Guiding patients in self-care is key

By Catherine Robertson Souter
July 10th, 2021
David Meyer, Ph.D., clinical director/owner of Health Psych Maine
David Meyer, Ph.D., clinical director/owner of Health Psych Maine

There has been a lot of talk about self-care this past year. Do a search and you will find multiple articles on how therapists need to care for themselves in order to care for others. But where does teaching self-care fit in?

For David Meyer, Ph.D, clinical director and owner of Health Psych Maine, who also works with first responders on PTSD, self-care has become a major piece of his practice.

“It is a huge part of therapy,” he said, “and a primary component of what we do with first responders around PTSD. Self-care is going to help build resilience.”

Self-care can be regarded as a method of preventive care, Meyer said. He explains this concept to firefighters, especially those who don’t see it as important. It’s like taking care of all your tools, he explains. Take care of the tool that you use the most, your own mind and body.

“That is the audience that struggles with it,” he said. “I really work with them to find that connection. I was a firefighter and I can talk with them about the stressors in their life to get them to see that stress is not pathological. You put a lot into your work, you have to put that much into your life as well.”

“Self-care is going to help build resilience.” --David Meyer, Ph.D., clinical director/owner of Health Psych Maine

It can be hard work to put your needs first. Self-care is more than just taking time off, said Sarit Lesser, Psy.D, a psychologist in Providence, RI and specialist in acceptance and commitment therapy.

“People think that self-care is like taking a bubble bath or doing something fun” she said, “but self-care is often about stepping outside of one’s own comfort zone and doing things that perhaps are uncomfortable.”

As Lesser explained, self-care should be seen as a tool to help clients achieve their goals. If they want to go back to school or fix a relationship or reduce overall anxiety, taking care of their physical health and finding emotional balance is key.

“Self-care practices are the vehicle by which one can live a meaningful life,” she said. “Practicing self-care, like reaching out for support, exercising, meditating, eating healthy, etc., is the means…not the end.”

Our society does not value self-care as it should, added Jilisa Snyder, Ph.D, clinical director of the Anna Marsh Clinic at the Brattleboro Retreat in Vermont.
“There is much information about how to care for our bodies with diet and nutrition that is incorporated in our society” she said, “yet taking care of our mental health is not. It is one of my dreams that one day we would have not only a primary care physician but also a primary care psychologist to check in with on a regular basis. This would be incorporated in care as a human being.”

When working with a client, it is important to remember that each person’s self-care routine will be different. Start by asking them what they enjoy doing, what brings joy or pleasure or a sense of calm. Discover their goals, what they are hoping to do with their own life.

“I am going to spend time trying to get to know what that individual already knows about themselves,” said Snyder. “I want to find out what has worked for them.”

Tools like meditation or mindfulness, exposure to nature, or journaling can help bring each client into a greater awareness of their own needs while they also act as a respite from the stress of spiraling thought patterns.

“I encourage people to journal, especially if they are laying in bed and their mind is racing,” said Meyer. “Jot some of those things down so the brain knows they are stored elsewhere. Make sure we are processing what is happening to us.”

Basic physical health is also key. Snyder recommends initiating questions about sleep, diet, exercise, and any physical issues to first ascertain where the client stands.

“I want to be able to pick up if there may be some organic physical problems that could be affecting their mental health,” she said. “I will often talk to my clients about psycho physiological fatigue and provide some education on the mind body interplay. That helps patients realize problems are not just based on their character or their personality.”

The main thing, she added, is not to let self-care become another burden.

“A lot of people get beaten down by all the ‘shoulds’ in life,” she said. “I should work out more/eat better, etc. That is not good for mental health or a sense of self.”

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