Therapists Share Their Top Tips for Self-Care

How to build up mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional reserves.

Posted Sep 10, 2020

 Used with permission.
The author, Robin Stone, creates space for self-care in the simplest ways.
Source: Used with permission.

I might not get the requisite eight hours per night, but I typically fall asleep not long after my head hits the pillow, and wake up feeling rested. But by early June, I found it hard to sleep soundly. After viewing the horrific viral video of the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, sadness and fury kept waking me up. I wondered about clients who might also be affected.

One of the most important aspects of helping clients manage their stress is to make time and space to manage my own. Like everyone else, we mental health professionals are also affected by the ongoing threat from the coronavirus pandemic, continued police brutality against Black and Brown people, and eruptions of social unrest nationwide—and for all of us, stress is far higher than pre-COVID days. Add to that a yawning cultural divide and a grueling, grating election season, and it’s a wonder any of us sleeps at all.

With so much to process, I knew I needed to build up my own mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional reserves. If I’m exhausted, distracted, or in distress, I'm no good for my clients or myself. Making time and space for self-care is just as critical as knowing and applying effective psychotherapy interventions. 

Many of us think of self-care as a luxury. But self-care, tending to your needs first, is what allows us to mind our partners and families, support our friends, stay woke and push for social justice without burning out. Self-care goes broad and deep: It includes hygiene, nutrition, lifestyle, environment, and when necessary, the appropriate medication. As the late writer and womanist thinker Audre Lorde proclaimed, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

For me, self-care often involves moving and being outdoors. Whether it’s dancing, bicycling, Zumba, or walk-and-talks, moving makes me feel alive, generating endorphins that boost happiness and fight stress. I also feel satisfied when my body does what I want it to do—whether it's sprinting or mastering a line dance, or doing a circuit of jumping jacks and planks—especially as I age. Getting out in nature makes me feel connected to the universe. Even between sessions with clients, I make a point to pop outside and get some fresh air and sunshine. Outdoor pastimes that lift my spirits include enjoying the beach, birdwatching, and photographing nature. And then there’s golf, which offers so many benefits, from fresh air to walking and climbing, to enjoying lush green fairways full of promise and the many creatures that call them home. My game is more C than A, but I don't get stuck on the (high) score. I enjoy the scenery and the challenge and—since I often play the game with my husband or girlfriends—the good company.

For those sleepless nights, I did something counterintuitive: For a few weeks, I set my clock a bit earlier and got out for a 2-3 mile walk just about every morning before work (and sometimes with my hubby). I followed most walks with a bit of quiet and a 15-minute reflective-writing session before I started my day. I also processed my experiences with my own therapist (yes, many mental health professionals have their own therapists—it’s a part of our own self-care routine). In time, I was sleeping soundly, and fully present for my clients and my family.

As we all navigate these uncertain and demanding times, mental health professionals are ever mindful to take care of ourselves as well. I asked some colleagues to describe their self-care practices. Read on for testimony from Zoe Shaw, a licensed psychotherapist and relationship coach in Quartzhill, Calif. Her self-care habits may encourage you to start your own, or affirm a commitment you've already made.

Used with permission.
Dr. Zoe Shaw, Licensed Psychotherapist and relationship coach
Source: Used with permission.

Zoe Shaw, Psy.D, MFT (drzoeshaw.com)

What have you found to be most challenging about being a clinician in this era? Balancing the increased needs of my clients as societal anxiety and depression are escalating, with the increased needs of my family as we are schooling at home and life is in transition.

I’m used to helping clients navigate their issues and feeling very separate from their struggles. Currently, many clients are presenting with issues surrounding the effect that COVID is having on their families and the race-relations struggles in the current social climate. These issues hit a bit closer to home as we are collectively walking this journey.

What does self-care mean to you? Self-care is a daily, free, but priceless exercise. It is a continual reckoning with your soul where you make a declaration: I am worthy to be cared for! Self-care is sometimes a fun, enjoyable treat, but it is also saying no to oneself and saying yes to discipline. Self-care is you being the best mother to your body, soul, and mind that you can be.

What self-care practice have you found most beneficial in these times? A combination of quiet, reflective time in nature and purposeful connecting face to face with humans in the safest way possible.

In what way does it help? Moving my body in nature (running or taking a walk) grounds me to the present and calms my soul. I love looking up at the sky, clouds, or tops of the trees. It reminds me there is so much out there greater than myself, which puts my current stressors into perspective.  We were created to be in connection with each other. When I have in-person interactions, it fulfills that deep need in me and aligns my spirit in a beautiful way.

When you can't do what's most beneficial, what's your Plan B? When I can’t get enough sleep, I try to plan a power nap during the day. When I miss my morning workout, I park a little further from my destination and walk or do some push-ups and sit-ups in between client sessions. When I miss my morning meditation or prayer, I squeeze in some quick one-minute moments of silence and deep breathing in my car, before or after a meeting. When I overeat or eat the least healthy choice, I give myself some grace and choose to be thankful that I have choices in the food that I eat.

Why is it important to have self-care practices? This body you have been given is your vehicle to traverse this planet. It’s the only one you get. All vehicles take maintenance to be able to safely get us to our destinations. Good self-care is you providing loving, top-notch maintenance to yourself. It helps to ensure that your vehicle will last the long haul and be enjoyable on the journey. 

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