I have come to have zero expectations for what a “normal day” entails as a mental health counselor. Working in a school can bring about perfectly paced days structured by the bell schedule and topped off with excellent client attendance. Or the opposite, a day full of surprises — and not all good ones. My workday holds modicums of predictability, like routine paperwork and familiar faces, but generally speaking, I’ve parked myself in a career where unpredictability is the norm, making some of my days very challenging.
I am a creature of habit and so the variability of my workdays can really leave me feeling worn out, frustrated, and sometimes irritated when things don’t go the way I had planned them to in my sacred planner (*sigh*). As nascent counselors, we are taught in graduate school to practice what we preach, a skill that is easier said than done. In my sessions, I talk a lot about relying on the basics, foundational practices that can get us through seemingly unmanageable stress.
And so, it’s the school period after responding to a student in crisis, my inbox is refilling since I last checked, my voicemail box is blinking with new messages, my work phone is buzzing with texts, my next client is on their way, my to-do list is untouched, I haven’t eaten lunch, and I need to pee. This is what a hectic workday looks like for me: feeling pulled in multiple directions, wanting to give equally to all, wishing there were more of me to give. Being a mental health counselor does not make me immune to stress, anxiety, or frustration, but it does give me the opportunity to practice what I preach about stress management and self-compassion.
I suspect my experience can translate into other settings: college students, stay-at-home-parents, working professionals, and others in demanding environments. Whatever “demanding” looks like for you, I invite you to try these five practices to cope during a hectic workday. They’ve served me well during the stupidly long days I faced in undergrad and grad school, a tumultuous internship experience, and now in a professional setting. I’m really talking up these practices because I believe in the basics, so don’t be surprised by the utter simplicity of them.
My most effective workday rituals
1. Drink water. Have a snack.
If you’re in the midst of a busy day, you are more than likely dehydrated (unless you’re a hydration superstar and always have a water bottle in hand). With this, have a steady reserve of healthy snacks on hand, like boiled eggs, almonds, apples, raisins, multi-grain crackers, etc. Just like your Sims character…you will die if you don’t feed yourself.
Yes, you are (hopefully) breathing throughout your hectic day, but the quality of your breathing can greatly affect your state of mind and the physical manifestation of your stress. Reconnecting with your breath through exercises such as square breathing, belly breathing, or alternate nostril breathing will help you relax, recenter, and regain some control over your body and thoughts.
3. Return to your work mantra.
Some purposeful self-talk can go a long way. Choose a phrase that inspires you, that keeps you going, or that reminds you of why you’re doing the work you do. For me, this mantra was inspired by a coworker: “At any given moment, you are trying your best. Let that be enough.”
4. Step away for a moment.
Walk into another room, swivel away from your computer screen, take your headset off, go to the nearest window, take a small break from the stressful stimuli. Give your brain time to settle and prepare for the remainder of your day. I feel this is the hardest of the bunch, because five minutes may feel detrimental to attaining your desired goals. But in reality, it’s five minutes you are taking to “refill your cup,” which ultimately will allow you to do better work. Think quality over quantity.
5. Debrief with coworkers.
Sometimes you just have to bitch about it, and that’s fine.
Help keep your work life out of your personal life
I follow these simple practices because I don’t want remnants of my hectic day following me into my precious personal time. When this happens, I bicker with my partner, I pick up fast food instead of taking time to cook, I cancel plans, I basically throw away vital moments of replenishment. By taking small, intentional moments during a crazy workday, I am participating in a kind of in-the-moment AND preemptive self-care. This allows me to effectively do the things I have to for work and wholeheartedly the things I want to for my personal life.
Now, if you’re a push-through-it-until-the-work-is-done kind of person, then these practices may be hard for you. Do you feel guilty for taking a bathroom break? Do you make sure no one is looking before you pull out a snack or click play on a 3-minute YouTube video? I hear you and I feel you. Somewhere in my upbringing, I was taught that hard workers don’t take breaks and when the work becomes demanding you work harder and harder. This mindset is just not sustainable. While it is outcomes-based, it does not take into consideration the quality of the work produced when feeling stressed and worn out. So please: drink water, eat a snack, breath with purpose, say nice things to yourself, take a break, talk to the people who get it. You are not a machine, you are a human. Being at work does not change that fact.
The unfortunate truth is that we are going to have workdays that make us want to re-read our job descriptions. To push through these days, it seems easier to ignore our basic needs like food, water, rest, self-love, and socialization in order to focus on the demanding work. But instead of just getting through it, I encourage you to actively cope while you’re in it. Why? Because you’re absolutely worth it. How? Well, I’m really not offering anything too fancy, just making a case for the basics. When given the chance, simple practices can help you to be your best work-self, one who is replenished, ready, and willing to take on another day.
Skylar is a mental health counselor who talks about self-care as the foundation of a prosperous life.
Image via Unsplash