Tips for Healthy Living

We can never say this enough: as a therapist in private practice, your dedication to supporting others on their journey toward wellness is remarkable. We at HAM could not be more appreciative of the work that you do to help Mainers build resilience and enhance their quality of life. Amidst the demands of the profession, it’s crucial to cultivate your own mental and emotional health. The word “self-care” immediately comes to mind. It’s a buzz word that comes up often. In supervisions, in trainings, in society in general. But what we don’t hear a lot about is self-love. In this blog, we explore the nuanced difference between self-love and self-care, offering insights into how therapists can navigate these concepts to enhance their personal and professional lives.

So, what’s the real difference between self-care and self-love? As Andrea Conley, HAM’s executive director says, “self-care is like makeup. Self-love is how you truly feel about yourself.” 

Understanding Self-Love 

Self-love is a holistic acceptance of oneself. It goes beyond the superficial and encompasses a deep appreciation for one’s strengths, weaknesses, flaws, and uniqueness. When you have a strong sense of self-love, you understand your own value, treat yourself with kindness, and know you are worthy. Therapists, often immersed in the art of understanding others, may neglect the importance of extending the same compassion towards themselves. Embracing self-love involves acknowledging personal worth, practicing forgiveness, and fostering a positive relationship with oneself.

What does that look like? In addition to our advice below, you can find great insights from researchers like Brené Brown. 

Ideas for Developing Self-Love

Define Your Self-Concept: As you start to nurture your own self-love, you may want to start by asking yourself, “What is my self-concept? What do I truly think about myself – my capabilities, my fears, my insecurities, my strengths, my weaknesses?” Embrace your own vulnerability, dare to really get to know yourself and to accept yourself for the unique human being that you are. 

Cultivate Self-Compassion: Therapists, like everyone else, are susceptible to moments of self-doubt. Practicing self-compassion involves treating oneself with the same kindness and understanding extended to clients facing challenges.

Set Boundaries: Healthy boundaries are a cornerstone of self-love. Therapists must learn to say no when necessary and prioritize their well-being, ensuring they have the energy and focus to provide quality care to clients.

Celebrate Achievements: Recognizing personal and professional accomplishments is crucial. Whether it’s completing a challenging case or achieving a personal goal, therapists should take the time to celebrate their successes.

Understanding Self-Care

While self-love involves the emotional and psychological aspects of self-acceptance, self-care is the tangible, intentional actions taken to maintain physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Sure, acts of self-care can include bath bombs and date nights, but we see it more as maintaining a proactive approach to nourishing oneself and preventing burnout, a common concern for therapists dealing with the emotional weight of your work.

Ideas for Self-Care

Prioritize Physical Well-Being: Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and sufficient sleep are foundational elements of self-care. These practices contribute to overall health and resilience, enabling therapists to navigate the challenges of their profession with vitality. You probably recommend these tactics to your own clients when you encourage them to take care of themselves! 

Engage in Relaxation Techniques: Stress is inherent in the therapy profession. Therapists can benefit from incorporating relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, or deep breathing exercises into you daily routine to manage stress effectively.

Maintain a Support System: Building and nurturing a support system is vital. Whether through professional supervision, peer groups, or personal connections, therapists need outlets to share their experiences, seek guidance, and receive emotional support.

As therapists in private practice, embracing both self-love and self-care is essential for sustained personal and professional fulfillment. By understanding the nuanced differences between these concepts and incorporating them into daily life, therapists can foster a resilient and compassionate relationship with themselves, ultimately enhancing their ability to provide quality care to their clients. Remember, taking care of oneself is not a luxury but a necessity on the path to becoming a more effective and fulfilled therapist. 

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Making a tiny change each day and seeing an improvement can help move us out of what psychologist Martin Seligman—University of Pennsylvania professor, past president of the American Psychological Association, and best-selling author—calls “learned helplessness” and into “learned optimism”—the idea that we can cultivate a positive perspective and a feeling of control over our lives. 

Research has demonstrated that small steps (and small successes) build healthy habits and are significantly more likely than setting big goals—which often trigger fear and procrastination—to lead to sustainable, long-lasting behavior changes that improve our well-being. 

Seligman’s Five Components of Human Flourishing

One of the founders of positive psychology, Seligman developed the PERMA™ theory of well-being to define human flourishing and help people to achieve it. PERMA is an acronym that represents what Seligman identified as the five components of well-being: Positive emotions, Engagement, positive Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment/Achievement. 

The PERMA model provides the perfect framework for thinking about the kinds of incremental, small steps that build good habits and help you to enhance your happiness and well-being over the long-term.

1. Positive Emotions
Strive to experience more positive emotions and to focus and reflect on them. Do more of whatever makes you feel happy, bring joy to the everyday, and focus on your personal strengths. 

Limit Distractions:
Turn off computer and phone notifications. Airplane mode is your friend! The more time you spend with your phone or on your computer, the more likely you are to experience depression, sleep problems, higher stress levels, and increased anxiety. 

Practice Self-Care:
Self-care has been clinically proven to increase happiness. A regular self-care routine contributes to your physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing.  

  • Stay hydrated. 
  • Get enough sleep. It improves memory, awareness, and creativity, among other benefits. 
  • Add steps to your day and stretch regularly.
  • Replace one processed snack with a healthy snack.
  • Take regular breaks, especially if you work on a screen. 
  • Get outside. Quality time in nature makes for lower cortisol levels and higher serotonin and dopamine levels.
  • Don’t slouch. Posture affects mood.
  • Breathe more deeply. Deep breaths trigger your parasympathetic nervous system, which naturally brings you into a calmer state.
  • Bring Joy to Your Daily Routine:
  • Upbeat, happy songs lift your mood. Binaural beats help you focus or relax.
  • Keep a gratitude journal and/or a joy list. 
  • Smile! Physically smiling reduces stress, even when it’s not caused by happiness.

2. Engagement
Increase your engagement with life. Get energized with work and hobbies that fit your passions and interests. Don’t be afraid try new things, as novelty has been shown to arouse the senses.  

  • Make art or music or engage in other creative pursuits.
  • Find inspiration in motivational quotes, by calling someone you admire, or watching a documentary on one of your heroes.
  • Engage in play. Board games, lawn games, and organized sports all work. 
  • Challenge yourself. Embrace humans’ love for novelty and learn something new.

3. Positive Relationships
A key factor in the quality of your life is your connections to your fellow humans. Strengthen existing relationships you enjoy and make new friends. 

  • Put your phone down, look up at the sales clerk, and make small talk.
  • Give consensual hugs. Hugs generate oxytocin, which may provoke greater trust, empathy, and morality in humans, boosting our overall wellbeing.
  • Practice random acts of kindness, which boost your serotonin and dopamine levels in addition to increasing peer acceptance.

4. Meaning
Purposefully seek meaning through work, volunteering, mentoring, or leisure. Meaning, which is the M in Seligman’s PERMA model, also relates to living an authentic life—only you know what truly gives your life meaning. 

  • Spend time with someone with whom you can be your true self.
  • Schedule a therapy session.
  • Write about what matters to you. 
  • Take time for large- and small-scale reflection: on your day and on life dreams.
  • Be awed. Get outside. Watch the sunrise or sunset.

5. Accomplishment/Achievement
By keeping your eye on your goals while simultaneously ensuring there is a healthy balance of priorities in your life, you can achieve eudaimonia. Positive psychologist Christopher Peterson asserts that eudaimonia, or the process of fulfilling one’s nature, is more important for the quality of your life than hedonism, which focuses on pleasure. 

To ensure you’re on your own authentic path, you can take small actions that revolve around self-knowledge checking in with yourself. Do you feel balanced? What matters to you? Do your goals need any adjustments? 

  • Enjoy time alone.
  • Practice expressive writing in your journal. 
  • Meditate. 
  • Maintain healthy boundaries. 
  • Perform progressive muscle relaxation and/or body scans from your resiliency toolkit.
  • Savor pleasures through mindful enjoyment.
  • Celebrate your accomplishments. A pat on the back or listening to your favorite victory song can go a long way.

Positive psychologist Dr. Lynn Soots calls the sum of what you get when you pursue all these aspects of wellbeing “flourishing.” “Flourishing is the product of the pursuit and engagement of an authentic life that brings inner joy and happiness through meeting goals, being connected with life passions, and relishing in accomplishments through the peaks and valleys of life.” And it all starts with a small step. 

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Back-to-school time is a time of transition. Schedules shift, kids are returning to classrooms, and as a working parent, you may be pivoting from more caregiving to more professional time. How can you navigate that shift effectively, with grace and compassion?

Transitions are one of the five “core challenges” of working parenthood, according to Daisy Dowling, author of Workparent. Dowling’s solution to the problem is to rehearse. This sort of practice, several days before an expected big transition occurs, helps parents identify potential snags ahead of time and brainstorm ways to fix them. It can be as simple as play-acting the first day of school with your children. By rehearsing the change to come, you and your child can feel prepared for a new routine, which can affect everyone’s attitudes and mindsets.

Reflecting and Setting Intentions for Your Family and Job

The transition to a new season and school year provides a ripe opportunity to set your intentions for the school year. With the fresh start autumn provides, you might consider pausing to look at the big picture. You can begin by reflecting on your life goals and all the things that are—and aren’t—working.

As you reflect on your career and family, you might ask yourself:

How satisfying is my current life?
Are my values reflected in the life I’m leading?
What are my priorities right now, in this phase of parenting and at this phase of my career?
What do I want to hold on to?
What do I need to let go of to make life easier?
What do I need to ask for at work and at home to make my goals achievable?
In which direction do I wish to go?

Caring for Yourself as a Parent and Professional

You might find it hard to make time for that kind of deep reflection. After all, life is so busy right now. Although the knee-jerk reaction to this hectic stage of life might be to just slug through it, reflection and self-care are arguably even more essential for mental health clinicians who are parents than it might be for parents in other professions—particularly non-caregiving occupations.

At heart, behavioral and mental health professionals and parents have similar mandates: they support and encourage others’ unique growth and development. When you’re both a therapist and a parent, there are special challenges to integrating work and parenthood. “Work-life balance” may not speak accurately to the conflicts that arise between your professional and personal choices, as both roles require you to draw from the same well of compassion. A better description might be the one put forth by therapist Robin B. Thomas, Ph.D.: existing in a “constant state of adaptation to meet the many demands of family, career, and social obligations.”

In order to flow within that “constant state of adaptation,” you need to put your (figurative) oxygen mask on first. It’s worth repeating: self-care is vital, particularly for parents who are therapists. Left unaddressed, burnout and compassion fatigue can amount to a personal and professional crisis. The antidote is self-care.

Regard self-care like you would any other appointment on your calendar: your needs are equally important to others’. While it may seem like you’re taking time away from other obligations to focus on yourself, what you’re actually doing is enabling yourself to care for others well while modeling healthy behavior for your children. This article contains specific advice on self-care techniques for handling therapists’—and arguably parents’—occupational hazard of secondary stress.

Strategies for Navigating Your Career and Family Demands

While challenges such as secondary stress may be unique to parent-therapists, there are some more-universal methods for working parents seeking to flex and adapt to the dual demands of both roles.

1. Make value-driven choices. Reflection on your own unique life has to be the first step. Once you decide what you value, you can arrange everything accordingly. Maybe at this stage of life you value convenience over wealth, so you buy precut vegetables to save minutes in the kitchen. Getting clear on your values can guide decisions both big and small to ensure they’re consistent with the life you seek to lead—and that’s a natural recipe for satisfaction. See the reflection questions above as a starting place.

2. Change your strategies as needed. What works when your baby’s in diapers is not necessarily going to work when they’re a teenager. Your need may be the same (e.g., focused work time), but your strategy for meeting that need (e.g., childcare you pay for) can change. But your needs can change, too—especially if your values have changed! As a general rule of thumb, you can expect to reevaluate your values, needs, and strategies every two years as you and your family grow and evolve.

If you find you’re in need of new solutions, take note of other working parents’ strategies. What seems to work and what doesn’t? What do you like and not like? Can you imagine that method working for your family? It’s fine to experiment with changes in your own life to find what works for you. Strategies are not set in stone. By employing flexible thinking, we can accommodate new needs. And remember, reducing your commitments is a legitimate strategy, too. Do you want to reduce your contribution to your field at certain stages of your child’s life? Dowling calls this “auditing your commitments.” Which leads us to setting boundaries.

3. Set boundaries. This is work; this is home. With clearly delineated boundaries between what’s personal and what’s professional, you are in a position to push back on overwork culture and increase your happiness. In practice, boundaries look like not answering work communication after hours, for instance. Not only does this sort of boundary setting establish guardrails for yourself and contribute to life satisfaction, it also helps head off a whole host of secondary problems that thrive in the neglectful shade of burnout culture, according to Anne Helen Petersen, a journalist who has written two popular books on the difficulty of maintaining work-life balance. “Turns out,” she writes, “it’s incredibly hard to build community, to forge social safety-nets, to agitate for larger social change, [and even to] give and receive care when you’re dedicated, willingly or not, to the culture of overwork.”

4. Establish an egalitarian home if you have a partner. This can be one of the most important factors for partnered parents thriving at work and at home, according to Danna Greenberg, author of Maternal Optimism. Consider how well your current home management routines and organizational systems (shared calendars, to-do lists, digital versus paper, etc.) are working as well as who is carrying the mental load.
Embrace flexible gender roles to balance work and family and contribute to your happiness, advises Jeremy Adam Smith, author of The Daddy Shift. There’s that flexible mindset again!

5. Lean on the village. It takes a village to raise a child—even more so if you are a single parent. Outsource help where your budget allows: dog-walking, housework, cooking, even lice combing are all subject to outsourcing. If your budget is tight, you might find creative solutions for childcare, such as forming a cooperative for daycare. By leaning on your friends and extended family, you strengthen social ties and develop community. It requires time and planning to ask for their help, but the benefits are tenfold.
A professional peer group is also crucial for social support. Mother-therapist Maggie Benedict-Montgomery, Ph.D. speaks of the need to find “allies” within your professional network. These professional peers can assist you in navigating your specific field as a parent, and might have experience in areas that are new to you. It’s good to know that others have your back—and that you can have their backs, as well—and that you are not alone in navigating these challenges. Which finally leads us to:

6. Speak up. You know that trying to navigating parenting and your career isn’t just your private, personal struggle when you Google “parenthood and career” and the first options that come up are survival guides! Fifty million Americans are surviving as both parents and professionals, but they aren’t necessarily thriving. Our workplace policies could do more to curb overwork culture and help working parents and families thrive. For example, only one out of ten American men have access to paid paternity leave, according to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Statistics such as these showcase how important it is to advocate for social change. We can all do our part to advocate for family-friendly workplace policies. In fact, activism can make you a happier parent, because volunteering and advocacy offer considerable mental and physical health benefits. When industries and institutions in the United States become more supportive of parents in the workforce, we all benefit.

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For independently licensed mental health professionals who own their practices, time management is an essential skill. You are juggling your caseload, your schedule, attentive care to your clients, and running your own business. Not to mention personal and family responsibilities – your plate is full.

To avoid overwhelm and the feeling that you just can’t get everything done, consider trying a few things to help with overall time management. Remember back in December when we talked about the issues with multi-tasking? Well, we’re revisiting the topic in order to help you strengthen your own time management talents.

Focusing on a single task at a time is a more effective time management skill because multitasking is distracting, slows you down, impairs executive function, and makes you make more mistakes. Some studies estimate that when you attempt to multitask, you actually end up taking 40 percent longer to finish the project than you would have taken if you’d given it your complete attention.

What to manage your time more effectively? Try to avoid:

  • Bouncing from one device to another; it’s just as distracting as bouncing from one task to another. Avoid spending time on multiple devices at once (aka media multitasking).
  • Constantly checking your phone or email.
  • Interrupting others who are in focused activities.

Instead, try this:

  • Self-regulate to purposefully avoid multitasking.
  • Time blocking – a powerful way to maintain control over your schedule by blocking off time on your calendar each day for specific tasks
  • Turn off electronic devices.
  • When interrupted, finish what you started first, if you can.
  • Silence online notifications. These are mini distractions!
  • Engage in single-tasking as much as possible.
  • Say no sometimes – it’s okay; we all take on too much at times.
  • Give others your full attention.
  • Model the behavior you wish to see.
  • Encourage and make time for mindfulness and mental wellness.
  • “Chunk” (single-task) your time, setting aside 25 minutes to two hours for each activity.

Is all Multitasking Bad for You?

While the research is pretty clear that multitasking isn’t healthy for you, there is some nuance in the study results. Not all tasks require our complete concentration and focus. We can, for example, fairly effectively sing and take a shower at the same time.

The human mind is “evolutionarily scripted for monotasking,” writes psychologist Jeff Comer, Psy.D. As tasks increase in complexity (and thus need more of our cognitive skills available), our ability to be efficient decreases when we multitask. So next time you are inclined to “get more done” and, say, text and write a paper, or finish up that email while you’re listening to a Zoom call? Think again. There is a real cost to your productivity and performance.

A Healthier Approach to Time Management

To complete a task, we must set a goal, identify the information we need to achieve it, and disregard irrelevant distractions. When we invite irrelevant distractions by attempting to focus on more than one task at once, we take away from our ability to complete the tasks. Over time, this behavior leads to more distraction. Research is ongoing to determine the long-term effects of multitasking on our brain function. For now, we know that studies show there are short-term negative consequences. To combat the erosion of concentration and focus that multitasking can produce, we can develop stronger mindfulness habits and engage in single-tasking.

Perhaps it’s worth pulling back and considering why we invest in time management techniques in the first place. As Anne Helen Petersen recently asked in her article, “The Diminishing Returns of Calendar Culture,” what would happen if we decouple time management and optimization from our ideas of “success” altogether?

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As Americans, we like to think of ourselves as rugged individualists, self-sufficient and driven to succeed. So, it’s no surprise that when it comes to our New Year’s resolutions or other big goals, we rely on our willpower and sheer determination to change our habits. After all, we can do it! But nearly 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail within a month. It may be wise to consider how humans can effectively implement personal change and use an alternative approach to make your goals—and ultimately your life—successful.

Who to Blame When Goals Fail

We tend to blame our lack of willpower for failed New Year’s resolutions, and equate this with a countrywide decline in self-control. Science does not back up our propensity to insist that we and our peers follow the age-old, all-American advice to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” though. In fact, it’s nearly the opposite.

It’s true that there is some work you can do by yourself to make change impactful and lasting. A deep understanding of how and why you operate the way you do is beneficial in many areas of life, not least of which for behaviors you’d like to change. When you truly grasp your mindset and core values, as well as what’s holding you back and limiting you, you will be more effective at changing your habits. An action you want to achieve that speaks to your core values, life purpose, and sense of meaning is an action you are more likely to take. And when you make it a SMART goal, you are more likely to succeed with that action.

That said, big personal change and goal achievement doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You need to make a sustained effort to change your habits over the long term, and one of the more effective ways to get there is by shaping your external environment—not focusing on your internal “lack” of self-control or otherwise blaming yourself for missteps or failures.

How to Make Goals Successful: Our Environment

We need to face facts. We will always have temptations thwarting our best intentions: the free candy when you’re trying to reduce added sugars in your diet, the compelling clickbait article when you’re trying to lower how much time you spend in front of a screen. There will always be obstacles in our way to a better life; we can’t control these. We can, however, exert some influence on our social and physical surroundings. Research shows that rather than rely solely on willpower to achieve our resolutions, we need to shape our environment to make self-control and accountability simple, easy, and convenient. Think of it as preparing the groundwork to then be lazy!

You have likely heard of the term “accountability partner” in reference to goal setting—and with good reason. When you shape your environment to achieve lasting change, put help via outside accountability high on your to-do list. This may come in the form of a formal or informal support group, online or in-person, who are making similar changes themselves, or it could be an individual accountability partner: a coach, a mental health practitioner, or someone else who is committed to helping you make the change you wish to see. Whichever it is, check in regularly.

That may sound like more work, and it is, but it substantially increases your chances of being successful with your stretch goals. We are, after all, social animals. Keep in mind that by adopting a support network, it may mean more internal work, too, in that you may need to not only hear constructive criticism, but embrace it. By welcoming external feedback, you can discover what went wrong and find ways to fix it, thereby improving yourself and moving ever closer to your big goals.

In addition to finding others to support us, another method to creating a fertile field for change is to design our physical environment. When we optimize our environment, we make self-control easier. If your goal is, for example, to spend less time with your smartphone, you could change your physical surroundings by putting your cell phone in a hard-to-reach place or disabling apps that might be tempting. The farther away and the more effort you have to make to indulge a temptation, the better. Make the good choice the easy choice by default.

Willpower is a limited resource, just like attention. Don’t make it do all the work to change—shape your support network and design your surroundings so you are set up for success.

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With the winter holidays upon us, we may feel the additional pressure to go, go, go: making holiday cookies, selecting gifts, getting twinkly lights up, seeing family and friends—all on top of our everyday lives, a mile-long to-do list, and what may feel like perpetual busyness. While your natural inclination may be to multitask and make it all happen, a smile plastered on your face all the way to the finish line, let’s pause for a moment and consider: is multitasking a healthy way to live?

What Is Multitasking?

Before we look at whether multitasking is a healthy habit, we need to define what multitasking is. Multitasking is, essentially, the performance of more than one task simultaneously. We all know what that looks like: wrapping up an email while we talk on the phone, responding to an instant message while we’re on a Zoom conference call.

A 2017 study published in Applied Ergonomics delves further in and differentiates between three types of multitasking:

Concurrent multitasking is when you conduct two or more tasks at the same time.

Interleaved multitasking, or task switching, is when you switch between two or more tasks as they develop.

Combined multitasking is a combination of the two types above; it is when you execute two or more tasks concurrently while switching between tasks as they develop.

In general, when folks refer to multitasking, they are referring to combined multitasking.

Is Multitasking Bad for You?

With job descriptions routinely advertising for employees who can juggle multiple tasks and lives that seem to get busier and busier, multitasking can seem like a knee-jerk response to getting more done in a day. It’s worthwhile, however, to pause and look at the research done on time management techniques and consider whether multitasking is a healthy or unhealthy practice to partake in.

People who multitask are less efficient than those who focus on one project at a time, according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. In fact, Stanford University studies show that productivity can be reduced by as much as 40% when we multitask. With substandard results in our performance, why do we persist in our attempts to multitask, and continue to believe it’s an efficient, productive way to work when, in fact, it’s not?

When you multitask, it seems like you’re accomplishing many things at the same time. But rather than getting more done, what you are really doing is quickly shifting your attention and focus from one thing to the next. It’s this switching, or interleaved multitasking, that slows you down and stresses you out.

How Does Task Switching Affect Me?

Multitasking is managed by your brain’s executive functions, which determine how, when, and in what order tasks are done. There are two stages to the executive control process: goal shifting (deciding to do one thing instead of another) and rule activation (changing from one task’s rules to the rules for a new task). When you multitask, you incur what psychologists call “task switch costs,” or the negative effects resulting from switching among tasks.

Research has shown that when we grow accustomed to frequent interruptions, we develop a short attention span and even begin to self-interrupt, which leads to a longer-term problem, as it extends the amount of time needed to finish tasks.

What Happens When I Multitask?

People tend to overestimate their ability to multitask, and those who multitask the most demonstrate more impulsivity, less executive control, are more easily distracted, and tend to downplay the negative effects of their behavior.

Intense multitasking can induce a stress response, according to Dr. David Meyer, a psychology professor and codirector of the Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. This further degrades cognitive processing, says Dr. Jeff Comer.

Multitasking results in:

  • Diminished ability to concentrate
  • Decreased ability to pay attention to details
  • Lower competency in organization skills
  • Being perceived as disrespectful
  • Delayed task-completion
  • Increase in stress
  • Increased impulsiveness
  • Lower recall
  • More frequent memory lapses
  • More frequent accidents and errors
  • May worsen work and/or school performance
  • Burnout

The Importance of Breaks

Guess what? Multitasking makes us very tired. By quickly switching between activities, even minor ones, we use up our precious supplies of oxygenated glucose in our brains—the very same fuel we need to focus on a task! To compensate, many folks reach for more coffee (caffeine), more food—in other words, more energy. Instead, Dr. Daniel Levitin, professor of behavioral neuroscience at McGill University, speaks to the benefit of regular breaks. When we take 15-minute breaks every couple of hours and allow our minds to truly wander, we’re more productive. Your brain is, after all, a muscle, and it needs time to rest and recover after it’s worked out.

One way to think about multitasking is purposefully giving ourselves distractions in the form of other tasks. But switching tasks is stressful, and on average it takes us twenty-three minutes to return to our work when we’re interrupted, according to Dr. Gloria Mark at the University of California, Irvine. To avoid that switch-induced delay caused by multitasking, she advises “chunking” your time. Also known as time blocking, monotasking, or single-tasking, this method of scheduling your day can give you a sense of control over your time and make you more productive.

What Is Single-Tasking?

Single-tasking is the opposite of multitasking. With single-tasking, you balance competing tasks. When you become a single-tasker, you are filtering tasks, determining priorities, setting goals, and completing the many items on your to-do list. You maximize your productivity by setting aside specific times for completing your most important work. You can do this by focusing on creating a prioritized to-do list and then time blocking.

Single-tasking (aka time blocking) is a time management technique that is as simple as it sounds: block off a period of time to complete a particular task. By setting aside specific times to respond to emails, return calls, and focus on important projects throughout your day, you can improve your focus and deter any tendency you might have to procrastinate. Best yet, at the end of the day, you’ll feel like you accomplished something—because you likely did!

As we move through the hectic holiday season, consider taking a break from multitasking and purposefully engage in a time management technique that will reduce stress, improve your focus, and help you happily, healthfully conquer your never-ending to-dos.

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We know that self-care is important for everyone. But how do you practice self-compassion and personal wellness when you have been through trauma or are trying to help someone through a traumatic life event? In the first part of a two-part series on trauma-specific self-care, we looked at how your body responds to stress and trauma and what individuals can do to begin healing. Now, in part two, we’ll explore how mental health professionals can take care of themselves while they take care of their clients.

How Does Treating Clients with Traumatic Experiences Affect Me?

The reality is that treating clients who have experienced trauma can have impact. This “inevitable secondary stress,” as Trauma expert and Simmons College Graduate School of Social Work professor Julia Colpitts, MSW, calls it, is natural. We evolved to connect with our pack to survive. When we see or hear other people’s trauma, the areas in our brain that are activated are the same ones that would be activated if it was primary trauma—our own trauma. Mirror neurons are engaged in the trauma’s retelling, and our bodies respond to the story and mimic the survivor’s physiological response. Trauma is, in a sense, contagious. So, what can we do about it?

What Is Secondary Stress?

“Vicarious or secondary stress is empathy in action,” Colpitts states, and it is unavoidable. We are social animals, and we respond naturally to others. The impact ranges from mild to clinically symptomatic, but all responses on the continuum can have a long-term effect. We can get stuck in arousal mode from the continuous retelling of traumatic life events if we don’t actively manage our secondary stress and its impact on us as therapists and mental health providers. It doesn’t have to lead to professional burnout; viewed and managed differently, it can even become an invitation to grow personally and professionally.

Secondary traumatic stress often causes muted arousal responses, either hyper (flood of anxiety, fear, and anger) or hypo (distancing from emotion). Over time, cognitive distortions can develop, altering one’s focus, the content of their thoughts, and even their worldview. Unacknowledged vicarious stress also has a negativity bias, which can obscure our compassion satisfaction and real accomplishments. For therapists who hear traumatic stories that resonate with their own prior life trauma, the arousal response can deepen—and our professional dissociation and burnout, historical and/or cultural trauma, and traumatized organizations can serve to further deepen that response.

Some mental health professionals, like others in the population, cope with secondary stress and trauma by employing short-term relief strategies to manage their state of arousal, such as food and alcohol issues, inactivity or “mindless” (dissociative) activities, and overwork. These primitive defense mechanisms may appear to help for a few hours, but ultimately they all have long-term negative consequences.

Unhealthy coping behaviors such as substance use may have the same effect as ignoring the secondary stress altogether: illness, including serious chronic conditions such as heart disease. Women who are social workers, for instance, are 36% more likely to have heart problems than women in other professions (American Heart Association scientific session, November 2019). And “community and social services” is number one of the top ten professions correlated to cardiac arrest (gender-neutral) (CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 2016). It is therefore crucial that we develop positive coping methods for secondary traumatic stress.

A therapist’s self-care involves acknowledging the continuous stress you are under and allowing yourself a release. We need to proactively prepare for secondhand stress and its impact on us through daily doses of calm interspersed through our days.

Which Tools Should Therapists Use for Secondary Stress?

How do we turn off the arousal response? We activate the care system.

“Self-care is not just what we do after work. Self-care is how we do the work itself.” –Julia Colpitts, MSW


First of all, guard against the tendency to overcommit, to overwork in an effort to soothe. Like the proverbial oxygen mask on an airplane, you are ill equipped to help others if you’re not functioning well yourself.

Then, create a resilience menu. Choose from an array of simple, self-care actions to calm the body and calm the mind—a personal relaxation practice that can radically reframe how you go about your day. As though you are selecting a dish from a restaurant menu, choose the one(s) that sound best to you that day, at that time. And just as we are advised to “eat the rainbow” when it comes to dietary health, your resiliency menu or toolkit works best when you layer soothing actions across the spectrum, and use self-care well not just when there’s a personal crisis, but proactively and intentionally, every day. Some examples of what relaxing options might be on your resiliency menu [link “resiliency menu” to October blog] include:

  • Breathwork, such as box breathing
  • Being kind to yourself—kick out the inner critic
  • Muscle tension release using progressive relaxation techniques
  • Guided meditation, such as those offered by Kristen Neff
  • Sensory stimulation (e.g., aromatherapy, calming visuals, nature sounds, savory tastes, touch, water, sexual activity, massage, Reiki bodywork, and grounding strategies)
  • Acupressure and acupuncture
  • Yoga, tai chi, and other mind-body centering work
  • Conjuring up images of love and connection
  • Self-compassionate meditation and activities, such as bilateral stimulation like the butterfly hug, and affirmations
  • Interacting with animals, including equine-facilitated therapy
  • Mindfulness and related physical practices, such as walking meditation and forest bathing
  • Body scans
  • Expressing gratitude and love

Your resiliency tools not only help to heal the impact of secondary traumatic stress by releasing stored arousal responses and reestablishing a peaceful baseline, they also help strengthen your capacity for joy and presence and prepare you for future sources of stress.

How Can I Support Other Mental Health Professionals’ Well-being?

To journey to wellness together, we need to support positive attachments to ourselves, to others, and to community coregulation. As mental health providers, we can:

  • Talk openly about secondary trauma and its impact.
  • Add moments to meetings that emphasize compassion satisfaction.
  • Practice personal relaxation techniques openly, as appropriate, to model calm.
  • Notice and address when organizations are traumatized.
  • Support setting realistic workloads.

Thank you to Julia Colpitts, MSW, for sharing her keynote presentation and ideas on this subject.

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You’re in the middle of a forest on a beautiful day in Maine. Sunshine peeks through the leaves and scatters in fascinating, eye-catching patterns on the moss-covered ground, soft under your feet. You breathe in the scent of pine and become aware of the stillness and the small sounds of scurrying chipmunks and birdsong echoing across the land. Green leaves, brown soil, and glimpses of blue sky fill your vision for as far as you can see. Warmth from the sun spreads across your face. You can feel your whole body relax as you walk slowly through the woods, breathing and sensing each moment fully.

Immersing ourselves in nature cultivates a sense of mindfulness, a practice that is now widely known for promoting mental wellbeing. What is it about being outside that restores us so?

Many workers spend hours indoors in a busy state of focused concentration, and one of the results can be mental and physical fatigue. Fatigue and stress are risk factors for depression, as is the lack of vitamin D many of us experience during Maine’s long winters. Treatment for mild to moderate depression may include cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and other interpersonal therapies. Many also find strategies such as aerobic exercise, yoga, and the Japanese practice of forest bathing helpful, whether they are experiencing mild depressive symptoms or simply daily stressors.

In addition to sometimes leading to depression, fatigue can result in reduced attention, and forest bathing seems to provide a respite from the long hours of concentration that typical workdays require. Screentime, a modern near-requisite, can exacerbate the problem, as can urban living and spending much of our time indoors.

In psychological parlance, Stephen Kaplan’s theory of attention restoration proposes that when we use quite a bit of directed attention, or effortful attention employed to focus on a task we’re choosing to pay attention to, we need to exercise involuntary attention, which naturally occurs in nature, to restore our balance. Directed attention, in other words, such as you employ during the workday, can cause fatigue and mental exhaustion (even if you enjoy the work you are doing), and you need regular breaks to offset the effects.

Research has demonstrated that the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” has positive physiological and psychological benefits, including a reduction in blood pressure, an improved immune system, and improved mental health—and one study in particular, published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine in 2019, found the improved state of mental health especially pronounced for those with depressive tendencies. This natural remedy for mild depressive symptoms can alleviate negative emotions and moods such as anxiety, fear, anger, and disgust, and increase positive emotions such as joy.

Since a number of studies in the 1980s touting the benefits of Shinrin-yoku, Japanese doctors have included the practice, which they often describe as preventative medicine, in what is called “social prescribing.” Other social prescriptions include gardening, mountain walking, exercise and sports, swimming, caring for animals, and cooking—all activities, you may note, which engage our senses.

To practice forest bathing, we can fully immerse ourselves and our senses in a walk in the forest. Put away your phone. Slow down. Quiet your mind. Notice the details from all of your senses. It is not as simple as taking a walk outside; “immersion” is precisely the right word to truly experience all of Shinrin-yoku’s benefits. And if you don’t have access to a forest, parks can serve as a substitute space.

More research is needed to fully explore the therapeutic aspects of Shinrin-yoku, including studying whether its effects apply to those with high stress and depressive tendencies. In the meantime, forest bathing can be a stress-reducing, preventative, healthy outdoor activity for everyone to enjoy—and summer in Maine is a great time to try it out.



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Many things happen in our lives that we cannot control or predict. Unexpected, large-scale traumatic events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine can be sources of stress, as can daily life stressors, such as conflicts in relationships, money troubles, or an upsetting interaction. Psychological flexibility, or the ability to adapt our thinking and behavior when new or unexpected events arise, is an important skill we can use to increase individual wellbeing now and in the future.

Let’s say you are being tailgated by an aggressive driver on a two-lane highway. You feel scared and worried about what will happen if you need to use your brakes. No one is around to help.

Employing psychological flexibility in a given situation can be seen as a three-stage sequence of events:

  1. Evaluating the needs and demands of the situation or context;
  2. Selecting a response or coping strategy; and
  3. Monitoring the success of the approach you employ and modifying it as needed.

In the example we illustrated above, where the stressor was a tailgater, this sequence might look like:
Context sensitivity = There is potential for danger here. You need to remove yourself from its threat. The other driver may not react quickly enough if you brake.
Repertoire = Continue going the exact same speed and be extra alert for the possibility of needing to brake.
Feedback = You feel stressed and scared. You still don’t feel safe. They have not stopped driving too closely to your car.

You may then decide, from the feedback loop, to modify your approach and select a new behavior in your repertoire. Perhaps you can use your right turn signal to indicate you would like them to pass you, for instance. The feedback loop can continue until you have met your goals for the situation.

This sort of flexible thinking, as you might imagine, is a predictor of resiliency and creativity. Research shows psychological flexibility is associated with a better quality of life, particularly in older adults. In the workplace, exercising flexible thinking tends to lead to better job performance, improved learning on the job, innovation, and better overall mental health, including lower levels of stress and emotional exhaustion. In clinical settings, psychological flexibility training has been shown as effective in treating a myriad of disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and substance use, and this training works whether it is delivered in person or online.

The great news is psychological flexibility can be practiced and improved. But how?

Create optimal conditions for being flexible. By practicing mindfulness, doing yoga and aerobics, and engaging in relaxation techniques, we give ourselves a solid foundation to deal with stress in a purposeful, thoughtful manner.

Cultivate optimism. Rather than focusing on what the pandemic has negatively impacted in our lives, for instance, we can reframe our thinking and consider what has made us change for the better. Choose to view your struggles as part of being human, rather than something that happens to you.

Pause. Focus on your reactions and attitudes. What are you feeling? Why might you be
feeling this way? Allow yourself the space you need for an intentional response.

Exercise creative thinking. Consider unusual solutions. Seek outside perspectives. Frame issues from different angles. Challenge your own beliefs. By utilizing divergent thinking, we can overcome embedded thought patterns and see the situation from a new angle, which could provide a fresh perspective on the matter.

Keep your decisions aligned with your values. When you use your core values to guide your decisions, you gain peace of mind by keeping your integrity intact. At the same time, our values can change over time, and some situations present an opportunity to reflect on and evaluate which values are true for us and which may need to be reconsidered.

In clinical settings, we can employ cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as well as structure learning, or the ability to extract information about the structure of a complex environment and decipher streams of sensory information, to promote psychological flexibility.

Psychological flexibility helps us see that what we’re doing in response to a given stressor is not leading to a successful outcome, and it shows us how to make the appropriate changes to our behavior to achieve our goal. It is a handy tool in our kit to cope with stress. The more we exercise flexible thinking, the stronger it gets, providing us with a protective buffer between everyday stressors and possible negative outcomes.




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The holidays can be a time of perpetual joy, faith and connection. However, there are many ways our mental health can worsen during this time. There’s the stress of buying gifts and attending family gatherings. The feeling of loss and nostalgia for those who are no longer with us. And the last two years during the pandemic, a lot of us are feeling more isolated and distanced than ever. But there is hope. You can manage your mental health, stay connected, and lean into the holiday spirit with the following reminders.  

  1. Reset routine: Think about your daily routine. What’s working for you and where can you improve? Keep in mind that your health practices such as eating nutritious foods, exercising regularly, and getting restful sleep are all beneficial to your mental health.  
  2. Boost brain power: Have you ever wanted to learn something new? Maybe it’s yoga, cooking a gourmet meal, or learning a musical instrument. Even 5-10 minutes per day of practicing a new skill or hobby can boost your mental and emotional health and take your mind off any stresses of the season. 
  3. Slow down: The way we gather and celebrate may have changed, but it has also forced us to slow down and take stock of our lives. Allow yourself to move at a slower pace to be more present and mindful of the holiday season. What or who are you grateful for? What memories or events bring you joy this time of year? Writing these things out in a journal or on a notepad and seeing them will help. 
  4. Adjust traditions: The way we come together has changed, but it can be an opportunity to adapt rather than to be upset for how the holidays “should be.” How does this time of year make you feel? Share this with your family (along with their feelings) to see where new traditions can align.
  5. Reach out: We can still be connected while being apart. Keep connected to your loved ones by text, phone or video call, or writing a letter or holiday card. Let them know you’re thinking of them, share how you’re celebrating, and let them know you’ll always be there. 


It’s important to recognize that having a mixed bag of emotions during the holiday season is normal and that existent mental health issues can worsen due to holiday stresses. We all may need extra help this holiday season and that’s okay. The following are signs that professional guidance may be necessary:  

  • Fear and worry 
  • Self-isolation 
  • Fatigue, sleep changes 
  • Irritability, mood changes 
  • Impulsive or risky behavior 
  • Worsening chronic health issues 
  • Worsening mental health issues (such as anxiety and depression) • Increase in substance use (such as alcohol, drugs and smoking) 


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