In an article published in the International Journal for the Advancement of Counseling, mental health professionals were encouraged to take care of themselves, as “stress, burnout, and professional impairment are prevalent among mental health professionals and can have a negative impact on their clinical work, whilst engagement in self-care can help promote therapist well-being.”
To be able to support, co-regulate and provide a safe environment on the journey to guiding your clients to more regulated and resilient lives, it’s essential that providers not overlook the importance of their own health.
While the concept may seem simple, self-care extends beyond one-time acts and involves planning around your individual needs and existing routines. To help provide ideas, here are three ways to practice self-care, the benefits of each one based on research and studies, and suggestions to help you follow through.
Spend time in nature
Go outside — it’s good for you. A 2019 study published in Nature by researchers from the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter found that people who spend at least two hours per week in greenspaces, such as parks, are more likely to report good health or better well-being. In this sample of almost 20,000, participants saw benefits regardless of whether the two hours outside occurred all at once or were spread out across several shorter periods.
Many professionals, including practitioners, are now more enabled than ever to see their clients remotely through virtual appointments from their home offices, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this can empower practitioners to manage their own schedules and improve flexibility, it can also be easy to forget to take a break from the computer or phone screen throughout the busy workday (excessive use of which has also been shown to have potentially harmful effects on mental health).
It may not be possible to spend two full hours outside in one day. However, breaking that up over the course of a week comes out to under 20 minutes a day! Review your calendar and block off 20 minutes each day to go for a light stroll, whether it’s in the morning to grab a coffee, during lunchtime or after wrapping up at the end of the day.
It may be tempting to reach for a candy bar and indulge a craving on a particularly stressful day, but try to avoid turning it into a habit and opt for healthier options more often.
For instance, consider passing over candy and chocolate for fruits (nature’s candy) and vegetables at least 50 per cent of the time you want to snack during work hours. The British Journal of Health Psychology published a study that examined the impact of eating fruits and vegetables on an individual’s experience of daily life over the course of 13 days. In the 405 participants, the researchers found that those who consumed more fruits and vegetables showed “higher average eudaemonic well-being, more intense feelings of curiosity, and greater creativity,” an association that wasn’t found with sweets and chips.
Another study published in Frontiers in Nutrition from Cardiff University’s School of Psychology linked the consumption of fruit with lower anxiety, depression and emotional distress when compared to consumption of chips or chocolate, which on the other hand were linked to somatic symptoms, cognitive difficulties and fatigue.
Shift away from self-judgment and toward self-compassion
Practicing self-compassion is advice that’s often shared from provider to client, but can be just as applicable to professionals. Dr. Kristin Neff, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is a leader in the research into self-compassion. When her son was diagnosed with autism, self-compassion helped her be able to “steer clear of anger and self-pity” so that she could remain a patient parent “despite the feelings of stress and despair that would inevitably arise,” she writes.
Dr. Neff highlights three components of self-compassion, drawing from Buddhist scholars, that can be summarized as follows:
Self-kindness versus self-judgment: Treat yourself with kindness and comfort, shifting away from being overly critical of yourself.
A sense of common humanity versus isolation: Recognize that humans are imperfect and will make mistakes — and that’s normal.
Mindfulness versus overidentification: Be aware of the present moment experience, not ignoring the negatives in life but also not dwelling on them later.
One method to practice self-compassion, Neff describes, is to write a letter to yourself when the feelings of stress or struggle begin to bubble, or when in need of self-motivation, and address the letter to a close friend or colleague who is facing similar challenges. Once finished, put it away for a period of time, then come back to it at a later date and read your own affirmations to yourself.
Discover the Safe and Sound Protocol
Developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, the SSP is a non-invasive acoustic vagus nerve stimulator that helps clients connect with themselves, others, and the world from a foundation of physiological safety.