Take Control of Mental Health
On this episode, I had a chat with Marin McCue, an instructor and motivator. We had an insightful conversation about how to take control of mental health.
About Our Guest - Marin McCue, Mind-Body-Life-Coach
Marin has spent many years as a Yoga teacher, spin/cycle motivator, bootcamp, and climb class leader. She is also the author of Be The Change, wellness retreat facilitator, one-on-one mind-body-life coach, keynote speaker, and a Mental Health Strength Training consultant for businesses here in Calgary.
From an early age, while pursuing and achieving the goal of playing basketball in the NCAA, Marin struggled with depression, self-harm, an eating disorder, and crippling anxiety. She completed a Bachelor's degree with a focus on Psychology and Philosophy, and now teaches people how to heal themselves and optimize their mental health. It has become her mission to normalize mental health struggles, inspire others to be vulnerable and open, and utilize the power of growing and healing together.
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Important Discussion Points
Take Control of Mental Health | Question 1 - What does mental health mean to you?
It is, yeah. Well, first of all, a way of looking at is it's similar to physical health. We can have really poor physical health. We can have really strong physical health. And it goes the same for mental health. One of the things that I like to keep in mind as well is that mental health is different than mental illness. While there's correlation and crossover, it's still separate.
So, I saw this a while ago of, you know, if you think of like a plus sign or quadrants, mental health being, let's say it's on the middle and then mental illness being the vertical line. So, you could have really poor mental health and no mental illness. You could have really poor mental health and really terrible mental illness. And, on the other end, you get a really strong mental health and no mental illness or strong mental health and have a mental illness.
So, of course, it's connected, but it's different. So, the mental health is really to me, when it comes down to it, it's about your ability to regulate yourself to feel like you have a sense of control in a world where there's lots of uncertainty and lack of control and a lot of different things. But if you are self-aware and nourished and balanced and are able to notice when, you know, your energy dips low or, you know, your posture shifts or your breath changes or your heart rate increases or decreases. To really be aware of these different things and then to recognize, okay, and now I can do something about it, bring myself back into a state of balance or presence. So, that would be someone with really strong mental health.
Strong mental health doesn't mean you're not gonna struggle, right? Or be triggered. I'm triggered all the time. But, because my mental health is so strong now, I love being triggered. I can't say that all the time, there are times and still, it's like, really more of a struggle than others. But in general, like, I really enjoy when emotions come to the surface or when I'm triggered because it means, great, now I can actually move through this and release potentially a cycle that I've been in for a long time so that I can have more space and presence and mindfulness throughout my day.
Take Control of Mental Health | Question 2 - You use words like trigger points and being aware. What are the practices that a person can do to become more aware and to know when those trigger points are coming?
Yeah. So, one of the first things that I recommend for people is learning the practice of meditation. Now, meditation itself is quite an advanced practice. You can practice meditation and then there's also a meditative state. So, practicing meditation is not the same thing as meditating.
So, first it starts with mindfulness.
So, by doing this practice every single morning, and I'll get into some of the details of what that can look like, but basically, you're creating a new baseline. If you can find that sense of calm and connectedness and openness and pleasure and joy, contentment, gratitude, these really high-quality emotions. If you can tap into those in the morning, then you're more likely to notice throughout the day when something takes you off. So, that's how it starts to become a little easier.
For me, in my history, when I was really, really unwell, I had so many different voices going off in my head and I didn't really have a baseline, in general. I think my baseline was like really, really low, if it was anything. So, it was about trying to find a sense of balance first, kind of relearn which voice to listen to and what to feed and what to neither feed nor fight. When to avoid what's going on and when to actually really dive in and be with it and that was the process for me to kind of find what intuition actually is and who I truly am.
Take Control of Mental Health | Question 3 - For somebody that wants to get into the act or the practice of meditation, what is a practical first step? It sounds like 30 seconds would suffice.
So, one of the things to understand is the difference between mindfulness and meditation. So, mindfulness is an effortful practice and that's really what we're doing in the beginning when we sit down to meditate. We're actually just practicing mindfulness. And, mindfulness is one-pointed focus on something.
So, you could be mindfully walking and just paying attention to your feet. Or, you could be engaging your senses and mindfully, one at a time, what can I hear, what can I smell, what can I taste? You can be mindful with your food, which I suggest everyone does.
Another tangent I can go on is this issue that so many of us have with the way food is absorbed or digested or not being absorbed or digested. And, part of it is because this chronic stress response that so many of us are living in. And, if you sit down to eat and you're not actually really present with your food and smell your food and feel your breath and calm your system down, you're not producing the stomach acid you need to digest. Your body is still looking for danger and so absorbing and digesting food is not a priority. So, understanding this chronic stress, like this is why meditation is so vital for us right now because we're overloaded with stimulation. And, to even just take 30 seconds to be mindful of your breath, right away your body is getting the signal, okay, I'm clearly not in danger because I wouldn't close my eyes and pay attention to my breath.
That's not something I would do if I were in danger.
So, the 30 seconds in the morning to close your eyes and just focus on your breath is all you need to do to start.
Take Control of Mental Health | Question 4 - Do you think our phones have anything to do with our lack of mindfulness, whether we're just sitting on our couch trying to take note of our breath or outside when we're in nature?
Yeah it's definitely contributing to the issue. I don't think it's the problem, but it's definitely taking us away from the solution. The subconscious wanting instant gratification, our phone is a constant instant gratification, right. You feel a little bit uncomfortable, a little bit bored whatever it is going on, you know, that you can pick up your phone and get these bursts of happy chemicals immediately because everything's at your fingertips.
The problem is that, when we spend too much time on our phone, we start disconnecting from reality and we start seeing, you know, people's lives played out through these images or videos. And, when we're not really, really balanced and in tune with ourselves, it's really easy to create stories about what other people have that we don't have. It's one of the survival instincts that can really go awry.
There's nothing wrong with judging and comparing and knowing where you are in terms of status with the people around you, there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. But if you get fixated on it and you think that's everything or you make it mean something more than it actually is, or you feed it intentionally, it becomes an issue.
Take Control of Mental Health | Question 5 - Historically, mental health has been a taboo subject. But nowadays, people are very open about it. What do you think led to that? Why are we so open today as opposed to 10 years ago?
That’s a good question. I can only really speak for my own experience. Yeah so, I had a lot of shame around my mental health struggles growing up and I didn't have people in my life leading by example and sharing openly about what they're struggling with and seeing it from a very powerful place. My experience with it was that, the people that are struggling, it's very obvious that they're struggling. And, the people that are in their suits and, doing all the things they love to do, there's a lot of joy and it doesn't look like they're struggling whatsoever.
So, it created this very dualistic line of mental health means weakness and sadness and lack and everything else is the good stuff. And through my own experience of really, really struggling while, from the outside looking in, it looked like I was doing really well. I was an elite athlete, I'd gotten a full-ride scholarship to play basketball at San Diego State. I'm sure a lot of other people thought I was attractive or got attention, but that's not how I felt and that's not the way I saw things. And so, things just got worse and worse and worse for me because I wanted people to think and see me in a certain way. And that wasn't what was real for me.
I would come home and binge for a couple hours and then just feel disgusting and destroyed and ashamed. And then, the next day go to the gym and workout for six hours and not eat anything until the evening and then do it again. And, then depression and self-harm really brought in a lot of shame and darkness into my life as well. And then, instant gratification, seeking anything that made me feel good right now to avoid this darkness that I felt like was starting to take over. And, it was through several breakdowns and then finally opening up to some very choice people in my life that I felt safe with. And when I started opening up about what I was going through, I felt a healing connection. Because, these people that I was able to talk to would either say “me too” or “I used to go through something like that” or “someone really close to me is going through something like that” and I started to recognize, through these intimate conversations, this is not a Marin problem.
This is a human problem.
And it took me out of the focal point of what I was going through and I recognized that, if this is something that I can overcome, it also can become a superpower. This is something so many people are struggling with and I really would love to be able to help other people navigate this and maybe in a more efficient and healthy way than I went through it. And so, after saying that, seeing people that are elite athletes coming up and talking about their mental health struggles. People that traditionally we thought like, oh, they have it all. And then we get to see this other side of them. And I think people are now recognizing this is something that is affecting everyone and it doesn't matter how beautiful your life is.
It's about what's going on inside, and that's the harder stuff to see. But people are just starting to open up more and more about it.
Take Control of Mental Health | Question 6 - Your passion is to help others find their optimized mental state. How can they do that?
Yeah, so, learn about the vagus nerve. So this, one of the things I really love doing is taking a lot of the woo-woo from yoga or philosophy or anything and really actually bringing it back to physiology. So, we hear so often of talking about the breath, like just breathe and be in your body and your body's so wise and these things that, yeah it feels good and I like that, but what does that actually mean and how do I practice that?
So, learning about the vagus nerve has changed the way that I actually perceived my breath.
And so, the vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body. It starts at the base of your skull and it has two main branches and then many, many peripheral branches that reach out throughout the major organs that it goes through. So, from the back of the skull, it first reaches up with peripheral branches to the ears and to the occipital lobe, so it affects your eyes and your ability to hear. It then moves down the two main branches through the outside of your throat. And then through your heart and lungs, diaphragm, through your stomach, through the small intestines and lands in your colon.
So, the vagus nerve is one of the main components of the parasympathetic nervous system. So, throughout our day, as we're having these little triggers or stress responses or maybe all day in chronic stress, the vagus nerve is getting signals as to whether you're safe or you're not and then it sends those signals throughout the rest of the body. So, the simple act of taking a deep belly breath, that's sending a signal. The vagus nerve picks up on that and it recognizes you're safe and then it sends that signal to all the major organs.
One breath, that's all it takes. So if you know that you're in a stress response, call out your thoughts because you're only gonna be able to think and do what you've done before. And for those of us who have really struggled with mental health or are in the grips of it right now, you need to call out your thoughts all the time and really just be with your breath and come back into the moment as much as possible. And, don't try to problem-solve or even connect with people in a coherent manner until you've really brought yourself into that calm state.