Investing in Yourself: Knowing When to Seek Counseling

May 15, 2017

Post written by Michael J. Sheridan, MSW, Ph.D,. Special Advisor for Diversity and Wellness Programs, Office of Intramural Education and Training, National Institute of Health, Bethesda, MD Michael.sheridan@nih.gov

When our usual ways of coping are not working, it may be time to find a counselor. The reality is that most of us could benefit from professional counseling at various points in our life. I know for myself, the stresses and strains during my doctoral program was a time when going to counseling made all the difference. Since then, I think of obtaining counseling resources as investing in my own well being.  After all, we routinely take our cars in for tune-ups, our pets to the vet, and our bodies to the doctor for physicals.  Holistic self-care means investing in our own mental and emotional health, as well!

From talking with NIH fellows in wellness workshops and individual appointments, I know that many face a number of challenging life situations. For example, adjusting to being in a new geographical area in a large, competitive work environment without your usual or familiar supports.  Or trying to determine your own career path when what you’re interested in pursuing differs from the vision of parents, PIs, or mentors.  Or trying to excel at work while finding time to give to partners, spouses, children or other important people in your life.  Or struggling with trying to make your own health and wellbeing a priority when receiving messages that nothing matters but getting the work done.  And sometimes beginning to realize that patterns of behavior that you’ve used in the past just aren’t working anymore – and, in fact, may be making the situation worse.  All of these circumstances can be managed better with the help of focused and supportive counseling.

Some people are comfortable with the prospect of seeing a mental health professional, but others are not open to the idea. They may have an internalized belief that going to a counselor means that something is really wrong with you or that you are weak or that you are avoiding responsibility for your life.  These ideas often stem from 4 prevalent myths about counseling:

Myth #1: Only “crazy” people go to counseling.

Truth: Very few individuals receiving outpatient therapy fall within the “severe mental illness” categories. Most people seek counseling because of everyday stressors or difficult life situations.  A counselor can provide support and assistance in learning how to better cope with these as well as attend to any feelings of depression or anxiety that may be present.

Myth #2: Why can’t I just talk to my friends?!

Truth: Counselors differ from friends in many ways. Beyond the obvious difference of their years of training and experience, they rarely give advice or tell you what to do like well-meaning friends often try to do.  They are there to listen to you and help you come to your own decisions within a non-judgmental and supportive environment. They can also provide an important “mirror” for you to better understand what you’re going through.

Myth #3: Counselors always want to go back to your childhood and blame your parents for everything.

Truth: Counseling involves learning how to accept responsibility for your own life. Sometimes exploring childhood issues that may be contributing to your current situation is indicated, but not always.  The major focus is on changing perceptions and behaviors in your current life that are creating difficulties for you.

Myth #4: Therapy can take years – once you start, it never ends!

Truth: Most counseling is short-term (8-20 sessions) and focused on specific and attainable goals. Sometimes longer work is needed and desired, and other times people take a break for a while and come back to counseling later.  But the decision to end therapy is one you make with your counselor – you are not held captive!

The NIH Employee Assistance Program provides counseling services to help current employees with their health and wellness issues. The OITE also provides short-term wellness advising and can help you get connected with a local counselor.   We can help you understand the training and expertise of different kinds of counselors (e.g., social workers, licensed professional counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists) and what to look for in a counselor.  [You may want to get started by reading this article on “How to Choose a Counselor or Therapist”: http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/how-to-find-a-therapist/] We can also help you better understand the insurance process.  So invest in yourself and contact us if you think you would benefit from some counseling.  We’re here to make the process easier!

 

 

 

 


Keep Stress From Derailing Your Work and Life

March 23, 2017

Post written by Sharon Milgram, Ph.D., Director, Office of Intramural Training and Education at the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD.

Stress is inevitable – in our relationships, at home and at work, pretty much all around us. At NIH our stresses include experimental roadblocks, bureaucracy, paper and grant rejections, the school/job search process, difficult workplace relationships, and/or the craziness of juggling our work and life. On top of these normal (and expected) workplace stresses, many of us are now experiencing a high level of stress related to the uncertainty of future government policies, here and abroad.  While some stress can be helpful, driving us to work hard and focus on things that are important to us, too much stress is counter-productive leading to sleepless nights, negative coping strategies, frayed relationships, and illness. Now, more than ever, we all need to pause and consider how we respond to stress and how we can work together as a community to manage the stress that seems to be swirling around us. I often talk with NIH trainees and staff about managing stress and wanted to share some insights from those discussions.

I will begin by laying out a brief model for wellness we developed here at OITE that is rooted in acknowledging that we need to focus on multiple elements to truly lead a healthy and less stressed life.  This holistic approach to wellness prompts us to consider four areas – our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual selves.

Wellness Model

Physical wellness includes things such as getting enough sleep, eating nutritional meals, exercising, avoiding harmful substances, getting regular health care, and taking breaks when we need them.  Mental wellness involves modifying unhelpful thought patterns (e.g., ruminating about the past/worrying about the future vs. paying attention to the present, perfectionism, comparing ourselves to others, negative self-tapes), as well as practicing self-affirmations and allowing the mind to engage in new things that interest us.  Emotional wellness focuses on being able to recognize and feel our emotions, expressing our needs honestly and directly, asking for help when we need it, creating and staying connected to a supportive circle of friends and family, and demonstrating compassion for ourselves and others.  Finally, spiritual wellness is about cultivating what gives us a sense of deeper meaning, purpose, and connection in our lives.  For some people this is done through religious beliefs and practices, while for others it is found in non-sectarian areas, such as nature, the world of science, social justice initiatives, creative endeavors and so on.  Whatever the arena, spiritual wellness involves having a connection to something beyond ourselves, seeking out resources that nurture us spiritually, investing time in what is most meaningful to us, reading books and/or watching inspirational media, and engaging in activities that support our life’s purpose.  It also means learning how to be a human being instead of a human doing.  It’s important to pay attention to all four areas as any one area affects our well-being in the other three.  Holistic wellness also involves increasing our mindfulness or awareness of how we’re doing in each area in order to practice good self-care.

After looking carefully at my own wellness practices and noticing some important gaps, I started experimenting with some new approaches. I am sharing my new strategies here, and hope you will share yours in the comments section, with the hope that more explicit discussions about wellness will help all of us all have an easier time during these stressful times. I recently compiled a playlist of upbeat songs and am trying to take more mindful walks (physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness). I realized I needed to stop reading the news at night and have replaced surfing the internet with a good novel or calm conversation with my wife (mental and emotional wellness). To learn more meditation strategies (a big struggle for me!) I participated in a class where we meditated each time we met (mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness).  My most fun wellness addition — I am learning to box! This is one exercise that totally takes me out of my head while relieving huge amounts of stress (physical and mental awareness). We all have a different set of wellness practices that work for us; let me know what wellness practices work for you; perhaps your ideas will inspire others!

Resilience is defined as the ability to grow and learn through setback and difficult times. The foundation of resilience is wellness and a foundation of wellness is community. If you wish to bring your most creative and resilient self to work (and beyond) each day, make an investment in your future by engaging with your colleagues at work and by finding sources of community at home.  Also, join us next week for our Tune In & Take Care workshop focused on stress management, wellness and resilience on the Bethesda campus and watch for offerings on other campuses as well. Get involved in groups on campus and make an effort to get to know the people around you. And get out there and move…. sing…. dance…. paint…. meditate…. connect…… pray…. hike…. whatever makes you more resilient and happy!

Tune In & Take Care Workshop – March 28th, 2017 – 1:00 to 3:00 pm

To Register: https://www.training.nih.gov/events/view/_2/2034/Tune_In_and_Take_Care_Managing_Stress_and_Promoting_Wellbeing

 

 


Revealers and Hiders: Discussing Vulnerability in the Workplace

May 16, 2016

Discussing one’s weaknesses in the workplace can be a challenge, especially in the rigorous environment of research and academia. In a competitive atmosphere, students/trainees want to appear confident and skilled, and are hesitant to give off the impression that they are unable or unwilling to complete a task. Instead of communicating effectively, students often decide to cover up their weaknesses in hopes of learning new skills to move past them.

But is this strategy effective?

Dr. Brené Brown is a professor and researcher at the University of Houston who studies vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Her decade-long research on shame, composed of focus groups, interviews, and journal pages, showed a separation between people who had a sense of worthiness – who believed that they were worthy of love and belonging, and people who instead felt more shame and fear. Analysis of qualitative data from this cohort showed that they in fact live differently from the shame cohort– they live whole-heartedly. They had a sense of courage – as Brown puts it, “the courage to be imperfect.” This ability to “own weakness” gave them a sense of authenticity, and a capacity to be compassionate to themselves, which in turn led to a better sense of connection and compassion towards others.

Most importantly, Brown juxtaposed the outlook on vulnerability of this whole-hearted cohort to that of the shame cohort from her previous research, explaining “they didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating, as I had heard it earlier in the shame interviewing. They just talked about it being necessary.” As opposed to seeing vulnerability in a debilitating way, this cohort was able to utilize their weaknesses to make themselves stronger.

Research at the Harvard Business School extends upon this idea of conceptualizing and communicating vulnerability, concluding that, in fact, divulging unflattering information about oneself is perceived better by prospective employers rather than hiding it. Participants evaluated two different job applications that asked applicants the lowest grade they had ever received on a test. Revealer/Hider conditions indicated either a grade of an F, or chose not to answer. Participants had to estimate the actual grade, indicate which of the two applicants they trusted more, and select the candidate they were most likely to hire. On average, Hiders were deemed less trustworthy than Revealers, and were also less likely to be hired by participants, despite the fact that they were perceived to score higher on the exam.

Although divulging one’s weaknesses in a professional context – whether that is a job interview or on the job itself – can be hard to do, learning to utilize and effectively communicate weakness and vulnerability are crucial parts of working as a successful professional.

Mentors and colleagues can’t help you if you don’t clarify areas of need.  Doing so could lead to better suggestions and advice for your own professional development as well as an increase in your overall holistic health.