Hello and welcome to my blog! I've been thinking about setting up a blog for a while now, and the end of the year seems like a good enough time to start. In this post, I want to talk a bit about how I try to keep myself functioning at a level where I can care for other people, in a world that can be stressful and daunting at times.
Being a clinical psychologist can be a challenge to my own physical and mental well-being. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love my job. Being able to connect with people from so many different walks of life, with the goal of helping them to do things they thought they would never do again, is an incredible way to spend your time. But it does have its downsides, which have often been minimised in the past. In more recent history, there has been an acknowledgement that mental health workers don't exist in a vacuum, and that keeping ourselves well is an important part of our responsibility to our clients and to ourselves. You can't drink from an empty cup, or so the saying goes.
Here are six different ways that I try and keep myself on an even keel. Life is stressful, and I don't always succeed, but as long as you keep trying you're already part of the way there.
1) I use relaxation techniques
I know, I know, it seems a little bit cliched. But when I first qualified as a clinical psychologist, I decided that I wasn't going to ask my clients to do anything that I wasn't willing to do myself, so I started to use diaphragmatic breathing every day before I went to sleep. It didn't take long before I started to get quite good at it (practice makes things easier, who knew?!) so I started using it at different times of the day too, whenever I feel a bit stressed. It doesn't work to reduce my stress every time - largely due to my mood, level of anxiety and caffeine intake - but it always helps me step back a little bit and think about things more clearly.
2) I say no
All of these self-care techniques are a work in progress, but none more so than this one. It's taken me a LONG time to learn how to say no - to interesting research proposals, to taking on more clients when I don't have the space, to impromptu social events on an already busy weekend. I don't always get it right either, because everything is interesting to me and takes my attention. I like throwing myself into a project, I feel guilty that we have a waiting list at work, and I love seeing my friends - but doing too many of those things when I'm already busy and stressed is a recipe for burnout, compassion fatigue, and generally feeling like a wrung-out dishcloth! Saying no sometimes allows me to focus 100% on the things I DO agree to, which is better for me and for the people around me.
3) I go to the gym
Doing therapy can be quite mentally demanding. In-depth conversations that require a high level of concentration and skill, with people who are struggling with an intense range of emotions and sensations, is my daily normal. And it's great. But the one thing they don't tell you about it is that it's also one of the least physical jobs out there! I do assessments that are up to 90mins long, and a typical therapy session can be 60mins. Doing four - six of those a day adds up to a LOT of sitting still, and sitting still for long periods of time isn't great for any aspect of health. So when I'm not working, I try to stay as physically active as possible. For me, that includes running, walking, and going to the gym to lift very light weights and pretend in my head that I'm Linda Hamilton in Terminator.
I'd like to believe I can deadlift 90kg, but these are more my speed!
4) I eat chocolate
I'd like people to believe that I'm a paragon of health but the truth is, being human isn't about making perfect choices. I still do some things that "perfect, well put-together, superhuman people" don't do, because I'm none of those things and I don't believe those people exist. When I'm super stressed, my main response is to go for the chocolate - it's not always the healthiest choice, but I'm not always the healthiest person! It's okay to do small things sometimes that we know aren't in our best interests (I'm not talking about being addicted to a substance, or treating people badly because we're stressed out), as long as we're aware of the long-term effect and why we're doing it.
5) I light candles
For me, there's something about candles that inspires a sense of peace and calm. At work, I like to have twinkly lights near my desk when it gets to Christmas (mostly because I don't think my colleagues would let me keep them up all year round!) but my ideal would be a candle - health and safety may disagree! I can focus on the flame and combine it with diaphragmatic breathing, or listening to music. Scented candles are lovely as well but it's more about the comfort of the glimmering flame and the soft light coming from it. I'm sure you know the kind of sense that I'm talking about - I get it from candles, or from watching the sea, and it can be a really powerful grounding force when I need it to be.
6) I listen to music
Music has always been my first love, and I know many people feel the same way about it. Music is one of the only things that can have an instant effect on my mood and my thought process - but I'm aware that works both negatively and positively. When I'm struggling with stress, playing music is one of my favourite ways to calm down and distract myself for a few hours. Just be careful not to make your mood worse by playing something that makes you feel low, or sad - happy music only at this point for me!
Let me know in the comments - how do you de-stress and look after yourself?
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Dr Sarah Blackshaw: Clinical Psychologist, blogger, tea drinker, interested in dinosaurs and shiny objects