Mental health is a common phrase we use, but how many of us are aware of when we’ve put our mental health and wellness on the back burner?
Do we recognize when our mental health requires attention and care?
Do we pay attention to symptoms we experience, or notice only when another person expresses concern?
Do we take care of our mental health when we experience a stressful situation or life event?
Or do we hold a belief, that if we ignore our suffering, we’ll eventually feel better?
Taking care of our mental health is multifaceted. It includes managing our emotions as well as our thoughts, taking care of our physical health, as well as engaging in healthy behaviors and routines that help us manage stress and improve well-being, such as daily exercise, restful sleep, eating healthy, and doing things we enjoy, including spending time with friends and family.
As a clinical psychologist, I am acutely aware of and have extensive knowledge to identify, treat, and address mental health issues; a combination of years of education, training and experience. While there are stressful and intense situations in my work, nothing could have prepared me for practicing as a clinical psychologist during a pandemic. And for reference, I’ve practiced through 9/11 and other traumatic events, but nothing quite like this.
COVID19 has changed the world we live in; a world we expected, relied on, and now, are grieving. COVID19 has changed the way all of us show up-at home, work, school, our communities, and the greater world. And with these monumental changes, mental health demands and needs are skyrocketing as we collectively grieve, adapt, and face incredible stress.
Recent events in the world (COVID19), paired with stressful situations at work, exciting and demanding professional projects lasting for almost a year, on top of my responsibilities as a mother, created a perfect storm of vulnerability with my mental health.
A few weeks into the pandemic, continuously working, I knew my mental health was teetering between health and wellness and distress and impairment. I knew if I didn’t add in more support and make some changes, I was putting myself at risk for developing a mental health issue or physical health event.
Never throughout twenty plus years of practice have I ever witnessed or experienced the intensity of mental health issues and distress at the levels happening now by the pandemic.
Mental health professionals are trained in how to care for others and stay healthy. However, mental health professionals are not immune to mental health issues, stress and overwhelm.
Mental health professionals who are distressed are vulnerable to becoming ineffective personally and professionally when:
- They get swept with clients’ issues, feeling so overwhelmed in the session, feeling as if what has happened to a client is happening to them.
- They are unable to separate from work and home. Meaning, when they are with family, all they can do is think of work. Or when work is impacting stress levels, and they are unable to take care of responsibilities within relationships or household.
- They have disruptions in physical health. This includes loss of appetite-not wanting to eat, or increase in appetite-eating too much and for comfort. As well as disruptions in sleep; not able to sleep, falling asleep but waking up and being unable to fall back asleep, or sleeping too much, or getting sleep but continuing to feel tired.
- When drinking alcohol or using other substances are used to cope to avoid, to relax, or unwind from the stress of what happens at work.
- When they begin to lose a sense of compassion and connection with clients or family and feel that others needs are too much to deal with.
- When they feel overwhelmed, helpless, and hopeless, that life can be different or will improve.
As I reflect on this list, you know what I would add?
This list is not merely a list for mental health professionals, it can be a list to pay attention to for parents, teachers, first responders, physicians, nurses, or any caregiving and helping role or responsibility.
For me, chronic stress over the past nine months, paired with practicing during COVID19, has been the first time in my twenty plus years of experience, I worried how work was impacting my mental health. The amount of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma I experienced has been incredible.
And you know how I knew my mental health was vulnerable?
It was because I was giving EVERYTHING to my clients and family, putting myself on the back burner, doing whatever I could do helping someone else. I was providing support at work and home, being always available to those who needed me, preparing and anticipating what my family needed, working almost every day, and several times a week for long 12-14 hour days, supporting clients in crisis since the pandemic began.
I didn’t feel vulnerable when I was working, but instead, when I was wasn’t. Helping others gave me a sense of purpose, revving up with adrenaline and sharp focus, to be in the moment supporting and helping others. In crisis, I had skills to offer and support to help, which provided purpose and meaning, and I initially ignored the how this was impacting to my mental health.
A few weeks in, I knew I needed to do more for my health and well-being when feeling overwhelmed and exhausted was my new normal, and I couldn’t relax. When I was with my family, I felt like a shell of myself going through the motions of what was unfolding around me instead of engaging in a meaningful way. I also felt it when I couldn’t get to sleep or would wake up after two hours of sleep, and my thoughts would focus on the suffering I was hearing, feeling helpless what to do about it. I knew I needed more support when these symptoms were not going away or getting better, regardless of the coping skills I used. When you’re using healthy and adaptive coping skills to manage stress and continue to feel distress, that is the time to stop, pay attention and re-evaluate how to broaden and build, adding in more and varied coping skills.
I’m grateful for many things that helped me to see I needed to take care of my mental health ASAP. But, a few stand out. First, I was able to identify the emotional overwhelm and physical disruptions not typical for me. Second, like so many parents, the added demands and competing roles of working and caring for my four daughters on top of managing their distant learning pushed my stress limits to the max. And third, I was experiencing a lot of compassion fatigue, not only in my work but also the horrific suffering, stress, and loss from COVID19.
Here’s the problem when you are a helper when your chosen career is to take care of and support others: Every cell in your body has an incredible desire to use your training, experience, and skills to help others when you see suffering. You’re trained to help, support and heal others first, and deal with the impact later. But when you’re going through a pandemic, the ‘later’ never seems to happen, with so much uncertainty in the present and future.
While this core trait, a strong desire to help and alleviate suffering, is the foundation in any helping profession, it can also be the most challenging trait. Such as when the YOU, the provider and helper, ignore or push down and do not recognizing YOU are suffering and need support and help.
The turning point for me was recognizing not only did I not feel like myself, but I also needed a different kind of emotional support, different than my husband, friends, and supportive parents could give me.
I reached out to a therapist and began therapy.
Weekly sessions during COVID19 has been incredibly helpful to reduce the stress in my life, to get support and validation about what we’re all going through, and create a space to be accountable to another person taking care of myself.
Therapy has not been the only salve I needed, though, it has helped a lot. As I’ve said to clients and have been reminded yet again revisiting counseling once again, therapy is a mere 45 mins out of 168 hours in a week. What we do outside the therapy hour is as important as what happens during the session. Here’s what I believe: Inside the therapy hour is where the healing begins and outside the room is where we practice and cultivate it.
The microsteps outside the therapy room for me have included: blocking out time with daughters in small meaningful ways during the workday before I become exhausted. Going for walks or practicing yoga mid-day with someone in my family, focusing on my breathing for a few minutes throughout the day as a way to reset and reduce tension, and giving myself breaks to rest and restore. And a big microstep during COVID19 has been to have and discreet start and end times to anything ‘work’ related. And one of the essential microsteps I’ve practiced daily is self-compassion, focusing on gratitude, and appreciating even the small moments of connection with loved ones.
Compassion and connection are what we need more than ever right now. Whatever our roles and responsibilities are, compassion and connection are not solely things we give to others; we also need to give ourselves these acts of care.
Being able to meet our suffering and distress with observation and curiosity without judgment, as well as compassion, much like we’d extend to another person or friend, is a life skill to learn. Mental, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual health, all makeup and contribute to our overall well-being. Knowing this and being able to identify when we need more, without judging ourselves and feeling less than, or that something is wrong with us, is the first step in taking care of our mental health and treating ourselves with care and compassion.