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!

 

 

 

 


Staying Sane During the Waiting Game for Professional School Admission

December 19, 2016

You successfully applied to a range of medical or dental schools and now are anxiously waiting to be contacted about interviews and (hopefully!) acceptances to these schools.  During this time, it is normal to feel anxious, worry that you have not provided enough information, or think that there is something else you can do to improve your chances.  Maybe you are tired of family or friends asking, “have you heard yet?”

Here are common challenges and strategies to help you maintain your sanity and manage stress during this time:

Common Questions

  • Is it okay to call or email the schools and ask for an application status update?
  • Call only once. Curb your desire to call repeatedly.  Sometimes schools feel like students put them on re-dial with the volume of individual calls!
  • I want to update my application materials. Is this a good time to do it?
  • Some schools accept updates to applications and will publish this clearly on their webpage. If you do send updates, it should contain only SIGNIFICANT additions (e.g., papers published, new clinical experience position, completed science courses with a grade, leadership).  Remember that the on the original AMCAS application, a description of each experience is limited to 750 characters—this limit remains. In most cases, an update should be a concise bulleted list.  If you have a publication, use the formal citation.  No lengthy letters with veiled pleas for acceptance. One update letter is acceptable, a second is pushing it unless it contains something amazing.
  • I have been placed on a waitlist for an interview or acceptance. Does this mean I won’t get in?
  • Being placed on a waitlist or in the hold file is not a rejection. This means that you still have a possibility for acceptance. Some schools are sorting through their acceptances and attempting to figure out their yield rate before extending more invitations to interview.  Schools with a high number of applicants are still reviewing applications as well.
  • Should I send a letter of intent?
  • Submitting a Letter of Intent at this point in the cycle is of little value. You applied to the school, so the committee knows you want to go there.  It is not going to move you into the ‘accept’ category if you are not there already.  Letters of intent should not be sent to all schools.  Rather, letters of intent should be reserved for the school where you can guarantee that if you are accepted you would turn down other offers that you may have.  Check out the US News article on letters of intent.
  • How long can I expect to be on a waitlist?
  • Expect significant movement from Waitlists and Hold files after 15 March. Another time will be around  April 30 of each application cycle year, when admitted applicants are required to choose a medical school to attend and decline multiple offers.  This way, medical schools begin filling these spaces. Still, many in April, May, and often up to one week prior to the first week of medical school.
  • I have begun to receive rejections from schools to which I have applied.  Should I plan to re-apply next cycle?
  • Each year, many students are not admitted to school and decide to re-apply to medical school and successfully matriculate in later years.   You should re-apply when you have significantly improved your application materials and experiences. Meet with mentors, career or professional school advisors, medical students, and admissions officers to get feedback on how to strengthen your applications.  You may need additional clinical hours, research, or leadership experience. You could work on strengthen your AMCAS application and personal statement.  You should be practicing your interview skills.  See the 2015 blog article, “So I didn’t Get in Medical School Now What

Step 2   Do’s and Don’ts in the waiting game
Here are some do’s and don’ts behaviors that many applicants may default to during times of high stress.

Don’t

  • Launch a social media rant about schools or admissions teams. Admissions committees and students check social media.
  • Complain to admissions officers or medical students about the perceived amount of time it is taking for them to reply to you for interviews or admissions decisions.
  • Contact each school more than once to check on the status of your application.
  • Re-take the MCAT yet without significant preparation. Your goal is to raise your score significantly before re-applying.

Do:

  • Surround yourself with positive and healthy individuals, mentors, groups, and activities
  • Meet with advisors, career and personal counselors who can support you through this period.
  • Continue to show your continued passion for professional school. This includes staying involved in a combination of clinical, research, leadership, service, coursework activities.
  • Prepare for interviews. Many professional schools are now using the Multiple Mini Interviews.
  • Stay emotionally strong and resilient
  • Practice healthy coping behaviors including exercising, healthy eating, and involvement in social activities and mindfulness
  • Utilize any cultural, spiritual, familial, and other personal support to maintain hope and develop coping skills and strengths.

Feel free to visit the OITE https://www.training.nih.gov to meet with medical school advisors, wellness or career counselors who can further support you during this process.

* OITE services are available to NIH intramural trainees only. Check with your home university or college and utilize the personal, career, and professional school advising resources they offer to you.


Life’s Got You Down?  Staying Strong and Resilient in the Midst of Disappointment

November 21, 2016

Life can be challenging at times, as scientists in training you know this all too well.  When daily life doesn’t go as planned it can lead to lack of motivation, frustration, and sadness. Stress and strain can be draining, leaving you with less than 100% of yourself to put into your work, relationships, and pleasurable activities.  How do you make it through?  Resilience—it can help you manage the tough times allowing you to persist and persevere in whatever the challenge may be.

Resilience refers to our ability to bounce back, learn from our mistakes and come out of the challenge stronger.  Years ago, in graduate school, myself and my fellow trainees experienced a very challenging work situation.  It was physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging, so much so that several staff members left, including a fellow trainee, opting not to complete her degree. We had to find ways to persevere in spite of the challenges we faced.  Although it was extremely difficult and far too tempting to give up and quit, we quickly identified aspects of the training experience that felt supportive, focusing on relationships and people who offered support and encouragement. We re-examined our priorities, and began to shift our thinking so that we could see an end to the experience and the rewards to follow. Perhaps some of your academic work or personal life situations feel similar.

Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist and researcher of positive psychology, has spent years researching resilience, hope and optimism.  He and his research team have identified characteristics that help to build resilience. When things get tough, consider these strategies:

Acceptance – Accept that setbacks and disappointments are a part of life.  As much as we wish things would always go our way they simply don’t.  Dealing with small everyday setbacks helps us development the resilience to handle larger challenges in life.

Stay Connected – Connect with others who are supportive and will encourage you. Spending time alone when you are feeling down can lead to isolation, loneliness, sadness, and pessimism.  Find others in the lab, in your families, or among your friends who affirm you and acknowledge your strengths.

Keep Perspective –  Keeping things in perspective helps us see things as they are.  Having perspective allows us to see the broader picture which can offer us a more realistic view of the experiences we face in the moment.

Opportunity – Consider the setback or challenge as an opportunity for new learning.  Seligman’s research suggests that individuals who bounce back more quickly often see their failures as opportunities as opposed to those who struggle from the same experiences.

Optimism – An optimistic attitude allows us to view disappointments as temporary, isolated experiences that are brought on by external factors.  Individuals who are optimistic appreciate their experiences, value their relationships, and are encouraged by the future.

So the next time you find yourself faced with a significant setback, resist the temptation to give up.  Engage in the above strategies and look for the positive things around you.  If you are intentional about looking for them you will find them.

Other resources from the OITE on resilience:

  1. Join our Mindfulness Meditation group on Thursdays: https://www.training.nih.gov/mindfulness_meditation_group
  1. Need help now?? Check out resources for NIH intramural trainees: https://www.training.nih.gov/get_help_now
  1. Watch out for our next Tune In and Take Care workshop held each semester
  1. Check out our YouTube video: Resilience in the Job Searchresilienceresilience
  1. Related blog posts:
    1. Enhancing Optimism and Resilience in Your Job Search & Beyond
    2. Job Stress, Resilience and Support
    3. Is Grit the Key to Success?

 


Personality Type and Burnout

November 14, 2016

Image of file folder and pens in a briefcaseHave you ever taken the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)? If so, you know that this is an assessment with the aim of measuring your personality preferences along four different dichotomous dimensions. The MBTI helps people answer the following questions:   Where do you focus your attention and/or get your energy?; How do you prefer to take in information?; How do you make decisions?; and finally, How do you organize the world around you?

Myers and Briggs believed that in order to have a more satisfied life, people needed to better understand themselves which could then help them choose an occupation which better suited their personality.

The Myers Briggs will not tell you specific career paths you should choose; however, you can utilize your results to consider the pros and cons of different employment sectors/occupations/work environments and how much they match with your personal preferences.

What if your personal preferences clash with your work environment though? It is very common to see an employee who is dissatisfied and on the road to burn out because their job doesn’t match their personal preferences. How does this look along the different dimensions of the MBTI?

Extroversion vs Introversion – Where do you get your energy?

A strong extrovert who is in a lab all day by themselves will become restless and bored. Extroverts tend to need outside stimuli to help maintain their enthusiasm. They enjoy being out in the world and interacting with others, so if deprived of that, their energy will begin to wane.

Conversely, introverts can get easily overwhelmed by too much external stimuli. They prefer positions where they can work alone and have quiet, reflective time. A position in sales or customer service could create stress for an introvert and more easily result in an individual feeling bunt out.

Sensing vs Intuition – How do you take in information?

Sensor like facts, details, and tend to feel most comfortable in structured work environments. Whereas, intuitives are generally open to multiple variables and they tend to respond negatively to rigid work environments and/or repetitive processes.

Intuitives tend to feel a sense of accomplishment in the creative process, but sensors like to point to firm achievements such as solved problems or finished projects. If they don’t see that, it would lead to burn out for a sensor.

Thinking vs Feeling – How do you prefer decisions to be made?

Thinkers want to see a logical approach to decision making and they crave results that make clear sense based on facts. Feelers, on the other hand, are more likely to see the emotional and sociological sides of decisions.  Feelers tend to be better at understanding the need to compromise based on office politics or diplomacy which would frustrate a thinker.

Burnout can ensue if you are in a position where you have to make decisions that are at odds with your personal preference. For example, a feeler as a bank loan officer might have a hard time removing their emotions from their job.

Additionally, thinkers and feelers could both get frustrated if the office is managed and their boss’ decisions are made in ways they don’t understand or relate to.

Judging vs Perceiving – How do you organize your world?

Judgers like things ordered and routine whereas perceivers like things spontaneous and flexible.  You can probably easily tell who is a judger and who is a perceiver in a staff/lab meetings. A judger would want an agenda and clear follow up action items while a perceiver might view the same meeting as a place to chat and brainstorm without any structure.

A disorganized work environment can be a major stressor for judgers, who like to know what is expected of them and their performance. Perceivers might feel too constrained by these limits and would prefer the autonomy and ability to innovate.  Perceivers often like jobs that are unpredictable like event planning or emergency services or even working at a new start up where they can invent the process.

***

No matter your MBIT type, the key is recognizing your fit with your job. Given how much time one spends at work, it is important to consider your personal preferences in relation to the work environment. Hopefully, thoughtful consideration of yourself in relation to your work will ensure it is a good match and you won’t be prone to burn out within your role.  If you find yourself still struggling, check out our blog post on ways to prevent burn out.


Squash those ANTs

November 7, 2016

Even the most optimistic person is not immune to negative thoughts, but for some, automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) are a regular part of life and the chatter of self-doubt and worry can be constant.

During times of high stress, like a job search, ANTs can become even more pronounced. Often job seekers will face a barrage of worries and doubts like: Am I making the right decision? Maybe I should wait until I finish X experiment and get Y publication? Should I leave the bench? I like what I’m doing… why do I have to change? I hate what I am doing…will I really like anything else?

Career planning and job searching is all about transitions and transitions are always difficult. Perhaps we have to let go of an idea we once held for ourselves; or we have to find a way to manage the uncertainty of a job search; or we have to deal with the discomfort of examining our strengths and weaknesses while others do the same.

Stress can create a time fraught with challenges and thinking errors. Some of the most common thinking errors that can occur include:

Overgeneralization
Taking one isolated situation and using it to make wide generalizations. For the job seeker, this could look like, “Well, I didn’t get that one job. Nobody wants to hire me. I’m never going to get a job.” All or nothing language like “always” or “never” is another form of overgeneralization and black-and-white thinking.

Mental Filter
This occurs when somebody focuses almost exclusively on one specific, usually negative or upsetting, aspect of a situation while ignoring the rest. For the job seeker, this could look like, “I answered that one interview question so terribly!” Even if the rest of the interview went well, the person will ruminate about their perceived mistake.

Fortune Telling
This is often also called jumping to conclusions or mind reading and it happens when you assume you know what is going to happen.  Perhaps in an interview, you imagine what the hiring manager is thinking. “They are probably thinking my answer was really stupid.” Then you anticipate how the situation will unfold and assume you will never get the job.

***
There are many thinking errors that can occur and Dr. Amen has devoted his research to this topic. Dr. Daniel Amen is a psychiatrist, director of the Amen Clinics, the author of “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life”.  He notes that our brains are actually wired to focus on the negative and to scan for threats, but you can also learn how to stop your automatic negative thoughts and focus on the positive.

According to Dr. Amen, there are three steps to kill thos ANTs:

1. Write them down and clearly identify them.

2. Ask: are these true?

3. If you discover these thoughts aren’t true, talk back to them !

Labeling, investigating and talking back to your ANTs takes practice but it time can help you to minimize these cognitive intrusions. Watch Dr. Amen’s video here:


Want to be 10% Happier?

October 10, 2016

Front image of the book by Dan Harris "10% Happier"Dan Harris is a correspondent for ABC News, an anchor for the show Nightline, a meditation skeptic turned believer, and the author of the book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Really Works – a True Story.

After an on-air panic attack in 2004, Harris went on a journey to figure out why he had been experiencing panic attacks.  Part of this journey led him to discover the benefits of meditation and he now wants to spread the word.

His promise is not grand. He doesn’t claim meditation will solve all of your problems, but he does believe it will make you 10% happier. 

In this video, Harris talks about how he started small with just five minutes of meditation a day and he is really honest about his experience with it.  He notes that in the beginning it didn’t seem awesome and actually felt like a waste of time.

Are you interested in exploring meditation?

At OITE, we are no strangers to this topic. We have written about the benefits of incorporating mindfulness into your day here on this blog, and we even have a weekly meditation group which meets every Thursday.

If you are not at the NIH, you might want to check out Dan’s book and podcast to help you get started with meditating.


How to Beat the Sunday Blues

May 2, 2016

Image of a sad-looking puppy with the words "I got the Sunday Night Blues"If you have a Monday through Friday job, then at some point in your career you have probably experienced the “Sunday Blues.” It often starts around Sunday afternoon with a slightly depressed feeling that your weekend is coming to a close. Along with sadness often comes an uptick in your level of anxiety thinking about Monday morning and the week ahead.

Sound familiar?

Many people think they are the only one who suffers from a feeling of depression/anxiety on Sunday, but this happens to a lot of people…even people who report that they generally like their jobs. Sometimes, even school children report this feeling of dread on Sundays.

Therapists and Sunday Blues sufferers have some recommendations on way you can help combat this weekly affliction. Here are some things to try out:

  1. Identify your Sunday Blues pattern.
    Recognizing that this is a common experience for many is one thing, but try assessing your own patterns and how your own anxiety/depression tends to manifests itself. Perhaps you feel lethargic or easily irritated? How have you been coping with these feelings? As with most things, the first step is having enough self-awareness to recognize that this is an issue for you.
  2. Is there an underlying issue?
    Sometimes the Sunday Blues seem like a general malaise about work, but it could also be indicative of something more. Sometimes the Sunday Blues are a natural dip in the weekly rhythm of life; however, you might be more prone to this weekly affliction if you suffer from depression and anxiety in general. The Sunday dreads could also indicate a work dynamic that needs to be addressed, whether that is a conflict with somebody in your office or the realization that you are unsatisfied and need to move on from your current job.
  3. Start preparing on Friday.
    Before you leave work on Friday, make a Monday morning to do list. Knowing that you took some time to get yourself organized for the next week can help you to feel less stressed when you get to work on Monday morning. Similarly, you might want to change your errand schedule. Most people use Sunday to grocery shop, clean, etc. which can contribute to the Sunday blues. Mix up your routine and see what works best for you.
  4. Make a new tradition – Monday Funday!
    Plan something fun for the beginning of the week. Some people like to choose one set Monday night activity, like watching a particular TV show or going to a bar’s trivia night. Or, you could change it up weekly. Whatever you do, find something in the week that you will genuinely enjoy.

What have you done to combat the Sunday Blues? Share advice with a comment below.