Emily: I am a clinical psychologist with a specialty in health psychology, which focuses on optimizing health and well-being through targeting health behaviors. A primary focus of my expertise is managing stress, since this impacts all areas of our lives. I received my Ph.D from Loyola University Chicago and am currently practicing psychotherapy at Oak Park Behavioral Medicine in Oak Park, Illinois.
Jennifer: How might stress impact someone’s life?
Emily: Stress affects every aspect of our lives, including our mood, relationships, sleep and immune system. Stress makes us irritable, which can negatively impact our personal relationships and may make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep. This sleep disruption then causes more irritability and susceptibility to stress, which over time can weaken our immune system, leading us to get sick more easily. Stress can also contribute to appetite changes. High levels of chronic stress can convert to more serious symptoms of anxiety and depression, which is why effective stress management is so important.
Jennifer: What are your favorite ways to teach patients to best manage stress?
Emily: The first step is to acknowledge sources of stress and increase awareness of immediate signs of experiencing stress, including mood changes and physical cues (eg, muscle tension, headaches, stomach upset). Once there is awareness of these cues, relaxation strategies can be useful in immediately decreasing stress levels. I always teach diaphragmatic breathing as the foundation to all relaxation strategies and build on that with meditation and guided imagery practice. Once our minds and bodies are calmer, we are better able to problem-solve and feel empowered and more energized to address stress directly.
Jennifer: How do you personally cope with stress as a therapist?
Emily: I take care of my basic needs so I have more resilience with chronic and acute stress. I walk my dog daily, exercise strenuously a few times a week and prioritize my sleep. I stay connected to my support system of husband, family and friends, and I turn off social media when I can feel my tension increasing along with more racing thoughts.
Jennifer: What are some of your favorite self-care practices?
Emily: My favorite self-care practices are meditation, indulging in luxuries occasionally like pedicures, treating myself to an afternoon coffee when I can and reading escapist books to distract myself from daily stressors.
Jennifer: How do you keep yourself from feel burned out as a helping professional?
Emily: I have learned how essential it is to keep boundaries between home and work, physically and emotionally. I don’t feel the need to respond to emails in the evening and I do not talk about work after I first get home and do an initial “unloading” with my partner. I have also become more practiced at recognizing that others’ emotional suffering and pain is not my own and if I do take it on as my own, I am less able to fulfill my role as helping them through their struggle.
Jennifer: What advice would you give your younger self when it comes to better managing stress/challenges?
Emily: I would tell my younger self to focus on all areas of my life instead of zeroing in on work over everything else. I used to constantly think and worry about my work and it made me physically ill. I would remind my younger self to have perspective and that being kind to myself is not selfish; being generous with myself means I can be generous with others in my work and in my personal life.