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Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists – we can’t help others if we don’t look after ourselves

Throughout the year, our working lives have a rhythm that is sometimes fast and intense, other times slower or quieter. Think of deadlines before Christmas and going on holiday, the challenge of supporting new colleagues, appraisals… compared to the relief of finishing on time or being on holiday. However, the rhythm isn’t usually balanced and maybe, for most, the fast and intense times outweigh the slow and quiet.

It can be so easy to focus entirely on work to such an extent that we fail to look after ourselves. Living through the pandemic and its continuing after-effects, decisions about patients’ care and uncertainty about the future can all take their toll on our wellbeing. The most recent HSE research estimates that 15.4 million working days were lost in Great Britain due to stress, anxiety and depression and a (pre-pandemic) survey on stress, commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation, found that three in four adults in the UK felt ‘overwhelmed or unable to cope’.

So in this blog, we want to look at the importance of combatting the effects of stress and why taking care of ourselves - mentally and physically - is a priority. We can’t help others if we don’t look after ourselves.

Take a break

For high performing, committed professionals, it can be difficult to stop but taking a break actually helps us perform better. Pausing refreshes the mind, boosts mental resources and helps to raise our level of engagement when we return to a task.

An article  in Psychology Today discusses how aerobic exercise stimulates creative thinking, giving us the time to connect the dots and problem solve while walking the dog, jogging or riding a bike. However, it doesn’t have to involve marathons or gym memberships. One study found that just standing up and walking around for 5 minutes in every hour had a positive impact on health and wellbeing. Even a change of scenery can prove effective, especially if you can get outside. An article from the Woodland Trust (‘Nature makes us better’) explores the benefit we get from being in green spaces. Not only can they improve our physical health but they have a positive impact on our mental wellbeing.

If taking a break isn’t feasible, try switching to a different task. The change of focus can feel like a break because you use a slightly different part of the brain. So, for example, rather than being on your own, collaborate with a colleague or switch from report writing to creating slides for a presentation.

A good night’s sleep

Much has been written about the positive impact a good night’s sleep has on our physical and mental health. Lack of sleep can cause brain fog and irritability in the short term but it can also lead to long-term mood disorders like clinical depression or anxiety disorder. Physically, sleeping well boosts our immunity, helps prevent diabetes and heart disease and even keep the weight off. The Sleepstation website has a wide range of articles and resources to help us sleep. In addition, one study found that writing down a list of all uncompleted tasks that are causing stress can help us fall asleep sooner. The action of writing them down ‘offloads’ the responsibility. So in addition to all the usual relaxing tips (turn off electronic devices, have a bath, massage your feet and legs), devote a few minutes to just writing a ‘to do’ list.

You are what you eat

Diet doesn’t just affect our physical health but our mental health and wellbeing as well. The NHS website has an Eatwell guide that has detailed information on how to achieve a healthy, well balanced diet. Briefly:

  • Eat regularly to stop blood sugar dropping (which affects our mood, concentration and energy levels)
  • Consume the right balance of fats; our brains need healthy fats (such as those found in olive and rapeseed oil, nuts, seeds, oily fish, eggs, milk, avocados) not trans fats (found in processed or packaged foods).
  • Include wholegrains, fruits and vegetables in your diet
  • Keep hydrated to maintain energy levels, concentration and mood.
  • Protein has an amino acid that our brains use to regulate our moods so regularly include protein in your diet.

Be active

Being active means using our muscles and expending energy – and that covers a range of different options. From walking, taking the stairs, carrying the shopping home, riding a bike, running, swimming - anything that increases our heart rate, gets us feeling a bit warm and breathe faster is exercise. And if we do between 75 and 150 minutes of exercise a week (that’s around 20 minutes a day), we­­­ are on target to match the government’s recommendations for healthy exercise.

Be kind

Be kind to yourself. Feeling stressed or under pressure, worried about something doesn’t mean you are failing.

We all operate differently; one way isn’t necessarily ‘better’ than another so recognise that our coping strategies may differ from each other. Keep connected to family and friends and check on your colleagues – we all need to support each other.

Conclusion

Our work at JM Mental Health centres around helping young people and their families with mental health difficulties. At the same time, we never forget the wellbeing of our team of child and adolescent psychiatrists because in order to provide the best possible support to our patients, we realise the importance of looking after ourselves.

So while our focus as child and adolescent psychiatrists is on our patients and their families, our ethos is very much about supporting colleagues; whether that’s by providing flexible working options, a pleasant working environment or a pace of work that, while efficient, is also enjoyable. We are looking to recruit new associates, child and adolescent psychiatrists with 3 years+ experience of working in the NHS and who would be interested in private practice. If you are ready for such a move, do please get in touch.

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