any means possible to avoid pain. We’re using medication and substances essentially as a form or using it because we’re lacking in self-care. If that’s something you’re interested in, I would recommend reading that book.
When it comes to kids, it’s knowing your kid. You can tell if your kid is like, “Fine, I don’t need to talk.” You’re like, “Okay, I’m good leaving.” When you have that connection with your kid, you can tell when they’re in emotional distress and they might need a minute to calm down. They might be activated and at that moment, they can’t logically have a conversation with you. Give them that space. If they’re going to harm themselves, you don’t want to walk away but step away and come back later. That’s how I would approach that. I wish there was a one size fits all model where people can start.
If you can do anything for your mental health, it’s sleep. We are such a sleep-deprived nation. Go to bed. Practice sleep hygiene. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every night. Stop falling asleep with your phone next to you. Turn off the TV. Kick the dogs out of your bedroom. Stop drinking before you go to bed because that’s a myth. Everyone thinks alcohol helps you sleep but it results in poor sleep. If I can stress anything, it’s to focus on sleep.
The next thing I’d say is to move your body. I’m not saying you have to go to the gym for an hour but I’m saying go for a walk. Go out in nature and breathe fresh air. Ground yourself and nature itself will help reregulate your nervous system. How much caffeine are you drinking? Are you consuming a lot of alcohol?
When it comes to your diet, what are you eating? Nothing drives me more insane when someone’s taking a mental health medication but they’re eating processed food and fast food all day long. That’s pouring fuel on your fire. You’re masking that fire with a med. What are you consuming every day? Breathe. Are you breathing from your belly or your chest? Your chest, that’s going to activate your sympathetic nervous system.
Trauma work. Many people are like, “I never experienced trauma.” Trauma and stress are on a spectrum. They’re no different than stress. What makes it trauma is when a person is experiencing chronic stress and feel powerless, helpless, or lacking control. That is what defines trauma. Everybody who’s struggling with mental health could probably remember a time where like, “I was in a stressful situation where I felt powerless or I felt helpless or lacking control.” Go do that trauma work. Fix it, heal it, get to the root of it. Those are my biggest things. It’ll go from top to your toes and help you regulate a little bit.
What is it for you in your practice that you’re like, “There it is. I’ve got to keep working on that.” What shows up for you?
I’ve been working on myself for a long time, tough work. When it comes to treating my mental health, it comes down to my diet. I’m an emotional eater. I’ve learned that it is an addiction for me. Some people do heroin. I eat cookies. For me, that’s my struggle. There are moments where I catch myself craving and wanting to binge eat something and I have to check in with myself and be like, “I am in emotional distress right now. Am I sleep-deprived? Am I tired? Do I need to go take a nap? What is going on that I’m feeling these emotions?”
At the end of the day, it’s not the cookie. I don’t want the cookie. Something internally is off with me. There are still moments where I will let myself go on autopilot and I’ll go reach for that cookie and I have to remind myself, “There’s something going on. Check in with yourself. Ride that wave of emotion and you’ll get through it.” That’s probably one of the biggest ones that I’m still struggling with.
There are a couple of things I do. One of them is that I did some work with Dr. Russell Kennedy. He talks about your inner child. We established that mine is on my chest. When I hear that voice, I always liken it to my inner child. My insecurities are coming up and chattering at me. I’ll rub my chest and send myself some self-compassion.
Everyone either likes affirmation or they don’t. I will always tell myself, “I am the most confident person.” I have to keep telling myself that because a lot of my inner chatter is saying, “You’re not good enough. You don’t know enough. That doctor, that psychologist knows more than you.” Mine is more about my confidence level.
I have to remind myself, “You are confident. Ground yourself in your body.” Whatever it is that it’s saying to me, it’s like, “Look for the evidence that disproves it.” Where in your life is there evidence that disproves what you’re saying? Usually, you find that there’s no evidence to support what you’re telling yourself.
I’m an everyday girl. I know how to help people but I throw myself under the bus all the time when I’m struggling. I threw it out there. I used to have these big psychiatrists that had been on The goop Podcast or worked with Dr. Hyman. I would ask them, “Do you guys think I should go and get my Doctorate for people that take me seriously?” The majority of them told me no.
They’re like, “All you’re going to get is the diploma that says you’re now a doctor.” The people that I have asked have told me that going through the process of getting a Doctorate made them almost too educational. It made them where they spoke as a professional where they lost that piece of. I can be like, “I’m struggling today here’s where it’s at.” A psychiatrist may not come out and say that.
Is there any other habit or invitation you would offer to people to try it out?
A lot of people are so disconnected from themselves that they don’t even know what’s missing. I would invite you to get to know yourself again. Sit in silence. When’s the last time somebody sat in their living room, no sound on, devices turned off, and tuned in? It’s like, “What do I feel? What am I thinking? What am I missing? What do I need?” Lean into that.
Treating mental health, there are a million things you can do. Sleep, exercise, diet, those are some things. We are a society that is lonely. We crave connection. We’re designed for connection. With COVID, that hasn’t helped anything. Go talk to somebody. If there’s somebody in your COVID bubble that you can hug, go give them a bear hug. Feel that connection with people. Call a friend. A lot of us get this self-dialogue in our head that we’re a burden or nobody likes us or things like that. Most of the insecurities you have, the other person is probably having too. Ignore it and lean into it.
I would invite people to get back into their life. If there’s one thing the prison taught me, there are many people incarcerated that are spending their life locked behind a barbed-wire fence. At the end of the day, I realize there are more people outside of that fence who are not living their life. They are eternally in prison. I would invite you to look up from your device, wake up, and go live your life because this is not a dress rehearsal. This is the main event. You don’t get a redo on it.
When it comes to my relationship, I always tell people, “I am not a marriage counselor.” I will never pretend to know what I’m talking about with marriage and stuff. I have found with my marriage and with coworkers are I statements. The best thing you can do is an I statement, “I feel blank because…” When you say that, you’re owning your feelings and you’re not blaming them. It’s like, “I feel mad because the dishes weren’t put away,” or, “I feel like you don’t care about my feelings.” Things like that. Using I statements takes ownership of your feelings and it doesn’t project it onto that person.
Honestly, the thing that’s helped me the most is learning that people’s responses to me have nothing to do with me but rather everything to do with their wounded self. When we get activated or we feel like something is being blamed on us or whatever, we pull up our defense mechanisms and we project that back. They’re like, “No, you are not going to accuse me of doing this. This is all your fault.” We kitchen sink them. We pull in things that our husband did to us ten years ago because we need all the ammo to throw at them. It’s going in to have that conversation with the intention of like, “This isn’t an attack.” Instead of listening to respond, listen to listen.
Even your kids, if you’re struggling and you feel they’re not listening, because we’re not, we’re thinking, “How can I get them back better?” Say it back to them. Be like, “What did I say?” Have them reiterate it back. Go back and forth so that you know that you’re hearing it. All the time, we want to protect ourselves and defend ourselves for whatever reason and we’re not even hearing the person. We’re thinking of how we can blast them out of the water.
[bctt tweet=”There is no first-place winner anymore. We all get it. Kids don’t know how to lose.”]
What about as a step-parent? Any tricks that you came into it with now that you’re a few years in that you did it one way but now you do it another? The kids are getting older so they’re different dynamics. How does that work?
I never tried to replace their mother. I never tried to make it our family and she wasn’t part of it. The biggest for me is I grew up in a blended family and all I’ve ever wanted my whole life was a nuclear family. I don’t have kids on my own yet. I try to create this family. When we were in a home, we were this family but we have a mom. It’s not a good relationship. I would struggle because there would be waves on the outside that were causing disturbances within my little family I was trying to create.
For me, I had to step back and recognize, “There are all these families. The kids have their families with their mom. I have my little family here. My husband and his kids have a little thing. I and the kids have a little thing.” Instead of trying to create this one family, I had to realize we all have unique relationships. Once I grasped that, life got a million times easier.
Being a stepmother is probably one of the hardest roles I’ve ever played in my life but even being in a blended family. For me, one of my biggest insecurities is, “Do they think their mom is cooler? Do they have more fun at their mom’s house? Is life better over there? Are we not cool? Do they not want to be here?” It’s this vicious cycle and it’s like, “Pump the brakes. We are our own unique coolness. The kids may not think we’re cool now but maybe one day, they will.” Vice versa. It’s not like the movies.
First of all, does anything keep you up at night?
Yes. One of the biggest things I’ve noticed and it’s sad is I have been waking up in the middle of the night thinking about the patients I’m working with. I’m struggling because I don’t like our mental health model. I’m not saying that because I woke up at 2:00 AM thinking, “We are treating a behavior with med and it is not helping.” I genuinely want to help these kids. I don’t want them to be incarcerated. I don’t want them to go try to kill themselves. I wouldn’t even say it’s a hero complex. I genuinely want to help these people because these kids become our adults and they’re all struggling.
Honestly, it’s being a voice. I get so much hate and pushback when I talk about medication because it’s easier to believe something’s wrong with us and some things either happened to us or we’re playing a part in this. People hold the belief tightly that their symptoms are a result of a chemical imbalance. Honestly, the best thing you can do is self-educate yourself. Read books. There are many amazing resources out there.
There’s a website called Mad in America. It is hands down one of the best websites. It’s creating a conversation about how we can approach mental health but also saying this system we have is killing people and making people sick. Reading books, self-educating, being a voice, and informing yourself is probably the best thing you can do.
At the end of the day, the way I view it, the only way we’re going to have massive change is if we take on Big Pharma. If you look at the opioid crisis that we’re in, you see how well that works because there’s so much money behind it. A little tangent, in America, they play commercials for mental health medications where they don’t do that in other countries. It’s coming into our homes. Informing yourself is honestly the best thing you can do. It’s going to feel uncomfortable at first because you’re challenging the belief system that you have, the narrative that you have.
Why I get mad or defensive is when people come at me and they’re like, “You’re a terrible therapist for saying this. You’re perpetuating the stigma.” I look at it as, “I’m telling you that you have agency over your life. You’re not broken. You don’t have to live like this. I’m trying to give you your power back so that you can heal.”
I do want to do a disclaimer that I am not anti-mental health medication. I’m anti-over-prescribing of mental health medications. There’s a time and a place and only you will know when that time and place is necessary. There is no research to support the long-term use of mental health medications. All the studies are done on short-term usage. What’s happening is these doctors are prescribing them for the long term. They’re having side effects from that and then they’re being prescribed meds for the side effects.
I wanted to throw that out there because I too used to be prescribed Lexapro. I was prescribed Wellbutrin. I used to take Xanax. I got to the point where I was abusing Xanax. That’s what drives so much of this passion. I am not a crappy therapist for caring. I care more about you than you probably care about yourself because I’m willing to put myself on the chopping block to advocate for you.
Courageously.U, do you release every week?
What day of the week do you release?
I have the Courageously.U podcast on Tuesdays. That is more a platform where I invite people that inspire me, that are my mentors, that I feel are making a positive impact in the mental health space. I invite them on to talk. I started this thing called Closet Conversations. It’s still through the podcast. I get on these tangents where I get to talking and I’m feeling things. I’m like, “I’m going to create Closet Conversations because I record in my closet.” I get on my soapbox for a minute. They’re usually short and then I eventually get off.
If you don’t have conviction, you won’t be able to put the stone up the hill. By the way, you have a lot of incredible talent on your podcast. I encourage people to go back and even see the older episodes. You have a lot of talented people. Besides Courageously.U, will you direct them to any other place to find you?
I’m the most active on Instagram. You can find me, @Courageously.U. I do anxiety coaching. I work full time but I’m doing anxiety coaching on the side. Those are pretty much the three ways to get in touch with me.
You do have a four-week course if people are looking for something like that. I appreciate your time. I deeply appreciate part of your mission because we need a lot of people in agreement about this so that we can take care of ourselves and heal not mask it. I appreciate that.
I appreciate that you gave me the platform to share.
Thanks so much for reading. If you’d like, rate, subscribe and leave us a review. All of my music was graciously done by Frank Zummo and Tom Thacker. If you want to see some of the behind-the-scenes action, follow me,@GabbyReece. Remember, don’t miss new episodes every Monday.
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About Tara Bixby
Tara Bixby an everyday girl who’s married to an awesome fella she met in 6th grade. No, they aren’t that sweet love story that lasted through all the rocky years of adolescence, but they are the best of buds. She’s also a stepmomma to two little nuggets, a dog mom, and a therapist.
She’s from good ole Idaho, and is absolutely obsessed with her state. She lives for the mountains, huckleberry picking is her fav summer past time, and her happy place is anywhere where her bum is planted next to a creek. Country music (old school, not new school) is her jam, but classic rock is a very close second. Gone With the Wind is her favorite movie, pizza is life, and she loves her coffee served black.