Authority Magazine: Sarah Weaver Talks Mental Wellness

Sarah Weaver: 5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness

Asa part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Weaver.

Sarah Weaver is a Massage Therapist and Acupuncturist at Northwestern Health Sciences University. She has over 20 years of experience in the field and a true passion for her work.

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?

During undergrad, I studied creative writing and theater both from a literary and technical focus. At one point, I contemplated pursuing a career as a stage manager, but along the way, I developed an interest in activities that promoted body awareness. That’s why in my 20s, I went to massage therapy school and have now been practicing for 29 years. My interest in people’s stories is a perfect fit for the health care profession, and my gift for language is an asset in helping people create better relationships with their body and move forward on their health care journey. During my time as a massage therapist, many of my client struggled with migraines and I saw that Chinese Medicine was helping them in ways I couldn’t. That’s when I wanted to become a Chinese Medicine Provider. My goal is to support clients through a diagnostic framework that helps understand different health states that don’t necessarily fit into the Western medical paradigm. In complementary and integrative healthcare (CIH), we often see clients who have not been able to receive help from mainstream medicine because their problem may be subclinical, meaning there is no label for their problem. Chinese Medicine can always describe the problem whether it’s mild or if it needs management. In the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) framework there is always help to offer.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Due to doctor-patient confidentiality, I can’t share some of the most interesting stories. However, through my career as a both a massage therapist and TCM provider, I have helped identify serious health problems for clients at early stages, helped them to pursue proper diagnostic screening and then supported them through very difficult treatments. That is what I love about CIH. We, as providers, proactively address health care issues, rather than managing diseases. One of the best things about being a massage therapist and a TCM provider is having long term relationships with clients and having the skills to help people be resilient through difficult times. My work truly helps people get through difficult times like cancer treatments or other serious health conditions without feeling like they are at war with their bodies. Massage therapy and TCM often focus on helping clients appreciate what their body accomplishes, develop more compassion for themselves, and become better at listening to their body.

One of the most entertaining stories from my experience is a client brought a raccoon stew for me as a thank you for caring gift. The stew was great, although I am not sure I am a fan of raccoon. This gesture shows the deep and meaningful connections massage therapists and TCM providers make with their clients, which ultimately helps them on their health care journey.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

It takes time and practice to become confident with fire cupping, a common technique in TCM. I describe it as reverse massage. It involves inducing a vacuum inside a spherical glass jar with a cotton ball soaked in alcohol, and then it is placed on the patient’s skin where you want a suction effect. To get sufficient suction, a lot of alcohol needs to be soaked into a couple cotton balls. It takes time to get used to carrying this ball of flame around without worrying that you are going to set your patient on fire. Often, students don’t use enough alcohol, and the flame goes out. As a student completing my internship, I was working on using enough alcohol and found that when I had all the cups placed on a patient one day, I couldn’t figure out how to put the flame out. So, I was standing there trying to blow it out like a birthday candle which doesn’t work with all that alcohol. By running it under the faucet, I finally figured it out. It was a great lesson in humility, and I advise interns and future massage therapists to understand that with time and practice, you can reach your goal.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am particularly grateful for the friendship and mentoring of a fellow CranioSacral therapist who was my classmate in massage school and who introduced me to CranioSacral therapy (CST). I always credit her for getting me through two master’s degrees. The sessions we had have been some of the most profound experiences in my life. It became a part of my self-care journey and learning journey. This is in part because CST connects us the wider world and community and can also support people working through trauma. The experiences can be very transformative for clients.

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

Take your own advice. We regularly encourage clients to keep a regular schedule and get enough sleep; it’s beneficial to put that into practice in your own life. Another piece of advice is to keep in touch with why you are in health care. Don’t let outside forces define what is important to you, whether that is an employer or a feature of the market. Patients really appreciate an authentic provider and that comes from understanding your own motivations and honoring your own values. This can help you find the patient base that is right for you.

Don’t forget to make time for fun and advance your education and interests including those outside of work. Sometimes creativity outside of your career can feed your work. For example, I am really interested in dog training and animal behavior. Many aspects of animal behavior give me insights that I can apply to my work with people.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

At Northwestern Health Sciences University, I work in a practice clinic with providers of different professions; this is my preferred work environment because I can collaborate with co-workers. Working together is critical to making the workplace supportive and welcoming. When we have a new colleague, I always reach out to make the start of their work with us go well. If people get left alone too much — which can happen in a clinic environment — they can fall through the cracks and not feel supported. Check on colleagues and see how they are doing. Ask if you can do anything to improve their workday. Reach out and tell people how much you appreciate their contributions. These connections matter and create a positive work culture.

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.

  • Establish a routine: Put some predictability back into your life. This provides sense of control over your day-to-day life. A routine can also boost moods by getting the little things done such as good sleep hygiene, getting out of your pajamas, brushing your teeth and going for a walk. Having a dog helps me set and keep a routine. Every morning I must take them outside for the bathroom and to get exercise in order for them to stay happy and healthy.
  • Focus on what you eat and drink: It’s important to limit sugar, refined foods, caffeine and alcohol intake. Sugar may interfere with immune system functions and caffeine causes jitters throughout the day and can lead to disrupted sleep. Plan on eating well-balanced meals and drinking enough water to keep your body hydrated and ready for the day. I regularly speak with people with insomnia about evening snacking and how that can disrupt sleep. I try to learn from my own experiences and use those to help others.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene: Getting enough sleep (but not too much!) helps the body recover and feel refreshed. Focus on going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. This helps regulate your body and increase moods. Depending on work schedules, this can be challenging for a lot of people. For example, people in education and health care may begin their day very early after working a late night. If possible, I recommend negotiating for a better schedule or modifying what you can control.
  • Try a self-massage: People with anxiety often experience headaches and increase tension due to jaw clenching and teeth grinding when asleep. Massages calm the nervous system and alleviates stress and anxiety. In small circles, gently rub tight muscles along the jaw, at the temples and above the ears to relieve tension. Do this right before bed to help settle the mind and body and to support good sleep hygiene.
  • Pause. No really, hit pause and be grateful for one thing every day: Find that one thing, say it out loud, write it down and take a moment to appreciate it. Gratitude is a way of regaining some perspective in the midst of difficulty without minimizing the presence of struggles. It is an opportunity to reframe the bad in relation to the good. We can get tunnel vision very easily and only see the bad things everywhere and many things in our culture magnify this. Mentally, when we get to a place of gratitude, we can defeat fear and what we focus on expands. Choose gratitude.
How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?

With all the disruption in the lives of children and youth, it is really important they focus on wellness. Keeping a regular schedule and routine is critical for this age group, but it is difficult for several reasons. First, it is a time when young people have more agency to define the structure in their days. Parents may not be enforcing a bedtime any longer, but choosing to have a regular bedtime is important for teenagers. Some of the recommendations for adults are even more vital for youth. This can be difficult because there are so many distractions and magnets for our attention. Taking a break from the internet, social media, and screens for an hour before bed and doing something quiet, like reading a book, making some art, or listening to quiet music is a healthy bedtime habit. Also, during teenage years young people are sorting out complicated things about their relationships with peers, which can heavily affect mental health. Having a trusted adult to talk to is important. Seek out a mentor.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

During my teens and twenties, Howards End by E.M Forster had a significant impact on my life. One of the themes is about what connects human beings to each other and how those were changing right before World War One. Forster identifies that for much of history people felt connected to each other by living in the same place. Land and houses connected many generations of people together and created feelings of community. Forster rightly saw this pattern of living was disrupted by the speed of modern life and was eroding human relationships. An important mantra in the novel is “only connect.” To this day, this idea is fundamental in my life. Having heartfelt, honest connections between people is one of the most valuable things in life and that we have to seek out ways to glue ourselves together. I encourage my clients to make meaningful connections to deepen relations and support their wellness journey

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. 🙂

As a health care provider, I am often confronted with how a patient’s life story impacts their health. Problems like housing and food insecurity can dramatically affect health and diminish overall wellness. At NWHSU, we are developing a vision of what true integrative care can be by addressing the whole person. For example, if basic needs are not met like having a safe home and enough food, then we can’t improve their health with just treatment. In TCM addressing basic needs is the initial approach, but so much more is needed. My movement would be to work towards ending homelessness and food insecurity. Oftentimes, this impacts families with children and elders. This preventative approach would have enormous impact on community health.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

While it’s not a quote, I often say that soup is one of humanity’s best inventions. Partly because soup is one of the most nutritious, comforting foods humans make for each other. Just like the story of my client bringing a stew, this is an expression of love and connection. As a massage therapist, I am forever grateful for these meaningful connections with clients.

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

Can connect with me on LinkedIn, and follow NWHSU on Twitter and Facebook.

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