is the neuroscience student destigmatizing mental health and using mindful practices and her knowledge of the nervous system to heal from past trauma and pass on her advice to her readers. not only contains aesthetically beautiful imagery but is a place where she shares her journey with her mental health, outlining how yoga and mindfulness have facilitated her recovery and she is kindly imparting some of her wisdom on us today.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
Heidi Williams: I am 32 years old. I'm a mom to two kids and about 43 house plants. I study neuroscience and teach people how to use flow states and states of pleasure to reverse fear associations created during trauma. I have a deep love affair with the aesthetic experience of art in all forms. Pickleball, hiking and climbing are my favourite sweat activities at the moment.
Talk to me about your journey with your mental health? How did you get to where you are today?
HW: About 9 years ago, I was suffering from suicidal PTSD and it ended one day in a 2-hour peak experience. I walked out of that experience and never responded to my triggers again. My entire belief system surrounding mental health was shattered that day and I started a somewhat obsessive journey trying to answer two questions: 1. What just happened? and 2. Was it re-creatable?
That journey eventually brought me to the language of neuroscience to explain the mechanism by which it was possible to heal from trauma in such a short period of time. Now, 9 years later, I am still using these methods I learned throughout this journey not only to heal from old wounds, but to create my dream life, and teach others how to do the same.
What everyday practices have you adopted that have benefitted your mental wellbeing?
HW: My regular practices include fun exercise and slow stretching, meditation, appreciation lists, connecting with people I adore, creating and enjoying various art forms, listening to empowering talks and messages.
What does mindfulness mean to you and why do you think it has become an area of interest lately?
HW: Mindfulness is the ability to become aware of the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing without reacting immediately. At the core of mindful practice is a regulated nervous system. I think there are 3 reasons why mindfulness is becoming popular:
1. It's effective. I remember the first time I purposefully regulated my nervous system using various mindful practices in the middle of a stressful event and the impact on the results of that scenario, were shocking- I was hooked. I had never experienced stress dissolving into confidence and control so quickly. Once you've experienced the empowerment of mindfulness, you just can't go back.
2. It's neutral. Mindfulness practices are nothing new. They've been a core practice in spiritual path for ages. But the term "mindfulness" is stripped of dogma and doctrine that may have created a barrier for some. It's safe for anyone regardless of their social constructs to practice.
3. Mass and social media. With the ability to share ideas and have them spread around the world to reach millions of people within just a few hours, it's no surprise that mindfulness and other practices that enhance well-being are gaining popularity.
What are some of the benefits of practising mindfulness?
HW: Put simply, stress optimizes your brain and body for short-term survival. It narrows focus, increases reactivity, and activates automatic processes to handle threat which narrows your options down to fight, flee, freeze or fawn. All of these things are great for short-term threats, but not great for handling situations that require reasoning, empathy and creative solutions. Mindfulness can put a break on your threat responses, altering your biology and restoring long-term thriving modes. It broadens your vision both physically and mentally. You can see options that weren't apparent before. You can easily say no to a short-term gain in favour of a long-term gain. You have access to optimistic thinking, creative solutions and the ability to consider someone else's well-being. Overall, mindfulness is an instant performance enhancer on every level.
Why do you think there is stigma surrounding mental health and how can we break the discrimination towards it?
HW: For a long time Mental illness and disorder was seen as weakness. People who weren't suffering couldn't relate to the inability to get out of bed and there wasn't a way to see the cause so it was passed off as laziness. This is why technology such as pet scans and MRI's are so impactful. They've given us to ability to peek inside the brain and start to piece together the story of mental illness and health.
What effect has exercise had on your mental health and wellbeing?
HW: Exercise is paramount to mental well-being. BUT there are 2 main factors that must be present in order to fully leverage exercise.
1. Autonomy. Self-chosen exercise is FAR more effective than forced exercise for neuroplasticity and other biological benefits. If you are forcing yourself to move, exercise can have a further disempowering effect and you'll wind up back on the couch tired, sore, and may avoid moving your body again for a while. Instead, if you follow your instincts and listen to what YOUR body is asking for, you'll find yourself feeling lifted, and wanting to engage again the next day because it felt so good. This brings us to the next one...
2. Challenge to skills ratio. This is a concept in flow state theory. The idea is that you get into flow when the challenge you are engaging with is only slightly above your current skill level. If it's too far above your skillset, you'll activate a stress response. If it's too far below, you won’t feel engaged or interested enough to continue. This means for people who have been sedentary- going to the gym for the first time and exercising for an hour is likely too much. Start with something that makes you feel like "oh I can do that!" This may only be 5 minutes on the first day. That’s ok. It only takes 2 minutes to get some of the biological effects of exercise started. Stop when you are still feeling good, let your body recover, and you'll be thrilled to see that the next day not only are you excited to exercise again, but you're also capable of a little bit more. Follow your challenge to skill ratio day in and day out and within a month, you'll be further along your journey than you ever would have gotten in 30 days following someone else's advice.
What drew you to yoga?
HW: It was sometime in the summer of 2013. I was in the thick of PTSD and for the first time had become dangerous to my baby. I crossed a line I never thought was possible. I hated myself for it and suicidal thoughts that had percolated over the last couple weeks turned into the only option. I had decided to end it. Before I could follow through my husband at the time came home early. One thing led to another and I ended up in a yoga class the next day. By the end of that hour I felt something that I hadn't in the previous 9 months of PTSD. I felt "Heidi" inside me. I felt alive and calm and blissful. Yoga became my refuge that day and I have continued the practice in one form or another ever since.
How does yoga facilitate the process of healing?
HW: Yoga engages breathwork, body movement and meditation. It allows you to fully activate, regulate and re-wire your nervous system in a short period. A healthy nervous system is imperative for your body and mind to operate at any level. This is why you'll hear endless benefits of yoga, because it's affecting change at the root cause of most disorder and deregulation in the body and mind- the nervous system.
How has your relationship with your body changed over your journey?
HW: I trust my body now. I move with it, not against it. I listen when it says stop, or re-arrange, or try this. I nourish it and pay attention to the subtle communication its always giving. I have fun with it. I feel like we're a team- my body and I and we're supporting each other with our desires and goals.
Life can often get overwhelming at times. How do you stay grounded and still find ways to connect with the earth?
HW: I rely on my daily practices to offer moments of checking in and regulating my nervous system. One of my priorities is to get outside no matter the weather and hike. Nature is like a drug in the sense that it has the power to dominate your system for a bit. It's far easier to allow your mind to take a break from the stressful thoughts when everything surrounding you- the sun, the fresh air, the scenery, the sounds are all nervous systems soothers.
What are your thoughts on the relationship between social media and mental health? Can this be a healthy relationship?HW: Social media- like anything is neither good nor bad. It's an amplifier. That's its purpose- to spread messages. For someone with little self-awareness and no ability to regulate their own emotions and nervous systems, it's a train wreck. For someone with a solid sense of self and a regulated nervous system, it can be a powerful tool to gather inspiration and create beautiful things in the world.
How can we use social media to open a dialogue on mental health?
HW: I have found that people relate to real, vulnerable and empowering messages. The more we do our own inner work, the more we are able to light the path for others as well.
Do you have any advice for someone struggling with their mental health or body image?
HW: 1. Identify things that bring you joy and get you into flow, make them priorities- not luxuries
2. Learn how to regulate your nervous system.
3. Trust yourself
If you could give your past self some advice, what would it be?
Same as above.
Anything to say to our readers?
Thanks for this opportunity to share!