Sam’s Personal Journey
Since I was a teenager I always wanted to be a psychologist. I remember having dreams when I was 12 years old and looking in Freud dream analysis books and being mystified by the subconscious mind. I loved listening to my friends share their experiences and I was always interested in the ‘real’ stuff. I also knew for me at a young age that movement was an important way for me to release stress and tension. When I was feeling stressed or angry I would turn to dancing, walking, swimming or sport and I would generally feel a lot better afterwards.
When I was 18 I went away to study psychology and nutrition at the University of Canberra but as much as I loved my university degree and experience of living on campus I knew I would be much happier living back by the sea, which had always been a special place to me. I completed the remainder of my postgraduate study in Wollongong.
When I first started out my postgraduate degree I was such a perfectionist! I would constantly worry about not doing well, what people thought of me, and feeling that I was constantly about to fail, despite always doing well. These stories drove my behaviour until I found mindfulness. As part of the doctoral degree at University of Wollongong we were privileged enough to be taught Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) a key component of which is mindfulness.
At first when I was learning about this it was just another tool I was learning, however as I went through that year mindfulness become another key to my well-being. It help me to step back from these thoughts tied to perfectionism and failure, to take perspective and help me to remain calm and clear during times when I would become anxious. The more I learn about mindfulness the more I knew that this for me was going to be a foundation in how I worked with others.
I dove deep into learning about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and this is still a core way I work with individuals today. I was lucky enough for my PhD to be focused in this area of values and goal setting so I could immerse myself in this not only for my professional interests but also my personal interests. I knew when I came across this therapy that it felt authentic to me as it help me through difficult times. I no longer felt pushed around by my perfectionism or my fear of not being good enough and instead I could notice these stories and make a conscious choice to act in line with what was most important to me.
Across the time of my professional working career I worked in a variety of settings – drug and alcohol rehabilitation, private practice, the public health sector, corporate and what I learned from working with this broad range of people is that all humans seem to have difficulties, but more importantly we all have strengths. The awareness of the strength of the human spirit was clear to me and just how having a personal meaning can help us to change even the most difficult behaviours.
My profession in psychology had taken off and I loved my work but around 2012, and underlying unwell feeling I had been experiencing for several years on and off become worse. I started to having panic attacks that I’ve never experienced before, I was feeling down and flat a lot and was noticing symptoms of depression. Yet no matter how much did in terms of therapy, mindfulness, exercise etc I could not get alleviation in the long term. This was when my understanding of psychology really broadened and I became more interested in an integrated approach to well-being. Looking at the impact of lifestyle factors such as how nutrition and movement can affect our overall health. Lucky for me I started working with amazing integrative doctors to help me to understand and treat the underlying causes for my mental health at that time. Experiencing for myself just how much physical difficulties cause psychological issues has really influence the way I work today. In particular the importance of knowing ourselves such as our own personal triggers for poor psychological and physical health but also our own remedies.
Another important finding for me was how I had shifted from a very judgemental critical mind that I had in my early adult hood to one now of self compassion and acceptance and being able to treat my body and mind with care and nurturing. I think this is a key to taking care of ourselves in a lasting way. Plus, I know from my own personal experience and for those I work with we seem to be terrible at being able to be kind and compassionate towards ourselves. There is a lot of learning that needs to take place to help shift this inbuilt tendency to beat ourselves up.
The key to my philosophy is helping people to address the key areas of wellbeing – psychological skills, nutrition and movement. Helping people to develop a self-compassionate stance and to identify personal meaning that makes caring and nurturing ourselves worthwhile. When we start seeing self care as the foundation to our success in all other life domains like family, career etc we can create an intrinsic motivation for looking after our health.