Total Health: Dr Cecily Havert of NVFP On How We Can Optimize Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing


*Originally published on on March 11, 2024.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We grew up playing tennis, which I still enjoy playing. My mother worked at a tennis club when I was growing up, and my brother is now a tennis pro. We were an active family, but I also loved the performing arts, especially dance and marching band. I headed off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison when I was 18, hoping to pursue a career in the humanities, either English or writing. Little did I know that I’d be applying to med school four years later.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I’ve always been drawn to the human experience and everyone’s “story.” Human beings have many layers, and exploring this has always fascinated me. I also love science, and getting down to even the molecular level on how the body works goes hand in hand with the human experience. The further I progressed in college, the more science pulled me in. I thought I would perhaps be a researcher, though I found this a little lonely. How could I combine science and the human experience into a single pursuit? Well, Medicine, of course!

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

My mind was blown when I read “Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference” by Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazarrelli. As a health care provider feeling the pains of burnout, I was stunned to learn that compassion is one of the anecdotes to this. Instead of moving away from patients and losing connection to manage job burnout, learning how to provide more compassionate care to patients actually brings about joy and resiliency. Of course, providing compassionate care to others involves directing that compassion to oneself first. The book also offered data-driven evidence that when patients experience a more compassionate care experience, their outcomes are better, and recovery is faster.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“A human being is a part of a whole, called by us ‘universe’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” (Albert Einstein)

I love this quote because, first of all, it’s Albert Einstein, and second because it taps into the intersection of quantum physics and humanity. The delusion of separation leads to so much suffering in the world. I also love how he suggests that the power of compassion is what can unite us… yes!!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

Currently, I have a couple of exciting pursuits in the works. I am participating in a Contemplative Medicine Fellowship through the New York Zen Center. This year-long endeavor involves study and experiential work with other healthcare providers. It’s a transformative program addressing physician burnout and elevating the patient care experience using facets of Buddhism and compassion.

I am also working on a Behavioral Health Integration program in my medical office. Too often, patients are not offered the full breadth of care they need. Behavior change and managing stress and the impact that this has on our ability to meet our health goals are some of the most challenging blocks we face and frequently receive the least support in the traditional primary care setting. I am working on streamlining access to these types of support (in case management, health coaching, or mental health guidance) within our office setting.

Much of what I am learning in the Contemplative Medicine Fellowship is being incorporated into the values and goals of this program, which is meant to alleviate stress on the primary care doctor and provide elevated care to the patients we serve.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. In this interview series we’d like to discuss cultivating wellness habits in four areas of our lives: Mental wellness, Physical wellness, Emotional wellness, & Spiritual wellness. Let’s dive deeper into these together.

Based on your research or experience, can you share with our readers three good habits that can lead to optimum mental wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Mindfulness — Being present in the moment and grounded in the body is a key feature of mindfulness. You can practice this anytime (brushing your teeth, making breakfast, taking a walk), not just during a formal meditation. It helps you slow your mind and bring awareness to the thoughts and habits that occur in your life. Constant stress and anxiety can force your mind into a “fight or flight” state, and mindfulness can help bring your “thinking mind” (the frontal lobe) back online. Being grounded allows you to think critically, problem-solve, and helps you determine which narratives of the mind serve you and which are causing suffering.
  2. Self-compassion — Our inner critic can be beastly sometimes, and many of us carry a lot of baggage from earlier parts of our life. Having the ability just to tell ourselves (and our inner voice of judgment) that we are doing our best, and that enough a form of self-compassion. Putting that heavy bag we are carrying down and breathing a little or asking for help can be very liberating. It can open the door to taking care of our physical and mental health. Making ourselves a priority helps not only ourselves but also those who ultimately depend on us. The classic metaphor is “Put your oxygen mask on first before helping others”.
  3. Connection — Studies have shown that those who are isolated or experience loneliness are less healthy, both physically and mentally. Why is this? Human beings have evolved to be social creatures — we are hard-wired to be in connection with others. The pandemic brought this to light for us in striking ways with a deterioration in our mental health wellness that we are still recovering from to this day.

Do you have a specific type of meditation practice or Yoga practice that you have found helpful? We’d love to hear about it.

More recently, I have been practicing within the Soto-Zen lineage of Japanese Buddhism. I was introduced to this particular sect of practice by the New York Zen Center as part of my Contemplative Medicine Fellowship. I even attended my first 5-day “Sesshin”, a silent retreat that literally means “touching the heart-mind.”

Slowing down one’s mind and seeing past the delusions or narratives that do not serve us in our lives can help bring about a sense of balance and even awakening. I even bring these facets into the exam room with me when I am with patients, where I practice bringing a “beginner’s mind” (open-mindedness) and also my attention in the form of “bearing witness” to another person’s suffering.

The compassion and connection that arise from this type of interaction elevates the care I offer to patients and helps manage some of the burnout that affects many in the medical community.

Thank you for that. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum physical wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Exercise — The benefits of exercise are numerous — from weight management to cardiovascular disease and diabetes prevention to improved sleep and mood. We experimented with doing “movement physicals” in our office that tested grip strength, push-up ability, and gait. Studies have shown that these are predictors of improved physical health and longevity.
  2. Sleep — Good sleep is the crux of wellness. Trying to reach our physical health goals without refreshing sleep can be very difficult, as lack of sleep can contribute to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, depression, ill effects on immune function, and even the development of dementia. Adults should aim for about 7–9 hours a night to allow the deep sleep cycles (for physical recovery) and REM sleep cycles (for emotional recovery) to occur.
  3. Preventative Health Care — I may be biased, but seeing our doctor regularly, especially for preventative care, is one of the most important habits you can develop. Catching diseases in the earliest stages (even before symptoms start) and treating them is preferable to playing catch up later with a more serious condition that is harder to treat and potentially could have a worse outcome.

Do you have any particular thoughts about healthy eating? We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?

When I talk with my patients about healthy eating and ways to lose weight, etc… rarely do I run into someone who doesn’t know the basic playbook rules of nutrition. People know what to do, it’s just a matter of doing it. As a primary care doctor, one of the hardest parts of my job is encouraging sustainable behavior change.

A critical part of being able to change is understanding our habit loops. And to understand our habit loops, we must understand what drives us to behave in a certain way. Frequently, these are rewards (a dopamine hit from a cookie, or a distraction from an acutely stressful situation by scrolling through Facebook). We can move the habit towards something healthier by bringing awareness, or mindfulness, into the mix.

Do you have any particular thoughts about the power of smiling to improve emotional wellness? We’d love to hear it.

The act of smiling is one of the most disarming expressions that we as human beings can possess. It confers understanding, contentment, and compassion and is a key factor in deepening connections between people, which strengthens our emotional wellness. A smile can be contagious; we often see this expression mirrored between individuals. Look at infants, for example. One of the first reciprocal communication modalities we develop is a smile, often in response to one being directed to the infant. Of course, we also know that the physical act of smiling also releases “anti-stress” neurotransmitters, which lowers heart rate, relieves pain, and generally makes us feel good.

Finally, can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum spiritual wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Meditation — This allows you to find an inner calm and quiet, creating space for compassion for self and others. This is a practice for training the brain and building up one’s “mindfulness muscle.”
  2. Yoga — I see yoga as a physical form of mindfulness and bringing one’s self into the body. Sitting with discomfort and seeing how that feels in the body and mind can teach us about resilience and our tolerance. Modifying and relieving the discomfort is an act of kindness and compassion to our bodies.
  3. Providing meaningful service to others (volunteering) — Part of spiritual wellness is recognizing that we are part of a bigger community. Realizing that every stranger walking down the street is carrying their own form of sadness and suffering — as humans we all share this. We also share the capacity for joy and compassion. Offering our support to others in need is an act that brings meaning and awakening to our souls.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The compassion revolution in Medicine! Ask nearly any person who enters the healthcare profession why they do it, and they will say, “Because I want to help others”. Serving others and providing healing is a calling for those in the field. Ironically, the culture of medicine in how it lacks support for the emotional and physical well-being of the providers is in significant need of an overhaul and reboot. During medical training, we are deprived of the most necessities of life: sleep, food, and a safe space devoid of humiliation and power inequities in which to learn and grow. This lack of self-compassion, isolation, exhaustion, and lack of autonomy are major contributors to the healthcare burnout we are seeing. Infusing more compassion into the culture of the medicine providers is a great foundation on which to build.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

I think that having an audience with the US Surgeon General, Dr Vivek Murthy, would be an honor. As the premier public health and wellness official in the United States, his policies shape how we look at medicine. I’d love to discuss the importance of the “biopsychosocial” lens in how we look at the healthcare needs of our patients, and how compassion can fuel good medicine.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers can connect with me on LinkedIn. I practice family medicine at Northern Virginia Family Practice. I also have a Psychology Today blog called “Awakened Medicine,” where I explore topics regarding the strength of compassion in healthcare.

Lastly, I co-host the podcast Living Breathing Medicine, using the platform to delve further into the essence of compassion and humanity within the medical field. Alongside my co-host, we engage with various healthcare professionals, uncovering the personal stories and motivations that drive their daily practice. Our discussions aim to illuminate the deeper connections and heartfelt moments that define the medical community.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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