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Interview: Practicing self-care during the coronavirus crisis

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This past week I had an amazing opportunity to be interviewed by Eva Herber, a certified positive psychologist and strengths coach in Spain. She has a video series called “Together in Uncertainty” and we discussed the importance of incorporating self-care practices during the coronavirus crisis.

Watch the video or read the transcript below to find out why you first need to put on your “oxygen” mask to be able to help others in a sustainable and ethical way.

Learn why checking in with yourself is the first step in daily self-care.

Next, understand that the transition to working remotely is a process and ways that you can be proactive to support yourself and your team.

Lastly, find out what strengths I’m using to stay happy, healthy and productive while working from home.

Transcript

Eva Herber: So welcome everybody to the new episode of Impulsivo Positivas. Today we are doing this in English for the first time, which makes it extra special, because we are talking to Pantea Rahimian, live from Santa Barbara, California. Good morning.

Pantea Rahimian: Good morning. Thank you so much for having me.

Eva Herber: Thank you. It’s amazing. I’m really looking forward to this.

Pantea’s going to give us a very special view on the whole coronavirus situation, because she’s a licensed clinical social worker. She’s also a certified social worker in healthcare, a blogger on health and wellness, and a professor at Simmons School of Social Work.

This means that Pantea, you know a lot about how the reality of this situation looks like in a huge hospital, where you work, and in the life of people who are facing this crisis situation in the U.S.

Pantea told me that she did a self-care intervention for her team. Maybe you want to tell us about one of the the first things that you did when the whole coronavirus situation started in your hometown?

Pantea Rahimian: Yes, that’s a great question. So, the first self-care initiative I led for our team was to devise a workflow that would allow the social workers to be able to work remotely.

Medical social workers in the U.S are all stationed to work on a designated unit in hospitals, because we’re interacting with physicians, nurses, and a team. Our hospital was really not prepared to have us start working remotely, and it was kind of a foreign concept for them.

So I prepared a workflow and the team that I work with directly, I said, “Hey, let’s do a trial while I’m still physically here, and let’s see how this works.” So we said, let’s “pretend” that we’re all working from home, and we went to different rooms, and then we said, let’s try this out and see how it goes.

As a medical social worker, you’re constantly communicating with your team. You’re advocating, you’re a liaison and you play a really significant role for the team and patients that you work with.

So for two days, we did a trial. And what we did was we communicated constantly via secure chat, by email, we FaceTimed and we called each other. We also called our patients to do our assessments.

The trial worked beautifully. My team was really very appreciative that I took this initiative and then I presented it to senior leadership who was really excited that this workflow worked well. Our patients and parents were even happier, because they don’t want to come to the hospital, unless it’s a true emergency.

So everyone was really pleased, and I’m really happy to share that after I did the workflow, and I presented it to senior leadership, it was approved. So our team of social workers, there’s about 25 of us, we were all approved to work remotely.

Some of the social workers still have decided to go in person to the hospital. Others like myself, for my own reasons, just feel safer to be at home. I also want to support my team, because a lot of them want to work remotely as well.

Eva Herber: It’s amazing, because that’s not the type of thing that we think about during a crisis. To get ready to work from home, whatever environment it is that you work in.

Pantea Rahimian: Well, unless you work for a company that’s prepared to have employees on staff work remotely. So my husband works for a tech company, and as soon as the coronavirus hit California, they told all their employees to start working at home.

It’s different at a hospital. It can be a confusing concept for senior leadership, because if we’re not physically there, it’s foreign for them to understand that we can still do our work successfully from home.

I think it’s been a learning curve and for me, I felt more comfortable, since I’m a professor online and I know how to use Zoom and how to do everything remotely. So it was not a difficult transition for me with the work itself.

But it has still been an adjustment for me, because I really miss my team and as a social worker, I’m constantly connecting with people in person. So now I’m completely stripped of that, and everything is via FaceTime or phone, even then it’s hard. It’s definitely not an easy process.

Last night, I was telling my husband. I’m like, I really miss my team, because part of working in an office is you’re joking around, you laugh, you have a cup of tea together, you interact during lunch, and now none of that is there.

Eva Herber: I am coaching an HR director and she was like, “Okay, I need to know how to support my team, because what I’m just seeing is that people are working 12 to 16 hours a day.”

So this is such an important topic, and it’s a topic that you are very passionate about. The mission of your own project that you provide through pantearahimian.com has to do with self-care. What is the story behind this project and why is it especially important now?

Pantea Rahimian: Thank you so much for asking me that, that’s something I love talking about. I think self-care is a really critical topic for all of us to understand, no matter what profession that we’re in, or what field we’re in.

Self-care is something that I think is important for us to be cognizant of, and to learn to practice it. It is really instrumental for our well-being.

The story behind pantearahimian.com, is that it was something that was actually born when I was in graduate school. I was getting my masters in social work, and during the program I realized that I was experiencing a very high level of stress, and so were my classmates.

So for my master’s thesis, I did a project and surveyed over 500 graduate students and asked them about their stress levels, how they were coping, because when you’re in a social work or psychology program, you have to do a practicum. So you’re in an internship, and also have classes. Some people have families and children, and some are still working.

It’s a lot to juggle and nowhere in the program where we taught what self-care is. So once I did my research, my findings were pretty astounding and I presented them at some different conferences.

That seed of self-care and wellness was kind of planted early on, and then I continued to pursue it, because I think when you’re in a helping profession, self-care is even more important. And I got a job as a medical social worker, so I really wanted to keep understanding what it is and how to use it.

And I think people that pursue careers in helping professions, whether you’re a teacher, you’re a counselor, you’re firefighter, you’re a biologist, all of those are helping professions, and you’re motivated and inspired and what gives you purpose is helping others, but really in order to help others, you have to learn to first take care of yourself.

In social work, what I teach my students, there’s a term called “use of self” and what “use of self” is, it’s using yourself as a vessel and your physical presence, your emotional presence, your empathy, or non-verbals, all of that is used to support your clients.

And when you’re in the helping profession, you’re constantly caring and putting the needs of others before your own. And you do this over, and over, and over again, because your clients are in crisis, they’re having issues and problems.

And when you do that, over time, you deplete yourself of your physical, emotional, and mental energy.

Over a long period of time, the risk associated with that, are compassion fatigue and burnout. And once you hit that level Eva, it’s significantly harder to go back to your base line of functioning.

I’ve experienced this myself. I’ve experienced compassion fatigue and burnout from medical social work. I love my job, however, as a medical social worker, a counselor, psychologist, you are bearing witness to suffering and pain and trauma, almost everyday, and as much as it’s an honor and privilege to bear witness to this, it’s challenging.

And so I’ve learned some great practices to help me be sustainable and ethical and functioning at a good level. I’ve done trainings to teach others and I wanted to just reach a wider audience. So I told my husband, I really want to do this and he was very supportive.

So I put my blog together to inspire people and support people, really encourage people to understand what self-care is and how to practice it.

My larger goal, my more ambitious goal, is to have a social movement. I think our world would be such a better place if we all really practice self-care because we would be our best selves with our work, with our families, with our children, with our partners, our friends and loved ones.

Imagine a world Eva, where everyone is really taking care of themselves.
I always get emotional when I talk about this, because I honestly think that we don’t take care of ourselves. I see that so often, and it’s sad to me, because when I am talking about self-care, I’m not saying, go get a massage everyday.

What I’m saying is, it’s really simple things you can do to take care of yourself, and you’re in a better place, because when we don’t do that, we’re not nice to each other, we’re not nice to our families or our partners, because we’re constantly depleted.

So I think if we do that [practice self-care], we would just be in a better place.

And I think right now, since we’re all facing a global crisis because of the coronavirus, and therefore I think there’s a lot of unknowns. There’s a lot of uncertainty. We don’t know how long this is going to be. So there is a lot of anxiety and stress impacting everybody.

I think it is critical right now for us to practice self-care. I think anyone that’s in the helping profession, and you’re still actively working, if you’re in the hospital, or if you’re a teacher teaching online, it is really prudent to identify self-care practices that you can use daily, and then that kind of refills the reservoir, so you have energy, and that we can all get through this in the best way.

Eva Herber: You can’t transfer from an empty vessel, right? That’s what they all say.

This is a message for the people in helping professions, when we see things, doctors and nurses, and I would say yes, but it’s also for you at home with your family, when only maybe you don’t even realize that, hey, I have a need for the simple path to ask when I come from home on the Metro, I listen to music, which might sound like what you do on the Metro, and once the moment comes when you can’t do it, you realize this is kind of a weird thing, because I feel like I have no space and confronted with doing things. I’m working in that dynamic and running the whole day. So that is pushing us in a setting where we don’t have so many tools.

You know, what I really love, is the self-care calendar that you shared with everybody on pantearahimian.com. It’s really simple things you can do to practice self-care.

What do you think are typical thinking pattern that you see in helping professionals that might lead to not prioritize self-care?

Pantea Rahimian: The typical thinking patterns that I see in the helping professions, especially if you work in an acute care setting and there’s a sense of urgency due to the high level of crisis. We’re constantly on the go because we’re “putting fires out.”

What happens often, especially among health care workers is that they don’t attend to their basic physical needs. That may sound outrageous, but I’ve witnessed it and even experienced it myself.

It’s because when we’re in an acute setting we’re filled with adrenaline and cortisol because our sympathetic nervous system is activated. It’s go go go and it feels like we’re in a life or death situation. Sometimes we are sometimes we’re not.

We ignore our physical cues from our body because there’s always another fire to put out. Since we’re constantly putting our own needs last, overtime you deplete yourself and your reservoir of energy and you’re depleted.

Based on the research I have done as well as my own practice, self-care is a daily practice. Sometimes it’s a moment to moment practice of checking in with yourself and asking yourself what do I need now? It can be as simple as “my body is sending me a signal to go to the bathroom or take a drink of water.” Listen to that cue and follow it. Don’t ignore it.

One thing I do when I’m at the hospital and it’s a very chaotic day is to go to the bathroom where I can be alone. Going to the bathroom is usually the only place you can be alone.

I take 3 deep breaths, close my eyes, put my hand on my heart, and ask myself. What do I need now? When I ask myself that, I get a very quick response. Sometimes the message is, “you need to slow down.” Other times, it says “You need to cry.” When I listen and respond to that message, I feel better and can move onto the next task.

Another practice I have is every morning, as soon as I wake up, I take 5 deep breaths, identify 3 things I’m grateful for, set a daily intention and smile for 1 minute. This is based on actual science and there’s a lot of benefits from this practice.

During my day, I keep reminding myself of that morning intention to help ground myself.

Self-care again is a daily practice and it begins with training your mind to recognize what your body is asking for and paying attention. Finding ways to root and ground yourself is critical, especially right now when we’re all in a state of crisis because of the coronavirus.

Eva Herber: That’s really helpful to know. I know for me, it’s small habits, like drinking a glass of water from time to time. Or when I have back-to-back sessions for 6 hours, I always go to the bathroom after each session because that’s my routine to go. I think it’s good to build habits and do them routinely.

Pantea Rahimian: For some people it’s a mindset and you can definitely build habits.

Some of my colleagues are confused and they say “I don’t understand why you take breaks” and I say “because our body needs breaks.” They respond by saying, “I don’t take any breaks, and the only time I take a break is to go to the bathroom.” And for me, it’s confusing, because I wonder, how can you not listen to your body for 6 hours to 8 hours, and not go to the bathroom? But maybe that’s just me, but I think for some people, I know it’s a real problem.

I think habits can be hard to build, but that’s why it’s simple, [to practice self-care] like drink water, have a snack, do these really basic things, and start doing it every day, and maybe set an alarm for yourself. You’re realize you’ll feel better because you are listening to your body and taking care of it yet.

Eva Herber: I think maybe that’s also that people have different levels, you know, of sensitivity, and you could maybe get that. “Okay, my back is hurting, it’s because I’ve been so absorbed by my work. I need to step away and take a break.”

Pantea Rahimian: And maybe they have different personalities and different needs? I’m very organized, when I follow my schedule I function better. I try to schedule my breaks so I don’t forget about it. But I also listen to my body and I think some people, they have strengths in both, and some have strengths in one more than the other. No matter what, I think doing one of them is really important.

Eva Herber: So when you talk about strengths, what would you say are strengths that you’re using right now in the situation that you’ve successfully implementing that initiative that helps you and your team, and of course your patients and a lot of people who don’t have to go to the hospital anymore, which is such a huge safety measurement for everybody.
What are strengths that you’re using now on a daily basis?

Pantea Rahimian: That is a great question. Some of the strengths that I have, is the one I shared with you about my morning practice and I also practice gratitude and meditate every morning.

So before I even start work, I meditate for about 10 minutes and that just helps me feel grounded. You introduced me to meditation, and I’ve been doing it for about three years, and I’ve noticed a significant shift in my well-being and I feel much calmer, and I am just more relaxed and I think that’s been a huge asset.

I also take a walk every morning before I start my day, just to get some physical movement because when you’re in a hospital, you move a lot, you’re constantly walking, and when you’re at home, you don’t walk anywhere, you don’t go anywhere. So just getting physical movement has been really instrumental.

This depends on where you are. For some people, you’re not allowed to go outside. But even if you’re inside, you can do yoga, you can do stretching, you can do exercise videos. There’s a lot of ways you can incorporate movement in your day.

I’m a very organized person, so every day I write down my schedule of everything that I need to do. Also, having a lot of open communication with my team about what I’m doing, what our goals are for the day.

And, honestly, just being mindful and connecting with myself and the most important thing is, just practicing a lot of self-compassion and patience.

This is, like I said earlier, a really significant shift for myself. And I know for everybody close to me who is working like this and living like this. I consider myself, as a perfectionist, so I have really high expectations of myself. And right now, I’m just really being kind towards myself. Telling myself, hey, you’re doing the best that you can, you’re serving others as well as you possibly can right now and taking care of the families.

This was my first week to work remotely, and the families that I called were so incredibly grateful, they were so happy, telling me, “thank you so much for calling us. You made such a difference.” And it’s important for me to be receptive to that, because when you’re in the helping profession, it’s common for us not to take in that acknowledgment. We do it because we love it. We don’t do it because we need reinforcement, but to help the families and to help the parents, and our clients. However, it’s important to realize that they [our clients] really do appreciate it.

So, I’m trying to open my heart up to that compassion and love from them.

Eva Herber: I really love that. I think we’re being receptive to one another. You have kindness not just to yourself, but to others. You’re practicing mindfulness and self-compassion, and kindness to yourself and to others.

It’s a reminder to apply the oxygen mask to yourself first, and a good reminder for all those people out there doing wonderful work.

What is the one thing that you would like our listeners to take away from this talk?

Pantea Rahimian: What I would really love for people to do is to understand what self-care is.

I truly believe that self-care is the foundation of healthcare. And to take care of yourself, self-care, is not a selfish act and it’s an act of social justice because we will serve others at our highest selves, our best selves.

And so, I would love for our listeners to go to my website, download the self-care guide, identify and just start with one practice that you can start using and start doing it.

I am confident that we are going to all get through this. I think we’re very resilient people, we’re very capable. We’ve been through other challenges in our lives personally as well as globally, so we can get through this and by focusing on our own self-care, being kind towards ourselves and each other. We will get through this in the best way we can.

Eva Herber: Thank you so much. I think that’s a wonderful way of closing this talk about resilience. Which we all have, we can do this together.

One of the most beautiful things that I’m seeing here, is that I signed up today for the Karunavirus website. Karuna, is a Buddhist term and it’s about compassion. Which I think is amazing and Karuna is about being kind to ourselves and practicing compassion.

And I also love that you said self-care is about being ethical because if I’m not taking care of myself, I’m not in a place to take care of others. So it is our obligation and I’m really hoping that whoever is listening to this and you just sit down and think of, what is one thing I can do today [to practice self-care]? And that’s it right, you do it for one week, and it’s amazing because you will notice that you feel better.

Thank you so much for everybody in Spanish and I’m sending a big hug and kiss to California. Thank you.

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Comments

2 Responses

  1. Great video Pantea.
    You mentioned that if you are stressed at work you go to the bathroom and listen to what your body tells you. How do you know exactly what your body needs? Don’t you sometimes feel like your body wants two different things?

    1. Hi Sabrina thanks for your feedback and great questions. In regards to your question about how do we know what our body needs. We all have EQ (Emotional Intelligence) and we start learning EQ in early childhood and continue to learn EQ skills as we get older. Some people have stronger EQ skills than others because of our ability to adaptively cope with emotional dysregulation. Those of us who have a hard time discerning what their body needs can still develop EQ in late adolescence and adulthood by practicing meditation and mindfulness. Through regular daily practice, you train your brain to move away from your thoughts and connect with your breath and body. It’s rare for me personally to feel like my body wants two different things when I feel dysregulated. However, when that does happen, I continue to keep taking deep breaths, slow down and soon the most emerging need comes up stronger. It takes a lot of practice and definitely worth making a commitment to doing since it’s your personal first aid kit that you can access anytime anywhere. Blessings from Pantea

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