Women in Wellness Interview: “Practice brain care as self-care”

Dr. Krystal L. Culler, DBH, MA
Founder
By

Practice brain care as self-care. Make your brain health a priority and not an option. Start simple. Purposefully make 1 decision each day that is better for your brain and body. Small changes can lead to big results and lasting habits.

As a part of our series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Krystal L. Culler, DBH, MA.

Dr. Krystal L. Culler, DBH, M.A. is the Founder of the Virtual Brain Health Center. She is a Doctor of Behavioral Health, a social gerontologist, and a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health with Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, where she completed her residency training on dementia prevention and social determinants of brain health. Krystal has held Executive-level positions with health non-profit organizations, has over a decade of wellness program experience receiving multiple awards for innovation and community impact, and has over 15 years of experience working with individuals with brain health concerns, their families, and advocacy organizations.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

When I look back on my twenties it seems that all roads led to the brain in one way or another. I was 27 years old when I had my seizure and my “5-year plan” at the time went out the window. (I was in a Ph.D. program and was planning to be a university professor.) My mom was recently diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and my grandmother, who I was very close with, was nearing the end of her journey with Dementia. Women’s brain health issues were at the forefront of my personal life.

I had recently finished my master’s degree in psychology of adult development in aging and had spent just shy of a decade working with individuals with developmental disabilities, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, and other brain-based diseases as a direct care provider. All roads were leading back to the brain while making brain care a priority for myself, my family, and the communities I served.

It took my own brain misfiring to abruptly redirect my career path but it was a true blessing in disguise. In about two years’ time, my brain and body healed from most of the trauma that stemmed from this isolated event, but I still have lingering effects that I manage today that have manifested in other brain-based diseases. However, over the past 9 years I have learned a lot on my personal brain care path and I am still a student. Fortunately, I found my way to understanding more about the mind-body connection, exploring spirituality/meditation, and other aspects of wellness for my personal care which transferred over to my work life, too. While finding tools to support my own brain care, I found an area that is of growing interest to many aging adults- brain health and wellness.

Luckily, the brain health and wellness field encompass many things and I get to be a lifelong learner everyday while building off of my doctorate in behavioral health and training in aging. Although brain health is the field I choose to work in, it is also personal as I have to continuously work on my personal brain care for my own wellbeing very single day. I carry this forward to my work in striving to share brain care for all.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

One of the lessons that I learned the hard way in my first role was to take time off and say, “No”. Well, these are the lessons I carry forward with me today to support my personal wellness. At the time I had landed my “dream job” and I loved it. I didn’t think twice about working long hours, firing up my laptop once I got home to do more work, checking my email first thing in the morning, and many of the other common mistakes related to work and home life boundaries. I was in an Executive-level position and rarely took time off other than a couple of days here and there. Long story short when the company switched to a PTO policy, my PTO bank ended up being very large- above the payout when I resigned- what a HUGE mistake!

Sadly, I knew the wellness tips regarding taking time to rest and restore, and even did some of the organization’s wellness trainings in the workplace. But I did not follow the information that I would teach in the trainings. I had a hard time saying “no” to projects that would add more to my workload already and I would be given promotions and more tasks. By the time I resigned from that particular role I was responsible for all the duties of what was previously 5 different positions. I made some of the common workplace mistakes despite knowing what to do. I got stuck in the rut and unfortunately my health paid for it in numerous ways.

It wasn’t about the money. It was about taking the time to take care of myself and I didn’t make that a priority. I treated my self-care like an option. Looking back, I didn’t even take bereavement days when both of my grandparents died. I went from a funeral out of state back to work to do an event in the same day. When I professionally resigned from the company nothing mattered in the end — not the extra hours, not going above and beyond, not being denied time off, etc.- nothing other than the fact that I had the intention to leave the organization and move on. I told myself this was a lesson to carry forward with me today and it is one I have worked hard to maintain- there is not a price for my health and wellness and restoration is a key support for my wellbeing.

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Fortunately, no “big” mistakes yet, but all errors are opportunities to learn. I have had a couple of comical missteps along the way while learning new things. When I first started the Virtual Brain Health Center I had to set up and research social media. I say “research” as I did not know the rules, general purpose of each platform, how they were different, or even how to use a hashtag! I quickly learned that I am what has been dubbed a “geriatric millennial” and I probably should have been paying more attention to others when they talked and shared information about social media (all those hashtag jokes make sense to me now!). I was over a decade late to Instagram, but we all start somewhere, right? I secured our business’s social media handles and was learning the basics for posts, images, graphics, and hashtags.

One of our common classes is on meditation and my fingers got the best of me. I invited others to “mediate” with us. Not even close in context but close in spelling! I soon realized you are not able to edit information on some social media platforms like others. I was so embarrassed but I took solace in knowing that I would make many more mistakes and learn from them. I also held out hope on my knowledge of brain science that most people might not catch the mistake as their brains would fill it in for them based on the information from the picture rather than the text (ha-ha). Lesson learned. Now I double and triple check my posts!

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 have been so fortunate to have had two incredibly smart, talented, caring, and generous supervisors in both of my positions in industry- Ross and Sheila. They both challenged me in different ways in my early career and supported my personal growth. I learned a lot from both of them and thoroughly enjoyed working with them.

I will forever be grateful for their genuine investment in my development throughout my time with them as they were wonderful supervisors and the main reason I stayed in my roles. I hope that in the future if I get a chance to lead an organization that I can do so with a blend of lessons that I learned from both of them- Ross’s candor, encouragement, and big ideas, and Sheila’s strength, grace, and value-driven leadership- just to name a few. Thank you, Ross and Sheila, for taking a few hits for me along the way, too, as I am sure that you did in order to help me succeed. I appreciate you both.

Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

I work in the field of brain health and wellness with a focus on equity in serving aging adults, caregivers, families, communities, and providers. Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to work with individuals of all ages and I’m trained in a lifespan approach to adult development and aging; therefore, I carry this over to my work in the wellness field. For years, I have stated that brain health and wellness is for everyone- every single person- no exclusions.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.

1. Practice brain care as self-care. Make your brain health a priority and not an option. Start simple. Purposefully make 1 decision each day that is better for your brain and body. Small changes can lead to big results and lasting habits.

2. Pay attention to your body’s clock. Our body’s internal clock is known as a circadian rhythm which can impact our health and optimal time of day to do certain tasks at a biological and functional level. This preference for time can be used to adjust tasks that require more of our focus to our peak performance hours when we are the most alert and readily able to focus. It can be helpful to notice our time of day preferences and to modify our routines around our natural body rhythms when we can. Minor adjustments to optimize our peak performance hours can set ourselves up for success. Aim to tackle high demand tasks or projects at your peak time and reschedule other lower demand tasks such as meetings or virtual coffees at hours that are not your prime time for an instant boost in focus. (For more information take a morning/eveningness questionnaire to identify your preference.)

3. Sit less, stand more. A very simple way to add more movement to your day is to sit less and stand more (if you are able to do so). Most Americans sit way too much (an average of 6.5–10 hours a day) and this number keeps creeping up! Noteworthy: sitting for six to eight hours per day is as dangerous as smoking a pack of cigarettes and we recognize how detrimental this can be for both our brain health and physical health.

A simple technique to try is the “sit-stand-switch” philosophy, where you rotate between sitting and/or standing every 30 minutes or so for optimal health. Even taking a few-minute break from sitting at least every hour can offer benefits. For example, stand a little longer after using the restroom during a commercial break if you can or think of other ways to add standing to your day. (Please try this only if you are able to do so safely.)

4. Take 5 minute brain breaks. The “sit-stand-switch” technique also endorses brain breaks for wellbeing. Take five-minute brain breaks between sitting/standing to prevent fatigue. Get up and move, do some light stretching, take deep belly breaths, spend time with your pet, get outside, or dance to some of your favorite music- these are just a few examples of brain breaks. A brain break should be purposeful engagement in a brief, meaningful exercise or activity and a “break” from other tasks that require concentration and focus. Following a movement-based brain break, you should experience an uplift in mood and motivation. Take multiple brain breaks daily and move often. (Schedule brain breaks on your calendar to honor the time if it is helpful.)

5. Redesign your day. Notice where the bulk of your time goes and what exercises, activities, people, communities, spaces, etc. bring you joy, happiness, calm, and other positive emotions. Do what you can to spend your time on the things that are the most important to you. Making shifts to intentionally design our day to uplift yourself can have a profound impact on your personal wellness.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Brain care for all. To keep our brains top of mind and to provide awareness, education, and support to everyone without silos across disciplines or fragmented services such as medical care, behavioral health services, community-based services, and more. Ideally the movement would make talking about what we are doing for our brain care a normal chat that we have with our friends, families, and communities (not just our healthcare providers when there is a concern, if we even mention it!). This would be the movement to building better brains for all- every single one of us and we can do it together!

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

1. Your time, money, and energy all have value. Do not dismiss any of them or your wellbeing and business can be impacted.

2. Use your voice. You can speak up about topics and issues that matter to you and your work in a way that is just, fair, honest, and tolerant of others. Your voice can be a guide and tool for others within your work, as well as, yourself when practicing self-care or unmet needs.

3. Don’t force anything in business or life. If an idea, partnership, collaboration or anything is meant to align it will. There is not a need to force things that do not seem to flow naturally. Ultimately, this will waste time and energy (and possibly money) down the line.

4. Find your tribe and be willing to grow. Surround yourself with individuals who genuinely want you to succeed with no strings attached and individuals who can challenge you to grow. Look for communities and spaces or groups where you can make a valuable contribution and honor the tribe that supports you.

5. Celebrate the milestones. Don’t get so focused on the next thing that you overlook the current milestone or diminish the accomplishment that has just occurred- big or small. Small moments and big moments have an impact on business and life every single day. Keep a list of milestones or an annual gratitude jar as a great way to re-visit the year’s highlights.

Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

Although all these issues are important, mental health and wellness is a dear cause to me right now especially during the time that we are living in. The sentiment of being kind to our mind cannot be dismissed and the unsettling pandemic and global unrest can be felt by all in many different ways- mind, body, and spirit. Learning tools to support our mental wellness is an ongoing, lifelong skill. We must work towards nurturing our minds and building skills across our lifetimes to support our ongoing, dynamic mental wellness needs which ebb and flow. Mental health matters.

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

I welcome new connections on my personal and business social media accounts. Reach out to chat about wellness, the brain, Ireland, or dogs anytime.

@DrKrystalCuller on LinkedIn, Twitter, & Instagram

@VirtualBrainHealthCenter on LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook

@VirtualBrainCtr on Twitter

Visit us at https://www.virtualbrainhealthcenter.com/ and sign up to receive our free “30 Minutes to Daily Brain Care” handout to support your optimal wellbeing.

Thank you for these fantastic insights!

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