Interview with Performance Coach and Professional Dancer Dr. Ellen Reed

Photo Credit: Dr. Ellen Reed

Health Fitness Revolution: What drew you to the field of mental health and made you passionate about this work?

Dr. Ellen Reed: I heard someone say that “You are most perfectly positioned to serve that who you used to be,” and that is exactly how my performance coaching career has evolved. I have always been interested in psychology and how the brain works. I have a doctorate in experimental psychology, with an emphasis on cognition, so I’m really a researcher by training, although I’ve been coaching for over 18 years now. I also had a long career as a professional dancer. I actually just retired from dancing about a year and a half ago, so I was living sort of a double life for a while. 

Back to serving “that who I used to be”— I was always a perfectionist high-achiever. I was an A+ student, homecoming queen, a member of every club, you name it.… And I was always incredibly stressed and overwhelmed. In fact, this constant subtle stress, anxiety, and overwhelm didn’t even seem to be much of a problem because it was so “normal” for me. In fact, sadly this is incredibly normal. These days, happiness isn’t even normal. Self-confidence isn’t normal. Being fulfilled isn’t normal. What’s pretty normal is to wake up every morning feeling incredibly stressed and overwhelmed, as I did.

I was really lucky before my career even started, right before I was starting graduate school to meet my now colleague Dr. Jason Selk, who developed many of the fundamentals and tools that I now teach my own clients. I started by implementing them for myself

I have always loved the way science and research informs us on how we can live our best lives. Most people don’t know how simple success in life truly is. I feel very lucky to be in a position to make a huge impact on people’s outward success and internal happiness and contentment. 

Health Fitness Revolution: How can we, as a society, collectively prioritize mental health and cultivate a culture of overall well-being and resilience?

Dr. Ellen Reed: This starts by addressing our relationships to problems. As humans, we are wired with problem-centric thought (PCT), which means that we focus on our shortcomings or problems first and foremost. This used to be important to our survival as a species, but now it, frankly, makes us miserable and causes us to underperform. A theory in psychology states that which you focus on expands (Expectancy Theory). Put simply, when we focus on our problems, our problems become worse. Resilience is a great word, but most people don’t know how to develop this. We teach people exactly how to develop a Relentless Solution Focus, which is essentially a concrete way of training optimism and resilience. The research on optimism has been extensive. Optimistic people are healthier, happier, have better friendships, sleep better, and the list goes on and on. And my favorite stat is that people with optimism and a Relentless Solution Focus live on average up to 14 years longer than those who don’t. The definition of Relentless Solution Focus is the mind’s ability to stay focused on solutions, especially in the face of adversity. Remember, that which you focus on expands. When we are relentless about forcing our thoughts onto potential solutions, we become significantly better able to attack our problems, maintain confidence, and keep a handle on our mental health.

Health Fitness Revolution: How has your specialized training enabled you to make a meaningful impact in transforming lives and advancing mental health?

Dr. Ellen Reed: It’s one thing to know what you should be doing to improve your life, which I find most people do (or at least have a pretty good idea), but it’s another to actually execute on it. What I believe we are among the best in the world at is teaching people exactly how to become more resilient, optimistic, and relentless. And this starts with training our brains. Remember, it is normal to be stressed out, overwhelmed, and consumed by focusing on problems, which means that this is our default way of thinking. Without specific training to combat this “normal,” we will always defer back to our default. The great news is that we can take advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity (the ability for the brain to mold itself through training) to change what is normal for us. We teach two very concrete tools to do just this—the mental workout and success log. In total, this training takes about two to three minutes per day to complete, and trains your brain to make Relentless Solution Focus and resilience your norm, instead of PCT. 

Health Fitness Revolution: What trends in the field are you most excited about or see having promising potential to transform care?

Dr. Ellen Reed: I have to say that I am most excited about the trend of “mental health” itself right now. It seems strange to say, but mental health is trending! It is now “cool” to pay attention to and address your mental health, which was not always the case. When my 8-year-old son is struggling at school, he has no hesitation to announce that he needs to visit the school counselor, with no regard for who hears him. That openness wasn’t a thing when I was in grade school. 

Health Fitness Revolution: Which books on mental health have significantly influenced you or are your personal favorites?

Dr. Ellen Reed: “Brain Rules” by Dr. John Medina. He did a comprehensive literature review on the impacts of exercise on our physical, cognitive, and emotion health, and the research is too compelling to ignore. When it comes to the benefits and protective features of exercise, there isn’t even a close second. Exercise is so important, but there are so many people who just don’t know how to prioritize it—it becomes secondary to all the other things they have piled on their plates. This is one of the very first things we target with new clients if they aren’t already exercising consistently. 

Health Fitness Revolution: How do you perceive the interplay between mental and physical health, considering the CDC’s stance on their equal significance? For instance, the CDC highlights the link between conditions like depression and the increased risk of long-term physical health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. What are your thoughts on this important connection?

Dr. Ellen Reed: Again, 99% of the time, the first thing I have my clients commit to is exercise, if they are not already doing it. Specifically, cardiovascular exercise at least 30 minutes, three times per week, with the heart rate above 130bpm. You can not separate mental and physical health. Exercise is the most effective anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication out there. It may not get you all the way there (although, it very well might!), but there is simply no way it won’t get you significant progress. I will say it this way, which may be hard for some people to hear—if you are not exercising consistently, there is no chance you are living your best life. 

Photo Credit: Dr. Ellen Reed

Health Fitness Revolution: Many of us think that mental health is solely related to mental illness, however, it is possible to have a mental health condition and be mentally fit. Can you provide further insight on this notion?

Dr. Ellen Reed: Many people have been diagnosed with a mental health condition and are mentally fit, myself included! It is important to point out a flaw in our system, here. We need to understand the purpose of diagnoses. We oftentimes need an official “diagnosis” to qualify for certain supports, but people often misunderstand this diagnosis as a piece of their identity that they can’t work on or improve. In college, before I started implementing the mental toughness fundamentals that I now teach my clients, I needed to have a “diagnosis” of generalized anxiety disorder to be able to qualify to meet with a therapist. What is scary is that many people receive a mental health diagnosis and feel like they are doomed. For example, “I will always be anxious because I ‘have anxiety.’” Unfortunately, that mentality will likely make that true for you. But it doesn’t have to be your reality! Yes, we all have different predispositions and tendencies, but don’t underestimate the power of neuroplasticity. When you work on it, it will improve!

Health Fitness Revolution: In what ways do you envision future AI technologies having the potential to enhance the treatment and management of mental health imbalances?

Dr. Ellen Reed: I think it’s great. Yes, AI is intimidating, but it can be an incredible tool. The best treatment will always be prevention. AI can play an important role in helping people stay on track with habits and behaviors that have a major impact on their mental health. We have an app designed for parents’ mental health that does just that. In the app, the daily training is built in to help people implement. Solid metal health doesn’t require a lot of complexity. It requires the consistency of the important things.

Health Fitness Revolution: How do you perceive the unique ways in which each generation approaches and addresses mental health concerns? Please elaborate on the distinct factors and trends that shape the mental health landscape across different generations.

Dr. Ellen Reed: In my experience, kids embrace it. Mental health is much more embedded into the curriculum in schools, and there is space for kids to struggle with it and receive support. There is just so much more of a focus on it now, which opens up people’s comfort level with talking about what they are struggling with. While this is ultimately a really good thing, I am also very sensitive to being very careful about putting the focus on solutions and the positive, rather ruminating on problems. 

Photo Credit: Dr. Ellen Reed

Health Fitness Revolution: What is your vision for the state of humanity in the year 2050?

Dr. Ellen Reed: If more people will adopt a relentless focus on solutions instead of contributing to talking about and focusing on problems, the world will collectively be in a much better place. I find that people really want to work on this, they just haven’t been taught how.  

Health Fitness Revolution: What are your thoughts on General Surgeon Vivek Murthy’s assertion that loneliness has developed into a significant public health concern in America? I’d like to hear your perspective on this matter.

Dr. Ellen Reed: Meaningful relationships were shown in a Harvard longitudinal study to be the number one factor for longevity. They are incredibly important and serve as a hugely protective factor. But an important key to understand is that there are ways to nurture this “belonging” need in us as humans beyond even marriage or family. The little interactions we have add up to a lot—the friendly convo with your barista, the kind interaction in the grocery store, the camaraderie at a sporting event… Think of every kind gesture you make as paying you back dividends on your health and longevity.  

Health Fitness Revolution: What are three practical tips or recommendations you would provide to Americans seeking to prioritize and improve their mental health?

Dr. Ellen Reed:

1. Get in the habit of recognizing what you are doing well. Remember, this is not normal for us as humans. What is normal is to do 99 things right in a day, and one thing less than perfectly, and then to be focused on that one imperfection at the end of the day. Research shows that self-confidence is the number one variable for all human performance, and our normal PCT is great at derailing self-confidence. The first question in the success log that our clients complete each is, “What 3 things did I do well in the last 24 hours?” Incredibly simple. Incredibly impactful. 

2. Be relentless about staying focused on improvement, not perfection. Use this question to do so—it is called the Relentless Solution Focus question, and it trains your brain to search for solutions when focused on problems or PCT: “What is one thing I can do that could help make this better?” Use it on repeat. 

3. Respect the brain’s bandwidth. Anything more than trying to implement or change one thing at a time is a recipe for inconsistency. Most people get discouraged because they try to focus on or improve too much at once—and any more than one is too much! Choose one thing you want to focus on implementing— maybe it’s increasing exercise, or writing down three “done wells” daily, or improving your diet—don’t be tempted to focus on more than one at a time. But ALWAYS have one thing you are working on improving. Humans are goal-seeking beings. We find joy and fulfillment from working toward goals. 

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