The life-saving techniques your therapist uses to deal with her stress (and yours)
Turns out, therapists need therapists too
From five to 25, my idea of what being a superhero meant changed dramatically.
For five-year-old me, being able to teleport to my favourite places – McDonalds or nani’s house in Delhi on days she’d make her world famous chole bhature – seemed like the ultimate super power.
At 25, anyone who doesn’t have a breakdown every four hours and can make it through a hectic day without having to breathe into a paper bag, is my superhero.
This is probably the case with many Indian adults – given how rampant mental health disorders are in India. According to WHO, 56 million Indians suffer from depression and another 38 million Indians suffer from anxiety disorders.
Since my prerequisites for being a superhero include being calm, composed, and able to navigate your emotions without ending up in a foetal position under a pile of laundry, I replaced my cape-wearing icons with the friendly face that appeared on my computer screen every Tuesday – my therapist. Forever positive, she seemed to have it all under control despite listening to people talk about everything that is going wrong with their lives — all day, everyday.
Then mental health therapist Rhea Kishnani, introduced me to the flip side of the coin. “Life is not a bed of roses for anybody. There are significant transitions and tumultuous periods. As a psychotherapist, I am not spared either.”
This means that the calm faces on your screen also breathe into paper bags, cry their eyes out, and take off for vacations when everything becomes too much to handle. And after the spontaneous getaway, these mental health professionals they follow the same advice they give us fellow human beings.
The psychologist who decided that it was time to let go
Consulting psychologist Ankita Gandhi has always been one of those people who makes you think “How can someone be so excited to go to work?”
A few years ago, Gandhi was in a great space professionally, and decided to get married. A perfectionist who always seemed to strike the right balance, she now found herself struggling as she had spread herself too thin. This began manifesting as frustration and stress, and in physical symptoms.
“Instead of listening to my body, I was running around the clock, taking care of others at the cost of my wellbeing. I was feeling impatient, drained, guilty and helpless — reaching burnout. And being a therapist I was aware it was time to pause and work on myself,” admits Gandhi.
That’s when she decided to follow the advice she gave all her clients – take on one problem at a time.
“The first thing to do when you feel overwhelmed is to organise and prioritise,” she adds. Here are some strategies that helped Gandhi get back on track:
- She listed her expectations into different buckets: career, health, relationships etc. “I realised my core belief was that I’m adequate only if I am perfect at everything. That’s why I was feeling overwhelmed.”
- Gandhi went on to break larger, long-term goals into smaller goals which were “measurable, manageable, and achievable. That reduced my stress and anxiety substantially”.
- Structuring the day helped her feel more in control – “I did not add time limits, so I wasn’t pressurised to follow a time table — instead I followed a sequence.”
- She practiced listing down the things she was grateful, starting every day with a thank you note to herself.
The therapist who used positive self-talk to overcome the trauma of a miscarriage
Therapist Nishita Khanna experienced a miscarriage in the early 1990s when “there was still was a lot of shame associated with miscarrying a child. I bore a lot of blame, which affected my self-esteem.”
On the advice of a psychologist friend, she began practicing positive self-talk, addressing herself the same way she’d talk to a loved one.
Begin by writing down all the negative thoughts you have about yourself. Go through the list and ask yourself if you would say any of those things to your sister, partner or mom.
“This exercise helps you be kinder and have more reasonable expectations of yourself,” explains Khanna.
She suggests support groups for people dealing with trauma: “You can speak openly about your circumstances without fear of prejudice. Hearing others’ stories can help you cope with your own.”
The psychologist who used rational thoughts to put an end to her self-blame spiral
“I was in a four-month long relationship that turned very toxic. He was possessive and obsessive, and eventually we broke up. Six months later, he passed away due to suicide,” says psychologist Jaini Savla of MindSight Clinic.
Savla found herself out of depth. “I kept blaming myself, and self-doubt began to set in. I wanted to be alone and lock myself up in a room.”
Tackling her irrational beliefs head-on finally helped. She suggests you ask yourself three questions to determine whether yours is a rational concern or an irrational belief:
- Is what I’m thinking logical?
- Is what I’m thinking practical?
- Is what I’m thinking realistic?
“If your answer to all these questions is yes, then your thought or belief is rational. If not, then you need to move on, ” explains Savla.
The mental health professional who chose boundaries over a burnout
Psychologist Prachi Vaish faced the Sophie’s choice moment that every working professional encounters – personal life or professional life.
“Stress from my personal life left me exhausted or triggered in my sessions with my clients. I found my thoughts wandering to things like ‘Oh, but I did the same things in so-and-so situation’ or ‘What right do I have to help my client when I’m not able to sort through my own issues,” she shares.
She went on a week-long break, and reached out to her therapist. “Yes, therapists have therapists too.”
Vaish began the road to recovery by putting aside me-time.
“I indulged in a lot of self-care,” admits Vaish, not just to feel better but also to be able to go back to her clients in a fully functional capacity.
Here’s what she urges you to keep in mind when practicing self-care:
- Self-care is not a sign of weakness. You’re not supposed to be handling everything all the time.
- Remember that before you’re a professional, you’re a human being too and having human emotions doesn’t make you an incompetent professional.
- Always have a good therapist in your contacts. At times like this, objectivity and a third person’s perspective always helps.
- A study reported that 44% of the respondents believed self-care is only possible for people with enough time, and 35% believed self-care is only possible for those with enough money. Vaish disagrees – “No amount of self-care is less.” Even something as simple or effortless as turning off your phone and watching Netflix with a tub of popcorn for company counts as self-care. Something as simple as crying your heart out in solitude is enough too. Self-care isn’t always glamorous.
The psychotherapist who used conscious cognition to deal with unresolved feelings of abandonment
“I grew up in a boarding school and learnt to take everything in my stride. But later in life, I developed anxiety and several stress-related physical illnesses,” explains psychotherapist Dr Shwetambara Sabharwal.
She realised that the issues stemmed from an unresolved “sense of loss and feelings of abandonment” from her childhood. “But knowing where it was coming from wasn’t enough for me to overcome it,” she adds.
Sabharwal dabbled with different resources – from yoga, meditation and studying vedanta to reaching out to specialists and a therapist for guidance. But what ultimately worked was conscious cognition, a method she described as the coming together of spirituality and cognitive theory.
“Conscious cognition simply means being aware of our thoughts and the internal dialogue we have with ourselves,” she explains. The goal of this practice is to allow you to shift your focus from thoughts of the past, and future, and bring yourself to the present.
“By practicing consciousness, we are able to exercise something called a thought pause. By putting an end to the vicious cycle of stressful thoughts, we benefit not just our minds but our bodies too,” adds Sabharwal.
“There is an almost immediate spillover on our hormones and neurotransmitters, leading to an overall relaxing effect, which also boosts immunity.”
The first step towards practising conscious cognition is being able to focus on the present. Sabharwal walks us through it:
- Choose a visual point of focus in the distance and concentrate on it until that’s the only thing you’re thinking about.
- You can also rely on your hearing to reach a state of thought pause. “Tell yourself that until you’ve heard ten different sounds, you will keep focusing on the vacant space in your head,” explains Sabharwal.
- Focus on what the index finger in your left hand is feeling or any other finger for that matter.
- Take slow and deep breaths, focus on your breathing pattern.
These exercises slow our mind down, and with practice, can help us reach a state of thought pause.
“Consistent practice is very important. Once I started to get a thought pause, I was able to listen to what I was saying to myself,” adds the therapist. “It helps you realise you aren’t responding to another person or stimulus, but your self dialogue or perception.”
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