Positive Psychology and Ways to Love Your Stress

Dr. JoAnn Yanez, AANMC executive director, joins Dr. Trevor Cates on The Spa Dr. Podcast to share her top stress management practices and the power of positive psychology.



Full Transcript of Interview Below.

Dr. Trevor Cates: Hi there. I’m Dr. Trevor Cates. Welcome to The Spa Dr. Podcast. On today’s podcast, we’re covering positive psychology and ways to love your stress. My guest is Dr. JoAnn Yanez, who is the Executive Director of the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges and the past chair of the Academic Collaborative for Integrative Health. Dr. Yanez oversees research, advocacy efforts, and the joint academic endeavors of the accredited colleges of naturopathic medicine. She also helps spread awareness of naturopathic medicine as a viable and satisfying career path. Dr. Yanez lives in Southern California with her husband and son, and enjoys music, dancing, eating good food, and belly laughs.

In today’s interview, she shares her top stress management practices and the power of what she refers to as positive psychology. All of this is truly important right now, as people have been under both physical and emotional stress during the pandemic. So, please enjoy this interview.

Dr. Yanez, it’s so great to have you on my podcast. Welcome.

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: Thank you so much for having me on. I really appreciate the opportunity.

Dr. Trevor Cates: We’re talking today about stress. It’s something that we all have and it’s normal part of life. It’s certainly something, that at this time during the pandemic, that it’s certainly even more prevalent because of the changes that we’re all having to make in our lives. So, tell us why is this so passionate for you? Why is this so important to you?

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: Well, like you said, stress is endemic. Stress is always a part of our life. Sometimes stress is even a good thing. It motivates us. But as we’ve learned in naturopathic school… and for those of you who don’t know, Dr. Cates and I go a little way back. As we learned in naturopathic school, it all boils down to balance. When you are out of balance, when stress is impacting your quality of life, when it’s impacting your sleep, when it’s impacting your relationships, that’s a clue to us that we’re out of balance and we need to do something.

I think I always relate it back to the principles that we learned in naturopathic medical school. The foundation for our education. First do no harm. Treat the cause. Treat the whole person. Stress is so core, and how we manage and respond to stress is so core to our overall health, that if that’s off, a whole lot else can be off too.

Dr. Trevor Cates: Right. I know some people say that they don’t have time to do stress management. How do you feel about that?

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: It’s really funny. If you don’t have time to take care of stress management, eventually it’s going to make you. That’s just my personal experience with myself and with patients that if you keep putting it off, ultimately there’s going to come a time where it gets so in your face that you can’t avoid it.

Dr. Trevor Cates: Can you give an example of that? I’ve seen it in my practice. I definitely know it, but just as a good reminder for people to know what we see in our clinic.

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: Sure. I had a patient who was having some family relation stuff. There was some dynamic going on with parents and how they were interacting. It had gone just under the rug for years, and years, and years. In her 30s, it started manifesting as palpitations, as anxiety. This person came in, and she was anxious about the heart palpitations because that’s going to get your attention when your heart’s pounding in your chest for no reason. But ultimately, when we started to dig deeper, there were all of these unresolved family issues that came to play. The patient had already had more serious cardiac conditions ruled out.

I was like, “Okay, we need to talk about this. This is obviously disturbing and distressing. Let’s figure out a way to resolve all of the stress that this family dynamic is playing and how it’s playing out in your life.” We have supplements, we have things that we can do for palpitations and anxiety, but the root cause was this underlying pain that this family dynamic was causing her. And until that was handled, the anxiety and the palpitations were still going to be there.

Dr. Trevor Cates: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I’ve definitely seen that in my practice too. I remember a patient. She came to me with a number of health problems. Of course, I gave her the naturopathic approach and naturopathic treatment. But one of the things that she said to me was, “I hate my job. I hate going to work every day. I can’t stand it.” So, I gave her the treatment protocol, and I said, “Just so you know, as a naturopathic doctor, I am always looking for the underlying cause, address the root cause. And I really think that the biggest root cause that you have going on is your job.” She never came back to see me. And I thought, “Oh, she didn’t like what I had to say.”

And then forward, I think it was about three, four months, I ran into her, Park City’s a small town. I ran into her at a holiday party. She came up to me. She just like came straight at me and I was like, “Oh.” She said, “Dr. Cates, I want to let you know that after I saw you, I quit my job, and my health returned to normal. I feel great. I’m so grateful for you. I always thought I should call and let you know, and I never did. And so, I’m so glad I ran into you to tell you that I didn’t need to come back because I quit my job.”

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: It’s really funny. Those things that sometimes seem inconsequential to us, that’s just part of how we would interact with the patient. We’re just going to say those things because it’s so core to us. But it’s interesting because I’ve had those interactions with patients too, where they don’t come back, or you don’t really know the impact that you had in someone’s life until much later, or sometimes you never know. So for me, I think that that ultimate kindness, that helping is so vital that we just live our lives in this spirit of giving back and being helpful. You never know who you’re going to touch or how deeply you’re going to touch them.

Dr. Trevor Cates: Right. And I do want to comment that it’s not like it’s that easy to just quit your job, right?

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: No. Sometimes that can bring on even more stress. Like there are many people right now that are out of work or underemployed. Because of the situation, they can’t work safely. I know I’m seeing the stressors in a lot of my friends and colleagues and it’s definitely a big deal. But if, like you said, if that job or what is the root of that issue, and until you can get to that and figure it out, that is going to be there. It’s the thorn in the foot.

I always give the example of the check engine light in your car. You have this check engine light, and it means that you need to take your car in, but it’s a symptom. It’s just something that’s telling you that something is wrong and needs to get checked on. So, you can unplug the cord to the check engine light, or you could go and take your car in. Naturopathic medicine is like going in, taking the car in, and getting to the root cause.

Dr. Trevor Cates: Yeah, absolutely. Okay, so let’s talk about what are some of your favorite things to do that you recommend to help with stress?

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: Oh gosh, there are so many. But I think, for me, I talked about giving back. Gratitude is one of them that I think is a little underrated. People are just starting to talk about gratitude. I’ve been lecturing on positive psychology for years. I know they didn’t really cover positive psychology too much in my program. It’s come to light much more lately. Are you familiar with that term? I don’t want to assume that your listeners are.

Dr. Trevor Cates: Why don’t you go ahead and explain it to us so that we’re up to speed.

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: Positive psychology is basically the study of being happy. In naturopathic medical school, we learned all of the ways of diagnosing people who are ill, what causes illness, what causes a disease and manifestation of that, and symptoms. But positive psychology is the study of what makes us happy. What are the characteristics, the common thread of people who are happy and content in their lives? What can we do to learn more about those things, so that we can then foster more positivity? Does that make sense?

Dr. Trevor Cates: Absolutely. I love it.

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: It’s very naturopathic in the way that it’s focusing on the positive, and cultivating wellness and health, mental health, rather than just an illness-based approach to healthcare and mental health. And so for me, gratitude is key to that. There’s literature that supports it mitigates stressors and improves quality of life. It can help strengthen our relationships and help our health. There’s growing research right now that it can be helpful in a host of conditions like anxiety and depression, and even heart disease and cancer.

When all of this hit, when the coronavirus first hit, my work was increasingly stressful. All of the naturopathic schools basically within a couple of days’ time had to move everything online, close all clinics to conventional patient care, and basically take care of all of their communities. It was really, there was a lot going on. At the same time, my husband, who is a hospital administrator, was working easily 12-14-hour days and my son was home from school. I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m getting overloaded. Where’s my own practice?”

I started doing that with us every night when I put my son to sleep. I said, “Okay, today we’re going to think of three things that we’re grateful for. I’m going to start because I need it just as much as you do probably.” I started this and it really just set the intention of, “Okay, yes, this is awful. This is really stressful. But within all of this, there are some things that we can find that are good.” It was very, very intentional to do that every single day. I even had my son, he’s still learning how to write, and I said, “Here’s a journal. Start writing in it. Just, you don’t have to write a whole lot, but write down something.” We just started that practice of incorporating gratitude and thankfulness.

In my neighborhood, our neighbors started chatting. I don’t know how your neighborhood is, but folks were checking in on each other. “Do you need anything? Hey, I got a grapefruit tree. You need some food? I can swap some grapefruits for something else you’ve got.” We just started checking in on each other and I was really grateful for that support system, for friends and that compassion. That gratitude is something that you can develop. It’s like a muscle. You have to practice at it. Because we can easily go mentally dark if we’re not careful and mindful of that.

The second thing, so gratitude is one, mindfulness is the other. I think mindfulness is so core to our awareness of being able to address things. Mindfulness lets us tune in to our body, and to our condition, and to our surroundings, and let us know, “How are we doing? Do we need to change anything? Is anything out of balance right now?” In the midst of being at my computer for lots and lots of hours, I started having some neck tension like, “All right, I need to check in. What’s different? What’s going on?” I realized I was wearing my shoulders as earrings again I’m like, “Oh, I haven’t done that since medical school.”

It was like, where do we hold the tension? Everyone is different, and tension and stress is going to manifest in your life in different ways. For me, it was my traps, and my neck, and my headaches all coming back and like, “Okay, I got to tune in.” I started be more mindful about my ergonomics and my computer, standing more at my desk rather than sitting down. I took steps and it’s gone. Rather than going a whole course of needing medication for pain, and all that kind of stuff, I allowed that mindfulness practice. I’m giving myself as an example right now, but I allowed that to guide the next things that were going to happen. Those, to me, are very, very powerful, but there are so many others.

I know you know this as an ND, getting outside, and right now we have to be safe about getting outside. But if you have the ability to get outside safely and get some sun on your skin, that’s a really good thing. If you can get outside and sweat and move, that’s another really good thing. I forced myself, even in the midst of this, to make sure that I putted around in my garden. I’ll get out there a couple of times a week and pull out weeds, and sweat a little bit, and it’s all good. So, however that looks for you or your listeners, it’s really putting together the plan that keeps you sane. For everybody, that’s going to be different.

Dr. Trevor Cates: Yeah, absolutely. I know that I travel, I used to usually travel a lot. I’ve always wanted to have a garden. I’ve made attempts before, but it usually ends up dying because I travel so much. Right now, I’m working on getting that going and I’m so excited. I’m grateful for having that allowance of, “Okay, now I have the time and opportunity to actually do this.” So yeah, being creative and patient, I think is certainly something to think about during this time, right?

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: Be gentle with yourself too. I know that a lot of folks have that self-talk. The brain inside your brain that talks to you and says things that may not be so positive. Part of that mindfulness, I think also is listening and being attentive to that self-talk and what’s your brain saying to you when no one else is looking? What’s that inner dialogue that goes on, and either puts yourself down, or you didn’t do a good enough job, and all of that mental stuff? Mindfulness isn’t just about the physical symptoms, but it’s also that inner voice too, and being mindful if those types of things are trying to creep in.

Dr. Trevor Cates: Right. Sort of like making an investment in your health, and because like you have to put some money into your bank account to keep it alive, and you can pay your bills, and all of that. You got to do this for your health too because you have to think ahead for things. It’s not just right now. Stress management of course helps in the moment, but it’s even more powerful for what it can do for the future, right?

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: It is. Stress management and just being attuned to the impact. So, we know physiologically the stress hormones do a whole lot in our body. It’s fight or flight. It’s the bear is chasing you in the woods and you need to go get safe, and so stress serves a purpose. Like I said earlier, there’s good stress. There’s the good part of if you see a car is about to hit you, your heart starts pumping faster. It gets blood to your legs. You can run across that street and get to safety. But those same hormones when they go overkill, and they’re used in a way that is too ongoing or too continuous, they’re going to start to do damage to our body over time.

So, it is really important to be attuned to that stress and know your triggers, know the types of things that can help you manage those triggers better or avoid them altogether. Some people, I brought up that family example, and some people have family dynamics that are very stressful, and sometimes it makes more sense to stay away from those, or minimize those if they are going to be more detrimental to your health.

Dr. Trevor Cates: Right. Yeah, it’s not always possible to do that, but certainly it’s about balance. Doing what you can. And certainly coping mechanisms, any suggestions on for people who, especially if they’re forced to be with their family right now, and maybe they can’t really get away. Are there things that you can recommend that to help people sort of through that time?

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: That’s a really great point. Right now I know we’re starting to see some data coming out that there’s increase in risk for domestic violence, increased risk for verbal abuse, and all of that right now. I think all of the things that we can do under normal circumstances to cope and to manage. We talked about gratitude. We talked about journaling. Social support is important, having a network of people you can rely on. Then physical exercise, all of the things that you can do, mindfulness practices, gratitude practices.

I spoke maybe a month ago on a radio show and there was a big uptick in alcohol sales when all of this occurred (click here to listen to the podcast). They were starting to see a lot of increase in people relying on alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with what’s going on here. Again, it’s awareness of what are the positive coping mechanisms that you can rely on and what are some ones that may have detrimental effects? If you’re being mindful and you’re recognizing, “Oh, I used to have a glass of wine like a couple of times a week, and now it’s every night. Is that a practice that I want to continue?” Check in with yourself and say, “I don’t know if that’s a practice I want to continue. So how can I change that for myself?”

Like you said, you have to invest in yourself. If you’re checked out on yourself, nobody can do this for you. This is the type of thing that we can, as naturopathic doctors, help patients and educate them to what’s healthy and what can be a help for them. But we can’t do it for you. That’s when that investment in yourself kicks in.

Dr. Trevor Cates: Can you explain why drinking alcohol is a negative coping mechanism? Because I think it’s such a cultural thing, a big factor of that is it’s cultural. It just becomes such a pattern for people that they don’t really realize that it’s a negative coping mechanism, so can you talk to that a little bit?

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: Sure. From a biological perspective, alcohol turns into very readily available sugar. From a physiology perspective, not even talking about the impacts on brain tissue and all of that, but just the basics, it’s going to raise blood sugar, which if you’re trying to manage weight, if you’re trying to manage your hormones and all of that is going to cause a challenge or can cause a challenge. It can impact our sleep cycle. There are so many different physiological things that we learn about with alcohol and its metabolism that it can impact it. There’s a greater impact in some cases on females than males, just because of body mass, and metabolism, and so on.

When you think about coping mechanisms, your coping mechanism for a stressor shouldn’t put more stress on your body. It should be the relieving of stress, not adding to it. If that coping mechanism for you… I would venture, I would even throw in excess exercise, excess anything. If that coping mechanism, too much shopping, too much whatever, is if it’s going above and beyond, if it’s adding more stress, then it isn’t an appropriate coping mechanism. That’s the sort of thing that we should just be mindful of, again, that mindful word. But if that stressor is going to add more into the bucket in the terms of stress on your body and on your system, then it probably isn’t the best coping mechanism to be thinking of. I hope that that made sense.

Dr. Trevor Cates: Yeah, it does. What do you think is too much alcohol just in general? I know this is in part, it’s a very personal thing and it depends on the individual, but do you have like something you recommend to your patients? That’s like try not to drink more than blank?

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: I don’t make any recommendations for folks regarding that. It’s a very sensitive topic, for some people with history of alcoholism, one drink is too much. Or with family histories, I’ve had folks over the years who have family histories of alcoholism, and they just prefer, “You know what? I don’t need that in my life. It’s represented too much negativity and there are so many other good things, that I don’t need to bring that into the situation.”

I think it’s a personal check-in. That’s the type of thing that somebody should probably be checking in with their own practitioners to make sure that where they’re at is good for them, and their metabolism, and where their body is at that time, their coping mechanisms, and so on. For some folks, that might be a drink or two a week. Some folks, that might be none. I think it just very much is individualized.

Dr. Trevor Cates: Yeah, okay, great. Thank you.

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: Yeah.

Dr. Trevor Cates: The positive coping mechanisms are more, like you said, the gratitude, the mindfulness, getting out in nature, getting some exercise, but not overdoing it. I do have some patients in Park City that have overdone it with exercise, that are people that just they go too hard. It can have a negative impact on the body too. Since you mentioned that, again, what is that tipping point? How do people know when it’s too much of a good thing has become a bad thing?

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: That’s a really good question. Again, not to be totally putting it off, but it is going to vary somewhat on the individuals, and your age, and your body health. I think ultimately if we go back to that point I made earlier, if this is the type of thing that is adding to the stress of your body, then it’s moved into more of the negative bucket. Some physical wear and tear is to be expected as we age, with exercise, and so on, but that little tipping point is really going to be listening to your body.

And okay, this running was fabulous. Running was a stress reliever, but now running is turning into my knees hurt every single time, and I can’t walk afterwards for a day. Now we need to start looking at okay, what’s the impact of this exercise? What is it maybe triggering or causing us to pay attention to? Maybe there’s some other underlying issues that this is just bringing to the surface.

I think for everybody, it’s going to be somewhat individualized. It’s going to depend on your conditioning. There are extreme athletes. When I was in training, I had the pleasure of working with the team doctor for the Phoenix Suns and the Phoenix Coyotes. It was so much fun, but I remember standing in awe of the physicality of what these folks were able to do. Their heart rates were at levels where, I was standing with a cardiologist and he said, “If you ever see this on anyone else, call 911 because this is not normal heart rhythm.” But it was the sort of thing that I think it is going to vary somewhat on the person’s athletic conditioning, on their age, on their underlying medical conditions, and so on. But again, if something starts causing more stress and more strain, that’s your sign to maybe check in and say, “Is this really as good a thing as I thought it was?”

Dr. Trevor Cates: Yeah, absolutely. All right. Well, this has been so fascinating talking about stress. Anything else that you want to tell people about it, like where to start with stress management, if they’re just trying to find? Because you mentioned, it’s something people have to train themselves to do. Like the gratitude is something, especially like you got to reprogram yourself. Any tips on how to getting into that for people who it’s kind of a new thing for?

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: So, on the AANMC website, I’m the executive director for the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges, and we have lots of blogs and tips and tricks for this. But I always tell folks, “Start small. You don’t tackle Mount Everest the first time you go hiking. This is the sort of thing that you have to build into it and you have to practice.”

And so, with gratitude, you can start with just three things every day that you’re grateful for. It’s pretty easy. It’s pretty low hanging fruit. That’s something most of us can commit to doing. The mindfulness practice that I like personally, I do it at night. I will just as I’m laying in bed, getting myself ready for sleep, it’s just a real quick check in. I start at my head and I start just kind of okay, scanning my body from top down. How am I feeling? What are my thoughts? What am I feeling in my body?

And without judgment, and the judgment part is the most important part. So it’s not, “Oh man, I got pain in my neck. I’m such a dumb wad for not knowing about ergonomics and not listening to my own advice.” You banish all that judgment stuff. It’s just listen, feel, scan without all the judgy stuff. Let that go. What I’ll do every night before bed is just scan top to bottom. The other bonus is that it starts to relax you, so that hopefully you can go to sleep a little bit easier.

Dr. Trevor Cates: Yeah, that’s a great tip. I love that one. That’s fantastic. Well, it’s been so great having you on. Tell everybody where they can learn more about you and the association.

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: Sure. So, I’m Dr. JoAnn Yanez, and aanmc.org is our website. We’re also all over social media, Instagram, and Facebook, and Twitter, and so on, so check us out. If you are, or any of your loved ones are interested in learning more about naturopathic medical school, like Dr. Cates and I did, feel free to check out our website. We’ve got lots of information. We also host free monthly events on our website on all different types of health topics like allergies, and oncology/cancer, and women’s health, and stress.

Dr. Trevor Cates: Right. So, even if you’re not interested in becoming a student, there’s still plenty of information for the general public on the website. That’s fantastic. I love that. And it’s so funny, so you and I met while we were in naturopathic medical school. We were at different schools, but we were the first group to do the International Naturopathic Student Association.

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: INMSA.

Dr. Trevor Cates: We had representatives from the different schools, and we all met up in Canada at the Canadian school that was there, and started to brainstorming in how to help our colleges communicate better. Right?

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: It was. I remember we had to send things by mail and that was challenging. I think we probably would have had a lot more luck getting it off the ground with today’s internet connectivity.

Dr. Trevor Cates: Yes, definitely. This was 24 years, 23 years? Okay. That one didn’t survive, but then it got revived and turned into something new. And I’m so glad that you’re still involved in an aspect of this, so it’s really fantastic. Thank you for all the work that you do.

Dr. JoAnn Yanez: Oh, well, thank you so much for having me on, and for raising awareness for patients and folks all over about how they can stay healthy naturally.

Dr. Trevor Cates: Yeah, thank you. I hope you enjoyed this interview today with Dr. Yanez, and to learn more about her and the AANMC, the association that she was talking about, you can go to the spadoctor.com, go to the podcast page with our interview, and you’ll find all the information and links there. And while you’re there, I invite you to join The Spa Doctor community, so you don’t miss any of our upcoming shows and information. If you haven’t taken the skin quiz yet, you can go to theskinquiz.com. It’s a free online quiz to help you figure out what your skin is trying to tell you about your health and what you can do about it. Just go to theskinquiz.com. I also invite you to join The Spa Doctor on social media. We’re on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Pinterest. And I will see you next time on The Spa Dr. Podcast.


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