Caring for yourself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation
Jacqueline Siempelkamp, MS, NCC, LPC
In today’s America, the rates of anxiety and depression are on the rise. An estimated 16.2 million adults in the United States experience at least one major depressive episode per year. In addition to symptoms of depression, anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health disorders Americans face. An approximate 40 million adults report having an anxiety related disorder each year in the United States. So, with numbers like this, there has to be something than can help Americans tackle their symptoms and improve levels of functioning. Over the last decade, countless studies have been done on self-care and its effects on physical, emotional, and mental health concerns. Results of this research show that when we implement specific self-care strategies like mindfulness or exercise, symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression decrease. Concurrently when self-care strategies are implemented, accounts of self-awareness, compassion, and overall well-being increase. So, what is self-care exactly? And how can we use it to start feeling better?
Self-care can be defined as, “the practice of taking action to preserve or improve one’s own health,” which makes the point that self-care is imperative for maintaining physical, as well as mental, health. In light of the recent pandemic in our world, self-care is crucial to keeping ourselves stable, even when the world feels anything but. As with most strategies, creating routine helps prevent symptoms from worsening, especially during periods of high stress. Self-care is best thought of as a prevention strategy, instead of a reaction to circumstances.
There is a distinct difference between true self-care and “treating yourself,”—that phrase we often hear in today’s culture. Treating yourself could be getting your nails done or doing something special for yourself that you enjoy. This is what the colloquial meaning of self-care has transformed into. Self-care in the lens of “treating yourself” typically sounds pleasurable and also potentially expensive once all of those treats add up. You may think you really need a break and deserve to get a massage—treat yourself, right? Yes, treat yourself! But what about keeping up with the dishes…do you also deserve that? Yes, you do. Self-care is not always fun. Sometimes what we need to feel our best is engaging in mundane tasks that we don’t pay much attention to, other than the simple acknowledgement of having to do it.
Self-care is about striking a balance that works best for you. There is room in your self-care journey for treats along the way, but it’s also important to really focus on what you’re doing to get what you need in order to be happy, healthy, and continue to function. Self-care may look a number of different ways:
- Go Back to the Basics: When we are young, we learn the importance of healthy eating, exercise, and getting enough sleep. Life gets in the way sometimes, but it’s up to us to make time to focus on our basic needs. This is essential! Research has shown that moderate exercise, several times per week, can be as effective against mild-to-moderate depression as medication. Be intentional about meeting your needs and listening to your body. Self-care is a process; it’s okay to struggle one day and try again the next.
- Let it Out: Everyone gets stressed at different times in our lives. How do you cope with it? One of the most therapeutic things you can do is to let it out. This could look like talking with a friend or counselor about how you feel, or letting a boss know that you’re overwhelmed and need a break. If talking isn’t your style, try journaling, music, physical exercise, even drawing. We’re all human and most of us understand we can’t do it all, all the time.
- Tackle Your To-Do List: We are all busy. We have work, school, activities, and endless obligations. The last thing some of us want to do after a long day is to come home and do the dishes, pick up trash, or do the laundry. But, once those tasks are finished, we feel accomplished and happy that they’re off the list. The key, however, is to keep the list down to prevent feeling overwhelmed. Maybe you feel too tired to wash the dishes and will just do it tomorrow. Do it today and thank yourself later when you wake up to a clean kitchen.
- Check Your Social Meter: Are you an extrovert, introvert, or somewhere in between? Maybe you enjoy your alone time and aren’t getting enough of it. Or maybe you’ve been swamped with obligations and haven’t had time to see your friends as often as you like – whether in-person, online, or on the phone. Check in with yourself about your need to be with others, or not, and adjust accordingly. We feel a better balance when we acknowledge the needs of our temperament.
- Cope with Crisis: We can’t always prepare for what’s to come, although we do try our best. Sometimes we are left in a situation where we aren’t sure of how to continue taking care of ourselves when life is somewhat unordinary and jumbled for the time being.
- Get grounded: What can we control during this time? Grasp tangible aspects of the situation that you can control, and let the others go. (E.g. we can control working on a positive attitude versus not being able to control how long the crisis will last).
- Practice gratitude: During times of crisis or panic, sometimes it feels impossible to think about what is going well in our lives. Take a minute and think about what you’re thankful for. It could be having the ability to work from home, being able to spend more time with your children, or having enough food in the fridge to last this week—shift your focus to what is going well at this time.
- Connect with loved ones: Having to separate yourself from those you care about is no easy feat. If you are physically isolated from others for the time being, make the effort to reach out virtually. Stay connected with family, friends, and even colleagues through phone calls or video chat. It’s feels a little less lonesome when we talk with others and find they might be going through the same things.
- Create a new routine: Chances are, during unprecedented times in life, our typical routines become difficult to maintain. This is the time for intentional adaptation – find the new normal that works best for you. This could be switching from working out three times per week at the gym to following a workout tutorial online or taking walks in the neighborhood. Make changes deliberately and accordingly, and find ways to fulfill your needs as best you can.
- Remember perspective: Real, rational worries are bound to bubble up for us during a time of crisis. It is important to remind ourselves about the temporariness of the situation and believe in our ability to see out the other side. Lean on others for support and think of how strong you will be when it is all over.
Self-care is a journey and it is not easy. It’s important to listen to your needs and be honest with yourself to prevent burnout. Self-care is more than giving yourself a break—it’s about intentionally attending to the body’s physical, emotional, and mental needs to ensure it is performing at its best. Finding a self-care routine that works for you will be essential in maintaining stability through day to day stressors, as well as during times of crisis. There’s no right or wrong way to engage in self-care—it’s all about striking a balance to function as the happiest, healthiest version of you. “Treat yourself” to that.
Jacqueline Siempelkamp, MS, NCC, LPC enjoys working with clients of all ages
presenting with a range of concerns, including depression, anxiety, LGBTQIA+,
adjustment or phase of life transitions, relationships, substance abuse, behavioral
concerns, and school/academic issues. Jacqueline supports collaboration with parents
and other professionals to effectively achieve goals and facilitate change.
As I sit here attempting to write this Letter from the Director, I realize that whatever I write today, March 30th, will probably have little relevance when this newsletter comes out in the next month. After just a couple of weeks of this national crisis, I can see that anxieties I may have had two weeks ago are not the anxieties I am having today. Nor will the anxieties I will be experiencing in two weeks be those that I am experiencing today. I can’t imagine what a month or two will bring us — or me.
There are challenges for all of us, and they are different for each of us. What is most difficult for me is the not knowing how long this could go on. How long is my life going to be changed? I’m extremely social. I love going out to dinner. I love good conversation. I miss going to the movie theater. I miss my friends. I miss going to Church. I really miss my family, my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Do I have the wherewithal to do this for the next six, eight or ten weeks, or longer? I don’t like not being in control of my life. I’ve always said that I don’t have a need to control others’ lives, but I have a great need to be in control my own. And now I am not.
Our office has continued to do therapy. Our sessions, for the most part, are being done by phone or video calls. It’s not my preferred
way of doing therapy, but it works. In the last two weeks, I’ve been really surprised to hear how my clients are reacting to all of this. I assumed that people who were anxious would be much more anxious or those who were depressed even more depressed. To my surprise, many of them seem to either to be doing fine or, more impressively, they are coming up with great coping strategies. One couple told me that they were doing much better. When I asked why this was so, they said that there was something much bigger than themselves going on and their disagreements seemed petty in comparison.
Maybe it could lead toward growth if I could accept that, for a while, living in chaos is my new norm.
I think my clients may be on to something. Maybe this event is so big, that whatever our issues, they really are small in comparison. Maybe it’s forcing us to reevaluate those needs that we think we have that may not be in our best interest in the long run. For example, I spend a lot of my time planning so that life is smooth and predictable. And while this may be desirable, maybe it could lead toward growth if I could accept that, for a while, living in chaos is my new norm. I don’t feel in control because, while we’re in the throes of this pandemic I know I am not in control. And there is nothing I can do about it.
Maybe I ought not to put my energies into regretting my loss of control but rather appreciating what I do have. Among the two most important in my life are my family and my work. I am blessed with a great family. I do know that I am also really blessed to be working in the midst of this. I know that it gives me a reason to get up and start my day as usual. I do think this work is going to be important in the next few months, to my clients and to myself. We will all have our work to do. However, if we are going to be able to do this work well and in
a healthy way, we may have to come to the realization that there is something outside of us much bigger than we are. Each of us will have to find that behavior that we cling to. Letting it go may be beneficial during these very difficult times.
We all go through difficult times in our lives. During the most difficult experiences, we tend to look for a reason for our suffering, and often there is no particular reason that we can find. Suffering is universal and our response to suffering is based on our identity and our philosophy of life.
While no one can take away our emotional pain, it generally helps to share what we are going through with someone who cares. Psychotherapy works primarily because it is an opportunity to unburden our cares in the presence of a person who empathizes and tries to understand what it feels like to be going through whatever challenge we are facing.
If you are prone to carrying your burdens by yourself, you may be suffering needlessly. It has been said, “A burden shared is a burden halved.” There is wisdom in talking out our problems with a friend or counselor. Whether you talk one to one or in a group, airing your pain is usually the first step in reducing it.
In my psychotherapy practice, I find that a listening ear and an open heart along with some encouraging words can result in significant healing. The clients I see who can unburden themselves in my presence generally find they are feeling much better after their sessions.
Stoic people may appear to be strong, but unreleased sorrow or pain can fester until it affects one’s ability to function. Perhaps you were taught in your family of origin that complaining is a form of weakness or that telling someone you are suffering is the same as admitting defeat. Don’t let this kind of programming allow you to keep your feelings bottled up. Talking with someone when you are going through a difficult time is acknowledging you are human and aren’t intended to silently suffer alone. Getting emotional support when you need it is one way you can take good care of yourself.
Don’t try to be a lone ranger who just suffers through your pain without getting any support. There is no shame in asking for and receiving help in difficult times. The success of Alcoholics Anonymous, and other groups like AA, is built upon the establishment of caring relationships and accountability.
Are you trying to go it alone while it feels the whole world is against you? Do you think no one cares? Are you too proud to admit you could use some help? It is okay to ask for help and to get the help you need. I hope you can trust that others do care about you and reach out to a friend or counselor. Things are rarely as bad as they seem when you are trying to muscle through tough times on your own.
If you or someone you care about is struggling to get through a rough patch or a difficult season of life, please consider professional counseling. The relief you or your loved one needs is only a phone call away. It’s okay to admit the need for help and to reach out for answers outside yourself.
WCPA Services Continue to be Available During the COVID-19 National Crisis
Please know that if you need mental health services during this difficult time or are struggling to cope, we are open and accepting new clients.
We currently offer sessions via telehealth video platforms and by telephone, so that clients of all ages can choose the modality that feels comfortable to them. Clients can receive high-quality therapy from the safety of their own homes.
We are a St. Louis area private practice; when this health crisis abates, in-person therapy sessions will again be available in our offices. Feel free to call our office at (314) 275-8599.
A Day in the Life of a Teacher Rollercoasters go up and down and around with great speed and velocity. A teacher’s work day can be likened to a rollercoaster. There are many tasks to complete with very little time to do them. There is a schedule that must be adhered to, and all tasks must be completed with excellence and precise efficiency. Teachers must prioritize many initiatives and make the best use of limited time.
School administration, district, state and federal governing bodies place pressure and expectations on teachers for every boy and girl to make the grade. In many instances, a teacher’s salary and evaluation is contingent upon his or her ability to insure each child is academically and socially successful. Our nation’s teachers provide well thought out instruction, gifting our young with the skills for a successful future – at least that is their intent. Every day, a teacher tries to implement a planned curriculum with emotional fortitude, but well thought out plans can be interrupted by intruder drills and classroom disruptions. This emotional fortitude can shrink to emotional despair.
One could say there has never been any doubt by observers of the teaching profession that teaching is a very difficult endeavor. Schools and classrooms have always reflected society at large. We see the corrosion in society and know that societal issues of today have infiltrated the schools in a more devastating way, putting a tremendous strain on educators. There are instances of anger, violence, and mass shootings, whose root is in our unstable homes and communities. That instability is manifested each day in our classrooms. Researchers say teachers internalize the stresses and trauma experienced by their students. Therefore, they become victims of acute secondary trauma when their students are victims of terrible incidents such as community violence, drug addiction, and sexual assault. The anxiety that accompanies the profession is as old as the profession itself.
In her book, A Life in School (1997), Jane Tompkins describes a phenomena that teachers have always experienced. She calls it anxiety dreams. Tompkins describes one of her anxiety dreams as being totally unprepared when she is supposed to teach a lesson. In the dream, her mouth is dry, and she cannot speak. The students begin to murmur and one by one they start to walk out of the classroom. Tompkins attributes this anxiety as a “fear of failure – the failure of ones’ authority.” That is probably not the dream experienced by teachers today. Although the fear of failure of ones’ authority is the outcome, the dream is quite different. The anxiety dreams of teachers in the 21st century will reveal more troubling issues like:
- Gun violence in schools
- Personal safety from student violence
- Personal financial security
- Dealing with extreme behaviors in the classroom
- Teacher accountability
Trauma The word “trauma” is used to describe experiences that are emotionally distressing, and that overwhelm people’s ability to cope, leaving them feeling powerless. Chronic daily stress becomes traumatic for those who work to impact children whose lives may be filled with distressing social and emotional issues. Unfortunately, one in five students may struggle with mental illness and two-thirds of US children have experienced at least one type of serious childhood trauma.
Today, the addition of a worldwide pandemic impeding our sense of normalcy is yet another tragedy in the lives of our teachers. The Coronavirus is emotionally painful and distressing for everyone. Our teachers are working, in this new context of uncertainty, to take care of their families and brainstorm ways to remotely reach their students. This of course is just another layer of anxiety to a teacher’s emotional plate that is already full.
What is the Response? The educational community needs to change our mindset as we accept the mental and emotional challenges experienced by our nation’s educators. It should no longer be a secret that many teachers are struggling to cope with the daily demands of teaching. Healthy teachers make productive, successful classrooms. Emotionally healthy teachers stay in the profession. Innovative ways to approach this issue should be the conversation of every educational leader and practitioner. Let’s consider:
- New and innovative ways to prepare teachers while in colleges and universities
- Teacher access to ongoing mental health services
- Time for reflection and quiet time during the day
- A change in the culture for acceptance of mental health conversations among colleagues
Those who teach our young are the crown jewel of any society. Let’s work collaboratively as a community to support our teacher’s quest for mental and emotional health.
Summer is a time of year that students have looked forward to for as long as school attendance has been the norm in the United States. Songs such as “School’s Out for Summer” demonstrate the sentiments that many hold for this precious time of year when demands are often lessened and students are free to enjoy the warm weather and extra time with family and friends. However, as celebrated as summer often is, it will be different for students this year. Schools have gone from simply being on spring break to being on extended break due to the coronavirus epidemic. Some schools have even moved to at-home instruction for the rest of the year.
These changes can lessen the joy that comes from summer due to the disruption in daily routines. Sometimes, there actually can be too much of a good thing. The freedom of summer can be difficult for some students who may not be as well versed at organizing social interactions with peers and may lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Students may fall into patterns of sleeping late and lounging around at home too often. While typical summer behavior that is enjoyed by many, engaging in less activity can lead to feelings of boredom, unproductivity, and an increase in depressive symptoms, especially for students who are already pre-disposed to this condition. The switch to at-home learning prior to the start of summer break may exacerbate this issue for many students.
Students who struggle with mental and emotional issues often receive a lot of support during the school year from caring teachers, school counselors, and other staff with whom they form relationships and who are able more closely to monitor how they are doing. Without the support of these caring relationships, signs can go undetected. However, summer can provide time for parents or other caregivers to reconnect with their children and make lasting memories. Here are some tips for parents to help their children take care of their mental health during summer break, as well as some signs to watch for:
- Establish a summer routine. While summer is the perfect time to relax and embrace a slower pace, it is still important to maintain a routine so that children and youth are continuing to engage in stimulating activities.
- Practice healthy habits. Staying active, eating right, and practicing healthy sleep habits are important to maintain over the summer months. Our mental well-being is impacted by our physical health.
- Encourage journal writing. This can provide an outlet for emotions.
- Encourage children to start something new. Now can be the time to try something that they have always wanted to try. Embark on a new hobby or project. This can provide children with a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
- Take extra time to engage in activities together. Family activities can be great, such as going to the park or tossing a ball back and forth after dinner. It can also be fun to spend some one-on-one time with each child during the summer months, such as a special breakfast with mom or dad, alternating which child gets to enjoy this one-on-one time.
- Keep an eye on their behavioral patterns. Many kids love to sleep late during the summer months, and this can be okay, but if they sleep for the majority of the day, no longer want to engage with others, experience extreme irritability, or if they stop engaging in activities that they once enjoyed, then this may be a cause for concern.
- Watch for signs of excessive worry or concern, especially if the child also disengages from others or if they suddenly begin to engage in more sedentary activities.
- Lastly, listen to their feelings. The year 2020 has been filled with new challenges for all of us, and your children are likely to have both positive and negative feelings about all that they have experienced. Let them know that all of those feelings are okay and that we will all get through this together.
If you do notice any troubling signs with your child, starting a conversation with them can be a good place to start. It is also a good idea to consult with your pediatrician or even seek out a counseling appointment. West County Psychological Associates has therapists available for children, adolescents, adults and families, and would be glad to discuss your concerns about your child. We are providing telehealth during this national health crisis, and are available for new clients.
Schools are welcome to copy or post this article and distribute to parents, as long as West County
Psychological Associates is credited. Office phone (314) 275-8599, on the web www.wcpastl.com.
Navigating COVID-19 – Applying Lessons from Homebound Older Adults
By Amy Neu, MSW, LCSW
A large part of my therapy practice has been with older adults who are homebound, elderly, and relatively isolated in their communities. Many of the issues that my elderly homebound navigate regularly now mirror the circumstances many of us are experiencing as we navigate life during the spread of COVID-19 (aka Coronavirus). The issues and difficulties that we now face include social distancing, strategies for spending longer stretches of time at home, and enhancing meaning and quality of life. There are lessons that we can learn from the experiences and positive coping strategies that our homebound loved ones have gained through their life experience and therapeutic work.
When I go to home visits with my homebound clients, I am able to walk into their world and quickly gauge how they are feeling and functioning. Over the past few months, many of these clients have wanted to discuss their anxiety and fears related to the news, particularly politics, elections, and public health issues, as soon as I walk in the door. After several minutes of talking about the news and exploring and expressing their emotions, then they are ready to focus on their lives and therapy. However, throughout the session, the topic of news and their uncertainties of the future will often surface again.
Many individuals who are homebound do not have the same access to talk with other people about the news, their fears, or the impact the news is having on them. Without an outlet to discuss and process their emotions, it becomes increasingly difficult for many homebound adults to break their cycle of anxiety alone. Homebound clients often face the additional disadvantages of isolation and physical or mental debility, which can further feed into their anxiety. At baseline, they already struggle with feelings of loss of control and safety. They find themselves in a position where they are unable to fully rely on themselves to meet their own needs. As they watch the daily turbulence unfold on television, one of their few windows to the outside world, this can further undermine their sense of safety and security, ultimately feeding their anxiety.
Many of us now find ourselves in a similar situation. At this time, Americans of all ages are concerned, anxious, or afraid of the spread of COVID-19, issues in our political system, and events around the world. As we follow the CDC’s recommendations for social distancing, our windows into our communities are found online and through the television. Our in-depth, in-person conversations are limited. Many of us are questioning our abilities to handle work, home, children, and our children’s education without outside resources. We are becoming relatively homebound.
Despite these obstacles, there are strategies for us all to alleviate our anxieties triggered by negative news and our period of increased social distance. The first tactic is to create, implement, and keep a daily routine. A consistent routine has numerous benefits for older and homebound adults. A basic routine creates structure, fosters a sense of control and security, and ensures that the individual’s needs are being met on a regular basis. Sample schedules for older adults are readily available online and can help caregivers facilitate conversations with their loved ones about their daily needs and routines. There are also google results for sample schedules for individuals working from home, homeschooling, and healthy routines in general.
The second tactic is to take breaks away from the television and the constant news cycle. These breaks can be built into the daily routine or can be taken as needed. It is important to disconnect and focus attention onto something that may reduce anxiety, foster feelings of productivity and self-reliance, and give the brain a break from the stimulation and negativity of the news. This time can be used for any number of things depending on abilities and interests. Common examples are: contacting a loved one, listening to music or a podcast, tending to a pet or houseplant, reading, exercise, or completing self-care tasks/activities of daily living.
If turning off the television or news notifications entirely is a struggle, then a third tactic is to simply change the channel when becoming overwhelmed or feeling stressed out by the news. With so many channels to choose from and the option for many of us to record or stream programs, changing to a light-hearted show can alleviate some of the anxiety that homebound adults experience while watching the 24-hour news cycle. The drawback to this option, however, is that it does not give the brain a chance to disconnect from the stimulation of the television/smartphone or provide the individual with the time to engage in a potential meaningful activity.
If you or a loved one are struggling to cope, please feel free to contact us at (314) 275-8599 to schedule a counseling appointment. We are currently offering sessions both by online telehealth platforms and by telephone, so that you can receive quality therapy from the safety of your own home. Our staff has experience working with individuals throughout the lifespan, from young children to the elderly. We look forward to the opportunity to help you through this difficult time.