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Self-Care and Mental Well-Being: Do we practice what we preach?

by Claire Watt

Claire Watt Claire qualified as an Occupational Therapist in 2009 and has worked extensively with adults and older adults with enduring and complex mental health conditions. In this article, Claire shares her reflections, insights and advice on mental well-being, stress and resilience as a health professional.

Self-Care

As therapists, particularly Occupational Therapists, the term self-care is a familiar one. It’s been part of our daily working lives throughout our careers. I’m sure many of you can relate and reflect that we selflessly encourage our patients to look after themselves, but do we need to practice more of what we preach? The aim of this article is to highlight the importance of self-care and to ask you to consider taking the time to appreciate your own mental well-being, being mindful of the current pandemic and approaching winter months.

But why is self-care important? Simply and clearly put, the Health Care Professions Council headline “to be able to care for your service users, you must take care of yourself” (HCPC 2021). Self-care is beneficial to our healthy working lives and is a formal standard for practice (HCPC 2021). Duncan (2009), summarised self-care as “personally taking responsibility for ensuring the maintenance of your own health and well-being”.

Is this something we find difficult and if so, why? I think the term self-care for health professionals comes with some preconceptions of selfishness and guilt, about putting our needs above others. It possibly feels like the opposite reason that many of us chose a career in healthcare. I’ll also confess, that despite being a mental health professional, stopping to “check” my own self-care, isn’t something that has come easily to me and has required active attention and prioritisation over the years. So, I’d like to encourage you to consider yours by exploring more about mental well-being.

Mental Wellbeing, Stress and Resilience

Like many things in life, our mental well-being isn’t static, and it’s influenced by multiple factors. It fluctuates and alters depending on where we are in our lives, our demands and even the time of year. I’m currently juggling the daily demands of being a health professional, mum, wife, friend (and more) and honestly, my mental health self-care isn’t always the top priority.

Stress is a familiar and common term, one which we can at times, use flippantly or too lightly. We often assume we know what stress looks and feels like however by actively learning about stress and reflecting how it personally affects and presents in you, is one of the most helpful self-management tools I’d like to promote.

Firstly, we need to understand what stress is. In brief, “stress is our psychological, emotional and physical response to pressure. We feel there are too many demands, and too few resources to cope” (Get Self-Help 2021 - NHS). Following this, reflect on whether you have experienced (or are currently experiencing) any of the physical symptoms, mental/emotional variations or behavioural changes. From here, analyse a little deeper, as our stress signs can be more subtle for example neck stiffness, tiredness or increased risk taking i.e., driving too quickly as a result of the fight/flight stress response.

As an example, I’ll share my personal reflection and insights. It starts subtle; a stiff neck, being forgetful (more than usual and not writing reminders down); then more noticeable mental fatigue, feeling rushed and my time management slipping; to finally juggling excessive demands and ironically wanting to or taking on more. The latter appears counterproductive but, it’s a way I unhelpfully try to feel that I have control of the elements in my life. This key behavioural change is a significant sign of stress for me! One of which, I unfortunately (or fortunately) discovered early on in my career. Since then, I try to notice symptoms earlier, look out for those subtle signals and make time to reflect (in brief moments not hours). I still don’t always catch the stress or have control of where it’s coming from, but my stress self-awareness is more refined.

As a health professional however, I feel stress doesn’t stand alone without resilience. “Resilience is your capacity for change, your adaptability. It’s about remaining resourceful no matter what is going on” (The Resilience Engine, 2021). Resilience is a concept often used in mental health, particularly psychology. The American Psychology Association (APA 2020), explain that resilience isn’t a personality trait, but something that can be learned and developed by anyone, as it involves, thoughts, actions and behaviours. I feel this view of resilience links well with the reflective practice of health professionals. Having an understanding of resilience can help you “check in” on your stress levels and identify where you are on the resilience dynamic. I follow The Psychology Mum on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, and this is a great source for additional (and illustrated) insights and clinical advice.

It’s again helpful to remember that resilience shifts with your stress levels and both impact on and are influenced by our energy levels. I particularly like the metaphor of considering yourself like a mobile phone, you have many functions and demands but you are no use without charging the battery. For me, this highlights the importance of looking after yourself and reminds me to “recharge” by finding time to either run, relax or connect with family and friends. Having a positive mindset, remembering what I have control over to influence/change and challenging negative thoughts are a few helpful strategies, I have also found that enhance my resilience.

For further insight on your resilience, check out the free resilience checker tool and the tips and strategies on how to reinforce your resilience listed in further reading.

Current Working Climate

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we know it, it has impacted on our stress levels and tested our resilience. We have been forced to adapt and change our behaviour. In a work sense, this may now mean remote/home working or “virtual” working online. The peaks and pitfalls of this new way of working will have caused stress and as a result, tested our resilience too. Our overall mental well-being has also not escaped unscathed. The changes to our daily lives and social connections have affected our mood, sleep, diet and exercise. Some of us will have potentially neglected our self-care or not seen it as a priority during this challenging and unknown time. Nearly two years on and the impact of COVID on mental well-being is being recognised across the UK, with governments, professional bodies and mental health charities all promoting resources and giving advice (see further reading below for details).

As the clocks change and shift the daylight hours, people can be susceptible to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern and is often known as the “winter depression”, as symptoms are more apparent and severe during this time (NHS, 2018). As part of our self-care, it may be helpful to be aware of SAD and how it presents as it can take a few years to diagnose. One piece of advice (which could be valuable to us all regardless) is to try and get as much natural sunlight as possible during the winter, so getting fresh air on a lunchbreak or a short daytime walk could be beneficial.

Self-Management

As self-care is our responsibility, it’s helpful to have some self-management techniques. I have found that understanding my stress, monitoring my work/life balance and responsibilities, reviewing my priorities and making time to exercise, eating a balanced diet (with a few treats) and rest, are a few techniques that contribute to my self-care. Self-care is personal and individual however, please try my strategies or test out some of the suggestions made in the further reading below. Please also remember to be patient and practice, to see what works for you.

If self-care doesn’t sit comfortably for you, why not ask a loved one, colleague or friend how they are and suggest doing something together that would benefit both of you and your mental health. Please also seek professional help if that is required, and be aware of national helplines like the Samaritans (call 116 123 or see website below).

Finally, to conclude, self-care is a skill, needing to be practised, evaluated and refined so please treat yourself as you would a client with compassion, empathy, time, and patience.

Further Reading/References

E. Duncan, 2009, Skills for Practice in Occupational Therapy, Churchill Livingstone, London

Maintaining your health and wellbeing | HCPC

Get Self Help

Get help with stress - NHS

Resilience Check-in - The Resilience Engine

Dr Emma Hepburn (@thepsychologymum)

Overview - Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) - NHS

COVID-19 mental health and wellbeing recovery action plan - GOV.UK

Coronavirus (COVID-19): Your mental wellbeing | NHS Inform | Scotland

Contact Us | Samaritans

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