Women In Wellness: Dr Vassilia Binensztok Of Juno Counseling and Wellness On The Five Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Help Support People’s Journey Towards Better Wellbeing

Women In Wellness: Dr Vassilia Binensztok Of Juno Counseling and Wellness On The Five Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Help Support People’s Journey Towards Better Wellbeing

Don’t go it alone — As someone who could not rely on many adults growing up, I learned to rely on myself. While this is a useful skill, it also led me to isolate, to refuse to ask for help, or even to push people away. I learned that every successful person had someone’s help. Whether it is receiving advice, making a connection, or just giving mutual support, we do better when we work with others.

Today, more than ever, wellness is at the forefront of societal discussions. From mental health to physical well-being, women are making significant strides in bringing about change, introducing innovative solutions, and setting new standards. Despite facing unique challenges, they break barriers, inspire communities, and are reshaping the very definition of health and wellness. In this series called women in wellness we are talking to women doctors, nurses, nutritionists, therapists, fitness trainers, researchers, health experts, coaches, and other wellness professionals to share their stories and insights. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Vassilia Binensztok.

Dr. Vassilia Binensztok is a licensed and board-certified mental health counselor specializing in the treatment of adults with childhood trauma and anxiety disorders. She is the founder and owner of Juno Counseling and Wellness, a private group psychotherapy practice. Dr. Binensztok has authored several counseling textbooks and articles, serves as an affiliate professor of counseling for Northwestern University, and sits on several nonprofit board of directors.

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?

Most of my life, I felt very lost. I grew up in a dysfunctional home with a lot of physical and emotional abuse from my father and neglect from both parents. In many ways, my mother was a victim too, so that complicated our relationship further. I often felt unloved and unwanted, as my father would stress that I was a nuisance, inconvenience, burden, and overall worthless person. Still, my parents had very high standards for me. I was expected to get straight As and excel at everything, even though my parents did not support, or were not involved in, any of my activities. Failing to find any role models at home, I looked elsewhere. As I looked up to my teachers, friends’ parents, and even strangers I saw looking professional driving to work, one thing was to me — I wanted more in life. I didn’t want to end up like my mother. I didn’t want to end up like the person my father portrayed me as. I didn’t know where I would end up or how I would get there, but I knew I wanted to accomplish big things and leave my mark on the world.

I took an interest in many topics, but mostly poetry. Writing was my escape and I decided I would major in creative writing in college. I did everything I could to put together a stellar resume to get into college, including having several poems published in literary journals. This was in the 90s and everything had to be done on paper, so I was constantly printing out my poems at the local library and mailing off stacks of envelopes. I managed to make myself as well-rounded a candidate as I could. Then, in the middle of my plans, things took a turn. In my senior year of high school, I was in a car accident with my parents. We were hit head on by a drunk driver and both my parents passed away. I had a month-long hospital stay with numerous surgeries and physical therapy that taught me how to walk again. Simultaneously, I found out I was accepted into my dream school — Dartmouth College.

I persevered and went to college that fall but I didn’t feel like the same person. Sadly, my parents dying actually liberated me from the abuse I experienced growing up. But I also never felt more alone. I spiraled into a deep depression, which I battled for years with therapy and medication. Because of the lack of mental health awareness at the time, I did not know that I had complex posttraumatic stress, or that I had been experiencing developmental trauma through my childhood. I even found it challenging to write. Here I was at my dream college majoring in creative writing, exactly as I had set out to do, and I found no inspiration in anything. I ditched my goal of getting a master’s in fine arts and when I graduated; I had no job and no prospects. I felt like a complete failure.

I didn’t realize it at the time but having no direction is what opened my path to where I am today. When I graduated and looked for jobs, I looked at different industries where I could use my skills. I saw a job as a case manager for children who had experienced abuse and neglect and were in foster care. With my sociology minor, and my obvious interest in helping this population, I applied. That first job out of college opened me up to such an interesting world. I thought about the years I spent suffering as a kid, the struggles with mental health, the feeling of being completely hopeless, and that’s when I realized what my calling was and how I would change the world.

Luckily, despite my trials, I never gave up on that promise I made myself as a little girl — that I would have more than where I came from, that I would make the world a better place, and that I would leave my mark. Unfortunately, I believe I am still partially driven by those deep feelings of shame and worthlessness that were instilled in me by my father — trying to prove him wrong on an unconscious level. At the same time, I feel I was put through those trials so I could help others. As psychologist Marsha Linehan said, “I made a vow to God that I would get myself out of hell and that, once I did, I would go back into hell and get others out.” That quote resonated with me as I came to embrace my tumultuous past and worked to become a light for others.

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?

Because I had so much experience working with the child welfare system, when I was in private practice, I was asked to work privately on a case for the Department of Children and Families. Many details of the case were murky or contested and the parties involved struggled to determine whether the children should be returned to their mother. While no one could prove that the mother posed any significant risk to the children, she displayed certain quirks and oddities that raised an eyebrow for the state. This was my first encounter with a case so ambiguous in the state system, as cases typically concerned obvious abuse and neglect.

After reading dozens of reports and research articles to help make a case determination, I realized that while many authors referred to use of “minimal parenting standards,” I could not find any meaningful and clear outline as to what constitutes such standards, particularly when cultural factors are at play. In my pursuit, I wrote a book to answer these questions, titled, Multicultural Child Maltreatment Risk Assessment: Effective evaluation for diverse populations. The ultimate question was, where do you draw the line between safety and risk in ambiguous cases?

In this book, I created a model for adequate parenting. Factors like love, nurturing, physical care, safety, adequate personal functioning, facilitating child development, etc. constitute adequate parenting. Qualities like financial means, differences in family and cultural tradition, differing child rearing practices, and personal values should not necessarily influence decisions on whether parents are adequate or not. Still, cultural differences in discipline style must be evaluated carefully, as sometimes abuse is abuse, even if it is something that was practiced through generations.

It is most important to assess these issues when we are talking about the state entering a family and imposing rules and interventions, and/or removing children from biological families. Research shows that children have better outcomes when they stay with their biological parents than they do in foster care, but still must be protected from abusive or neglectful parents. Families also need to be protected from forced government intervention, especially when this intervention is imperialistic in nature, in the case of Western standards being used to assess families of completely different cultures. I aim to continue this work, creating a useful evaluation tool.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about a mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of the biggest mistakes I made when I began my work in human services and therapy was feeling responsible for rescuing everyone. I would take all my cases home with me, ruminate on them, and take any roadblock or failure personally. I felt helpless in the face of other people’s challenges. This made me overreach with clients and with friends. With clients, I would pile too much information on them too soon, trying to get them to do all the things I believed they needed to do to change, not allowing them time to explore their own path. With friends, I took their problems on myself and offered to help, forming a sort of codependent relationship. Eventually, I learned you can only help when someone wants help and if they are actively working to help themselves.

I see this arc in new and student therapists and always have to address it with interns. New therapists want to help everyone, and they are armed with a brand-new arsenal of helping skills that they are eager to use. I see them feel helpless when a client is in a difficult position, especially one that cannot be changed, like loss of a partner or death of a loved one. They become emotionally affected by their clients’ woes and feel an urge to DO something. Or they encounter a client who is not ready to do the work and they feel frustrated at the client’s pace In these instances, I remind my students and interns that we only play a part in people’s journeys. They might create major change in their lives that we never see, because it manifests years after our working with them. Often, for clients who are resistant or not ready, our work plants seeds for future change.

Ultimately, I learned that a lot of ego is involved in having a rescuer complex. A coach once asked me, “why do you think only you can help all these people?” Then I realized I was ego tripping thinking that I was somehow a better helper, that I knew what people needed more than they did, and that only I could get the job done right. The truth is you don’t have to take on the entire burden for anyone. Others can help, they can help themselves, true change comes from within, and you can’t always alter the path someone is on, nor should you.

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?

The two main things I hope to accomplish are to inform the treatment of complex posttraumatic stress, and modernize the way that people receive psychological treatment. When I finally began my own healing journey, there was no information on complex trauma. I was being treated for this symptom or that symptom but there was no comprehensive way to address the root cause of all my issues. I piecemealed interventions like cognitive-behavioral therapy, existential therapy, and inner child work. Still, it wasn’t until interventions like Dialectical Behavior Therapy, EMDR, and now Somatic Experiencing became popularized that we had any full scope way of treating the myriad of symptoms that arise with complex trauma. Yet, the literature still lags in providing therapists a solid framework for treating complex posttraumatic stress and informing the public on this issue. Through my social media, I work to provide information and hope for childhood trauma survivors. I am also working on a self-help book and treatment program for adult survivors of childhood trauma.

In the group practice I founded, all the therapists take a holistic, strengths-based approach. We welcome people into a serene environment and see them as self-determining individuals who are seeking the support and expertise of a highly trained professional. I remember my own mental health journey, sitting in musty clinics and medical offices, feeling that stereotype — “mental patient” — that phrase that, even though no longer used, still encompasses the vibe of so much mental health treatment. The feeling of being “other,” of being damaged, of needing to be hidden away has historically permeated the field. The truth is mental health problems do not discriminate. Anyone can face mental health challenges in their lifetime, and everyone needs to invest in their mental health as they do their physical health. I strive to pioneer a model that gives clients a pleasant and empowering experience as they navigate life’s challenges.

Finally, I try to model values-based leadership. I care greatly about making change in the community, even for those who never make use of our services at the practice. Volunteerism and community are important values to me so not only do I personally serve on several human services nonprofit boards, volunteer, and donate, my practice follows suit. As a practice, we try to commit to one service project each month and all my employees are invited to join. We also sponsor community organizations and events. I find that we can uplift both our community and each other through this commitment.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing?

1 . Self-compassion — Every time I tell a client to try being nicer to themselves, they say something like, “But then how will I motivate myself? But then I will become weak. But I don’t deserve that.” And every time any client finally tries being kinder to themselves, they inevitably come back and say, “Wow, it’s amazing how quickly that made me feel better.” Imagine someone was following you around all day making disparaging comments about everything you did, verbally abusing you, and relentlessly criticizing your very existence. Would you be productive? Would you be your best each day? Would your mental health improve? Yet, we are doing this very thing to ourselves all day every day. Try speaking to yourself in a kind, soothing, and forgiving way. You’ll be surprised at how you can effectively improve self-esteem, motivation, anxiety, negative thought spirals, and even panic this way.

2 . Radical acceptance — Sometimes, life disappoints us, we make mistakes, things don’t go our way, and others don’t behave the way we wish they would. Many of us launch into ruminating on the things we don’t like, complaining, and getting on a soap box of how things SHOULD be and how we think everyone and everything should function. Of course, its ok to express frustration, but when we accept that life is as it is sometimes, we can intercept the assault of negativity we experience. Radical acceptance originated in Eastern philosophy and was later adopted by Western schools of psychology like Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Radical acceptance gives us power over how the world affects us. We can still feel bad when bad things happen, but when we accept rather than fight against life, we make things easier to process and move through.

3 . Being strengths-based — When I was less certain of myself as a person and in my career, I compared myself to others a lot. When I identified strengths and skills that others had, that I either did not excel at, or lacked completely, I fixated on trying to obtain those strengths. In reality, this is a waste of time and energy. It’s not that it isn’t worth learning new skills, it’s that we make bigger strides when we spend more time investing in our strengths. For example, I have always been a verbal person, as evidenced by everything from my childhood poetry writing to my university lecturing. Once I realized that subjects like tech or accounting would never be my strongest suit, I decided to build a career around my verbal strengths — therapy, public speaking, lecturing, writing — and outsource the rest to those that are best at it. The same is true in psychotherapy. While traditional psychiatric models seek to identify deficits so they can give diagnoses, counseling seeks out strengths that can be built upon. For example, if a client is struggling to make a major life change, but they have a history of doing something like quitting smoking, we can ascertain individual strengths from that. A client who did something hard like quitting smoking likely has qualities like determination, perseverance, support seeking, value-based actions, etc. Building on this can make it easier for the client to achieve their current goals.

4 . Faith — When I say faith, I don’t mean religion or higher power, though that is helpful to many. I mean faith in yourself, faith that you can improve things, faith that things can work out even when we don’t know how, faith that the right people are out there for you, faith that life can bring good surprises, faith that therapy works, faith that there are always good people out there doing good work. Having faith can change your life.

5 . Ritual — Throughout history and across cultures, humans have found meaning and comfort in rituals. Some of these are mass scale like a holiday (think barbequing on July 4th or lighting a menorah for Hannukah) and some are micro scale, like writing down three things you are grateful for each morning. Rituals give people a sense of belonging, structure, consistency, or a time to reflect on something important. Creating a morning ritual can help ground you for the day. An evening ritual can help you leave work at work. A family or friend ritual can help you feel bonded to those close to you.

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

A lot of things need to change in the way that mental health is addressed in medical care. For many, their first encounter with mental health care is through a primary care physician. Not only can the client first reveal anxiety or depression to a professional in this setting, conditions like chronic pain or heart disease can also benefit from psychological intervention. Medical professionals need to understand the integral role the mind plays in the body, screen for psychological conditions, and find more effective ways to address mental health in medical settings.

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

  1. Choose a niche — As a new therapist, it’s common to want to help everyone with everything. We get into this profession because we are driven to help. But it’s important to realize we can’t be specialists in everything, and the more we specialize in one, or just a few, things, the better we become at helping. I entered grad school knowing I had an interest in trauma work but so many red herrings pulled me off that path and I found myself trying to do everything at once. When I finally came back to my passion of trauma work, not only did I improve as a therapist, I also found so many more doors opened for me than when I was a generalist.
  2. Don’t go it alone — As someone who could not rely on many adults growing up, I learned to rely on myself. While this is a useful skill, it also led me to isolate, to refuse to ask for help, or even to push people away. I learned that every successful person had someone’s help. Whether it is receiving advice, making a connection, or just giving mutual support, we do better when we work with others.
  3. Focus on your wins more than your losses — They say we can hear 10 compliments and one criticism, and we will focus only on the criticism. While its helpful to evaluate why something went wrong, when we put our focus on the wins, we are empowered to create more of them. When we focus on the losses, loss is all we see.
  4. Allow things to evolve — I struggled with wanting to control everything. I demanded that everything happen the way I wanted, and on my timeline. It’s important to realize that life unfolds in its own way and on its own time and this is actually a good thing. We can have a goal, but trying to skip the journey robs us of the experiences that help us achieve that very goal. Everything is a process and uncertainty can be a good thing.
  5. It’s ok to make your own path — There is no single template for success. There isn’t one singular path to wellness. The time I spent thinking I had to do things the way that others had, was time I took away from becoming my true self. Once I embraced that only my journey was the right one for me, I was able to appreciate how much I had going for me.

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

Of course, mental health is most important to me. It’s sad to see how long people suffer in silence, or the ways our minds can trick us into believing we are alone, or even that we are bad and worthless. I know what it’s like to feel despair, not only because of life circumstances, but also the kind born from within. Additionally, once someone seeks mental health care, they don’t always get the right treatment. Too much of the burden of psychological education and advocacy falls on the consumer. What is better these days, is the awareness that people can now gain from mental health social media accounts is helpful in empowering people to have more control over their own healing.

What is the best way for our readers to further follow your work online?

You can follow my work on Instagram, Tik Tok, and YouTube @dr.vassilia and follow my practice @junocounseling. You can visit my website, www.junocounseling.com, where you can learn more about me and my practice and subscribe to our newsletter.

Thank you for these fantastic insights! We wish you continued success and good health.

About the Interviewer: Wanda Malhotra is a wellness entrepreneur, lifestyle journalist, and the CEO of Crunchy Mama Box, a mission-driven platform promoting conscious living. CMB empowers individuals with educational resources and vetted products to help them make informed choices. Passionate about social causes like environmental preservation and animal welfare, Wanda writes about clean beauty, wellness, nutrition, social impact and sustainability, simplifying wellness with curated resources. Join Wanda and the Crunchy Mama Box community in embracing a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle at CrunchyMamaBox.com .

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