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It’s a unique time to work in the field of mental health — to put it mildly.
“It’s rare that therapists are going through similar experiences at the same time as many of their clients,” said Kristin Wurster, embedded psychologist at the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business.
The need to suddenly shift gears, for example, was something Wurster experienced in real time with the students she counsels. In her case, shifting gears meant offering virtual counseling sessions from home, often while juggling child care responsibilities. The challenging situation led her to use some of the same tools to cope with stress and uncertainly that she teaches to students. “Therapy is a field where you have to practice what you preach,” she said.
Much of the country is entering a new phase of the pandemic — perhaps best described as a less-socially-distanced existence. In a recent Tippie Women Summit webinar, she gave an example of pandemic-related anxiety. Wurster showed participants a picture of a crowded lecture hall and asked them to note how it made them feel. For many, the response was fear. “In so little time, we’ve learned to code crowded indoor spaces as uncomfortable and unsafe,” she said.
This was a helpful adaptation for a time, but Wurster said some fears need to be reexamined as situations change — and explained one way to do that. “Write out the things you fear and ask, ‘is this adaptive? is it helping me?’ ”
She recommends creating some space between one’s gut reflex and the reaction to it. Naming lingering fears might help determine what level of exposure we’re comfortable with and create a plan as things begin to open up and many return to the office.
And practicing good mental health habits will be no less important going forward than when many people were working from home. Wurster was careful to point out that the tips she shared are not meant for someone in acute distress, but for many of us, habits like staying connected to supportive people and getting adequate rest can steady us during times of change.
“Sleep is incredibly behavioral. No matter how many coping strategies we talk about, it’s going to be difficult to make changes if you aren’t getting enough rest,” Wurster said.
She recommends practicing mindfulness, which is the idea of being in the present moment. “A lot of anxiety relates to past or future events, so grounding in present events can be helpful,” she said. She also stressed that practicing these things consistently is what’s crucial. Much like a runner wouldn’t go out for one 5-mile run and then feel prepared for a half-marathon, mental health practices have to be done regularly for people to benefit. “Small acts do add up over time,” she said.
Most importantly, Wurster said we should be compassionate with ourselves as we acknowledge the chronic stress of the past year. Recognizing when we need support or feel uncomfortable will continue to be important. In a sense, we’ll need to shift our focus from health precautions to mental health precautions as we allow ourselves to visit indoor spaces and become more social again.
“This phrase might sound cliché, but we have to ‘feel our feelings’ and notice and name what comes up,” Wurster said.
Quotes about mental health:
“There is no health without mental health; mental health is too important to be left to the professionals alone, and mental health is everyone's business.” — Vikram Patel
“You can't fix yourself out of a mental health issue. You can't wake up and say, 'Today I'm not being depressed!' It's a process to get well, but there is recovery.” — Margaret Trudeau
“Women in particular need to keep an eye on their physical and mental health, because if we're scurrying to and from appointments and errands, we don't have a lot of time to take care of ourselves. We need to do a better job of putting ourselves higher on our own 'to do' list.” ——Michelle Obama
Books on mental health:
“Get Out of Your Head: Stopping the Spiral of Toxic Thoughts” by Jennie Allen
“Anxiety … I'm So Done with You: A Teen's Guide to Ditching Toxic Stress and Hardwiring Your Brain for Happiness” by Jodi Aman
“Your Brain Is Always Listening: Tame the Hidden Dragons That Control Your Happiness, Habits, and Hang-Ups” by Dr. Daniel G. Amen