Self-care for psychologists in a time of uncertainty

By Catherine Robertson Souter
June 26th, 2020
Nathaniel Van Kirk, Ph.D, coordinator of inpatient group therapy at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., and the coordinator of clinical assessment at McLean’s OCD Institute.
Nathaniel Van Kirk, Ph.D, coordinator of inpatient group therapy at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., and the coordinator of clinical assessment at McLean’s OCD Institute

Coping with the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic can lead to a barrage of symptoms most people don’t know how to manage. That is where psychologists come in, with advice and guidance on self-care that can help to steady the ship while we all navigate unsettled and unchartered waters.

But what about the therapists themselves; what does self-care look like from the other side of the couch?

“Even though everyone has been impacted differently, this trauma is unique in that we are experiencing this along with our clients,” said Ana Rodriquez, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Self-Care Practice in New York City and a certified trainer in Child Parent Psychotherapy and Child Family Traumatic Stress Intervention. Rodriguez has shifted to a virtual clinical and consultation practice and plans to begin virtual training sessions within the next months.

Standard self-care practices, like exercise, a balanced diet, hydration, and quality sleep along with limiting media intake need to be the first steps for maintaining mental health. But managing this on-going situation may require more.

“We are in the midst of this pandemic and there is stress all around us,” said Nathaniel Van Kirk, Ph.D, coordinator of inpatient group therapy at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., and the coordinator of clinical assessment at McLean’s OCD Institute. “Things are changing daily.”

“There have been exciting changes which will have a big impact for the future of what we do for clients.” --Nathaniel Van Kirk, Ph.D, coordinator of inpatient group therapy, McLean Hospital, Belmont, Mass.

Working from home felt like a bonus at first, no commute! But it becomes evident quickly that blurred edges between work and home life can mean work is never really done. So, start by creating a new routine, one that encourages a work/life balance. Don’t fall into a trap of trying to do more because you feel you should be able to do more.

“It is easy to overspend yourself,” said Van Kirk who splits his time both on site at the hospital and working remotely. “With teletherapy, you need to keep an eye on the tendency to be available all the time.”

Build in personal time. Set up a plan to share child-care responsibilities or schedule a daily chat with friends. And work to keep your day from being one long online session.

“I try to get up and stretch or I stand at my door or walk outside as a way to have a break in between clients,” said Van Kirk. “I took for granted how many steps I was getting just in moving around the office. My phone reminded me how much more stationary I have been.”

Being on a screen all day, rather than interacting with humans directly, can take a toll. Many users are noticing a certain “Zoom fatigue” from our brains attempting to pick up physical cues we automatically process when in person.

“It used to be that a screen might be a break from being face to face,” said Van Kirk, “but now I am more aware of finding activities that are not screen-related, picking up old hobbies, going for a walk, or reading.”

Working remotely doesn’t lend itself to the same level of interaction with colleagues. To combat this situation, Rodriguez recommends actively seeking out support or mentorship, especially when you know you have an emotionally demanding session coming up.

“Don’t wait to be in a bad situation or a distressed state,” she said. “Maybe plan ahead if you are working with a challenging client to check in with a colleague or supervisor.”

Beyond the practical advice, it can be helpful to step back and see the big picture. We are all going through a difficult time and we all need to find compassion for ourselves. It is a time for acknowledging what we are feeling, accepting that we won’t feel in control and cutting ourselves some slack.

“Part of that is radical acceptance,” said Rodriguez, “this is the situation we are in. How do I make the best of what I can control?”

The pandemic has created opportunities in other ways, Van Kirk added.

“Amidst all this uncertainty, there have been a lot of great advances and growth in the way we think about best practices and care for the community as a whole,” he said. “There have been exciting changes which will have a big impact for the future of what we do for clients.”

For many of us, this may be a time for finding new meaning in our lives, from pursuing spirituality to volunteering to getting more involved in current events. It is also important, says Van Kirk, to appreciate the good you are already doing in your work as a therapist.

“Find opportunities for meaning in all the different areas outside of clinical work and ways to give back to the community,” he said. “And find meaningful ways that put a framework on what we are doing day-to-day. This is a great time to reflect on the parts of the job that are most rewarding. ”

“Be sure to schedule in some time to do those things that you are most motivated by so you build some of that resilience as part of your every week.”

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Self-care assessment tool that can be useful for anyone to do a quick self check-up:

https://socialwork.buffalo.edu/content/dam/socialwork/home/self-care-kit/self-care-assessment.pdf

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