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An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Listen to your body. At first it whispers, then it yells, then it screams! Bodily feelings and sensations often alert us to problems such as stress, even if we don’t realize it. It’s important to stay connected to your body and pay attention to what it may be telling you in the form of tension, pain, or fatigue.

As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jana Wu, LCSW, LADC.

Jana Wu, LCSW, LADC is a program manager and leads Mountainside Treatment Center’s outpatient center in Chappaqua, New York. She is a licensed clinical social worker and a licensed alcohol and drug abuse counselor. Jana brings passion to her clinical work with holistic approaches, evidence-informed best practices, and a commitment to social justice. Over the past two decades, she has focused on veterans’ mental health, substance abuse treatment, end-of-life transitions, generational trauma, and resilience. She has foundations in somatic awareness, meditation, and breathwork, which informs her practice.

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?

I started my career in health care in New York City 2001, and I also completed my first yoga teacher training around the same time. This was an intense time — I was living in New York during 9/11, working at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and teaching yoga at a community center in Queens that served firefighters and police officers. The collective trauma was palpable and overwhelming at times. I knew I wanted to be of service to others but was not quite sure of my path. I took some years away from hospital work and worked as a personal assistant in Manhattan and found the best part of my job was just listening to my clients and being present to their lives in a deeply intimate way.

I decided to study social work at Smith College because they had a psychodynamic lens and an antiracism mission since the ’90s. I chose social work over psychology as I was driven to the social justice component of the field and the idea of studying how people relate and engage with the systems around them. I have always found people remarkably interesting to study and I love the process of change and bearing witness to change.

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

That is hard — I often say there is never a dull day working in substance use disorders treatment! People have the most colorful lives and stories that you can imagine, and the potential for change is endless.

What continually inspires me is seeing humans’ capacity for change and their ability to reinvent themselves and move towards their values. During my career, I have worked in residential programs, detox, VA hospitals serving veterans, and outpatient private care. I have had clients reach out to me after 12 years to tell me how they are doing — and many are still sober! It is amazing to me that through many career moves and location changes, people have found me. I have run into clients while walking down the street in Boulder, Colorado, in a coffee shop in Del Mar, California, and on the beach in south Florida. On the beach, a mother of a former client came up to me and hugged me and told me how she remembered how safe she felt leaving her son with me, because, she said, “You seemed happy and warm… It made me feel like this could be a good place for him.” These moments strike me the most: when I get to reconnect with clients I have worked so intimately with outside of treatment in the fullness of their lives.

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?

I don’t know if it’s funny, but one “mistake” I made early on was becoming perhaps too invested in my first clients. At that point, everything is so new, and there’s a tendency to treat these early clients like a precious Fabergé egg. But at a certain point you realize you have to pull back a bit not only so you can see the case more objectively, but also have the time and bandwidth to serve all of your clients and maintain your own emotional well-being.

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’m particularly grateful to a supervisor I had at the VA in San Antonio. She was a clinical social worker and had an incredible rapport with clients and staff and had been at the VA for over 40 years, serving veterans through several different conflicts and generations. She taught me that clinical supervision is sacred, and that social work is a craft you cultivate like an apprenticeship. She created a place and space for me to stay curious yet grounded in best clinical practices of social work.

It struck me as remarkable that she was a mixed-race woman of Asian descent from Indonesia that served a predominantly male population from the 1970s to the 2010s and was able to execute therapeutic interventions with confidence and skill. She taught me how to command a room as a therapist bringing all of myself in, including being a biracial woman too who had not served in the military but was able to provide clinical services to veterans. The embodied confidence I saw in her I have carried with me in my own career as a female working with mostly male clients and how to navigate differences with ease.

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

It feels cliché but take care of yourself and your colleagues. This work can be draining at times, and I have found I thrive when bolstered by a loving team that cares about the work that I do as much as I do. It can be emotionally demanding working with clients and families that are going through some of the hardest times of their lives. Allow yourself to be supported by your team. If you are in private practice, find your supports and seek out other clinicians that you can process with and get supervision from.

For many colleagues, working towards their goals in conjunction with others builds a sense of connection and accountability. When we do things together, we can celebrate our successes as collective achievements. We have a greater sense of ownership, and we can receive feedback as well as support from those who cheer us on when our intrinsic motivation is lower.

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

New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author Jon Acuff writes in Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done that “the sneakiest obstacle to meeting your goals is not laziness, but perfectionism…” and his research has found that “people who have fun are 43 percent more successful” in achieving goals. His research found that when people are engaged in their pursuits, enjoy what they are doing, and find meaning in the process, their efforts are more successful and sustainable.

Despite the heaviness of the work, there should be elements of levity and fun at times for staff. This could take the form of team-building activities such as going to an exercise class or a sports game together. It’s very important to create an environment where people can be open to feedback, honest, and vulnerable with each other. In working in a therapeutic milieu, you need to support your coworkers, and they should be there to support you as well. Every year I try to do a few team-building activities with my staff. Some have included cacti terrarium building, a group yoga class, and playing UNO as a team for an hour. It is important to note that many of us spend more time at work than at home so we want to make our work environment a place that people want to come and connect to.

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?

Limit caffeine. Caffeine is in so much of what we consume daily, including coffee, tea, chocolate, and energy drinks, that it can be difficult to appreciate how much it’s overused. Limiting caffeine has been found to reduce anxiety, improve deep rest and sleep, balance our hormones, and improve healthy digestion.

I love coffee, and often say it is my first love. Working in the substance abuse field, where coffee and recovery seem to go hand in hand, I at one point found myself drinking up to four to six cups of coffee or tea a day. This created a steady feeling of a rush but led to disturbed sleep, increased rumination, moodiness, and exhaustion. I initially scaled down to black and green tea and then let go of caffeine all together. After the initial discomfort I have found resumed energy and more of an ability to pause before reacting, a greater sense of ease, and most importantly actually resting when I am tired.

Choose travel in whatever capacity you can. Get out and see the diversity of the world, including in your own country and community. Even local “staycations” can refresh our perspective. No matter how busy I have felt at work or how much financial fear I feel, I have never once regretted traveling. I have been fortunate to live all over the country, from New York, California, and Texas to Washington and Colorado, and have been continually amazed by the diversity of our culture in the United States. During the height of the pandemic, I like many found little adventures daily in slowing down to walk around more purposefully in my own neighborhood.

Accept you may never have “balance.” Finding balance means constantly striving for equilibrium. We need to learn to continually adjust. We can’t stay static. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, we must be able to change our expectations and plans when disruptions arise.

Many people are concerned with trying to balance “having it all,” and I think we can have “most of it all”, though maybe not all at the same time. When it comes to juggling careers, family, education, parenting, passions, and other facets of our lives, inevitably some things will be prioritized or deprioritized at any one time. It’s OK to recognize that we can’t do everything all at once.

When you feel overwhelmed or bogged down with too much to do and not enough time, connect to what is most important to get done for that day.

Practice gratitude. I think that gratitude can be a choice, not just a feeling. I believe the old adage that sometimes I have to “act myself” into the right way of thinking, and one way of doing that is maintaining a gratitude practice, such as journaling centered on what I could be grateful for even if I do not feel grateful at that moment. You can also take time to meditate or list the things you’re thankful for. This helps us to show up as the person we want to be and reaffirms what matters to us and what we have already.

Another avenue is to connect with friends and family members and let them know how much they mean to you. This is something we might not think to do in everyday life, but it can help put into perspective how valuable these relationships are, while brightening someone else’s day.

Listen to your body. At first it whispers, then it yells, then it screams! Bodily feelings and sensations often alert us to problems such as stress, even if we don’t realize it. It’s important to stay connected to your body and pay attention to what it may be telling you in the form of tension, pain, or fatigue.

One way we can stay attuned to our body is to slow down and pause. Scan your body to figure out where you’re holding tension. Is your brow furrowed? Is your jaw clenched? Do you feel tightness in your shoulders? Once you’ve identified this body part, place your awareness there and see if you can let go and ease the tension in those areas.

This enhanced inner awareness, also known as “somatic awareness,” helps us stay attentive not only to our bodies but to emotions and feelings we may not even recognize we have.

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?

Take a break from social media! Remember that posts are usually highly edited and scripted. Get into your life outside of the screen.

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

So many. I love books about substance use disorders such as “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff and “Drinking, A Love Story” by Caroline Knapp, as well as works not specifically centered on substance use, like “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron.

“Beautiful Body” expresses the impact of substance abuse on families and illustrates how far parents are willing to go for their children. “Drinking, A Love Story,” is the story of a brilliant writer who cannot get “unstuck” from alcohol, and I think it’s very honest and well-written. “When Things Fall Apart” beautifully describes the feeling that life does not go the way you planned it, and that you sometimes need to change direction and recalibrate.

I also appreciate the “The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous”. I find the Big Book’s descriptions of feeling and emotional states continue to be timely despite the books datedness at times.

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. 😊

I would start a movement to destigmatize substance use disorders. We all have known or loved people who have struggled in some way with substances. It is one of the most common human experiences we have but it is not openly talked about. People have been using substances to change the way they feel since the beginning of time and some certainly maladaptively, and I find that despite not knowing anyone that has not been touched by substance use disorders, we still do not discuss it without shrouding it in secrecy and often shame.

Removing the stigma also has a direct, real-world impact on people who are struggling with addiction. I do believe that everyone should be aware of Narcan (Naloxone), how to obtain it, and how to use this life-saving medication that can stop a fatal overdose from opiates. Discussing Narcan should be just as routine as any other topic in health care in the United States.

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

This is an often repeated saying in treatment that the Chinese character for crisis is comprised of two pictorial charters; one meaning danger, the other meaning opportunity. The message is that difficult times give you an opportunity to choose a new direction and, with that opportunity, to pivot in the direction of your values.

I see this lived out when a client finds the opportunity for change in a very difficult situation and is able to reorient and start the process of leading a new life towards the direction of a life that will give them purpose and meaning.

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

My LinkedIn and Mountainside profile pages.

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

Jana Wu Of Mountainside Treatment Center: 5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.