Heather Shannon: Bridging the Gap Between Nutrition and Mental Health
Traditional therapy is often associated with looking to the past to find an explanation for a behavior, emotion or thought process. The concept of coaching differs in that clients are encouraged to take action in the present and strive for a healthier future, as opposed to dwelling on the past.
Heather Shannon, a 2011 graduate of the Health Coach Training Program from Chicago, had a background in psychotherapy before enrolling. When she graduated, she opened her practice Health and Wellness Counseling Associates of Chicago. She works with people who, if they’re lucky enough to realize it now, are in desperate need of health coaching: over-worked, over-stressed young adults. Heather has realized the importance of prioritizing health and gaining a strong sense early on, taking action in the present to create a future with endless possibilities.
How has your life changed since graduating from Integrative Nutrition?
After the training course, I took a leave of absence from my job as a full-time high school counselor. I loved working with teenagers, but wanted more control over my time and working conditions. Now I am now fully self-employed at HWCA of Chicago, I became co-chair of the Health Coaches of Chicago for a year, and met so many other wonderful Health Coaches. One is working part-time for my practice and another is my counseling intern now!
I have learned how my counseling skills are essential to helping people overcome obstacles and make behavioral changes to improve their lifestyle.
Which topics and modules from the Health Coach Training Program had an impact on you?
I loved hearing from Debbie Ford- she practices radical self-acceptance, which we could all use more of. I also was fascinated to learn that The Zone was not just another fad diet, but a heavily researched, heart-healthy lifestyle.
How have changes in your own health and realizing the importance of primary food affected you?
I knew I needed a career that would allow me to flourish in terms of my energy levels, stress levels and control over my own destiny. Making this change to being fully self-employed has been huge. I also have more time to work out, practice meditation, and see friends and family.
Upon enrolling in the program, I started to get my own health under control and realized it was a holistic process. I liked the idea of combining nutrition information with mental health. There is such a link that is often ignored in traditional psychotherapy.
Why is the link between nutrition and mental health so important? What happens when it’s overlooked?
A psychotherapist can have the best clinical skills, but if she overlooks the fact that a depressed client has a sugar addiction, the client will not make adequate progress. The same goes for clients with a generally poor diet, low vitamin D, lack of quality sleep, or a sub-par exercise routine. Basically, there is so much more to the mental health equation than exploration of the psyche.
So this concept makes your practice unique compared to other types of psychotherapy?
Yes, we offer clients solutions they may never have heard of before: eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), BrainPaint neurofeedback, or health coaching. We also infuse health coaching knowledge into our psychotherapy sessions, helping clients to understand side effects of their medications, educating them about alternative treatment options, drawing the connection between lifestyle and mood, informing them about vitamin deficiencies and the impact on mental health, etc. Counseling with us is not just about discussing the past; it's really about taking action in the present to improve self-care. The very act of prioritizing health and creating the space and time for wellness improves our clients' self-concept.
Who is your typical client?
Our group of practitioners takes a holistic approach to mental health by offering counseling, health coaching and neurofeedback under one roof (and off-site for non-profits and corporations). We focus on helping "Type A" young professionals understand how to set their life up so it supports their health rather than depletes them.
What are some common issues you see in the young professionals that you work with?
The clients I see tend to be very "Type A." They are anxious, perfectionistic, driven and hard on themselves. These issues affect their career development and personal relationships (two important primary foods!), which, along with high stress levels, are often the problems that bring them through my door. I also see a lot of addictive personalities who struggle with eating disorders. They are often caught in a cycle of overeating then beating themselves up over it and repeating the pattern over again.
Another common issue I see is insecure attachment in relationships. This typically arises from an enmeshed (or very distant) relationship with the client's primary caregivers growing up. As result, many of my clients are working to strengthen their sense of self in their late twenties and to have healthier relationships moving forward.
Why is crucial for them to seek your help at this point in their life, and what kind of support can you offer them?
It's important that my clients seek my help a this point in their life because they're contemplating marriage, a career change, having children, etc. They may want to strengthen their current relationship or learn from a recent break-up and do better going forward.
I admire the hell out of my clients because they're willing to be honest with themselves and to face some difficult feelings. One thing I'd say to console them is that just by coming through my door, they've already won half the battle. Many maladaptive behaviors in terms of physical health or relationships stem from not wanting to face uncomfortable emotions. So, just by coming to see me, they're facing those feelings. I teach my clients that emotions are typically healthy responses that are simply part of life. It's normal to be sad after a break-up or divorce. It's ok to feel stressed about long work hours- maybe it's a sign that a change is in order. Basically, feelings are trying to tell us something and if we don't acknowledge them before distracting ourselves with something else, they'll rear their ugly little heads and find some other, less healthy way to come out.
Where do most of your clients come from? What’s the appeal in choosing a therapist with a holistic approach who incorporates nutrition?
Most of my clients choose me over other therapists precisely because of my health coaching certification and holistic orientation to mental health. They like the idea that I'm going to incorporate lifestyle education and suggestions. I think it resonates with them because on some level they know that it's not just about sitting in my office and exploring their feelings (although that's important, too!). They know they have to make some changes in the way they live their lives and how they take care of themselves.
I'm careful never to prescribe a particular food plan, but I frequently offer ideas for consideration and encourage clients to talk to their doctors about supplements and food plans. I use Joshua's idea of acting as a behavioral coach to encourage the client to take the steps they already know they need to take. If they seem to have misinformation, I provide resources to educate them further.
Most of my clients find me through my website, their insurance carriers, EAP (employee assistance program) or Psychology Today director.
Can you recall one of your favorite moments in coaching or a special client who has had great success?
I recently had my first return client. Originally our work together focused on dealing with her anxiety issues. She was stressed at work and putting in long hours and this often took a toll on her emotionally. Now she's at a job she loves with a better schedule. She has come back to see me and is ready to peel back another layer of the onion: relationships. Being able to help clients focus on their primary foods is so rewarding. Seeing the love between her and her husband is a joy, and I felt privileged to help them find some tools that would work for them.
What do you love about your work?
Helping my clients helps me. Although the food we eat is important, I'm finally realizing that it will never make up for poor primary food. Seeing my clients deal with stressful jobs that don't fulfill them makes me so grateful for owning my own company.
I'm also inspired by their progress. Just going to see a counselor means you have hope and think that you're worth the investment of time and money. These are brave people who are willing to go outside their comfort zone with me to strive for something greater than what they currently have. I am humbled by that honor.
Is there a need for Health Coaches where you live?
There is a need for Health Coaches everywhere. I think more partnerships between psychotherapists and Health Coaches would be greatly beneficial to clients. It would allow them to address nutrition and lifestyle while developing a greater self-awareness, understanding and acceptance. I can't think of a better formula for positive change!
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