091. The Healing, Cathartic Act of Sharing with Serena Sabala

The Do a Day Podcast from Bryan Falchuk

Serena is a Certified Plant Based Nutrition Consultant, Yoga Teacher and Fitness Trainer who has studied the subject of nutrition for over ten years and has a unique, wholistic approach to health and wellness.

When she was only 8 years old her father, a very successful and busy entrepreneur, got really sick: unfortunately he didn’t have the tools to take care of his own wellbeing and therefore crumbled under the pressure of
owning a multi million euros business. This led to him loosing everything he had worked so hard for, with huge consequences to him and the whole family. As a result of her childhood experiences, Serena has developed an interest in wellbeing practices which started at a very young age.

Today, together with her husband Eugene, she runs Whole Shift Wellness: a coaching company specialised in bespoke programs for time pressed professionals. Their combined experience spans over 20+ years and has allowed them to work with more than 500 professionals across 5 countries. Together, they passionately apply their proven methodology to transform the health and wellbeing of leaders from around the world who want to be strong, fit, healthy and satisfied, and who aspire to continue having a positive impact within their organizations and the communities around them.

Serena is also very passionate about bringing wellness to the workplace, since many people spend most of their waking hours at work: she believes that “employees who are cared for, care more” and that companies who put the wellbeing of their employees at the forefront of what they do, are more successful than average.

Key Points from the Episode with Serena Sabala:

  • Serena runs a wellness coaching company in London with her husband called Whole Shift Wellness.
  • She builds custom wellness programs for individuals based on their specific needs around finding balance across the pillars of their life.
  • They try to find ways to get out of the body’s way as opposed to overpowering it. She’s found that removing obstacles (bad habits, self-sabotaging thoughts) tends to yield better results than adding things in.
  • Serena sees us like the seed of a beautiful tree. We hold the full potential in us already to become something wonderful. We just have to nourish that.
  • The mental aspect is usually the hardest and most important. If you don’t shift your mindset, working on your fitness or nutrition tends not to be enough.
  • She talked about the difference between Change and Transformation. They focus on transformation, and change comes as a byproduct.
  • We started to talk about the documentary Serena produced, which is what brought her to the show.
  • The story focuses on her family’s story, based around the mental illness (Bipolar Disorder) of her father.
  • He was an extremely successful entrepreneur, building a business in a space that didn’t even exist before, and then losing it all as years of ignoring his wellness lead to a downfall that took the business and family down with him.
  • This was the Why within Serena that she connected with through her own mindfulness and wellness journey, and also what drove the passion she has in working with busy professionals who are struggling with the pressure they’re under.
  • This was the single most traumatic thing in Serena’s life, and started for her when she was 8, when her father received his diagnosis of Bipolar.
  • She wants to prevent falls like this from hitting others.
  • Today, her father is more stable, but still unwell, so Serena and her family are still facing things today.
  • Despite the diagnosis, things still weren’t being handled properly, and in the 1990s in Sicily, it was still extremely hard to navigate (it’s better today, but still not easy by any means).
  • The illness is a form of depression that is where you have swings from extremes of intense depression switching to extreme mania.
  • Her father would sleep for months on end in the depressive state, and then be out of control and destructive in the manic periods.
  • People dealing with Bipolar often seek help and medication during the depressive states, but often come off their medication during the manic times as it is like a state of euphoria that you don’t want to end by silencing it with drugs.
  • It’s almost like being addicted to this drug, but you don’t even have to take anything to get there. Instead, you have to take a drug to counter act the high.
  • Serena added something I never considered – when you experience these super-high highs, normal periods seem down to you. It’s like eating very salty food, then eating something without salt, and thinking it’s horribly bland and flavorless. Our sense of where normal is shifts.
  • The difficulty spotting and treating Bipolar is why Serena is so passionate about prevention.
  • I said how I see prevention the context of things like burnout, but how does it apply in mental illness?
  • Prevention is a valid course with mental illness because, while it may be in your family history (as it was for her father and is for her), that does not mean you will have the triggers that make it express itself.
  • For her father, his experiences and neglect of his wellness needs, brought the illness out. For Serena, she’s made choices to protect her mind before it got there.
  • When she was 20, she made a very difficult decision to leave her home and family before it broke it.
  • You need to make the decision that allows you take the best possible care of yourself first, or you will be or become unable to care for anyone or anything else.
  • As Serena says, you have to be selfish in order to be selfless.
  • Leaving was incredibly hard as she had very little money, and it meant leaving her sister and mother behind with her father’s illness.
  • Serena was her mother’s best friend and her rock, while she was the strong older sister protecting her younger sister through her father’s illness and its impact on her family.
  • Moving to London, she didn’t speak English and had only enough money for one month of living expenses there.
  • She found a job paying minimum wage, lived meagerly and built something from scratch.
  • Despite that struggle, she felt free for the first time she could remember, which helped her realize how strong of an impact her father’s mental illness had on her life.
  • Her father’s illness was a reason for her family to come apart rather than together. Instead of bringing them together in shared struggle, it drove conflict.
  • With this background, she had an intention to create a healing and cathartic tool for her family to come back together in the context of her father’s illness.
  • While they had spent a lot of time trying to solve the problems caused by the situation, they had never sat down to just talk about how the situation impacted them personally and emotionally.
  • She brought her family together in her grandmother’s home, with Serena not only surprised how many agreed to do it, but how, once they started talking, they almost couldn’t stop.
  • Clearly, they needed to talk.
  • The process also helped Serena learn how much more to each individual’s experience there is than she could ever appreciate.
  • It brought them together so much more than they ever could have been without it.
  • I asked about what her father thought of the project.
  • Her hope was that it would help him step out of his own mind and see how it was effecting others.
  • With mental illness, you get so caught up in your own mind and wrapped up in what is happening in it that you can miss how you’re impacting those around you.
  • While her father had some tough moments with parts of it, he overall was supportive of it and took a lot from the project.
  • Today, over a year later, the family’s dynamics are different and have stayed different. This didn’t just create a temporary blip of better connection, but rather has lead to a meaningful shift.
  • I asked what made it successful in shifting things.
  • Firstly, it was a genuine lack of ulterior motives. Let sharing be sharing.
  • Second, don’t make anybody wrong. Just let people be heard out rather than judged.
  • Lastly, be authentic, starting with yourself. Give authenticity and you’ll receive it in return. Be humble, honest and authentic.
  • We talked about how to have meaningful balance and wellness in life, and Serena talked about the idea of a tripod with three legs.
  • You have to find balance across all three simultaneously rather than just prioritizing what you naturally have a strength in.
  • She teaches about this in her book, Make the Shift, which shares details around the three pillars you must balance:
    • Focus – anything to do with your mind
    • Food – you can’t outrun a bad diet
    • Fitness – the body is designed to move (this isn’t about going to gym)


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