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Provider Self-Care During COVID-19

By Jessica M. Smedley, PsyD

Many of us got into the Mental Health field because of our strong desire to help others and our interest in an overall healthy society. As psychologists, many of us are trained in areas of trauma and crisis management; we have learned techniques to treat others during times of distress, anxiety, and depression. However, we are also often guilty of not holding ourselves to the same standard that we invest so much in our clients. The current COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to address our own humanity and to manage our own stress and anxiety as we go through this pandemic along with our clients and the rest of the world.

Let us not overlook the reality of facing our own grief and trauma as we rapidly adjust to a new way of working and existing in the world. We are battling the many unknowns and uncertainties of this pandemic, while managing various personal life adjustments and our own physical and mental health. Many of us are experiencing fluctuations in income, managing health and stress of family members, home-schooling children, and adjusting to the world of video-therapy and all that it entails. It is imperative that we take time to acknowledge our own humanity, now more than ever.

Many of us are experiencing an increase in clients genuinely asking about us as their providers and checking on our well-being because they’re aware that no one is exempt from this current experience. Our instinct may lean towards us needing to indicate that we are doing well but if we are to make our humanity a priority, we must first acknowledge our shared experiences during times of stress. We know that the field of psychology will be a supportive, forceful, resilient presence as we face the coming days. We can confidently anticipate the likelihood of a behavioral epidemic that will follow the pandemic, but it is imperative to focus on the ‘self’ of the therapist to continue serving our clients and communities. Below are some tips that hopefully serve as refreshers to keep in mind in the days to come.

  1. Stop and Acknowledge Your Feelings!
    This is likely an obvious and remedial reminder, but how many of us actively engage in our own grounding? How many of us actively have our own readily available toolbox of coping skills? In order to persist and to be present for our clients, we must first acknowledge how we are responding to the crisis and trauma of this pandemic. It is important to our own mental health and to our loved ones that we are able to identify and process our own anxiety, fears, depression, grief, or frustrations. Engaging in this task will allow us to have increased capacity to continue helping our clients and to be an authentic role model for good mental health practices. Many of us have switched to telehealth in a matter of days, without disruption in services. We have had to become accustomed to new platforms, modes of technology, new ways of collecting payments, and adjusting to new ways of assessing one’s well-being through the mode of a screen. Taking time to process your own reaction and emotional responses to the pandemic will allow you to continue being present for clients and will help you to be more authentically present, with greater empathy.

  2. Extend Grace and Compassion to Yourself
    How many times do we tell our clients to be kind to themselves and to make realistic expectations? Therapists are often quick to show grace to others but hold themselves to a higher, often unrealistic expectation. We chose a field that is other-centered, which can interfere with our own ability to re-energize and give ourselves needed attention. We also have a skill set that helped us to get through the rigor of graduate programs, while simultaneously balancing several obligations and challenges; we are strong and resilient but do not need to prove it to ourselves. Now is not the time to be hard on yourself if you aren’t able to function at the same capacity in a non-pandemic state. We are all familiar with the diagnostic categories of an Adjustment Disorder, Acute Stress, or even grief. We are aware of the time-limits established to meet criteria for those disorders. Because of this knowledge, we must extend the same grace and patience with ourselves. You may not be able to maintain the same schedule or caseload as before, or you may be experiencing an increase in caseload. You may be exhausted from spending so much time adjusting to constant use of a screen for video-therapy and professional meetings on Zoom. You may not workout as often for a multitude of reasons. You may have your own physical or mental health history that requires additional attention because of the added stressors. Whatever the issue may be, it is not the time to be hard on yourself or to expect to maintain the same level of professional availability.

  3. Don’t Let Your Boundaries Become Blurred
    Switching to video-therapy has been quite a task for many of us. Many of our listservs have been flowing with emails about the best servers to use, how to collect co-pays, ethical standards, and jurisdictional boundaries of practice. We are maintaining various professional meetings on Zoom, often several times a week. All of these commitments still require us to be present and available, with the added stress of navigating the newness of the screen as a barrier. The environment in which you are working is essential during this this time. Are you in a quiet space where you will not be interrupted? Are you aware of your posture, comfort level, lighting, and overall physical presentation? Are you keeping work and personal time or spaces separate? Are you working hours you typically would not? It is important to have a good balance of comfortability while maintaining professionalism during video sessions.

    Further, It may be easy to fool yourself into thinking that working from home should be easy and a benefit. You may not miss the stressors and costs associated with commuting and perhaps getting more sleep, but this does not mean you are not exerting a great deal of mental, emotional energy in a way that you have not experienced prior to this pandemic. Don’t feel guilty if you are not able to accept every Zoom social event, happy hour, or family gathering. You need time to recover. You may also feel guilty for needing a day off. Now is the time to really practice the concept of a ‘mental health day.’ The time off that you may earn is not solely about an active vacation, but sometimes the mere absence of working. It is imperative to sustain some type of clear boundaries to sustain your energy and space.

  4. Maintain Your Wellness Activities
    Frequency and quality of your wellness activities may have shifted in recent weeks and as stated before, it is fine. You may not be able to go to the gym for the time being, but perhaps you are walking or doing yoga and stretching exercises at home. You may not be able to attend a religious service, but maybe your leader has provided resources electronically. You may not be able to attend your extracurricular art class (or other hobby) but perhaps you can learn a new skill on YouTube at home. While processing your feelings, practicing grace, maintaining boundaries, it will be helpful to stay attuned to the things that foster your resilience and to find new creative ways of implementing them into your current sense of normalcy.

It is my hope that these sentiments are a helpful reminder of things we already know. I encourage everyone to take time to slow down, remain present, and give yourself grace!

The Therapists Workbook, Jeffrey A. Kottler (2009)

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