Staff Perspective: Gratitude as Self-Care

Staff Perspective: Gratitude as Self-Care

Dr. Kevin Holloway

Many of you reading this now will likely agree with me that we’re looking forward to this new year. 2020 was certainly a year of upheaval, disconnection, distress, and for many people, significant loss. Indeed, all of us have experienced loss to one degree or another, whether that is loss of a loved one, income, ease of movement, or peace. Added to that is significant political discord, struggle for social justice, unjustified death and suffering, and disagreement on basic truth. It is easy to point to multiple examples of things we won’t miss about 2020.

As behavioral health providers, we may be additionally exposed to these stressors as we connect with and work with clients suffering in this same context. Much has been written about the importance of provider self-care (including my colleague Dr. Tim Rogers’ recently posted blog regarding self-care outcomes). Provider self-care can include anything that helps us recharge, be at our best functioning, and ready to be there for our clients. Standard suggested strategies include things like, such as getting adequate sleep and exercise, taking time for personal interests, strengthening personal relationships, etc. This year, however, enacting those types of strategies has been particularly challenging because many of the things I typically do for self-care have been limited or constrained in the context of measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, such as visiting with family, traveling, or even exercising at my gym. So I had to get creative and think outside of my typical self-care box. This year one aspect of self-care that I’ve found particularly helpful this year is gratitude; the act of pausing to pause to reflect on that the things I am grateful for in the midst of the things that are challenging. I’ll admit that, at times, it has been hard to find the silver lining, so to speak. But I’ll share with you some of the things for which I am grateful.

  1. Front line healthcare workers – Perhaps it goes without saying that front-line healthcare workers, especially ER and ICU doctors and nurses, are the heroes of 2020. So many have worked unreal hours under horrible conditions, with less-than-adequate protective equipment/supplies to care for the sick and dying to the point of exhaustion. Some have even sacrificed their own lives, knowing the dangers, to help others. I am sad for their loss. I am sad for their families, friends, and communities. And I am grateful that there are true heroes among us, for without them the horrors of COVID would have been, if it were possible, even worse.
  2. Essential Workers – A year ago I’m not sure I would have recognized all who belong in this category. Certainly, I would have thought of doctors and nurses, police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and military Service members, and was really grateful for their work. I still am. But 2020 has revealed all sorts of other essential workers who provide important and essential services that I rely on daily. These include grocery-store workers, long-haul truck drivers, farmers, delivery drivers, restaurant workers, utility workers, census workers, communications technicians, postal workers, election workers, and so many more. I am grateful to recognize that these people have always been essential whether recognized or not.
  3. TEACHERS – At CDP, we’ve been offering online, live training for several years, and feel like we’ve gotten pretty good at it. We’ve learned how to do this over dozens of events, making adjustments as we go, learning what works and doesn’t work, and trying new things on a very forgiving audience. School teachers, from pre-K teachers through college professors, on the other hand, were forced by circumstances to suddenly change on a dime from plans for in-person instruction to online, virtual school. There are some similarities, to be sure, but there are some HUGE adjustments that must be made, not the least of which includes access to communications technology and hardware, adaptability of instruction techniques to a distance learning model, and even comfort with technology with learners. Not only did teachers do the best they could in difficult circumstances, they did a great job jumping in feet-first, making adjustments as needed, applying what they learned and best practices they discovered along the way. I appreciate their tremendous flexibility with making a completely new model work. And having had the time to learn all of that over several years in my job, I can appreciate the herculean task it was to make these adjustments in matter of days or a few weeks at first, and continue to adjust over the summer. Many teachers continue to move forward with uncertainty regarding whether they will be returning to in-person teaching, switching to a hybrid model, full virtual as circumstances are always in flux. Teachers, it is a cliché to say that you don’t get paid enough. Forgive me for being cliché, but you don’t get paid enough.
  4. Technology – Admittedly I’m a proud, stereotypical nerd. I love technology and love thinking about tech applications for all sorts of things. But I appreciate technology even more in light of the past year which allows me to stay connected to loved ones when travel is not recommended. I appreciate that I can continue to do the work I do and stay in contact with coworkers and colleagues. I appreciate that my clients (and most clients) can still access care for the most part.
  5. Acts of kindness – It is too easy to become bitter and jaded in the problems of the past few years, in light of many examples of grave generational injustice, bigotry, hatred, bullying, dishonesty, and betrayal. Yet there are numerous, daily small acts of kindness that, if we are watching for them, can remind us that most people are genuinely good at their core. For example, a recent news feature described a spontaneous “pay it forward” pattern that emerged at a fast food restaurant drive-thru in which each patron paid for the meal of the person behind them in line, which perpetuated for two full days. It warms my heart to see such examples, and it makes me feel even better when I take the opportunity to participate. Or consider even the selfless inconvenience of wearing a mask in public to protect unknown others from the possibility of transmitting a potentially deadly disease.
  6. Toilet paper – Ok, not that I didn’t appreciate this life-necessity before, but it is representative of a larger thing that I appreciate—that sometimes the little unmentionable things in our lives take on outsized importance if easy, immediate access to them is disrupted. Enough said.
  7. Time – I mean this in a number of ways. First, before this year’s disruptions to routine, I complained on more than one occasion that I wished I had just one evening without external obligations, such as driving one of my kids to one of their numerous activities. I wished I could slow down and have just one evening to sit at home with nothing to do, but enjoy a good book or be immersed in my own thoughts. Then suddenly that’s all we had, and that’s what I complained about! That is, until I was able to see it as the gift that I had asked for. I’ve been able to use some of that time to reconnect with friends and family, spend time working on relationships at home, and just slowing down. Second, I thankfully have not had someone close to me die from COVID-19, but recognize the pain that experienced by so many people have who have not been as lucky. The time we have with those most important to us is finite, and yet we never know how much time that is. I have been reminded to slow down and take the time to reconnect and nurture relationships that mean so much while we have the time we have.
  8. Patience – That’s not a typo. It’s not uncommon for patience to be one of the first things to go when an individual or a community is under stress. We’re all under stress. And it is ok to not be ok. I appreciate any time flexibility and allowances that are made for others to not be ok right now.
  9. Ice cream – I need to appreciate this less. As a freshman in college, away from reminders from my mother not to eat the family out of house and home, I gained the common “freshman 15.” Of course at that age with that metabolism, that was actually a good thing and easily tolerated. But it also helped me learn on my own to manage and make healthy choices. Now with the disruptions of the past year, I’ve found that I’ve gained the “COVID-19 20” perhaps due to increased appreciation of ice cream. Given some of the understandable limitations on accessing my gym and exercising, I’m having to learn to be creative with how to stay active and healthy, and recommitting to healthy choices. And sometimes I can also choose to enjoy ice cream and it is ok.
  10. Difficulties – Stay with me here. Most people have faced difficulties this past year that are perhaps some of the toughest things they’ve ever faced. Some have had difficulties on top of difficulties to the breaking point. I recognize that many people have had harder challenges than I have. I also think about the truth that it is in the context of challenges that we grow, learn, and thrive. The current crisis has forced many of us way outside of our comfort zones, out of our routines, out of our inertia. They have forced us to develop creative solutions to problems, confront issues that have been festering for a long time, and further clarified clarify the difference between what matters and what doesn’t matter so much. They have reminded us of our obligations to each other and that the choices we make can have an impact beyond ourselves. They have forced us to acknowledge problems, inequalities, injustices, vulnerabilities, etc. that we used to comfortably ignore and dismiss as “not my problem.”

I am aware that 2021 is not guaranteed to be an improvement. There is nothing magical about a new calendar page that will suddenly solve all of our problems. But for all the pain of the past year and the growth it has spawned, I’m more than ever convinced that we have the capacity to meet the challenges of the future. I am grateful for the hope that we can and will do better.

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Kevin Holloway, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist working as Director, Training and Education at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.