Running start… to a great career: Practicing self-care

Jay Witherell, PhD, and others suggest ways early-career psychologists can build better self-care habits.

By Rebecca A. Clay

When clients are undergoing a big change, whether it’s losing a loved one or moving across the country, psychologists typically urge them to eat nutritious meals, get enough sleep and avoid drinking too much.

Jay Witherell, PhD“It’s an axiom in our field: Whenever there’s any kind of transition, stress goes up and the importance of self-care goes up along with it,” says Jay Witherell, PhD, a psychologist at the Center for Forensic Psychiatry near Ann Arbor, Michigan. “But the same is true for psychologists themselves when they’re going through the stress of transitioning from being supervised to being unsupervised and starting their formal careers.” And early-career psychologists aren’t just undergoing big professional changes, he adds. Once their training is finished, many move, get married or start families.

What’s more, says Witherell, many early-career psychologists haven’t developed the kinds of self-care habits they urge their clients to develop. “Most students, including myself, aren’t well-rounded,” he says. “They put everything they have into school.”

Witherell and others suggest ways early-career psychologists can build better self-care habits:

  • Julio I. Rojas, PhDTreat your body right. “We have to practice what we preach,” says Julio I. Rojas, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. “That means prioritizing taking care of ourselves.” For Rojas, that has meant taking up yoga. Since many psychologists spend most of their time sitting, being active is key, he says.
  • Judith C. Holder, PhDPace yourself. Take a few minutes at the beginning of each day to think about what you need to accomplish, suggests Judith C. Holder, PhD, director of the professional and personal development program at Duke University. Figure out what time of day you’re most energetic and tackle your hardest tasks then. And take micro-breaks throughout the day, especially between clients. Resist the urge to start taking notes immediately; instead, “hit a pause button,” breathe in and out and get recentered, she says. Or take a few seconds to visualize something calming. “You’ll be more present for the next person you see,” she says.
  • Unplug. With technology, it’s easy to work even when you’ve left for the day. Find what works for you, says Witherell. For some people, not checking email or phone messages outside of business hours would be more anxiety-provoking than checking a few times in the evening. “Others want a strict cut-off,” he says.
  • Find support. Find mentors and peers with excellent work/life balance and learn from them, says Rojas. “What helped me most early in my career was finding individuals who seemed to be able to do it all,” he says. Ask them for tips on setting priorities and other strategies, he suggests. Having a therapist of your own can help, too.
  • Set boundaries. Learn to say no, says Rojas. “When you come out of graduate school, it’s, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’” he says, urging early-career practitioners to instead take stock of how opportunities fit into their long-term goals. “You’re just glad to be asked. But in a very short time, you can find yourself overextended.”