Mental burnout, depression, anxiety…you name it. Mental health issues have always been around. It was when the pandemic hit, however, that it became obvious the true damage it can cause, especially on a personal level. If you want to know how to better handle such things when life gets tough, this episode is the #1 thing you need.
Today on the show, Isaac chats with Michelle E. Dickinson, a Wellbeing Strategist, mental health advocate, TEDx speaker, and author. Building on her own childhood experience taking care of her mother who suffered from bipolar disorder, Michelle is now on a mission to normalize the mental wellbeing conversation. And as civil engineers who have to work, take professional exams, be a present mother/father, a lovely wife/husband, etc., this conversation is certainly for you, too.
What You’ll Learn:
- Michelle’s Work in the Mental Health Field
- Her Childhood Experience Taking Care of Her Bipolar Mother
- How Your Experiences Can Shape Your Path in Life—And Your Career
- Michelle’s Expert Point of View on the “Great Resignation”
- Her #1 Tip for a Less Stressful Life
- Why Taking Care of Your Wellbeing—Physical, Emotional, and Mental—Matters
- The Process of Preparing and Delivering a TED Talk
- What Inspired Her to Write Her Book
- Why the Diet for Your Body Is Just as Important as the “Diet for You Mind”
- How Daily Self-Audits And Routine Can Help You Fight Tough Times
- Why You Need a Therapist—Even Before You Think You “Actually” Need One
Built Bar – https://civilengineeringacademy.com/built
Resources Mentioned (some links are affiliate links):
Michelle’s Program for Organizations – https://www.careforyourpeople.com
Michelle’s Personal Website – https://www.michelleedickinson.com
Breaking Into My Life, by Michelle E. Dickinson – https://breakingintomylife.com
Psychology Today – https://www.psychologytoday.com
National Alliance on Mental Illness – https://nami.org
Man Therapy – https://mantherapy.org
The Ultimate Civil PE Review Course – https://civilpereviewcourse.com
The Ultimate Civil FE Review Course – https://civilfereviewcourse.com
CEA Youtube Channel – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPeFLBZ2gk0uO5M9uE2zj0Q
CEA Free Facebook Community – https://ceacommunity.com
CEA FE and PE Practice Exams – https://civilengineeringacademy.com/exams
CEA Newsletter – https://civilengineeringacademy.com/join-our-newsletter
CEA Website – https://civilengineeringacademy.com
Reach out to Isaac – [email protected]
Transcript of Show
You can download our show notes summary here or get our transcript of the show below!
Isaac Oakeson: All right. We are live! Michelle, how's it going?
Michelle Dickinson: Awesome. Good to see you. Great to be here. Thanks for the invitation.
Isaac Oakeson: I'm excited you're here. So welcome to the Civil Engineering Academy Podcast. I'm excited you're here. Before we dive into stuff, you know, I will probably read a little bit about yourself in a bio, but it's always fun for me to ask guests and you to tell us a little bit more about your own background. What do you do? How did you get to where you are right now? Let us know what's going on in your world right now. A little bit more about your background.
Michelle Dickinson: Awesome. So I'll start with what I do right now. I get to work with organizations to preserve the wellbeing of their people. I'm really committed that people don't suffer in silence. We have been going through a really interesting experience with COVID, and a lot of people have lost their footing, or they're just not feeling like they have a lot of control. So my workshops help leaders engage with people that they think are maybe struggling and then also helps to, please, implement some daily strategies and techniques so that they can sort of feel better and preserve their wellbeing. So that's what I do now.
Michelle Dickinson: Why I do this work is because I grew up with a mother who had bipolar disorder, and I cared for her. So I know firsthand what it's like to love someone with a mental illness and care for them. And that whole experience shaped me. I gave a TED Talk about it, I wrote a book about it, and I helped build an employee resource group for mental health in my fortune 50 company. And so all those experiences shaped me and really left me in a space where, if I could do something and help people understand mental illness and help people have a better relationship to their brain, I could make a difference with all of that. So that's why I do the work I do.
Isaac Oakeson: That's amazing. I'm sure you've learned a lot during your life experiences. I remember, I mean, just looking at my own life, we ended up taking care of a grandmother that was in a wheelchair. She was paralyzed from having a child and it went bad with epidural. But you know, these things in our life kind of shape us into who we are. It's interesting how they form a path, even career paths, for us as well.
Michelle Dickinson: Absolutely. I mean, I can tell you that if you were [inaudible] me even, like, five years ago, I would've told you I was going to retire in the pharmaceutical industry where I spent 19 years. Like, I would never have ever thought I would become an entrepreneur and be doing this work. But, you know, life sort of shows up and has you get present to what matters most. And that's really cool too.
Isaac Oakeson: Throws us a lot of curve balls. It's interesting you bring up COVID. I know, in my own experience and in doing a little bit of research, back in April of this year, and we're in 2021, there was like 4 million people that said "I quit" to jobs. And they called it "The Great Resignation".
Michelle Dickinson: Yes!
Isaac Oakeson: And I think it goes right along with what you're talking about with COVID and the way we're handling things. But do you have any insights? Maybe, what your thoughts or opinions are about that?
Michelle Dickinson: I think that "The Great Resignation", and there's a lot of different information out there about that. That's largely rooted in people getting present to what matters. At the end of the day, you know, what really matters when you have all of the things that we had removed from our lives and changes that we were encountering? That is very confronting. And we spent a lot of time alone, we spend a lot of time reflecting, right? What matters? People were [inaudible] around us, the world was turned on its head. So I think a lot of people were just -- You know, what contributed to that is people getting present to what matters, asking themselves if this is the job they want to be in, asking themselves if this is the company that they want to be a part of. Does the company reflect my values? Am I aligned with this company? Do I like how my company has been treating me throughout this pandemic? All of these things played into people just saying "there's more to life than what I'm doing".
Isaac Oakeson: Right. I just thought that was interesting. So good points there. As you've gone throughout your own life, what are some important things that you have learned? I know that's a big question. But maybe there's some highlights there that you could touch on.
Michelle Dickinson: I think for me, the one thing that has bought me the most peace is realizing that life is always happening for us. It takes away the victim mentality. There are events that occur in our lives that are literally unfolding. And if you believe that life is here to serve you, these experiences will serve you, even when you're in the thick of the ugliness, it will bring you a little bit of peace. And so for me, like -- I mean, one thing I didn't mention when you asked me to tell who I was, was I suffered from depression. I was adopted, so I never thought I would deal with depression. But I was diagnosed with depression going through a divorce. And I learned a ton through that experience and that journey, as well as the divorce. So I think when we resist our reality, we create our own upset. And when we don't realize that there's a bigger -- There's always something bigger unfolding for you, and just have faith and trust in that, you'll create less stress in your life.
Isaac Oakeson: That's fascinating. You know, going through a divorce, it sounds like -- Not only you had to take care of your own mother, but you also went through a divorce, you've gone through a lot of experiences. What, through all of this, are some important traits that maybe we could pick up on to overcome some of the challenges we face in our own life?
Michelle Dickinson: Yeah. I think, you know, it all goes back to self care. And this is something that I am always reminding people, especially now, to give yourself grace and make yourself a priority. I know when we have families and jobs and extracurricular things, we tend to put our own needs, and ourselves, and our own balance on the back burner. So it's like the preservation of our wellbeing is the most important thing, because we're at the source of everything going on, right? We're at the source of -- You know, how are we showing up in the world? Are we showing up the best version of ourselves, or someone who's tired and irritated and doesn't feel good about how we're facing. You know, how we look to the world. So I think it's, it's so important to nurture yourself, give yourself grace when you're going through things like divorce, when you're going through a loss of a job, or even, you know, failure, if you're failing a course or something. You have to learn to give yourself grace and find the gems, and the lessons along the way.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great advice. You know, our audience is civil engineers. Many of them go through exams, or they're going through college, or even work experiences where maybe a mistake was made or something. So those are all really good points that you bring out. And you know, if we're not doing well and taking care of ourselves, other people, I think, notice that. But it doesn't do you any favors. And you do a worse job at that things you're normally doing. So that's good points. Tell me a little bit more about how you were inspired to write the book that you wrote, Breaking Into Life. What is that about? Take us through why you wrote that.
Michelle Dickinson: Yeah. So, I was minding my own business, working my pharmaceutical job. This is the truth. And one of my colleagues found out about my story growing up with my mother who had bipolar disorder. Something I never really spoke about. But I guess I spoke about it one time in the lunchroom or something.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah! That's where it starts.
Michelle Dickinson: And so she nominated me to give a TED talk. At the time we had a TED stage within our company. We had opportunities for employees to tell their story. She nominated me and then I was invited ultimately to prepare and deliver a TED talk about that experience. And what was fascinating to me was that talk was all of 13 minutes or 10 minutes. I can't remember. It was back in 2008. And the impact that that conversation had, and people sort of coming out of the darkness and talking openly about how mental health has affected their life, whether it's a loved one or themselves, or child, or a parent. It was opening a conversation. It was normalizing brain health all through me going first. And I thought, "Well, this is powerful". Like, the power of storytelling is really amazing. If I could do this in a short TED Talk, What could I do if I wrote my memoir. And I really explained to people what that experience was like growing up and loving and caring for someone with a mental illness. And that's when I decided to write the book.
Isaac Oakeson: That's amazing. So I just have two questions to follow up on that. One of them is, what was it like to prepare and deliver a TED talk? And the second one is, is that the goal of the book? Is it to bring mental awareness to basically the world? Because I imagine back in 2008, it probably wasn't, you know, maybe talked about as much. And then all of a sudden it seems like we're definitely talking about it more and more. And you probably were right at the front edge of that. So what do you think? So, what was it like to prepare a TED talk? And then talk about that goal of the book.
Michelle Dickinson: Yeah. So the TED talk was a wild experience. But I didn't do it alone. I had an amazing coach, a TED coach. Someone who does this. There are 10 coaches in the world, and if you aspire to be a TED speaker, I highly recommend that you tap into a TED coach, because it is nothing like delivering a PowerPoint presentation at all. It is a very rigorous process to understand that every single word that you pick in your TED Talk has got to have meaning, and it has to reach your audience on an emotional level. So it was intense. I think it was a couple months we worked on it, we scripted it, we storyboarded, and we scripted it. We honed in on the words we wanted, then I practiced, and then I practiced, and then I practiced, and then I practiced, and then I practiced. And it was great. It was great. It was exhilarating to be up there on the red dot and tell the story. Amazing! And you know, like, amazing training in storytelling.
Isaac Oakeson: I was curious about that. That's why I ask. You know, I haven't talked to a lot of people that have given Ted Talks. So I was just curious about that experience, and that's really interesting. Well, Breaking Into Life sounds like an amazing book and memoir that you've written. Geared towards, I guess, the Civil Engineering Academy audience, and how mental health affects students and civil engineers, what advice would you give to students or even those that are trying to prepare to pass these big exams they have to take, which are like the FE and the PE exam? And they find themselves trying to overcome hurdles and haven't been able to do that. Or maybe they're struggling with that. What advice would you give to them?
Michelle Dickinson: Yeah. So I didn't answer your prior question. I'm going to answer that and then I'll answer this.
Isaac Oakeson: Wow, yeah.
Michelle Dickinson: So why I wrote the book was, really, I wanted to humanize the whole experience of mental illness. So it had two parts. If I could tell my story, then maybe people who had no relationship to mental health would have a healthy relationship to mental health. Because oftentimes the media paints a picture of mental illness that isn't an accurate representation. So I really wanted to do my part to tell the story. And then the second part was that perseverance and triumph over the past. So I had a challenging childhood. But you know what, how many of us did as well, and maybe not by having a bipolar parent? So I just wanted people to realize that their past doesn't define their future. That they get to create their future in the face of whatever they went through. So those are the two reasons.
Michelle Dickinson: But, yeah. So around the challenges of the preparation of testing and, you know, struggling to achieve that, to pass that, you know, I always go back to, are we in the best possible sheet to be able to do the studying that we need, to do the preparation that we need? Are we getting enough sleep? Are we feeding our bodies what we need to, to have the right amount of energy? These are all things that will position you to be able to give it your best shot, right? So it's all of those things. Am I exercising? Am I drinking enough water? Am I not depriving myself of sleep because I think that studying through the night is a good idea? We all know that sleep is critical if you want your brain to fire the way you want it to fire. So I would say, especially during times of high stress, you have to be making sure that you're taking care of your mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. And recognize that stress and the cortisol that you're dealing with amping up for something like this, you need an outlet for that. So whatever that looks like. You know, I can say "go for a run and go do something physical". But here's the thing, you could do a 10 minute meditation and reduce your cortisol levels. Even a simple meditation practice can actually help you clear your mind so you can have the level of focus that you know that you're capable of.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great advice. What about people that want to, like, Netflix binge a show, because it makes them relax. Is that a good idea?
Michelle Dickinson: You know, it's a very interesting question, I will say. You have to be just as -- So this is what I tell people in my corporate trainings, right? You have to be just as responsible for what you feed your brain as you do what you feed your body. So I mean, if you're watching something that might not be as nourishing for your mind, let's just say, it's going to impact you, right? So think about that. That's why I tell people, turn off the media, don't watch, you know, aggressive shows before you go to bed. Like, be responsible with what you're allowing your mind and your eyes to consume because it's going to affect you.
Isaac Oakeson: That makes sense. So, I guess it's just a follow-up to all this. A lot of life throws challenges at us, can cause, you know, fear of failure, some people get anxiety. Do those things cause mental illness or is that just part of life's journey? I guess is my question.
Michelle Dickinson: You know, I often try to explain to people that mental health is a continuum, right? We quickly want to say, "I'm mentally well" or "I'm mentally ill". But in reality, mental health is like physical health. It's a continuum. And so we glide across that continuum and life events show up for us, and maybe we're not feeling the best that we can feel. So we take a dip down. It's a lot like our physical health when we think about, "Oh, remember that year I did this? I was in the best physical shape. I just nailed that race", or whatever, "because I trained." So it's the same thing. So I think we should move away from the label "Mentally ill", "Mentally Sick", you know? And just recognize that life is going to throw us those curve balls, and if we can build up practices that bolster our resilience and preserve our day-to-day wellbeing, we're going to be in a much better position to be able to deal with that. So this is where I say, what's your daily routine? What's your morning routine? What are you doing to be able to deal with those downward moments with a little more ease and less spiral out of it? You know.
Isaac Oakeson: That makes sense. Yeah. I think sometimes we're too quick to label, maybe, anxieties or fear of something or, you know, you're about to give a presentation or something as a mental illness. But sometimes those things, you know, they're just part of life. And so I love your analogy on that spectrum of where you are in life. So that's a good point. How can we better handle depression? Knowing that you've gone through it, that you've had to help your mother through it, you've written a book about it, what are some tips that you might have?
Michelle Dickinson: Yeah! Again, you know, for me, I was going through a divorce. And because I had a healthy relationship with mental illness because of my mother and the treatment that she experienced throughout my life, I knew that I was not a hundred percent. So I knew I needed to reach out and get support. But not a lot of people understand it. It's sort of like the frog in the boiling water, right? The temperature keeps getting turned up and you don't even realize it. Before you know it, the water boiling. That's what I'm always recommending to people. the value of the self-audit. How am I doing today? You know, we wake up in the morning as we start to age, at least I can speak for me, I'm doing a physical body scan in bed, okay? So the ankle still hurts, my hamstring's feeling a little bit better. But what we don't do is the emotional and mental audit.
Michelle Dickinson: How am I feeling today? How am I doing today? Because if you can check in on your emotional wellbeing on a daily basis, and then when you start to slip and you start to not feel good, and you pick up the phone and you call someone and you just talk to them, it could be a family member, brother, sister, best friend, and just talk about it, that's going to help you, rather than ignoring it to the point where you just hit a wall. The daily self-audit is something I absolutely am an advocate for, and the connections with who you love and trust. Talk about what you're dealing with is only going to help you. And then there might be times when it's a consistent pattern. But you know what, because you've been recognizing that you've been feeling bad for say a week, maybe it's time you reach out and you talk to a professional, because you're aware of it and you're not ignoring it.
Isaac Oakeson: That makes sense. So it sounds like these are some tools as part of being psychologically resilient that you've mentioned. One is to lean into people that you love or that care about you. Friends, family. And the other one is, if you do need help, go talk to a professional. Is there any other tools that we could add to that toolbox?
Michelle Dickinson: Yeah, absolutely. So I'm a big advocate of therapy. I think therapy is the best thing in the world. I have interviewed my own therapist and he's amazing. Find yourself a therapist. I always say, find yourself a therapist before you need a therapist, because the last thing you want to deal with when you're dealing with something is vetting doctors. So I have a doctor. I don't see him as frequently as I used to when I was dealing with my depression, but I have him. And, God forbid something happens, I have a rapport with him and I can just call him and be like, "Okay, I need to get in". So maybe finding a therapist. A way you can do that, a great resource for that, is Psychology Today. You can just type in your zip code under Psychology Today and --
Isaac Oakeson: It brings up a list of them?
Michelle Dickinson: It brings up a list of them. Yeah. And then the National Alliance on Mental Illness. If you have a loved one that might be struggling and you're not really sure. You think they're demonstrating signs and symptoms and you want to know how to support them, obviously listening is the greatest gift we can give a loved one. But the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nami.org, is a great resource.
Isaac Oakeson: Okay. Great advice. Great resources. Great tips and tools. Michelle, this has been a pleasure to have you on and talk about mental health, and really the resources that are out there for people that need help. And I think we all need help. I think if you're human, you probably need help, right? So we're all on that spectrum at some level. So it's good to get help. Michelle, what's the best way for our audience to connect with you if they would like to check out your memoir or just learn more about you?
Michelle Dickinson: Sure. So I have two websites. If you're interested in bringing a program to employees, or to leaders and organizations, on how to navigate conversations around wellbeing, you can contact me through careforyourpeople.com. And if you are interested in my book or my story, or a free chapter of my book, you can go to michelleedickison.com.
Isaac Oakeson: Perfect! Well, this has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for joining me. I am sure our Civil Engineering Academy audience will love this, and just excited to get it out there in the world and share it with people. So thank you again for joining me.
Michelle Dickinson: You're welcome.
Isaac Oakeson: We'll see you again.
Michelle Dickinson: Awesome. Thank you.
Isaac Oakeson: See you.
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