By MARTY LEVINE
Self-care isn’t just a buzzword we all started hearing suddenly during the pandemic — it’s needed and it works, two faculty members from the Counseling and Behavioral Health Department of the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences told Staff Council’s 29th Spring Assembly on May 10.
Michelle Schein promised that there was much more to self-care than the typical TikTok video recommending bubble baths and manicures, while Laura Dietz mock apologized for instructing participants to breathe deeply — because it actually works, she explained. The pair presented on the topic “Stressed? Don’t despair — increase resilience to stress with self-care.”
Some stress in our life can be good, but not if it gets out of hand, Schein said. In fact, as a species, we probably need some stress: “Without that … little pull of anxiety, we really wouldn’t do much,” she said. But “each one of us has our own threshold” when the stress becomes too much.
Yet not enough of us have coping mechanisms, or can even recognize the main symptoms of burnout, which usually come on gradually and include a loss of enthusiasm for previous passions.
At work, there can be many things that cause burnout, Schein said, from our workload and loss of control over our time to a lack of reward, the absence of a community feeling with our colleagues, and the sense that the workplace isn’t treating us fairly or the management does not share our values. The risk of burnout is greatest for those at the beginning or end of their career, she pointed out.
One key to getting past burnout is recognizing it in the first place.
“Our MO when we’re really feeling a problem is to power through,” she said. “No one is immune.”
“There is no easy solution to this,” Dietz said. “But it is really important that we … actually engage in activities that replenish ourselves.
“If you don’t pick a day to relax,” she said, echoing a familiar meme, “your body will pick it for you.”
Dietz suggested that everyone develop a self-care plan now, even before it is needed, in five realms: the professional, physical, emotional, relational and spiritual/religious. “You have it written down in anticipation of when you really need something to do,” she said.
Professional self-care — that is, in the workplace — can start with establishing appropriate limits and boundaries in your work; creating realistic expectations on the job “to help maintain a degree of control over your work and reduce the likelihood of problems with professional competence”; and scheduling breaks, having an actual lunch time and taking vacations.
“I was an anxious procrastinator” at one time, Dietz said, “and that was not good for my stress level.” Learning to fix your own issues is possible, she added, although she admits “that was hard.”
She offered tips for developing a self-care plan: “Select which areas of self-care you will begin to focus on. Don’t aim for perfection; consider what areas of self-care require the most attention, are the most important to you, or have been the most neglected. Personalize your self-care plan: be creative; be open to changes. Put the plan into action: start small; don’t give up — it is a process.”
Many of us face a battle against “automatic thoughts,” Dietz explained. “You may be barely aware of these thoughts, but you are far more likely to be aware of the emotion or behaviors that result from them. Even if you are aware of your thoughts, you most likely accept them uncritically, believing that they are true.”
Examples of automatic thoughts in the workplace can be: “My job is my life.” “I’m going to get fired if I can’t do it all.” “If I ask for help, I’ll be seen as incompetent.” “I’m going to get in trouble if I communicate a limit.”
Rather than accepting them, “evaluate them,” Dietz suggested. “Hold on a second. What makes me think this thought is true? Is it a hundred percent true? Maybe I’m catastrophizing.”
The final step, she suggested, would be to “pull ourselves back and de-catastrophize. What if I communicate this? What is the worst that can happen? What is the best?”
She suggested “gaining distance” as a strategy to counter these automatic thoughts: “What would I say to a friend or a loving family member in this situation? We are often quite gentle with the people that we love and we are often not gentle with ourselves.
“The biggest barrier to self-care is: people have no time for self-care,” Dietz admitted. When nothing else is possible, “you always have two things: you have your thoughts and you have your breath” over which you can aim to assert control.
“Oh boy, here she goes telling us to deep breathe again,” she added, as she instructed the group on the stress-relieving qualities of breath and muscle control: “Relaxing our muscles,” she concluded, “we can actually help relax our minds.”
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.
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