This is a really interesting interview with Dr. Anna Yusim, a psychiatrist who specializes in mental health and spirituality. We talk about Anna’s own journey towards spirituality as well as how spirituality can help create a deeper connection with yourself. We dive into the positives of taking a spiritual approach, when it might be dangerous to do so, and how spirituality doesn’t necessarily have to be linked to religion. Anna also offers advice on becoming more connected to your inner self and learning to listen to your intuition.
Getting to know Dr. Anna Yusim
Based in Manhatten, Anna Yusim, MD, is a full-time psychiatrist who also specializes in the intersection of psychiatry and spirituality, authoring the book “Fulfilled: How the Science of Spirituality Can Help You Live a Happier, More Meaningful Life“, which was published in 2017. Anna’s interest in spirituality emerged around 10 years ago towards the end of her residency training. She opens by talking about her experiences and admits that at that time if anybody had told her 10 years previous that she would be a spiritual person, she would have laughed at them!
Anna explains how she comes from a family of mathematicians where everyone is super-rational and logical, a path which she intended to follow. But different paths began to open up and things started happening which she couldn’t explain using the traditional scientific understanding of the world that she had acquired through her training. This new path led her to where she is today!
Anna opens up about her childhood and talks about how Judaism was always in the background of her identity, but spirituality and religion were never at the forefront growing up. Before coming to the US, Anna and her family lived in Russia where the practice of Judaism wasn’t allowed. After moving to the US, they would take part in Jewish traditions a little more often, but it was never the main focus of family life. Anna talks more about this and how her transition through education shaped her own beliefs and led her towards spirituality.
From Mathematics to Spirituality
Anna describes the training she received and the milestones which carried her towards spirituality. She describes how she went from Neuroscience to global mental health, and ultimately to spirituality, which was peaked during her residency because strange things, or ‘meaningful synchronicities’, started to happen which she couldn’t understand or make sense of. Anna’s book is full of examples, but she describes an experience where she was on holiday and awoke in the night with feelings of panic. She immediately checked her emails to find she had just received a message from a client to say they were feeling suicidal. She contacted him and managed to physically and metaphorically talk him off of the ledge. Had Anna not called, things may have ended very differently, but the experience was so shocking to Anna and her patient that it became a very meaningful turning point in the treatment. It was continued experiences like this which made Anna question whether they were random coincidence or are these meaningful synchronicities which we can then use in the service of the treatment.
Anna talks about this in more depth and explains ‘synchronicities’ as the cooccurrence of events that could or could not have meaning, where we create the meaning of that event. For instance, if you think about another person and then they call you – is that random occurrence or synchronicity? Anna describes how the answer to this depends on the person as for some it will be random, others it’s not – the meaning comes from the person. She explains how synchronicities are a sign from a higher power that you’re on the right path, but highlights that there can be negative synchronicities. For example, when you’re trying hard to achieve something but despite every effort, the door keeps getting slammed in your face – this is a sign to change course. A string of events like this occurred in Anna’s life, which is when she started to research the topic in an attempt to understand what was really happening.
Attention bias or meaningful synchronicity?
We talk about synchronicities from the point of view of having no beliefs about religion, spirituality, etc. and whether it could purely be attention bias, where if you look hard enough for something, you’ll find it. Anna describes how in a way, they are both actually inline with synchronicities, whether it’s meaningful or an attention bias, because it’s our attention or our consciousness that creates the meaning of the event. Whether or not something is a synchronicity is completely dependent on the observer. You are actively deciding to find meaning in these events, and you can use this for a positive purpose.
Anna then talks about the downside of synchronicities and how it can be dangerous to focus on them when you are not mentally healthy. She explains how in order to have a healthy relationship with synchronicity and to use that kind of principal in the service of one’s life, one has to be mentally healthy. If not, it can result in an individual becoming more unstable, or out of touch with reality.
Anna describes her own work and how she incorporates synchronicity into her practices. She explains how her clients now are a different demographic. Whereas her training was with individuals with schizophrenia or severe bipolar, where the use of synchronicity would have inhibited progress, now Anna works with many people who are mentally well but just need to get through a rough patch (such as divorce), are going through a life transition or generally feel out of alignment or disconnected with life. It is these individuals who can really benefit if they are open to the concept of meaningful synchronicities.
The voice of intuition
Anna moves on to talk about intuition and how it differs to synchronicity. Synchronicity is the part outside of us and how we make meaning of these occurrences. Intuition is the part inside of us – how we give voice to those things within us that help to direct and guide us. Intuition can only be heard when all of the other voices are temporarily silenced, such as the voice of reason, emotion, your Mom, and anybody else who has a voice in how you should live your life. All of which are important, but it’s your intuitive voice that is the most important to access and the one that many have difficulty doing so. We also talk about how people are often not on the best terms with their intuition because it has resulted in negative events or outcomes in the past, or their gut sense is influenced by past traumas. Anna talks about this more and explains the importance of recognizing the difference between intuition and fear as it can be hard to distinguish between them. Intuition is that small, quiet voice, that doesn’t have much emotion valance behind it and is a sense of knowing. In contrast, fear is usually very emotional and is accompanied by overwhelming thoughts telling you not to do something. Anna explains how the majority of fears never become reality and are in a sense, delusions. If we are able to recognize that we can move beyond the fear.
Courage isn’t lack of fear. Courage is being able to move forward despite fear.
Getting in touch with your Intuition
Anna talks about how it can be difficult to hear your intuition in a world where we are constantly bombarded with information and offers some advice on how to connect with yourself. To get in touch with your intuition, it’s important to create time and space for silence. Take time to be on your own to clear your mind, journal or connect with nature, whatever it means to connect with yourself. If you are more extroverted and find this difficult, then travel might help – Anna describes how she travels places alone and uses this as an opportunity to clear her mind and connect with her inner voice.
If you find it difficult to quieten down and can’t afford the time or money to travel, Anna recommends writing. Start with as little as 5 minutes at the start of your day where you write down your thoughts and feelings, whatever is within you, to help connect with your inner self. Second, Anna recommends connecting with nature. Nature and intuition are intricately woven together and being in nature removes so many distractions and allows you time to reflect inwards. Thirdly, meditation is a great way to reflect and connect with your intuition. Anna describes how it’s not so much what you do that matters, as this is different from person to person, but just to take 5 minutes or so to step outside of your normal routine to try something different and connect with yourself will have a positive impact.
Psychiatry and Spirituality
Anna moves on to talk about work in a professional sense and admits she thought the profession wouldn’t be open to the work she does combining spirituality and mental health. However, she found the opposite happened and once her book was published she was asked to come back on faculty at Yale and is now developing a spirituality and mental health program. The reception she’s received has been very positive and Anna feels this is a sign that her work is needed. We talk about this in more depth and how it’s important on the scale of global mental health to take into account spirituality and religion.
We talk more specifically about what Anna’s work in practice looks like. All sessions tend to be around 45 minutes, apart from the initial session which can be up to an hour and a half, but all of which involve therapy. Half of her patients are on medication and these types tend to be anti-depression or anti-anxiety prescriptions. Her therapy sessions focus on understanding what’s keeping people stuck in their lives and then figuring out a concrete plan to help liberate them from that. Anna talks about this in-depth and how she is constantly learning and feels there isn’t a “one size fits all” therapy model, with everybody being unique.
What people want more than anything else is to feel heard and understood.
We talk about synchronicities in terms of trends in the patients we see and how you may go through a period of treating individuals with the same mental health issues. Anna talks of a spiritual principle that defines this where we don’t draw into our lives what we want, but draw into our lives who we are – usually if Anna’s drawing in people with a particular issue it’s because she is resolving something similar in her own life. In a sense, to work on attracting what you want, you have to work on what you are in order to align the two together. We talk about how much of this work has very strong psychodynamic underpinnings and can be seen as a function of the unconscious, including synchronicities. This means you are not giving up personal responsibility to a “higher power” but in fact are becoming more personally responsible because these things are happening and you’re creating the meaning out of that situation.
Spirituality and religion
Moving on, we talk about whether spirituality has to be related to religion. Anna explains how this isn’t the case, describing spirituality as a “connection to a part of something greater than one’s self”, which for some people may be God, but it could also be the universe, mother nature, or even a set of collective transcendent values like perseverance, hope, trust, or love. We talk about this in much more detail and how spirituality increases so many aspects of health and wellbeing because if offers a sense of community and answers to difficult questions, such as what happens when we die?
Spirituality provides a platform to let go of things that are out of our control, such as end of life and what happens to us when we die. People can become obsessed or even neurotic over such questions and this provides a focal point to help let it go and not let it burden you from moment to moment. Anna explains how even if you don’t believe in God, if you have a belief system like this it can hold you in good standing.
Anna believes in meeting people where they are at and acknowledges how not everybody is open to spirituality. If and when her patients are interested in a spiritual approach or perspective, she will welcome that, but only if they want. Anna shares how her spiritual approach is not obvious when you walk into her office and she completely understands that spirituality isn’t for everyone. She explains how her audience is divided into three: Closed-minded skeptics, open-minded skeptics, and believers. Her primary audience are the open-minded skeptics, some of which may stay skeptical, others of which may become believers, but either way, she’s happy to meet people where they are in their beliefs.
Self-help exercises with Dr. Anna Yusim
To close, Anna shares two exercises which she recommends to her patients. First is one which particularly helps when making important decisions. Ask yourself several times a day “what do you most deeply want?” – listen to the different voices of reason, emotion…what would your Mom or best friend say? And then ultimately what do you say deep in your heart and soul? Revisit this to help connect with yourself and understand what you want. The second exercise is related to inner-child work – picture yourself at a very young age, whenever you felt alone, troubled or lost. Picture them sitting on your lap and have that child tell you how they are feeling. Reassure that child and tell them what they need to hear. If you don’t know what they need to hear, then let them know that they have you and that everything will be alright and you’re going to figure this out together.
Anna finishes up by talking about her book “Fulfilled: How the Science of Spirituality Can Help You Live a Happier, More Meaningful Life” and also highlights her current work providing evidence for a new app, Sacred Acoustics, to help combat mental health issues!
With that, I’d like to thank Anna for coming on the show and giving such an insightful look into the world of spirituality and mental health. If you want to find out more about Anna’s work or follow up with her, she can be reached over on her website, as well as on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter!
This episode of Hardcore Self Help is sponsored by Better Help. Head over to betterhelp.com/duff for 10% off your first month of legit licensed psychotherapy done over the internet.
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