As a mental health professional and graduate student, I can’t help but, at times, feel overwhelmed. It’s during this time, that I have to stop and reflect as to why I am feeling this way. A lot of these feelings are related to stress and time management. There is no doubt that effective time management results in less stress, which in turn results in more satisfied, effective, and healthy individuals.
The irony for many mental health professionals is that, although we promote reduction of stress, and self-care, we do a poor job of taking care of ourselves. It is paramount for a mental health professional to remember that self-care is not only vital to ourselves, but it is a needed quality in the helping profession. How can we help others if we do not take care of ourselves?
The ability to use time efficiently is an important skill in academics, work, and clinical settings. Deadlines are common and they are typically accompanied by a specific amount of work that should have been done within that time. Because of the emphasis on deadlines, time management is imperative. Without effectively using time, consequences, such as psychological stress, economic loss, and others who are counting on you are let down leaving a less than desirable impression.
The first step in improving self-care is to look at how you handle stress—both positively and negatively. Ask yourself the following questions:
Do you work a reasonable number of hours?
What do you do during the day to take a break and remove yourself from the environment so you can come back with a fresh perspective?
Do you take time off? What about a vacation? How often are you sick and if it is frequently, what is your immune system trying to tell you?
Do you follow the basics of health and wellness, such a good diet, regular exercise, drink enough water, and get at least 8 hours of sleep per night?
Do you actively create balance between personal and professional activities, and plan for “me time?”
Are you aware of negative patterns that indicate stress, such as overeating, overdrinking, or overspending?
Now that you have asked yourself these questions, here are some self-care techniques that can help manage that stress:
PRACTICE ACCEPTANCE. Many people get distressed over things they won’t let themselves accept. Often, these are things that can’t be changed, for example someone else’s feelings or beliefs.
KEEP IN TOUCH WITH FRIENDS. Friends can be good medicine. Daily doses of conversation, regular social engagements, and occasional sharing of deep feelings and thoughts can reduce stress.
TALK RATIONALLY TO YOURSELF. Ask yourself what real impact the stressful situation will have on you in a day or in a week, and see if you can let the negative thoughts go. Think through whether the situation is your problem or the other person’s. If it is yours, approach it calmly and firmly. If it is the other person’s, there is not much you can do about it. Rather than condemning yourself with hindsight thinking like, “I should have…,” think about what you can learn from the error and plan for the future. Watch out for perfectionism — set realistic and attainable goals. Remember: everyone makes errors. Be careful of procrastination — practice breaking tasks into smaller units to make it manageable, and practice prioritizing to get things done.
GET ORGANIZED. Develop a realistic schedule of daily activities that includes time for work, sleep, relationships, and recreation. Use a daily “thing to do ” list. Improve your physical surroundings by cleaning your house and straightening up your office. Use your time and energy efficiently.
DISARM YOURSELF. Every situation in life does not require you to be competitive. Adjust your approach to an event according to its demands. You don’t have to raise your voice in a simple discussion. Playing tennis with a friend does not have to be an Olympic trial. Leave behind you your “weapons” of shouting, having the last word, putting someone else down, and blaming.
LAUGH. Taking time for positive laughter every day is energizing, health-promoting, and rewarding. Humor and funny moments are all around us; we need to be receptive to them. Research provides evidence that laughter is a powerful tool when used appropriately in our personal and professional life journey.
QUIET TIME. Balance your family, social, and work demands with special private times. Hobbies are good antidotes for daily pressures. Unwind by taking a quiet stroll, soaking in a hot bath, watching a sunset, or listening to calming music.
WATCH YOUR HABITS. Eat sensibly — a balanced diet will provide all the necessary energy you will need during the day. Avoid nonprescription drugs and avoid alcohol use. You need to be mentally and physically alert to deal with stress. Be mindful of the effects of excessive caffeine and sugar on nervousness. Problems can occur when the sympathetic nervous system is unnecessarily over activated frequently. If we react too strongly or let the small over-reactions pile up, we may run into physical as well as psychological problems. Gastrointestinal problems, depression, headaches, or relapse can come about from acute distress. Insomnia, heart disease, and distress habits (examples: drinking, overeating, smoking, and using drugs) can result from the accumulation of small distresses.
Again, to be effective mental health professionals, we must first take care of ourselves. In a demanding occupation, dealing with complex psychological issues, individuals and families in crisis, and the responsibilities of developing a treatment plan, mental health professionals can easily become overwhelmed. Finding enough time to study, do research, and write graduate papers add to the stress level. Even when we feel good about what we do, cumulative job stress and graduate school takes a toll. The answers lie in what we do for ourselves, seeking out support in our work environment, and promoting our own self-care.