Prioritizing self-care during a pandemic

Kylie Schepers/The Herald
Jenna Bieker plays with her two beagles, Rudy and Bader, on Friday at her home in St. Anthony. Playing with her dogs is one of Bieker's forms of self-care, as she works multiple jobs and an internship, and is in school to obtain her master's degree.

By MARTHA RASCHE
Special to The Herald

I don’t have children to guide through online learning or to make decisions about regarding extracurricular activities and hanging out with friends.

None of the several jobs I do to cobble together a living is considered essential.

No one in my immediate family has been hospitalized with visitors restricted or disallowed altogether.

And yet countless times during the past year I have found myself muttering under my breath: “Toomuch.Toomuch.Toomuch.”

If I have felt this way, how are front-line workers dealing with life as it exists a year after the coronavirus pandemic upended our lives in March 2020?

“We’re doing all right. We’re hanging in there,” Meara Grannan said of her and the staff she supervises. Senior vice president of LifeSpring Health Systems Metro Division. Grannan oversees child and family services in Dubois and the 10 other counties served by LifeSpring.

Early on during the pandemic, the agency moved to a modified work schedule wherein counselors work three days from home leading online or telephone counseling sessions and two days in the office for face-to-face sessions. When the number of local cases of COVID-19 surged around the holidays late last year, the schedule changed to four days at home and one at the office, which is still in place. As the pandemic continues to recede, the agency will ease into having all employees back in their offices full time.

With employees no longer seeing each other in person as before, they have had to find substitutes for the workplace camaraderie and informal check-ins and conversations that are important to their emotional well-being. Monthly pitch-in lunches have been replaced with eating together via Zoom, Google Meet or other online facilitators.

To help combat stress overload, LifeSpring recommends an app called Headspace — which offers “everyday mindfulness and meditation” — to its employees, and reminds them that their clinical supervisors and managers are always available for consultation.

Personally, Grannan “(gives) myself permission to take a moment for myself and just breathe and collect myself. That is all part of the idea of mindfulness. I think a lot of times we as care providers don’t give ourselves permission to take care of ourselves. We advise it for everybody, but we tend to forget to give ourselves permission to do it for ourselves.”

Some of the relaxing and grounding activities that she has found to help: listening to a favorite piece of music; texting one of her three children, her parents or a sibling; the sit-down dinners that her family has made a point to keep in place.

With two of her three children in college, the evening dinner is just three people now, “but we still do that, try to keep a schedule with that, to check in with each other.”

Except for when her father experienced a hemorrhagic stroke in January, she hasn’t seen her parents, brother or sister for more than a year as they all try to make the best decisions for themselves to keep safely distanced.

“We’re all learning a lot during this time. There’s been a lot going on over the past year, and we’re learning a lot about what’s important, how to take care of each other, how to take care of ourselves and being able to balance that.”

She has become better at prioritizing, juggling and shifting to keep a healthy outlook.

“You have to be sure to take one thing at a time. It becomes dangerous for us when we start thinking about all of it all at once. That becomes overwhelming, which will happen, but you have to be able to give yourself permission to stop and take a moment and say, ‘Okay, this item first, this next, then this.’ And keep in mind, this will be different for everyone.”

And it can change in a moment, such as when she was at work that day in January when she received a text about her father. “In that moment, the priority became my family and what was happening there. That is part of the balance.”

LifeSpring offers some free counseling sessions for front-line workers, including not only medical professionals and police officers but also school employees. Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center in Jasper has made free sessions available to hospital caregivers during the pandemic.

According to Grannan, “giving yourself permission to take care of yourself” is an important key to prevent becoming overwhelmed by everything we face day to day — and sometimes hour to hour.

“Overwhelming” is something that Jenna Bieker and Megan Durlauf are familiar with. Both work for Dubois County Community Corrections — Durlauf as its director and Bieker as community services coordinator and a program facilitator. Both women are big proponents of self-care.

In addition to the 24 hours a week Bieker puts in at community corrections, she also is the coordinator of the county’s substance abuse council, has a 16-hour internship each week at LifeSpring, is taking classes to earn a master’s degree in social work and is maintaining a long-distance relationship with an Evansville police officer.

“My schedule is a little bit of a time-management nightmare, I think, or ‘organized chaos’ is probably how I’d describe it,” she said.

“Being a helper and wanting to do all the things like I want to do, when I’m scheduling it seems like I schedule myself last,” she added. “I very easily start to neglect myself when things feel overwhelming, because I feel like all the other things can’t give, but I can.”

Her studies have been virtual for the past year, and at times she conducted her work, too, via the computer in her bedroom at her parents’ home in St. Anthony.

Among her favorite downtime activities are connecting with family and cuddling with her two beagles. She also started working jigsaw puzzles, something her grandmother has done all of Jenna’s life. “It’s kind of a time for you to not worry about what’s going on and just focus on ‘Where is that one piece?’”

Durlauf pointed out another benefit of putting puzzles together, an activity enjoyed by some of those in the work-release program.

“I’ve heard them say it’s constant progress. It’s something that I can blink and I have made progress, and sometimes in life you don’t get that. You don’t get to see your progress over the course of a couple of hours come to an achieved goal. A lot of times the goals that (those in work release) are working on take forever. Even just working on a puzzle can help clear their mind and even build some self-efficacy.”

Outside of Bieker’s grandmother working puzzles, self-care isn’t something that has come easily to Bieker or her family. It has had to be learned, she said, and often forced — as at those times when she didn’t have anything left to give and had no choice but to take better care of herself.

Getting counseling herself is one way Bieker exercises self-care, and she recommends both to anyone who will listen.

“Everyone deserves that safe space to be able to process what’s going on in their lives,” she said.

Bieker is always open to new ideas for ways to take care of herself mentally and emotionally. In mid-February, as her world was “feeling pretty heavy,” she posted a question on Facebook asking how others “do self-care.”

Even with many friends in the counseling and social work arena who know the importance of caring for themselves, she was surprised when her post received more than 70 comments.

Responses included trying a new recipe, starting the day with prayer and reading the Bible, and ending the day with putting your legs up on the wall for 20 minutes to relax. More suggestions are listed in the accompanying sidebar.

Bieker has found being intentionally present in the moment can ease her racing mind. Echoing Grannan, she noted that a lot of things happen that are out of one’s control, and fixating on them can provoke anxiety. But breathing and being mindful are controllable, and she has found that sense of having command to be helpful.

“A lot of people think of self-care as getting your nails done and taking a bubble bath, and in a lot of ways self-care is that,” she said. “Self-care also can be establishing healthy boundaries, making sure you’re eating right, making sure you’re getting enough sleep. … To me, self-care is anything that leads to the betterment of you.”

“A lot of times, self-care is adding on — but sometimes self-care is also taking away,” she said, explaining that self-care can take the form of not answering a phone call if one doesn’t have the mental energy to handle it, saying no to one more commitment and going to bed at a decent time.

A year ago, when the pandemic sent the remainder of the 2020-21 school year online, Durlauf took on the primary role for shepherding her then-6-year-old son through e-learning and related schoolwork. But her husband, Jeff, is a former educator and could do his current job from home while Durlauf’s job at community corrections was considered essential. So the couple re-evaluated, and it now falls to Jeff to monitor their son’s schoolwork.

“That’s something that I’m getting better at — it’s a form, I think, of self-care — is knowing when to ask for help,” Durlauf said.

Her job includes leading a team of 23 employees and overseeing a 102-bed facility. Before the pandemic, the work-release center regularly had about 100 residents. Today, in a pandemic-related effort to keep the daily audit low, residents number about 65.

Sometimes, she said, “self-care in the way that I would like it to have been was not an option, because I was caring for a lot of individuals in a congregate living facility and Covid was imminent. … Keeping those people as safe as I possibly could was priority number one, even over my self-care sometimes.”

Knowing that her professional obligations would at times take precedence over her favorite forms of self-care — working out, yoga, listening to upbeat podcasts, spending time with her husband, son and 5-year-old daughter — she challenged herself early on to see the pandemic and its many repercussions through a positive lens. At times, for example, it brought a slower pace to her life and allowed her more time with her family, including allowing them to eat dinner together most evenings.

“I knew that if I was able to stay positive, my positivity would reflect onto the team that I was leading and the people in our facility that were under our care at the time,” she said. “The team that I lead sees enough negativity already the way it is.”

She learned a long time ago through her work that one’s thoughts can drive the way one feels.

“There’s so much research that supports that idea that if you can change your thoughts, you can change your reality,” she said.

When she feels stressed, she takes a step back “and think about my thoughts: Are my thoughts true? Are they helpful? Is it true that this has to be done today — like checking emails at 10 o’clock at night?

“Just adding that into my self-talk has helped me realize that yes, deadlines are important, I need to hit my deadlines — but there are some things that just do not have to be done today.”


Doing Self-Care


Specific podcasts that Megan Durlauf listens to are “The Fierce Marriage” with Ryan and Serena Frederick, “No Ego” with Cy Wakeman and “Dare to Lead” with Brené Brown.

Self-care activities recommended by Jenna Bieker’s Facebook friends include:

• Read at least 10 pages in a book daily

• Have a date night

• Engage in adult coloring (no apps; use real pencils or markers)

• Play with my pups at least 30 minutes each night

• Do 30 minutes of meditation with the Calm app

• Do 30 minutes on the treadmill each night

• Walk/run

• Take a warm bath with aromatherapy

• Use journaling prompts

• Get a monthly massage

• Get a pedicure

• Get a yummy coffee

• Indulge in a guilty pleasure, such as a favorite food

• Watch silly, thoughtless TV

• Eat better

• Do progressive muscle relaxation

• Take a “Me Day” once a month

If you or your child needs help, call Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center's 24-hour Help Line at 812-827-6222 or LifeSpring’s 24-hour crisis line at 812-482-4020.

Martha Rasche is a member of the Dubois County Public Health Partnership Mental Health Committee and the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. With funding from the health partnership, she writes about topics related to mental health. Read her blogs at TheseAreOurStories.com. Email her at mtrasche@twc.com.




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