Jacquelyn Lee on dealing with stress and importance of self-care
JACQUELYN LEE is an associate professor in the School of Social Work at UNCW. She received her doctorate degree from the University of Georgia School of Social Work.
While Lee’s program of research includes areas such as trauma, workforce development and wellbeing, among others, many cross-cutting themes include mindfulness, self-care, and self-compassion.
Lee has developed and teaches a mindfulness course at UNCW and regularly incorporates a focus on mindfulness, self-care, and resilience in teaching.
As a clinical social worker, Dr. Lee is trained in a variety of clinical and non-clinical mindfulness-based interventions.
Based on her studies and extensive research, Lee shares important advice on self-care, how to deal with feeling overwhelmed, and how to be more mindful every day.
Lee: “One of the most challenging aspects of what we’re experiencing may be our own expectations. We may be holding onto ideas about how we’re ‘supposed’ to be feeling or coping; we may be feeling defeated about not using this time more ‘wisely’ on self-improvement or home projects. In some moments, we may simply just want to feel differently than we do. Emotions that may be uncomfortable are around right now—fear, frustration, confusion, anxiety, grief, disappointment, guilt. Sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly. Yet, as Carl Jung put it, ‘what we resist, persists.’ A first step to working with the emotions of a crisis is simply allowing.
We are most empowered when we give ourselves permission to compassionately witness and allow any emotion that arises—pleasant or unpleasant. When we can observe and name our emotions, without judgement or reactivity, we acknowledge what is really true for us in the moment. This kind of generosity offers us the space to make choices about how to best take care of ourselves in the moment.”
WILMA: How important is self-care during stressful times like the coronavirus pandemic?
Lee: “Especially for those who are caring for others right now, self-care is important for all aspects of our health, and arguably, our ability to caretake. A crisis is, by definition, de-stabilizing; and re-negotiating roles, responsibilities, schedules, and priorities takes time. And, even when we have settled into a new routine and made our very best plans, we are reminded that change is our only constant. As we recalibrate (and recalibrate again and again), it may be helpful to ask ourselves questions such as,
- What thoughts are here right now? What feelings are around? What sensations am I experiencing in my body?
- What do I need right now?
- When I have felt this way before, what has been most helpful?
- Who can offer me the kind of support I need right now?
We haven’t been here before, and our self-care will likely look different than usual. The situation in our world and its rippling effects may be particularly activating for our minds and bodies. Being patient and gentle with ourselves as we navigate this experience is perhaps the foundation for self-care at this time. Checking in about—and reassessing—our expectations of ourselves can be useful. Maybe taking on a new hobby or exercise goal feels energizing and well-timed, but equally valuable could be the insight that now may not be the time for what Bob Sharples calls ‘the subtle aggression of self-improvement.’”
WILMA: Many people might find themselves overwhelmed right now, including working from home, taking care of kids who are out of school. What are some ways that they can manage that feeling of being overwhelmed?
Lee: “When overwhelm arises, one practice that can be very helpful is self-compassion, which comes from the work of Kristin Neff, an associate professor at The University of Texas at Austin. Self-compassion involves giving ourselves the same compassion we would give a good friend. When we practice self-compassion, we first notice the suffering we’re experiencing; labeling it in whatever way feels most authentic to us is key (e.g., ‘stress,’ ‘pain’). We might say to ourselves, ‘This is a moment of suffering,’ or ‘I’m feeling stress.’ We then reminder ourselves of our common humanity, noting ‘suffering is a part of life. Others experience this, too.’ Lastly, we offer ourselves kindness—talking to ourselves in the same way we would a loved one (‘I’m so sorry this is happening right now,’ ‘I’m here for you,’ ‘What do you need?’), offering kindness in some way. These three steps—mindfulness of suffering, recognizing common humanity, and offering self-kindness—can be useful even in a brief few moments.
Beyond self-compassion, we may consider activities to release and express emotions, slow down or soothe the body, seek connection, or distract us. These could include writing, crying, talking with a therapist or friend, breathing exercises, stretching, meditation, massage, soothing music, petting an animal, or shifting into an activity like walking or watching a movie. There is no prescription, though; we often need to experiment with strategies to determine what works best for us and when. Thought, feelings, and sensations are information from our bodies wisely speaking to us; these necessary mental, emotional, and physical cues are meant to guide us in our choices.”
WILMA: What is mindfulness, and how can it help people?
Lee: “Mindfulness is simply paying attention, on purpose, to what is happening in the mind and body with an attitude of curiosity, non-judgment, and kindness. Instead of trying to avoid, deny, minimize, or control our inner experience, we instead befriend it—no matter what we find when we tune in. This allows us to respond, versus react, to the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise for us. Mindfulness does not help us to control our inner experience or have a blank mind, but rather, the practice helps us become familiarized with our present moment, so we can respond to it skillfully. When we observe what’s happening in us, we have space to be intentional and operate from our values. Mindfulness helps us to live more deliberately.”
WILMA: What are some ways people can practice mindfulness throughout their everyday lives?
Lee: “One simple way we can bring ourselves to the present moment is simply by using our senses, intentionally slowing down to notice things we can see, touch, hear, smell, and taste. This can be a really helpful practice if we notice our minds are very busy or our bodies are particularly activated. Another strategy can be taking time to pause the busyness of the moment in service of noticing: what thoughts are here right now? What feelings are around? What sensations do I feel in my body? When we pay this kind of attention, we can make conscious choices based on this awareness. While there are formal mindfulness practices like meditation, mindfulness can be practiced in any moment we find ourselves in—from walking, to creating art, to playing with a child, to talking with a loved one.
Our greatest offering to ourselves or others is our attention, and we are worthy of our own attention.”
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