Welcome to Focus On Emotions, an article series that will delve into our emotional depths, getting at one inalienable truth: emotions matter. Our culture generally teaches us that feelings are to be avoided, suppressed, and controlled; that feelings lead to irrationality. But I have learned, and affective neuroscience would suggest, that feelings are central to self-knowledge, self-management, and good decision-making. This series is designed to help us better understand our emotions, how to work with them, and, when needed, how to heal them. This article was written by Dr. Sarah Thompson, Clinical Psychologist, originally published May 16, 2017 on ryersonstudentaffairs.com.
I had anticipated writing this month about emotion coaching. But what I have noticed is that, recently, I have been tired. Very tired. My creativity has been ebbing along with my energy. But why? Spring is finally here. Summer is coming! I have had more balance this year at work than in previous years; I have loved this blog project. What is up? Why are my own emotions somewhat out of kilter?
As some of you may know, I have been training to cycle (yes, on a bike!) to Ottawa as part of #RoadToCacuss. We ride June 4–8. 500 km in five days. (In fact, I’ll be missing a fabulous training on emotion coaching at Ryerson while away on the ride!) I have been training, in some form, since June of 2016 when 20K felt like a long ride. While I built in a fairly steady fashion to 100 km in a day (in spite of the wall I first hit getting to the 50k mark, multi-day long rides are a current area of challenge for me. I have been shocked by the amount of physical and mental energy required and am working to figure out an entirely new self-care regime, based at least in part on exercise science. My current challenge: how to recover during back-to-back long rides so that I can continue the next day. I’m up to 160 km over two days, but I then pay a price for three days. With one month to go, I have more learning to do! As training continues, as conference season approaches, and as I have listened to my body (with some shouting on my body’s part)—I have made some changes in my schedule for the coming months.
As a mental health professional myself, preparing for a ride to raise awareness of and funds for Jack.org in support of mental health in the postsecondary sector, I first wondered if this tiredness might be depression? That seemed odd at this time of year and in this context. I’m certainly getting lots of exercise and sunlight! I started reading about burn-out, about post-endurance exercise recovery, about “overtraining syndrome”, and about adrenal fatigue. What I have learned from my reading is that the time has come to recharge my own batteries in more significant ways, beginning now if I am to make my best effort throughout the ride to Ottawa.
Many reading this blog, inside and outside of Student Affairs, will resonate with challenges balancing self-care with our work for others. Mental health professionals are no different, although we may talk about it less. Part of our ethical commitment to our clients is, specifically, to take care of ourselves so that we are able to effectively manage our own burdens so that clients are not aware of or impacted by a therapist’s life circumstances. That is not to say that we are not fully human in our sessions. I believe the best therapists are. But unlike friendships or even collegial relationships, client-therapist relationships are not fully reciprocal. While therapists vary in the amount of personal information they share in their work with clients, what therapists have in common is a commitment to not share information that may burden or restrict a client’s space to share their own journey. Many clients worry that their grief, their sorrows, stresses, and traumas may be too much for another person to bear, or may be a burden that weighs upon their therapist unduly. As such, we as mental health professionals carefully tend to our own well-being so that we may be there to scaffold and support those in our care as they themselves wrestle with their own burdens.
In my 10 years in practice as a psychologist, I have known therapists who have lost parents, experienced divorce, suffered from profound depression, cared for ailing relatives, and experienced personal life threatening illnesses. When a therapist’s emotions are “hot”, this is not the time to share with clients in the way a therapist, having fully processed the experience, might share their story of having survived an experience to help a client feel less shame, to normalize and validate, and to build hope when there is none. Part of our training, our commitment, and our practice is to care for ourselves to allow these processes to occur. While our work may be informed by our own struggles (having experienced loss, trauma, or pain can certainly increase empathy for others), we also learn to set aside the intensity of our burdens so that we may be present and available for our clients to assist them in metabolizing their own experience, healing their own emotional pains. When we are not able to do that, it is time to take a brief break, to recharge, to regain perspective, and to refocus our energies before we return to work. Afterall, truth be told, there is something truly wonderful and magical about witnessing, participating in, and facilitating healing.
In our work to support students through orientation weeks that prepare students to get the most out of their first semester and those beyond; in our mentoring and leadership development programs where we aim to support a student’s ability to flourish; in career centres where we work with students from that first semester to begin to prepare for satisfying careers; in housing, international student services, and Aboriginal student services where we seek to build safe, engaged communities and foster a sense of “home away from home”; in learning support services where we help students identify their strengths and challenges as learners, increasing their capacity to learn effectively and efficiently across their life spans; and in counselling, health, and wellness units with a focus on building healthy lifestyles, integrating self-care into the foundation of one’s life, and acting as a safety net to provide professional care when it is needed—in all of these areas, we must also walk the talk and care for ourselves. As I have often thought and said in leading a team of mental health care professionals: more than our techniques and our training, we ourselves are the greatest resources we can offer our students. When we are fatigued or overstressed, students notice. Students feel it, and they don’t get the best care.
So, in the coming three months, I will take a hiatus from this blog. I will also make some long-planned-for changes in both my personal and professional life as I seek out some new and exciting directions, with a promise to myself to find greater balance. I will do some yoga, ride my bike for fun, play catch with my son, and snuggle him on the couch. I will sit around a campfire with some lovely family friends talking accessible psychotherapy theory and practice for kids and adults. I will renew my focus on clinical work, supervision, and teaching. I will look forward to returning to writing over the summer, and to posting the final half of the Focus On Emotion series in the Fall semester. As all of that unfolds, I will leave you with a few ideas based on what I am learning as I seek to find greater balance in light of some pretty big physical energy commitments.
Tips for Self-Care
- Hydration is no joke; whether you are sitting all day, or riding 80 km, hydration impacts your mood and energy levels.
- Yes, diet is important for wellness and energy. No recommendations from me on this one as I’m still learning a lot. I recommend speaking to a naturopath, doctor, or nutrition consultant if you’re seeking to make changes.
- Sleep really is critical. Too little sleep impairs learning, memory, reaction time, and mood.
- Exercise (in moderation; else beware overtraining syndrome) increases energy. When it comes to muscle mass, the adage is true: “Use it or lose it,” (or at least lose it more quickly as we age).
More than the Basics:
- Time away from stress (including social media, email, deadline pressure, and guarding against the “weekend effect”) is essential to mental wellness.
- To avoid or recover from burnout, take time each week to relax, without thinking about work—at all. Read a novel; get outside while the weather is lovely; start a mindfulness practice; find a yoga class you love, or do something just for your own enjoyment. It will help you recharge at a physiological level.
- If you have a large caretaking role (personally or professionally), learn to recognize the signs of compassion fatigue and take steps to recharge.
Remember, you are your most valuable resource—to your families, your friends, your students, and your colleagues. Without balance, how can we inspire balance in others? Take the time you need to look in the mirror, to identify how you are doing, and to take the steps you need to recharge. As I often say to students, if you’re so tired that you’re working at 50% efficiency, you might as well take 50% of your time to actually recharge your batteries. Then, when you’re back up to 100% efficiency, continue to do more in less time—and take the additional time to keep recharging. As I have begun to learn about “recovery” in endurance athletics, this advice keeps coming back to me:
On day one, you must be eating and hydrating for day five.
If you’re not, you will quickly enter a resource deficit and you won’t be able to complete day five. Lessons for life, no? My challenge to you and to me: begin to engage in self-care each day to maintain or build the reserve you need for two weeks (or two months or two years) down the road!
Thank you so much for your participation in this series—for your emails, your comments, and your encouragement. With each passing month, my own critic has shrunk (truth be told I have to go out and look for it some months—a new experience I’m happy to have arrived at in my 40s), and I have very much enjoyed the process of giving myself some space to find my voice.
I very much look forward to resuming publication of the Focus On Emotion series beginning in September, as we tackle emotion coaching, what I have learned from study and practice about trauma and suicide risk, and of course, finding out what is going on with the evolution of my self-critical voice as we move towards an understanding of how and why (we think) experiential therapies work. I have given myself permission to return to writing from the comfort of my backyard, with a cup of tea, urban birdsong and/or Max Richter in the background, and the sun shining through the gently blowing leaves—in July and August. In the meantime, my prescription for self-care these summer months: Drink (water), eat (whole healthy foods), and be merry (alone and with others, with healthy doses of self-compassion, gratitude, mindfulness, laughter, and a sprinkling of physical movement thrown in).