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Ask the Expert: Taking care of yourself

It’s been a long two years, and the pandemic has almost everyone feeling stressed or burned out in some way. You aren’t alone. More people are reaching out for support and help from therapists through mental health services, and experts say that’s more important than ever.

Stacie Pozdol is a licensed mental health counselor and program manager with the Department of Mental Health Services at the IU School of Medicine. We asked her what the most important things are to remember when it comes to taking care of your mental health.

Stacie Pozdol Stacie Pozdol

Give yourself (and others) some grace

“I think it’s important for everyone to remember this isn’t normal,” Pozdol said. “We keep calling this the ‘new normal,’ but that doesn’t make it normal. It’s not what humans were designed to do. It’s OK to be frustrated, it’s OK to be worn-out and it’s OK to be angry. It’s just as important to give yourself forgiveness and grace. And it’s also important to remember that just as tired and grumpy as you are, so is everyone else. Try to be a little bit more forgiving to people around you, as well.”

Identify things in life you can control

“There’s so much out of control in life right now, and it’s important to remember that you are doing the best you can in the moment, for you and for your family. We talk a lot about managing emotions; about identifying what you can do to feel like you’re in control. When we feel out of control, it often makes us feel anxious. So when you’re feeling overwhelmed, it can help to try to calm yourself down using a relaxation strategy, which can then help you think more rationally.

“The reality is, when you are stressed, you can’t think as clearly. If you physiologically calm your body down, it pops you out of that ‘fight or flight’ response, so you’re able to think more rationally and identify what your personal coping strategies are.

”One strategy that a lot of people find helpful is what we call ‘square breathing’ or ‘box breathing’: Breathe in for four counts, hold it in for four counts, breathe out for four counts, rest for four counts. This methodical approach can really calm your body down, so you can think about what you need to do to solve the current stressor after that.

”Another technique we use called ‘grounding’ may work better for you. It’s a 5-4-3-2-1 technique. You’re going to stop and pay attention to your environment. Find five things you can see, four you can feel, three you can hear, two you can smell and one you can taste. This grounds you by forcing you to focus on where you are in the moment rather than letting yourself feel worried about an unknown future outcome or thinking backwards about a mistake you made in the past. This process can help you get back into a rational state where you can start to take control of your thoughts again.

“Both of those strategies can be effective to start to bring you back in control if you’re feeling overwhelmed. You may also have your own personal coping strategies: exercise, music, getting fresh air. It’s important to remember what coping strategies work for you, and go back to those. And when those aren’t quite enough, remember there are mental health professionals always available to you through the Employee Assistance Program at IU.”

Find ‘replacements’

It’s different for everyone, but there may be many things that are different now with COVID-19. You miss date night. You miss restaurants. Maybe you don’t feel comfortable going to the places you went before. But maybe those moments and going to those places are what helped you to feel normal, like the gym. So what do you do?

“I recommend figuring out how not to eliminate the things you used to enjoy, but instead to figure out how to replace them,” Pozdol said. “If you don’t feel comfortable at the gym, think about ways to replicate your exercises at home. Whether that’s finding a new place to run, doing an at-home cardio video or talking with a trainer about how to do some weight training using things you may have at home already. The same is true for time with your friends or a date night. Get creative to make those moments still happen and try not to eliminate them completely, because not being able to do any of the things that you enjoy can make life feel more out of control. Remember those drive-by birthday parties? Or getting together on a patio under heaters in winter? Bring that back if that’s what feels comfortable to you.”

Stay healthy, and get outside if you can

“We cope best with any stressor when we’re healthy. We all do hard things all the time, but it’s considerably tougher to do them when you have no energy left. Make sure you’re sleeping, eating well, exercising and building in time for self-care. Of course, I know some people have situations that make it harder to fit that in, whether it’s raising children or working long hours or something else, but taking care of yourself is essential to getting through these harder days.

“Also, remember, being outside in nature and staying active helps us stay grounded. It’s easy in the winter to be stuck inside more. Take a moment, go outside, breathe fresh air.”

Limit screens

“Screens are such an easy way to fill our time. But we hardly ever finish using our phones or tablets and feel better; we tend to feel worse after we’ve been on social media. Make an effort to engage in the actual 3D world: art, music, cooking, books, puzzles, whatever it is you like doing. Find a 3D way to do it.”

Ask for help

“I always say: Never hesitate to reach out to mental health professional when you need it. We are not living through normal times, and it’s OK if you feel that strain two years in. Getting guidance on what might work specifically for you is always a good idea.”

If you find yourself struggling at home or at work, remember that free, confidential counseling and referrals are available 24/7 through SupportLinc Employee Assistance Program by calling 888-881-LINC (5462).

More resources for self-care and mental well-being

Teresa Mackin is a communications consultant with IU Studios.