Take a moment and take a media break. As a little bonus tip, I cannot encourage you enough to take a break from all media. Whether it is social media or news updates, your body and mind need a break from the constant onslaught of information. It is virtually impossible for the human brain to process all of the information that comes your way through these sources and taking a break from them will allow you to reset. And wouldn’t it be decadent to take your break while taking that above mentioned bath. Pure bliss!
As a part of my series about the things we can do to develop serenity and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Sovec, LMFT.
John Sovec is a therapist and coach in private practice in Pasadena, California who works with clients on career transitions, goal setting, and motivation. John is the author of multiple publications, speaks at conferences nationwide, and is a respected trainer and presenter in the corporate, educational and non-profit sectors with almost thirty years’ experience. John brings a powerful eclectic style to his work based on extensive education, heartfelt empathy, and a wicked sense of humor.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
If I look at the experiences of my life so far, it was inevitable that I would eventually become a therapist and coach. I have always been that person who people will sit down with and unveil their life story, often resulting in confessions like, “Wow, I’ve never told that to anyone before.” I’m infamous among my friends as the guy at a party, even if I showed up not knowing anyone, who ends up in a corner with four or five people having one of those soul-bearing conversations. A glance through my resume reveals the inevitability of my current career, even if it wasn’t clear to me as it was unfolding. Over the years I have been an actor/singer/dancer/, massage therapist, yoga teacher (still am), a middle management executive for a Fortune 50 multi-national corporation (those were interesting years), and for over thirty years a volunteer emotional support facilitator in the HIV/AIDS community. It wasn’t until I was in my forties and feeling burned out by my corporate job that I chose to pursue my graduate education, applying my natural affinity for empathy, listening and caring into my current profession. The journey has not always been a clear cut and simple one, and yet, I know that I have finally landed in the career that gives me deep fulfillment while challenging me to continue to grow and learn.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
As a therapist, one of the central tenets of our work is keeping our clients’ information and stories confidential, so the story that I share with you is from my personal journey of growth as a therapist. I have always been one of those people who is excited to jump into the deep end of the pool. If there is something new that captures my attention, I love to delve in and wallow around in the new knowledge. In the pursuit of this new knowledge as a budding therapist, I applied for the opportunity to work at a psychiatric hospital. My interest was founded on the desire to experience in real life things that during my education I had only read in textbooks. Why is this an interesting story you may ask? My answer is that once you have worked at a psychiatric hospital you begin to understand on a deep level the fragility of the human psyche. On more than one occasion I would find myself working with a patient who had been on the ward for a while. We would be having an in-depth lucid conversation focusing on their growth and future plans which included the upcoming return to their family and life outside the ward. But then, during the night, while I was at home going about my business, that same patient would have a psychotic break or reversal of health that would set back all of that progress. Coming in the next morning to start my rounds, I would meet up with that same patient and as I looked into their eyes, I could find no trace of the identity and personality of the patient I had just interacted with the day before. So often we walk around in a bubble of assumed invincibility and those experiences changed me to my core as I came to understand that everything I think I am, believe about myself rests on a razor’s edge of chemical and neurological systems that with just the slightest imbalance can fall to pieces.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
In any profession I am a big believer in radical self-care, but even more so for mental health care providers. I refer to it as radical, because the kinds of self-care I advocate go against the norms that our culture tells us we should embrace, like no pain no gain, do whatever you have to do to get to the top, more is better, and build an “insta-perfect” life. I see rejecting these pressures as a radical act of defiance that prioritizes our individual wellbeing over the unhealthy and unrealistic expectations that have become common in our society. If you think about what mental health care providers do for a living, sitting with and being present for people who are moving through some of the most challenging and vulnerable moments in their lives, you can imagine how susceptible we are to overwhelm and burnout. By committing to a system of radical self-care, we can take better care of ourselves and by extension, care more effectively for our clients. For me this radical self-care includes managing my schedule so that I only see clients four days a week, staying connected to colleagues for consultation when I need it, meditation, yoga, experiencing nature regularly, and prioritizing family. It is also important to remember that I am more than just a therapist, that I am also a husband, a gardener, a person who loves and values good friends, a baker, and the devoted co-guardian of a geriatric Great Dane. Staying in touch with all of the facets of my life is a huge part of helping me to thrive and avoid burnout in my work.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
To create a fantastic work culture, it is vital to remember that in any company the most valuable asset is the people who work there. When leaders view their employees as fungible revenue units instead of complex human beings with practical and emotional needs, and that those needs can change from day to day and year to year, then there is no hope for a positive and productive work culture. My belief is that true leaders are those who strive to cultivate an environment where each person in the company believes that they are a valued component of the larger whole and their unique abilities and energies are integral to everyone’s success.
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?
A current book that is influencing my personal life and my world experience is The Body Keeps the Score by Gabor Mate. This book focuses on how the traumatic experiences of our life are trapped in the viscera of our bodies. Although we may have found mechanisms to suppress the memories of traumatic experiences in our minds, they are often stored inside our bodies and influence how we interact with the world. This book is a powerful examination of the connection of spirit/mind/heart/body and as a yogi It has encouraged me to explore how the experiences of my life affect how I move and connect to my body.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious just from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Maintaining a sense of balance and equanimity during these challenging times can seem like an impossibility. Some days you will feel balanced and aligned and on others you will feel completely out of sorts. The extremes of the news cycle can be brutal and make you feel as if you are constantly under attack when you are simply trying to remain informed. For many, being alone and isolated during the pandemic is bringing up feelings of fear and anxiety, making people question their connection to both themselves and others. So, before I share any advice about how to cope with the challenges we’re being confronted with, I want to encourage everyone to realize and accept that it’s natural, acceptable, and appropriate to feel fear, anxiety, uncertainty, confusion, anger, discouragement, and any number of other stress-related emotions when confronted with the situations and experiences we are currently facing. Beating ourselves up for not maintaining perfect equanimity or not “keeping our shit together” 24/7 is an unfair response that only exacerbates the stress we’re already under. This constant attack on the nervous system is traumatizing so it is more important than ever to find tools that cultivate a return to balance and untying the knots in your life.
So, what can you do to manage these shocks to the system and keep yourself healthy? Here are some tools to try out today.
- Take a moment and take a walk. When the mind is challenged by the constant rollercoaster of pandemic and world news there is a physiological effect on the body as well. The body interprets these psychological responses as threats and will flood the body with fight/flight/freeze response chemicals. Your body does not differentiate between the stress of a mountain lion attacking and the stress of reading a disturbing news story. This flood of chemicals, such as adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol, puts pressure on the body systems and over time cause huge strains on the body’s ability to take care of and heal itself. This can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, a weakened immune system, sleep problems, memory impairment and a lower libido. To counteract this it is vital, especially during high stress moments to do something every day to be active. Walk, hike, run, play with your dog or kids, do some yoga. This doesn’t mean you have to implement a strenuous daily fitness regimen. Instead, focus on getting your heart rate up and the blood pumping for a little while each day. Current studies show that even short bursts of physical activity will stimulate your mind and release tension in your body.
- Take a moment and take a pause. One of the most powerful things you can do to alleviate this stress in real time involves carving out a few stimulus-free moments and learning the most basic form of meditation. Many people confuse meditation with having to blank out for hours on end in an isolated environment. You can actually initiate powerful changes in your well-being by sitting calmly and just focusing on your breathing for as few as five minutes. And by using a counted breath, it’s even easier. Simply inhale for a count of four, hold it in for four, exhale for four, and hold empty for four. You will have thoughts and your mind will wander but instead of viewing that as a bad thing, simply notice it is happening and then return to an awareness of your breath flowing in and out of your body. This breathing technique assists the body in coming back to equilibrium and allows you to approach life with a calm clear mind. It is also a way to initiate some control over your body and mind during a time when so many other things seem out of control.
- Take a moment and have a laugh. I know what you’re thinking, how can I laugh at a time like this? As Readers Digest has told us over the years sometimes laughter is the best medicine.Laughter creates connections between people and adds joy back into the equation of life. It can be a powerful mood elevator that can energize and lift your mental wellbeing. The energy shift that laughter initiates isn’t just psychological; there is an actual physiological change that takes place in the body when you laugh. When you experience a deep, heartfelt laugh, there is a rapid exchange of oxygen in the respiratory system, the heart beats more rapidly from the movement of the diaphragm, and most importantly, endorphins are released. This endorphin rush moves feel-good chemicals into the brain, increasing your sense of connection and calm. It is worth the time and effort for your well-being to free yourself up to laugh and search out those moments of humor throughout your day.
- Take a moment and find inspiration. Whether it is reading, listening to a podcast, or taking an online course, find ways to access information that inspires you beyond the realm of your day-to-day experience and outside your work responsibilities. So many of us live in a very narrow bandwidth of life experience and when we can step outside that rut, we can find inspiration that lifts us up and encourages growth. Connecting to the words, wisdom, and experience of others can open our hearts and our minds to possibility and challenge our personal belief systems in a vital and thrilling manner. Additionally, myriad studies have found that continuous life learning and exposing the brain to new ways of thinking will keep the brain sharp and focused as we age.
- Take a moment and take a bath. When the day feels like it has depleted you of all your reserves and your stress levels are through the roof, there is nothing as comforting as a hot bath. Take the time to make it into a special treat with some soft music, candlelight, lavender oil added to the water to make your bath feel like an indulgent spa-like experience. Pampering yourself, breathing in the steam, allowing the warm water to ease the tension out of your muscles can all lead to a more serene you.
- Take a moment and take a media break. As a little bonus tip, I cannot encourage you enough to take a break from all media. Whether it is social media or news updates, your body and mind need a break from the constant onslaught of information. It is virtually impossible for the human brain to process all of the information that comes your way through these sources and taking a break from them will allow you to reset. And wouldn’t it be decadent to take your break while taking that above mentioned bath. Pure bliss!
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I would suggest that the first step in assisting others around you who are stressed out and anxious is to go back to the tips above for self-care and implement them first for yourself. For years, airline safety protocols have encouraged us to place our oxygen mask on first before helping others and this instruction holds true when we want to help others manage their anxiety. We have to find our own place of calm and equanimity before we can stand with others in their cyclone of anxiety.
That said, here are some tips on how to be a calming presence with the people in your life who are struggling with anxiety.
- Be gentle. No one, no matter what they may say, is performing at 100 percent right now. We need to be aware that everyone is doing their best, as are we, during these unprecedented times and approach each other with an attitude of tolerance and forgiveness. When you feel triggered toward someone else’s anxiety, take a breath, step away from the moment, and bring yourself back to center. Let that calm energy lead you back to a more compassionate presence.
- Be Playful. Every day there is more and more stressful news as we live through this pandemic and it takes a toll on everyone’s body, mind, heart, and spirit. Find fun ways to release some of that pent up stress together. Set up some time to share an activity. Watch a movie together over zoom, play online games, cook a recipe at the same time and compare results, start a two person book club and share your insights on a book. It’s not always about what you do, it is about the shared time and companionship
- Listen and don’t solve. Sometimes we all have moments where we just need to vent, without needing to sound reasonable, without being proper, and without someone trying to come up with a solution. I encourage friends to set up a technique where they simply ask for venting time. The listening partner’s only job is to stay present and acknowledge their friend’s frustration. Nothing else. It’s a great way to get frustrations out of the way so that each person can be more present with the other rather than project those frustrations on the person they care about. You aren’t required to offer solutions but instead be a safe place where a person can vent and get things out of their system. Be loving and kind, making it less about you and all about them
- Send daily texts or messages. Check in every day with a joke, a beautiful image, a video that made your day, or an inspirational quote. It can be lonely when you are going through the isolation of Covid and social distancing and you can brighten someone’s day simply by checking in and letting them know you are thinking about them. And it also feels good to be the person sending out the message and can lift your day as well.
- Create a self-care kit. When a person is drowning in anxiety and stress sometimes it is the simplest approaches that can have the deepest impact. Take a moment and put together a self-care kit and send it off. Choose things like bath salts, lavender oil, a favorite edible treat, and most important, a personal note from you. It doesn’t need to be extravagant, just thoughtful. And for a person who is stressing out to realize that you took the time to put together this personal gift it can make all the difference in the world.
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?
There are some powerful apps online that can assist with reducing stress and anxiety. Some of my favorites include Insight Timer, Calm, Headspace, and Happify. Try them out and see which one resonates with you. Finding these resources is a very personal experience and worth the investment of your time.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.” Henry Miller. As mentioned earlier, it is so easy to fall into the pattern of believing that what you are experiencing in your life is the end all and be all of existence. We can get so trapped in playing in our own comfortable and well known backyard that we miss what is just on the other side of the fence. This quote is one of the reasons that I travel as much as I do (when we can). When I travel, I have the opportunity to experience cultures and lifestyles completely out of my comfort zone. These experiences open me up to the possibility that there is so much out there yet to know. My eyes have been opened when hiking in the hills outside of Nagasaki, Japan and running into local women by the side of a stream washing their families clothing and finding laughter and joy in the middle of their daily chores. Or in the streets of Paris having a meal and getting acquainted with the concept that eating food is a slow process and the company and interaction is just as vital to the success of the meal as the food. For me it is also a deep understanding that we are here on this earth for a very short time span and there is so much to explore and experience while we are here.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Slow the F*ck down. So much time is spent rushing around, focusing on success, and finishing people’s sentences before they are even out of their mouths. This addiction to speed opens up the pathway to miscommunication and misinterpretation that leads to pain and damaged relationships. If we can take the time to pause and learn from each person’s unique story and wisdom, we can grow closer to our fellow human beings as we grow wiser with ourselves. Each of us has a beautiful and valuable life story and when we can pause to actually recognize and hear each other, the world will change in deep and immeasurable ways.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!