Staying Sane in Insane Times

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Podcast Transcript

Shabnam:   Welcome to the Boren Around the World podcast by the National Security Education Program for Boren awardees,
                   language lovers and public service enthusiasts.

In today’s episode, we will be speaking with doctor Cerise Vablais. Dr. Vablais is a clinical psychologist who is board-certified in police and public safety psychology. She was primarily with First Responders conducting all kinds of assessments and has recently started developing wellness programs for her clients. She is also a member of the North Sound Metro SWAT CNT team. When Dr. Vablais was in college she spent a year studying at Haifa University. Dr. Vablais has also been publishing a weekly tip sheet called “Saying Sane in Insane Times” which she discusses how people can take care of their physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual health during uncertain times. Thank you so much for joining us Dr. Vablais

Dr. Vablais:  Thank you! Thanks for inviting me.

Shabnam:   Of course! To start us off I wanted to dive into some of the topics that you discussed in your weekly issue where you provide several tips on how to manage during uncertain times. So how people go about prioritizing their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health and what tangible steps can they do that have proven useful, and why are they useful?

Dr. Vablais:  Well so the first thing I like to say is that, you know, when this all started, we were all kind of overwhelmed with “what should I do? What can I do?” and there was a lot of, just so much uncertainty, and so the reason I started writing that tip sheet was to give people really small concrete things to do. The first thing I recommend is when you get up in the morning, have a morning routine. That will set your day up to be successful. So that can be really simple; get up, stretch, have a glass of water. We’ll talk about gratitude hopefully, but I usually do like a small gratitude list, write down three things I'm grateful for, and then that kind of sets your mind in the right way for the day. That sort of touches on all the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. If people meditate that's fantastic but not everybody is quite there yet I get it. The one thing I would say to is that you just really want to get your day started with doing something active.

Shabnam:   Do you know why these things have been helpful? I've heard a lot of things about gratitude journals and having a routine, is there a like a basis in this?

Dr. Vablais:  Yes! So, you know there's a field called positive psychology which is newer. If you look at Western psychology, it was it was basically created from a deficit standpoint. Most psychologists, until the more recent years, have kind of tried to figure out what's wrong with people, where we're lacking. But I think that's the wrong way to look at it. I think what we're trying to do now with this more positive psychology approach is looking at people's strengths and then where they can build on that. I think these concrete things that you can do in the morning that are positive and focus on what you can do, versus what we can't do, since there's a lot of that right now, has been shown to be effective in creating positive mental health.

Shabnam:   Would you say that a child’s needs differs from adults needs, especially during these times? And how could parents or caregivers with small children recognize and prioritize the well-being of their children?

Dr. Vablais: Yeah so kids needs are really different, and the big thing with kids is that you know depending on their age they can't really intellectualize or understand what is happening, teenagers can to some degree, but smaller kids can't, they just know that things feel really different. The other thing I'll say is that we are as parents or caretakers really need to take care of ourselves first, because otherwise the kids will recognize even unconsciously that something's wrong and that will lead to fear for them. I think a good analogy is like, you know when you're on a plane and they say put your oxygen mask on before helping other people? There's a reason right? Because if you can't - if you're not okay, it's really hard to take care of other people. So, you do need to prioritize your own needs first in order to be there for the people that you love.

Emotionally kids are going to be going through the whole range of emotions just like the adults are, but I think sometimes it happens a little more frequently throughout the day, so that's totally normal, and if you can, create 5 to 10 minutes every day just to focus completely on each kid, you know and just say hey this is your time with me, let's just talk about whatever you want and being more mindful to be completely present for them, which has become more challenging for a lot of folks that are working from home. Just recognizing that they need that time. Spirituality with kids is a little you know a little different than adults because we get the opportunity to help teach them, especially the younger kids. I just want to make sure I get to address what I mean by spiritual health. I don't mean religion necessarily, although if you have a faith practice that is definitely part of this, but it's really anything that you practice that takes you outside of yourself, and helps you connect with you know those things outside of you. That can be God, it can be a traditional religion, or just really the connection with other people too I believe can be spiritual.

Shabnam:   A lot of caretakers are balancing a lot of these different things for themselves and for the people they are taking care of. How would you recommend they balance these things so that they don't get burned out?

Dr. Vablais:  That's a great question. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am one of one of these people, I'm working pretty much more than full time right now, I have two kids and so they have homeschooling and all the rest of it so I get it, and what I recommend is if you can, get up a half an hour before everybody else. Sleep is extremely important but it's also important to have some small time that you can carve out for yourself. I choose the morning because that way I don't run out of time or get too tired, but I think that way you can just set your stage for the day and go from there. I also think it's extremely important to not go too far ahead. Staying in the day, staying in the moment is very important right now, because things are changing, and we don't really have any certainty about how long things are going to last.

I think that burnout happens when we start to use our mental energy to try to figure out and plan for things that realistically we really can't right now. So, I try to stay focused on one day at a time, and that has been helpful. I've heard other people say that doing that has also been helpful for them.

Shabnam:   Would you say that there are unique challenges that individuals who may be away from their family and friends, who may be living by themselves, or living with roommates they don't know quite well have that are unique, and different things they might have to address as a result of that?

Dr. Vablais: Yes, since a lot of people ended up in strange settings where they got stuck somewhere, they chose the quarantine with people who might not know very well, and yeah can almost like you're creating an intentional community. I choose that word intentionally, no pun intended, but I think it's important that everybody is on the same page and terms of shared expectations of the space, and I think when you live with people sometimes, especially if it's family, there's an expectation that maybe we're going to have dinner together. Pre lockdown is great to have dinner together with everybody because you hadn't seeing each other, you know you’d have been out at your own work or school or whatever you were doing, and so that was a time together to connect.

I think that it’s so important that we also have to acknowledge that were all living in the same shared space, and so I think it's critical that people also have time to themselves. Also, like I said create a shared expectation of how we can all coexist. It can be simple things like hey Friday my laundry day please don't take it, or you know I really need 15 or 20 minutes by myself, or this is my shelf in the refrigerator. Things that we may have done before but now that we're literally together 24/7, for a lot of us I think those things become more important I think they can foster a sense of connection and then also reduce conflict.

Shabnam:   Especially for those people who are you know living by themselves, are there certain things that they can do to best take care of themselves? They were completely isolated, completely at their home of the apartment, would you have tips for that?

Dr. Vablais: Yes absolutely. So that can be a different and challenging scenario, right? Just that sense of isolation I think for a lot of people can be really tough, especially if they were person that was very social before lockdown. So, for them I might recommend that at least once a day, hopefully more than that you connect with other people. If you're working that might be easy, but if not, it can be a family member or friend, there's all sorts of online groups for all kinds of things and using Zoom. I recommend that you do that at least once or twice a day so that you're speaking to another human.

In most places, people are at this point allowed to go outside somewhere, you know I'm assuming that you're not immunocompromised, you're able to go out safely. I definitely recommend getting outside every day and even if you just take a walk-through neighborhood, you'll see other people, and even at a socially appropriate you can say hello, so I think that those are just some simple things you can do to reduce the feeling of isolation when you live alone.

Shabnam:   Are there certain patterns or habits that you think we could be developing that are harmful for our wellbeing that we may not know what harmful for our wellbeing? That we should maybe stay clear of or be mindful of?

Dr. Vablais:  Yes. So, I think that one thing that I’ve noticed, and I've been seeing lots of research on is that the amount of alcohol that people are consuming is up dramatically, and states where marijuana is legal, the legal sales have also skyrocketed. There's a lot of things on social media about quarantine baking, and a lot of it is very sweet cakes and snacks all those kinds of things that can easily lead potentially addiction are things you really want to monitor for right now. The other thing I would say is that overusing social media is also detrimental, because it can lead to the reverse of what it’s intended to do, and you can end up feeling more isolated than you would have felt if you were maybe talking to real humans on the phone or again walking around in the outside world saying hello. I also think too much news tracking, I have heard from folks, some of my clients that people are obsessed with the news right now. I use that term loosely but, they're trying to overanalyze all the data, and so I think it's good to check the news maybe once a day, but not to be looking at your favorite News Channel throughout the day to see if there's any updates, that can become anxiety-provoking.

Shabnam:   We're going to transition a little bit more into work life and self-care, and I wanted to ask you are their psychological detriments of having the workplace merge with the living space?

Dr. Vablais:  Absolutely, I think now that we're all working from home it's really important to set a work boundary in terms of time, otherwise it would be easy to work 24 hours a day and get a little burned out. I think that setting your own schedule and saying I'm going to be done with work at 6 p.m. or something, and if you want to take a longer lunch break to do something with your family, that's fine, but just have a boundary around that. The other thing that I talked with my team about is the different ways that people communicate in this nonstandard work environment. So some people like to literally have a strict schedule like, “I'm working 8 to 5 don't text me or email me after that because I'm off.” For other people's work style is that they would prefer to have work last a little longer be a little more fluid and dynamic and then do other things I want during the day, and so when those two styles meet without an expectation of understanding the other, it can cause conflict. If the person who's working round-the-clock, and that's fine with me, but I text you at 7 at night and you only work 8 to 5 and that's what you're doing, I could become resentful that you didn't answer me, and you could become resentful that I wanted a response after hours. I think just being aware of your own style and then talking about that with your team to figure out if that's causing conflict is probably a good idea.

Shabnam:    And how can someone maintain a sense of motivation during an uncertain period of their life? I suppose this could be translated to Covid and not to Covid, when anyone's having any type of uncertainty in their life, there might be waves of being really motivated and then feeling unmotivated, so how could someone maintain that sense of drive and motivation when they're experiencing something that's completely on certain in their life?

Dr. Vablais:  Right. I think that hopefully will be one benefit that comes from this time, because truly even before Covid, every day and the future is uncertain. We had I think that we had the perception that we had control, but we truly don't, and I think that goes back to one of my earlier point that in times of uncertainty I think the best plan is to focus on just today and the things that you can do today that are going to be positive for whatever goal you're working for. When you decide you're going to run a marathon you just don't show up and then do it right? You train for that and so an analogy with job uncertainty and other uncertainties it's like well you don't know for certain what job you’re going to have or if you're going to have a job, but what can you do today to kind of get you closer to that goal and feel good? So, it's doing action things rather than ruminating about things that you cannot change.

Shabnam:   What would you say like some of those action things could be other than the things that you've mentioned before?

Dr. Vablais: So I think that from a practical standpoint, you can take advantage of all - there's a lot of free resources for pretty much everything out there right now. So if you're looking for a job and you're not getting any feedback, maybe you could talk to a counselor or a life coach, figure out if there's other things you’re interested in. I’ve seen vision board activities; I’ve seen interest inventories where you can figure out you know what your true passions are and how you might turn those into you know a potential job search. I also recommend volunteering to do something. a lot of us, some of us have free time right now and so doing something that is a passion, may be something that turns into a job someday. I think a good example is even just that news that I started writing, that's completely a volunteer thing that I did, nobody paid me for it, but it’s led to some interesting opportunities like this one. Take advantage of the things you like and then do those and see where they lead.

The other thing that I recommend is if you can read or watch movies or books about tough times, like at the beginning of Covid lockdown, I binge watch the second season of the crown when it was during World War II, it sounds funny, but it gave me a lot of optimism that that was a really horrible situation that went on for a long time and people got through it. That was a helpful thing for me to watch.

Shabnam:   This is a time where people are going through a lot of economic uncertainty and there’s a different level of vulnerability that a lot of individuals might be experiencing and people are putting out job applications, maybe not hearing back. What would you say to somebody who might be going through the job application process not hearing back, and ways they can feel productive during the job search when you have applications out and are just kind of waiting to hear back? You mentioned you know trying to do these other things but is there anything else that can be done specifically like in their careers/job front to feel productive?

Dr. Vablais: Yeah absolutely! So, I think that whatever your interest in, the kind of job that you're interested in you know learn as much as you can. Use your down time to you know read extra about your field of interest. If there help you read an article by somebody and you loved it, I mean send an email and tell him you loved it and you never know where that conversation might go. Really delve into or dive into your passions right now to feel productive, and maybe you'll get an idea that you want to write an article or that you want to try a different kind of job.

The other thing I would say is that there are a lot of places that are hiring and they may be completely the opposite of anything you think you'd ever want to do, but if you're to the point where you're frustrated and you're not getting information back and maybe aren't getting unemployment or you're in a position of financial jeopardy, sometimes it's okay to take a job where you're under employed for a bit. You never know where those opportunities might lead so I think the last thing I'll say about this is that this is a time where I encourage people to say yes to things that they may have traditionally passed up on because they felt it wasn't quite the right fit.

Shabnam:   Some people enter the workforce with a vision of their career track or what type of position they're pursuing, but they might find later on that's for some reason that doesn't fit their needs such as the percentage of the position required to travel, work hours, office environment, culture etc. This can be applied to your pre and post Covid as well. Someone might have a vision of what they expect in their career, and it just doesn't turn out that way, what should a person think about to pause and reframe their job search?

Dr. Vablais:  I think no job is perfect for our entire lives, but I think I read something for the millennial generation that they change really change careers 6 or 7 times throughout their life, not just jobs but really what they want to do. I think it's okay to say, “this was what I thought I wanted and now it's not what I want” and to acknowledge that's not a bad thing. It just means that you're a diverse person that has a lot of interests, and you take a minute and write down all the things that you really love about your current job and the things that you don’t, and I would suggest after that you make a list of the kinds of things that you want to do, and just start to search for opportunities within those things that you really feel that you would enjoy. There’s just so many varied things, varied kinds of jobs that people can even create, and I think that out of the Covid situation some new opportunities may arise for all of us, and we might be able to do things in a way we hadn’t before. I would encourage people to look at the opportunities that can be created and not limit themselves by things they thought they wanted because it is all changing very quickly.

Shabnam:   For individuals that might be going through challenging personal times, are there certain personal or professional steps or resources that they should maybe look into? Actionable steps that they should take to help through those times?

Dr. Vablais:  I'd think that even just brushing up on your resume is always a good idea and maybe having either a professional service look at that for you or friend or both. I think reinventing your vision of yourself, it sounds a little out there I get that, but I think all of us had a vision of where we thought we wanted to be down the road, and I think in our culture there are certain markers for success in the American culture that involve lots of work and a lot of material things, and that's how we measure our success historically, and I believe that that might be changing with this situation and so I think taking a step back and really designing a plan for your life, I always encourage writing this kind of stuff down, I recommend journaling to other people, I'm not as good at it as I should be, but you know just really taking some time to sort of write a plan with ideas on what you want your life to look like in 5 years. Try not to focus necessarily on the things you think Society expects of you, but what you truly want instead of what you thought you needed to have before the situation happened.

Shabnam:   And do you think that journaling is one of the best ways to do that? What are other ways we can maybe re-evaluate our values to modify harmful expectations that we may have for ourselves or that our society    might kind of expect of us?

Dr. Vablais:  I do recommend journaling, like I said I'm not as good at it as I should be, but there’s a lot of research to show that just putting the pen to paper will allow you to probably express yourself more freely, and things will come out that you didn't even know you thought, if you get into the habit of doing it. There is something I think called the Gratitude Journal, you can buy it online, and I don't get any kickbacks for it, but I did it for about 6 months, and it’s this book where every morning you write down a gratitude list, and then you write something that you want to accomplish in the day, and there's a little motivational saying. Very simple, took I think 5 minutes and it’s great. I recommend doing something like that. There are also against countless talks you can listen to about finding the right career and there are life coaches and other kinds of therapies that can help you kind of tailer your vision if you have time to do that and the resources.

Shabnam:   Do you envision that this period of teleworking will lead to a re-evaluation of conventional standards of productivity especially in our culture and the United States?

Dr. Vablais:  I hope so. I think that prior to this happening you know we were at one of the periods of time when we had the best economic growth and all the economic markers were very positive, but people were also completely burned out because they were commuting hours a day, and no one had any time to do anything, and there was just this stress to work more and do more and buy more. We know there's a lot of research to show that, material things to do not equate with happiness, and I do hope that out of this comes a push to make our work life more conducive to long-term mental and physical health. I think that some employers are already starting to discuss ways that we can do that. One of the strange upsides is that most of the recommendations to get back into workplaces will require that people are far enough apart that it most likely will end up as some of us will be teleworking at least part time for quite a long time, and I think that there are actually several benefits for that.

You asked about how that will impact the way we process economic uncertainty I'm not quite sure about that, but I definitely think that people's values around things that we need have changed during this time. For example I think that the need to have the nicest wardrobe goes out the window when you're sitting home working from Zoom you know? So, you don't need to look the same as you think you did when you went to work. People are buying bicycles and kayaks and not watching as much television so I think those are some positive things that will come and will affect our culture long-term.

Shabnam:   Thank you so much Cerise. Do you have any final thoughts that you would like to share with our listeners?

Dr. Vablais:  I would just say that the one thing to remember is that you're not alone in this. The number one predictor of a long healthy life is connection to other people, that's been well validated in many studies. The one thing that Covid has taken from us is that ability to easily connect with people in the real world. Back to The Crown for just a second, during the war everyone could get together in the bomb shelters and be together, and Covid has taken that from us to some degree, but my challenge to everybody is to make sure you stay connected with people in whatever way you need to, whether it's Zoom or outside 6 feet apart, and I think that will go a really long way to getting us through this time.

Shabnam:   Thank you so much again for joining us. You’ve been listening to the Boren around the world podcast. If you haven't yet, go to Spotify to subscribe, rate and view this podcast. If you're interested in participating in the podcast, email [email protected] with “Boren Podcast” in your subject line. Thank you for listening!

In this episode, our host, Program Officer Shabnam Ahmed, will connect with Dr. Cerise Vablais, a clinical psychologist. Dr. Vablais has published a weekly tip sheet at the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic called “Staying Sane in Insane Times” where she discusses how to take care of your physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual health during uncertain times.