Overcoming Mental Health Struggles, Healing Through Fitness, Meditation, Dance, and Comprehensive Testing with Karena Dawn (Episode 216)

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Overcoming Mental Health Struggles, Healing Through Fitness, Meditation, Dance, and Comprehensive Testing with Karena Dawn (Episode 216)

As much as we know adverse events, experiences, and trauma can have a negative effect on our mental health throughout our lifetime, we also know there's so much we can do to prevent that and recover from it. 
Opening up the conversation and stigma around mental health is crucial. Karena Dawn joins Dr. Doni to discuss overcoming struggles, breaking the silence around mental illness, and empowering others with tools for recovery and wellbeing.

Helping people break the silence and stigma around mental health issues is a shared passion between me and Karena Dawn, my guest on this week’s podcast. Karena is the founder of The Big Silence Foundation, which is bringing awareness to solutions for mental health issues, and the co-founder of Tone It Up, meaning she is a fitness expert and has been for many years. 

Karena is a New York Times best-selling author and a dog lover. In this episode we talk about her most recent book, The Big Silence: A Daughter’s Memoir of Mental Illness and Healing. Karena is so vulnerable about sharing her story and what brings her to this work. Everything she has created is out of a passion to help other people so they don’t have to go through such struggles.

Karena’s Background and Passion

Karena grew up in Indiana in the 90s when no one was talking about mental health and there were no resources available. Her mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and depression when Karena was 11 or 12 years old. She didn’t know how to manage her stress at that age with nowhere to turn. Karena ended up misusing drugs and attempted suicide at a very young age. She experienced situational depression for about 10 years while her mother was in and out of the house and hospital.

As a teenager, Karena had to educate herself about schizophrenia by going to the library. There was shame and stigma for both herself and her mother. In her early 20s, Karena decided that life had a bigger purpose than throwing it all away. She thought about when she was happiest, which was running her first half marathon at age 12. Exercise saved her life.

Karena remembered the feeling of crossing the finish line and wanted to feel that sense of achievement again. She signed up for a triathlon, even though she hated the uncomfortable training process. When she completed the race and crossed the finish line, tears ran down her face. She had accomplished something she never thought she could do. 

This made Karena realize she could share how fitness improves mental state, stress, and anxiety. It teaches you to accomplish more and more. That’s how she started working in fitness, wellness, and personal training, and founded Tone It Up.

Having a parent with a mental illness is one of those adverse childhood events that research shows can have a lasting impact, not just in childhood but throughout life. Realizing that in itself can be stressful. As Karena mentioned, it’s scary to feel like you don’t know who to turn to for help. Often kids and teens in this situation don’t feel they can confide in a school counselor or family member out of fear of the response.

To come out of an experience like that and say, “Hey, I’m breaking this silence,” is incredibly powerful. That’s why Karena called her memoir The Big Silence. Her message is that you’re not the only one going through this and there are ways we can help ourselves get through it and recover.

Breaking the Silence and Stigma About Mental Health Issues

Karena has written three books – two about fitness and nutrition with Tone It Up, and a memoir called The Big Silence that tells her whole life story. 

Having a parent with a mental illness is considered an adverse childhood event that research shows can impact a person throughout their life. It’s a scary time and kids often don’t know who they can turn to for help, sometimes not even a school counselor or family member, out of fear of the response.

Coming out of that experience and realizing you’re not alone is powerful. That’s why Karena wrote The Big Silence – to break the stigma and silence around mental health. It’s so important to talk about it openly with no shame, even with youth, to connect them with resources that Karena and others didn’t have growing up. Much of her work through the Big Silence Foundation, their therapy program, and youth programming aims to help youth and let them know they’re not alone.

Opening up the conversation and stigma around mental health is crucial. A lot of the work Karena does through the Big Silence Foundation and their therapy and youth programs aims to connect with young people and provide the support she wishes she had growing up. No one was talking about mental health openly back then. Now, discussing it without shame is helping immensely.

It’s especially important to reach youth, so they have access to resources and conversations that previous generations lacked. Through the internet, social media, YouTube, and Karena’s efforts, young people can find communities letting them know they’re not alone in their struggles. One of the biggest messages is that recovery is possible.

While adverse childhood events and trauma can negatively affect health in the long-term, there’s so much we can do to prevent and heal from those impacts. The more we share stories of people who have come through dark times to find wholeness again, the more others feel empowered to take steps toward their own recovery.

Recovery is Possible

As much as we know adverse events, experiences, and trauma can have a negative effect on our mental health throughout our lifetime, we also know there’s so much we can do to prevent that and recover from it. 

For a decade, Karena thought she would end up with a mental illness like her mother and grandfather. But she realized that illness was not going to affect her the same way. Getting stuck in victimhood, Karena decided to take her trauma and turn it into a lesson to share with others. Letting youth know they’re not alone is the biggest thing. 

We’re all human and go through experiences, but we can come through it together. That takes away the isolation immediately. Substance abuse and suicide rates are increasing as people look for ways to temporarily numb stress, trauma, and unprocessed emotions. But there are other solutions.

Mental Health Tools and Tests

The mental health stigma is not just around a diagnosis of anxiety or depression. It’s also related to treatment. We want to break that pattern and normalize supportive tools. 

Going to therapy, for example, is one key tool to help with mental health issues, however there has been a negative view about needing therapy. In the past, people would think you were “crazy” if you went to therapy. Now it’s becoming more casual, like going to the doctor for a checkup. 

Meditation has also been really beneficial for Karena, as well as exercise, being in nature, and reaching out to supportive people. Research shows loneliness is an epidemic that’s worse for health than smoking.

I share that through my experience over 24 years in practice, one of the tools that has helped the most is to test and address cortisol, adrenaline and neurotransmitter levels. In fact, I believes this testing and approach should be part of a standard mental health assessment. 

It’s a common assumption that all depression is caused by low serotonin, but that is simply not the case. There are many possible imbalances in neurotransmitters as well as cortisol that have all been shown to be related to anxiety and depression. 

By measuring cortisol levels throughout the day, as well as neurotransmitters, we can identify imbalances and address them with nutrients and herbs, rather than just assuming we all have high cortisol or low serotonin.

These imbalances are caused by exposure to stress and trauma, but that doesn’t mean we have to live with the effects of trauma for the rest of our lives. We can take steps to heal. 

It begs the question why this isn’t part of standard mental health assessment. I really believe it should be. Right now it’s an out-of-pocket expense, but when going through that experience, a few hundred dollar test is so worth the investment for the information to give the right nutrients and support to get levels back on track. Neurotransmitters are all made from nutrients, so if we know what’s low, we can give the right nutrients to rebalance our neurotransmitters.

Having this objective data is empowering. It allows mental health symptoms to be proactively treated by optimizing neurotransmitter and cortisol levels. I encourage pairing this testing with other tools like biofeedback, meditation, therapy, and fitness. There are so many approaches available to us.

Genetic Influences on Mental Health

Another interesting piece is looking at genetics. People are hearing more about how mental health issues have some genetic component, but it’s not 100%. In Karena’s experience, if you have a parent with a mental health issue, it’s not certain you’ll have one. There’s some percentage, probably less than 20% or even 10%, that has a genetic influence. 

Ultimately, what turns on genetic susceptibility is stress exposure. If we do stress recovery, we’re already turning off genetic susceptibilities. Testing can make a huge difference because it’s not just symptoms in our head, it’s objective information to help us understand our bodies. 

Genetic testing can also help identify variations that can be addressed through nutrients, diet changes, and stress recovery. I share how I help patients in this way every day in her practice. 

Whether it’s understanding genetic influences we can do something about or neurotransmitter levels we can optimize, we can go into a proactive mode to address symptoms of depression, anxiety, or any mental health diagnosis. I encourage my patients to use other tools as well, like biofeedback and meditation.

The Power of Meditation and Movement 

There’s so much research on the benefits of both meditation and movement. Sometimes people are afraid of meditation because of racing thoughts, but it takes starting in shorter quantities to practice. To some degree it’s rewiring and relearning patterns in the brain waves and thinking. 

Being able to retrain the nervous system, instead of going down the same path of thinking we’ve been down a million times, is about teaching the brain this other pathway. It takes a bit to remind yourself how to get there. It’s just like building a muscle. When you learn how to meditate, it becomes easier and easier, and you become stronger and stronger. It’s literally life changing.

Meditation and movement are important tools Karena uses to manage stress. In the mornings she tends to have anxiety, feeling the weight of the day upon waking up. She has to take a few breaths and engage in positive self-talk and gratitude. 

Getting grounded with something like meditation every morning is really important and it can be as simple as two minutes of grounding, which is available in the Tone It Up app. 

It can just be grounding yourself, doing a body scan, inhaling, exhaling, and working with your breath. This is something that helps anyone under a stressful situation or having anxiety to just breathe and bring awareness to the body, becoming present. 

Dance and Community as Healing

Dance is another thing to put in your mental health toolbox. I share how I find dance to be a meditation because you can’t think about anything else. You have to focus on the next step, the music, and what your partner is doing if dancing with someone. 

It’s a moving meditation, combining movement and presence. I find it essential for my wellbeing, and there’s research demonstrating the healing power of dance.

Dance also provides a sense of community, whether it’s with a dance partner or a whole class. After not dancing consistently when my daughter was young, getting back into it regularly felt like a lifeline during a period of burnout and migraines. 

Following Your Heart

Karena’s experience of training for and completing a triathlon, even when it felt scary and uncomfortable, was transformative. Crossing that finish line, she felt worthy and capable in a new way. 

Setting a meaningful goal, carving out time for it regularly, and achieving it – that process gives life so much purpose. Even when others may not understand the pursuit, like my passion for ballroom dancing, making it a priority is an act of valuing yourself. 

Mental Health Education Is Key to Getting Help

Karena’s work, through the Big Silence Foundation and Tone It Up, provides essential mental health education, resources and community. Her courage in sharing her story and solutions is helping countless people know they aren’t alone in their struggles. 

Breaking the stigma around mental health allows people to access support earlier. Lifestyle practices like meditation, movement, therapy, and time in nature are powerful tools available to everyone. Testing can provide empowering insights to optimize physical health as a foundation for mental wellbeing. Finding purpose through passions like dance and fitness reminds us of our capacity to pursue and achieve meaningful goals.

I’m so grateful to Karena for her work and our connection. If you would like to learn more about how Karena can help you check out her website here. You can also check out The Big Silence foundation. You can find her on Instagram @karenadawn and Facebook @Karena Dawn. You can also download the Tone It Up app for more resources and inspiration on your mental health journey. Remember, you’re never alone and there’s always reason for hope.

Healing Is Possible

When you’re in a dark place, it’s easy to believe you’ll never feel light again. But healing is possible, one day at a time. By breaking the silence around mental illness, we create space for connection and support. We make way for fresh approaches and resources to uplift our mind, body and spirit. 

I believe it is possible to eliminate the effects of stress, trauma, anxiety and depression by resetting our stress hormones and helping our body and mind to recover. I help patients with to do this in my practice every day – by phone and zoom, anywhere in the world. You can set up a one-on-one appointment here.

To learn more about my approach using my Stress Recovery Protocol which involves optimizing cortisol and adrenaline levels to heal the adrenals, as well as neurotransmitters, using nutrients, herbs and C.A.R.E.™ – my proprietary program to support clean eating, adequate sleep, stress recovery and exercise – I encourage you to read all about it in my latest book Master Your Stress Reset Your Health.

Thank you so much for joining us for this episode of How Humans Heal. Please subscribe if you haven’t already, so you don’t miss the next episode. And I look forward to connecting with all of you again very soon.

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