Practitioner’s Guide to Peace in a Pandemic

written by: Elie Carlile, LMHC, NCC

While the whole world seems to be panicking about the current spread of the coronavirus, mental health practitioners—for many—are one of the only sources of calm, reassurance and safety for their clients. But how can mental health professionals (as well as medical professionals and first responders) maintain balance of our own while we are busy taking care of others? In this brief article, I’ve put together a couple helpful reminders and small steps we can take each day to ensure we stay grounded and are taking care of ourselves.

#1 Move Your Body

We all know that sitting in a chair or an office all day can cause us to feel restless—especially when we, as practitioners, are also being subjected to our clients’ anxieties on top of our own. Now, with the increasing urge to “hunker down” and work remotely, that restlessness can feel overwhelming and even claustrophobic, and it can be challenging to differentiate between “work life” stress and “home life” stress. By allowing yourself time to move, it will physiologically help to process through the stress and anxiety that is building up in your body. Whether it’s taking a walk around your neighborhood, doing yoga in your backyard or turning up the music and having a dance party in your kitchen, allowing your body to do its thing will help ground you and release the happy chemicals in your brain.

#2 Limit your Exposure to the News

While it’s helpful to stay informed, so you can stay prepared, it will be very challenging to not feel inundated when nearly all of your clients’ sessions begin with updates about the pandemic, and you’re finding yourself having similar anxiety-filled conversations hour after hour. Giving yourself a limit on your news intake—whether it’s 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening—or one episode of your preferred news podcast—will give your blood pressure a break without compromising your need to stay informed. And this way, when your clients come into session feeling anxious, you’re ready to be present for them.

#3 Practice Mindfulness and Gratitude

This one pairs very nicely with #1, as it is a very helpful tool in grounding yourself and reconnecting to what’s really important. If your mindfulness practice includes meditation, there are some phenomenal apps that help (Headspace is one of my personal favorites). You can even introduce these into some of your sessions as a way to start or end the session; since often time clients find that their therapy serves as one of their only breaks from the outside world. Or if apps aren’t your thing, you can keep it simple and practice connecting with all 5 of your senses (while cooking dinner, taking a walk or drinking a cup of tea). In addition to mindfulness, gratitude practices are also a great way to remind us what we do have in the midst of so much uncertainty. My favorite gratitude practices involve listening to my favorite music, paying attention to the weather and the birds outside, or even simply enjoying a good cup of coffee.

#4 Get Creative

When our norms are interrupted as significantly as they have been recently, we are pretty much forced to think outside the box. As exhausting as this can sometimes feel, it can also be really helpful tool to introduce new ways to implement interventions with clients and to still feel productive in a world that feels like it’s slowing to a halt. Since the majority of practitioners are either being forced to work remotely or are considering making the transition shortly, it can be harder to use some of the interventions that have come to be second nature (experiential work, etc.), and it can even be challenging to set the tone for clients who are also likely doing sessions from their home (hearing their roommates or family members walking outside their room, etc.). In times like these, homework assignments and directives for clients can be helpful to keep the momentum of the work you’re going, and having open dialogues about how the two of you can maintain the integrity of the work you’re doing while the circumstances look different will be critical to ensure you’re both on the same page with how to accomplish your therapeutic goals.

#5 Stay Connected

Make sure that you’re checking in with your colleagues and other practitioners. It’s helpful to know that you’re not going at this alone, and other people may have some creative solutions that you might not have thought to implement yourself. It’s also so important that clinicians support one another, since we often take on the role of supporting so many others. In the spirit of #2, I would also suggest that when talking with your colleagues, you limit the amount of airtime you give the pandemic, as it will likely only exacerbate any anxiety and stress you’re carrying rather than dispel it. Talk with your peers about what they are doing to take care of themselves and share insights that you have gained about your own self-care journey. The more we empower one another to take care of ourselves, the better off we will all be.