How can daily practices support us during challenging times? In this webinar recorded as part of WBI’s collaborative programming with the Marlene Mayerson JCC Manhattan, CiWPP graduate Elana Sandler, LCSW, and Elizabeth Whitney, LICSW, both faculty members at the Simmons School of Social Work, share thoughts on how to weave resilience tools into your everyday routine. Caroline Kohles, Senior Director of Health & Wellness Programming for the JCC Manhattan, moderated the conversation.
Highlights from the Conversation
Elizabeth: I joined CiWPP at a really difficult time in my professional life, and that’s part of how it was transformative for me. I was able to turn that difficult time into a new, vibrant career. I was the clinical director [supervising] many community-based programs, and I started thinking about how that applied to my chosen profession as a social worker, and the employees I was responsible for leading—social workers, psychologists, doctoral-level clinicians and also direct care staff from a lot of different backgrounds. In general in the behavioral health workforce, there’s a lot of concern and conversation about burnout and a lot of workshops and in-service trainings about burnout prevention, self-care, etc. At the same time, there’s lots of talk about never having time for doing the self-care—so going to workshops and then finding you’re not really able to implement what they learned.
This led to me to thinking about this from a different angle—that the framework of burnout itself and how we might talk about it in our lives and work, and the constant work on burnout prevention, is basically, inherently, a deficit-based approach. We’re threatened by depletion—like, I might run out of energy to do what I need to do, or doing this work has depleted me in some way. When we predominantly use that language of depletion or overwhelm, it really starts to shape the lens that we see through. We often talk about burnout being alleviated by what I could think of as episodes of self-care, which might restore some semblance of our pre-burnout energy or might not. So the solution, if you will, of self-care approaches are often seen as something that happens separately from the stressful experience. If you think of work or of family, the only way to regain energy is to do something “out there” that will help you feel better. I wanted to think about other ways that we could approach this. But I want to be really clear that we all live with so much stress and there is a lot happening out there right now, and we know that the impacts of historical trauma and systemic oppression have added to the burden for a lot of people. So in no way am I saying that burnout and overwhelm aren’t real, but trying to think of a way to approach it differently.
Caroline: What you’re basically saying is that it’s like the gas tank, if we use that analogy, is completely empty and we’ve been thinking of it as, “Oh, we’ve got to stop altogether to refill it up,” and what you’re saying is, “Wait a second, maybe we need to refill as we go.”
Elizabeth: That is such a perfect analogy. I’m going to borrow it if you don’t mind. That’s exactly right. Extending that analogy, it’s that stress of “Oh my gosh, I hope I can get to the next gas station before I run out,” right?
Caroline: And then the belief that the journey or the ride that I’m taking is what’s wearing me out. Then you say, “Wait a second, can I work it in such a way that I can actually enjoy this ride—and yes, there’s going to be bumps and maybe there’ll be an accident on the road or there’s something I have to slow down for, or take a break from—but I can enjoy the road, I can enjoy the journey.”
Elizabeth: That’s exactly right. So I’m not glued to my iPhone finding out where the next gas station is, I’m looking out the window and noticing that the trees are changing color here where I live. It’s a subtle shift but it’s a powerful shift, and using a lens of resilience offers such a deep, science-based, practical perspective. We know that anyone can cultivate more resilience. So even if, such as myself, you’re not endowed with kind of a naturally optimistic outlook—I’m very good at worrying—you can build your resilience. Even with the bumps in the road, when we start building resilience, then it continually feeds the gas tank. It continually creates a kind of an upward spiral, as Barbara Fredrickson says, as opposed to this deficit model of burnout and then recovery. Resilience practices can be adapted to be integrated into our daily lives, and so that’s the thing that really I’ve held on to: How do I make it part of my everyday life? And being able to continually shore myself up and build on my strengths has just been so profound and so valuable to me.
Caroline: [One commenter] is saying, “Pain is real; to suggest one can enjoy it sounds nonsensical to me.” It’s not that we’re saying that you enjoy pain, [but rather] that there is an upside to stress that we want to focus on rather than just the deficit. Can you just give us a little bit more of a framework for this question?
Elizabeth: It’s a very good question. There is deep pain in many people’s lives, there is shame in people’s lives, there is fear in people’s lives, and those are real experiences. It’s not to say that those are not real, it’s to say that there are ways in which we can develop a mindset and work on practices that one buoy us up even in our experience of pain. Through these practices I’ve been able to feel my feelings more deeply and quiet the voice that is telling me, You shouldn’t be feeling this or why are you still feeling this. Even if it is just saying, “Right now I am feeling so angry,” or “Right now I am feeling so in so much fear.” And that in and of itself is oddly a resilience practice because it’s part of acceptance. It’s part of mindfulness and noticing what is versus what I wish could be, which is where this stress and tension comes in often. I’d love to hear what your thoughts are, Elana, on that question as well.
Caroline: I would, too, because it seems to me like we’re talking about capacity, right? We’re talking about that as you build your resilience, your capacity to either manage or help or heal or be with your own pain and your own trauma is increasing.
Elana: I came to resilience practice and thinking about resilience when I was working in a highly stressful hospital environment where we had a campus chaplain who’s a Buddhist who was giving teaching mindfulness meditation to providers—so physicians, nurses, social workers—and I started practicing meditation with him. His style is to just sit and there’s no guidance, and there was so much discomfort for all of us Western folks with having to sit there for 30 minutes and just listen to our thoughts. And then also the things coming over like the loudspeakers like the announcements and the codes … all of the distractions. I started that practice eight and a half years ago, and then not long after became happily pregnant with my son. I kept meditating through my pregnancy and then kind of stopped once my son was born because my priorities shifted or my time shifted. I would say I have been a spotty practitioner over time and have found that in the last five years—my second child, my daughter, was born a little over five years ago—I absolutely found myself needing to go back to all of these practices and find them again.
In this unfortunate situation that we’re all finding ourselves, [at] the beginning I was very overwhelmed, and then in the last two months or so I have found that I’m able to come back to these practices to create new habits in a focused and committed way—because I was seeing how I was feeling and how I was acting and I didn’t like who I was being in both my home space and my workspace. I wanted to be able to redevelop a well of resilience to draw from as a parent and as a colleague, and
[that includes] naming the hard things, whether it’s physical pain, emotional pain, badness, stress, anxiety, anger, all of the things.
Elizabeth: For years and years, I thought, I should meditate, I should meditate, and it was only when I had a serious medical condition, that actually meditation would be helpful in the treatment of it, that I started. So it is sometimes through pain that we come to some of these things, but the challenge is still there. One of the things I’ve noticed is that even when I’m feeling horrible these days, I have a confidence that I can get back to a kind of equanimity and I didn’t have that before. I think of a reserve of resilience and in-the-moment resilience tools as well, for when we’re kind of right up against it and something unexpected happens, so that we have some ways of responding. So for me what builds resilience is physical wellness, emotional wellness, and noticing, naming, accepting your emotional experience as part of that … mindfulness but also positivity, gratitude, savoring as part of that as well, and there are other things that we can do for emotional wellness. The third thing I think of is social support and there’s a lot of evidence that shows that resilient people have someone that they can turn to or someone who’s in their corner, and then finally, connecting with meaning, something that connects us with something that is larger than ourselves outside of us. It might be a spiritual connection, it might be a cause or an ideal, a purpose, family, any number of things that build the capacity or fill the well. In the moment resilience, for me, is really all about creating practices that help me stay grounded. A newer kind of addition to it is self-compassion. Elana, especially now, when it’s so hard, how do you make these practices part of your everyday life? What do you do?
Elana: I would say in the last six to eight weeks after a few months of really living in like a real haze, I felt that I needed to make a daily practice and what was the tool that was most accessible to me was mindfulness and meditation because I had experience with that before. Coming back to doing things for just one moment and learning how to just begin to be comfortable with where I am in the moment was a beginning for me. And then as I moved forward and wanted to do more, I explored committing to a daily practice through a meditation app and with social support through an accountability buddy. My friend and I were meditating at different times during the day but we were using our app and the app was tracking us and giving some positive reinforcement for our venture. My friend’s name is Rachel, so when Rachel would finish her meditation I would get a little alert that said “Rachel has just meditated for 10 minutes,” so it was like a little bit of a “competition” because I think we both have that inner competitive edge, but it was really just to be there for each other.
One of the meditations that I learned through that app is called 10 Good Breaths, when you just take 10 breaths and really focus on where you are and being present. Then the other sort of practice that I was reacquainted with, which we’ve talked about a little bit already, is mental noting and naming. What was so powerful for me about doing that was it was also something I was kind of anxious and fearful about, because I didn’t want to have to name all the negative things that I was feeling, it just felt like I was dwelling on them. What I found that happened was, in giving myself permission or skill to name the sadness, or the fear, or the exhaustion, I was also giving myself permission to notice and name all of the great things that were happening. It gave me a more expansive way of viewing my life experience, and so I noticed positive things as well that I probably would have just taken for granted—like I noticed my children playing, which I do all the time, but I noticed it with a tremendous amount of gratitude. I think it’s about being present and training your mind to be present, giving permission to the thought or the feeling to exist, and then giving permission to all of the thoughts and feelings and perceptions to be there. For me, it’s bringing it into my awareness in a way that made it more likely that I would be able to see it in a more full way.
Elizabeth: I certainly remember some of the teachers talking in CiWPP about this, that we can’t really fully experience positive emotions if we also don’t experience [all emotions].
Elana: Acknowledging the ebbs and flows of life’s experience …. just because I’m sitting in pain doesn’t mean that’s forever.
Elizabeth: This is a bit of a jump, but another type of drawing from positivempsychology, another resilience practice, is this idea of positivity and noticing the good. One of the things that I’ve done in my home is to make my office a really safe-feeling place, so I have a bulletin board and it does have a couple of practical things in terms of work, but mostly it has things that make me smile. I found this picture of myself and my husband when I’m quite young and I’m laughing and my head is thrown back and he’s like looking down at a plate and I can just imagine he’s making some dry comment that just cracks me up. It’s priming our environment, making a space, whatever that space is, that reminds me that I can also look at the good in my life.
Elana: Do you have other practices that you do?
Elizabeth: I am someone who needs some form of vigorous exercise so I have to schedule that in, and that is kind of separate from my workday, but there are all sorts of ways that I’ve built in my daily life to stay connected with my body. We are in a two-story house and I have decided to reframe my increasing forgetfulness as a positive thing—we’re going out the door and inevitably I have to run up the stairs at least twice to get stuff that I forgot. The evening walks with the puppy are something that’s getting me out. Things like stretching … Interesting research that I was looking at was talking about the connection between movement and health, and so the idea is that so even for exercisers the biggest key toward health and so health being part of resilience is interrupting sedentary behavior. So even more than having a routine of exercise is the idea of getting up from what you’re doing and moving your body, moving around—so in an office, it’s a little bit easier. I mean, I used to have to walk down the hall to go to the bathroom, now I just go
right around the corner, but when I have a time between meetings, I walk downstairs and back upstairs. I’ve never been a napper but naps are great and they can be short, and you can fit them into your daily routine, you can even schedule them into your day. The idea is that we’re moving from one cognitive task to another, especially when we’re at work or with parenting, using your prefrontal cortex and executive functions, and interrupting that periodically throughout the day, as much as five minutes an hour, can be really restorative to your brain. So I’ve taken that to heart. Sometimes I will just simply kind of look up and spend three minutes looking out my window and looking at trees, or just noticing things.
Elana: I think it helps you wake your brain up to do that. Earlier in this pandemic, speaking with other parents that were doing this—working parents—we were doing this code-switching from working to parenting but we had no breaks, so we would go from being really on at work to being really on as a parent. It was just incessant and the exhaustion was so much. I think a lot of people found that they needed to take naps even if it was just 10 or 15 minutes because they needed their brains off for a little while to be able to be present in what was right in front of them, kids or work or both.
Elizabeth: I used to take the train into campus and I don’t that anymore obviously—we’re working at home and we’re fortunate to be working at home—and I’ve noticed that I don’t have the transition period. I’m not going home to parent but that there is something with making transitions and finding ways to have those be restful, so that’s the intentional part about: What do I need in this and what will make it be a restful experience for me so that I can feel more filled up?
Elana: Whether it’s closing your eyes or taking breaths or going for a walk or washing your hands mindfully or whatever it is to make that change.
Elizabeth: So you were talking about the social support piece …
Elana: I was talking about my meditation accountability buddy, and actually for a lot of the practices I think that it’s possible to find that person who also wants to take on a practice, whether it be a daily walk, or a yoga class, or whatever, and then to connect with that person. Bringing up social support, elevating it in my life the last few months, has been really important, because I’m not having the regular interactions that I would have outside of work, at the grocery store and picking up my kids from school or whatever. None of that’s happening, so what I’ve done is schedule phone calls with friends a lot of the time … and then schedule the next call when you finish a call, so that you’re maintaining regular contact, because time is moving in a different way. I know this isn’t for everybody but I have a lot of friends that I text with during the day, we have a chain going all day, groups or individuals. What’s really great about it is that I can turn it off, so if I’m not available I’m not responding, but when I am available I do feel connected to people that way.
Elizabeth: I have a friend who … we rarely got to see each other and now every Friday morning we have eight o’clock breakfast and we have actually gotten a lot closer.
Caroline:To go back to the car analogy … We’re going to fill it up on the way and by doing that we can actually enjoy the journey and also build capacity for going a longer distance if we take short breaks. I heard you use the word “interrupting” several times, whether it’s interrupting sedentary behavior or interrupting the constant scheduling so I’m not so relying on my executive functioning to just go and go and go and go. Elizabeth, can you talk a little bit more about that?
Elizabeth: Taking the idea of cognitive flexibility just a little bit further in terms of linking that with resilience, one way I think that works is that if I’m not having these kinds of ups and downs, if I am being more mindful and choosing my reactions as much as I can, or choosing my responses, I’m doing a few things. I’m reducing the surge of stress hormones in my body, I’m reducing the felt experience of conflict or stress or threat. I’m reducing a sense of shame or whatever comes up, I’m building and improving the relationships that I’m in because I’m taking a step back and rather than reacting I’m taking a kind of curiosity or an inquiry stance instead. So it’s moving from conflict to inquiry, to curiosity, to connection. All of those things feel like they’re directly related to resilience and so from a biological standpoint to a relational standpoint.
Caroline: If we go back to that analogy for a minute, which is that I’m going someplace but there’s also the internal ride, my emotions, the situation, my response, my reactivity, can take me for a ride, right? And how do I put in resilience practices so that both the internal journey and the one that I’m having while I’m driving are smooth and interconnected, and one is supporting the other.
Elizabeth Whitney, MSW, LICSW is a full-time faculty member of the Simmons School of Social Work in the online Master’s degree program. She is engaged in all aspects of the program’s field education department, including through curriculum development, training, and working directly with students and field department faculty. Most recently, Elizabeth designed and led development of the SW@Simmons Field Education Lab, an innovative course using simulations with live actors in an online environment. This full-term course helps prepare generalist students for internships. Prior to joining the Simmons faculty, Elizabeth focused her career on integrating recovery-oriented practices into behavioral health services through design, implementation and leadership of innovative services; training and consultation; and development of tools and work processes to sustain changes in attitudes and practices. For almost 20 years, Ms. Whitney was an Associate Division Director/Clinical Director at one of Massachusetts’ largest community behavioral health providers.