Protecting Your Passion: Self-Care Perspectives with Ranjana Srinivasan

Ranjana Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in the Counseling Psychology program at Teachers College Columbia University. Ranjana received her undergraduate degree from Berklee College of Music where she graduated summa cum laude with a major in Music Therapy and minor in Psychology. She also attended Teachers College for her masters degrees in both Education and Counseling Psychology. Ranjana is currently a pre-doctoral extern at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and will be starting her internship year this July within the VA NY Harbor Health Care System. Her research focuses on increasing mental health and multicultural awareness around the clinical needs of the South Asian American population, specifically regarding the domains of body image and eating disorder issues, as well as common microaggressive encounters.

Ranjana and I worked together for years as office staff at Teachers College Columbia University, where we practiced self-care breaks by walking across the street to Joe’s Coffee. I can honestly say I’m a better person for Ranjana’s friendship. She’s a phenomenal counselor and a hardworking PhD student, and I appreciate her taking time out of her ridiculously busy schedule to answer some questions about self-care.

**TW for mentions of self harm, depression, and suicidal thoughts.**

Why is it challenging to prioritize self care as a full time student? 

I run a DBT [Dialectical Behavioral Therapy] group, and something we talk about is how in our society, we’re taught to multitask. It’s something that’s seen as a good quality. And things that are given more praise than others are those that push you to the very limit. So those who do that get more praise, they get more reward, etc, etc, and going the opposite direction you get more negative consequences. So I feel like naturally, you’re pushed to work until you’re broken. Which really leaves little room for self-care.

 

When you’re overcome by all this multitasking and the pressure on you as a student and a teacher and a counselor, how do you know when it’s time to sneak in some self-care? How can you tell when a client is prioritizing their needs or when self-care might be past due?

From a therapeutic perspective, there are steps on a ladder that tell you you’re not taking care of yourself. So the first is always self harming behaviors: if you’re having suicidal thoughts or experiencing heavy depression, if you’re drinking a lot, using substances. And then you think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs: are you eating? Are you sleeping? Are you showering? If these things are not being met, then you know something is not functioning right. Next step: are your social relationships intact? Are they not? Kind of going down the ladder. If something in that is being broken, that’s when you need to address through self-care.

 

So what’s your first advice on how to start addressing that? If you showed up to yourself for a counseling session, what advice would you offer yourself? 

A lot of self reflection. One thing I do is to give myself tasks to complete for the day—knowing I have tasks for the next day, but in this day, this is what I need to do, and after I’ve finished I need to give myself and my brain a rest. Whether that’s watching a TV show, or exercising, I need to designate that time for myself.

Sometimes people do a time cutoff. Like at 8pm, I’m done. I can’t work any further, and this is my limit. The brain doesn’t even function after a certain point in the night for some people—everyone’s different—but knowing that gap of time that works best for you, and to give yourself that cutoff.

I do know people who do smaller things, whether that’s having a coffee during the workday in order to get through the day. If that’s what you need, and you have the finances and the ability to do that. It’s nice to have that to soothe you in the moment, and if that works, then that’s great.

Knowing when you need to take a break or when you need to walk away, when you need alone time. These are all things that are helpful.

 

What kind of benefits are people going to see from taking this sort of time? 

If you’re able to find that balance, then your work or whatever you’re trying to accomplish is going to be of higher quality. Also, there’s no burnout. I think that’s really the goal. Especially as a grad student, it’s so easy to throw yourself into everything. But how are you going to pace yourself so that you don’t reach the end burned out—and lose your passion for what you’re doing? I think that’s really key. You don’t want to lose the love of what you do. Which I think happened to me, especially with music. These musicians practice and practice for hours on end in these practice rooms and at the end of the day, is it for the love of it? Or because you want to perfect it? And I know a lot of musicians who’ve lost that love and lust for their craft because of that. So do it to the point of passion, but if that’s lost, you’ve got to tone it down.

 

That’s such a good point. I don’t think we talk enough about passion. We’re thinking we’re going to burn out and crash and not feel well, but we forget that we’re also at risk of not loving what we’re doing anymore, potentially. I hadn’t thought about that. 

The day I go into session and I don’t feel fulfilled, I think I need to check myself because that means something’s going on for me. How do I re-engage with this thing that I’ve dedicated six years of my life to? There must be something there that gives me purpose, so I want to find that again.

 

Is there anything you’d like to add, or do you have any final tips about the idea of self-care? 

There is this systematic way of doing it where you plan to walk away for ten minutes, but also just being aware of what you need in the moment and remembering what you want in life. Most people want love, they want happiness, and kind of leaning toward that and finding passion.

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The Science of Break-Taking: Self-Care Perspectives with Tammy Swed

Tammy Swed is a Learning Solutions Manager at the American Management Association. She is responsible for the Business Excellence for Women, as well as the Training portfolio of seminars.

In her role, Tammy identifies specific market trends and client needs, while collaborating with subject matter experts to design and develop impactful learning content that targets all professionals at all levels.

Tammy is an integral member of the AMA’s Women’s Leadership Center. She was inspired to create a community that extends the conversation on issues that matter; where women can share, connect, and learn from one another in a safe and supportive environment.

Tammy holds a Masters of Science in Industrial Organizational Psychology.

When I first thought of putting together this series on self care, I knew where I wanted to start. Tammy Swed is one of the smartest women I know, and she’s well versed in the intricate challenges of workplace wellness. (She’s also my sister-in-law, but we won’t hold it against her.) She generously offered to answer some questions about vacation times and breaks—including for those of us who don’t have much control over the matter.

What kinds of challenges do people face with regards to taking breaks or vacations from work or school? 

Many employees in the U.S. are referred to as “knowledge workers”; that is, anyone who performs the tasks of developing or using knowledge. This means that you don’t need to be in the office to complete your work. With the continuous advancement in technology, people are regularly connected and accessible. It may seem difficult to disconnect when you constantly check your email. So even when you do take some time off from work, how often do you truly disconnect?

 

What are the benefits of having dedicated vacations built into the calendar? 

The benefits can be described on the individual level, as well as the organizational level. Many studies have looked at the impact of vacation and job stress on burnout and absenteeism, and found that vacation mitigated employees’ perceived job stress and employee burnout. Vacation or time off from work allows one to be physically removed from the demands of a job. It provides an opportunity to rest and replenish resources for the job, and is associated with higher level of employee wellbeing and engagement. This emphasizes the value of replenishing psychological and emotional resources.

On an organizational level, time off from work contributes to increased levels of job satisfaction and employee engagement. Employee engagement and burnout can be seen as the opposite ends of a spectrum. Research has suggested a link between employee engagement and increased organizational profitability, productivity, and safety, as well as enhanced employee well being, and lower turnover and absenteeism.

 

Ideally, how often should someone take a few days off? Is it better to take a long break — say, a week — or to spread out long weekends and isolated days? 

The answer to this questions definitely depends on the individual, the type of work they do, and their organizational culture.

Individual considerations: How do you perceive the demands of your work? Perception is key. How engaged are you? Do you love/hate your job? What are some other circumstances in your life that “deplete” your resources?

Type of work: can you, in fact, disconnect for a long period of time? do you work alone, or with a team? If with a team, are you able to delegate responsibilities? Do you trust your team members?

Org culture: What are the paid time off (PTO) policy offered? What are the unspoken rules—will it be frowned upon if you leave for 2 weeks? Are you expected to be available even when you are on vacation?

Do you have any advice for self-employed folks, or those who might not have mandated vacation time? It can be so easy to keep working nonstop, and suddenly find yourself burned out. Can that be avoided?

Much like your question above, and much like any employee in an organization, plan and have dedicated time off scheduled. you need to notify your employer (and your team) of your intentions to leave for a period of time. You are your own employer. Do the same.

If you work continuously because you are extremely engaged in your work, there is nothing wrong with that. You do need to be aware of your energy reserves, and that takes some self reflection and awareness.

 

Is it important to take short breaks throughout a workday, where possible? Are there ideal ways to spend that time?

I would argue that it is important to take short breaks throughout the day. First, some physical movement is very beneficial to your overall health. Second, taking some time away from the screen and away from your work can give you the opportunity to step back and maybe see things from a different perspective.

Ideal ways to spend that time: up to you. I would suggest that you do something that recharges you. For some, it will be to go out for a run. For others it can be their dedicated time for social media (although, I would advise against it), or you can spend that time connecting with other humans, or animals. Real connection is always very rewarding.

Another thought—use that time to truly disconnect for a few moments. A simple meditation or mindfulness practice are always my choice. Please don’t imagine me sitting in a seated lotus pose. My mindfulness practice is to make a cup of coffee, find a quiet sunny spot, and soak up some vitamin D and caffeine.

 

What other factors can make a positive difference in workplace wellness? Do you have any resources to help with managing wellness and self care? 

  • Mindfulness/meditation as mentioned above
  • Develop positive relationships with colleagues
  • If your company offers any type of wellness activities (or any type of social activities) take advantage of those.
  • Reflect and think about your responsibilities. Manage your time effectively. You can use Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principles: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_91.htm to help you identify what requires your attention.
  • Set boundaries. And don’t say yes to everything.

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More in the self-care series

The Quest for Ongoing Self-Care

Let’s get the usual suspects out of the way.

  • Long walk
  • Soothing bath
  • Social media hiatus
  • Exercise and healthy food
  • Spa day
  • Weekend getaway

There’s nothing wrong with these items, taken on their own. A quick Google search will pull up a plethora of lists that focus on continual self care, the kind that prevents semi-annual meltdowns. These tend to be the kinds of practices I might try for a week before getting distracted.

I don’t always know when or how to institute self care. I’ve never been great at scheduling breaks for myself—my typical method being to work until my body contracts a virus just to get me to collapse in bed for a few days. For teachers and students, breaks can rarely be scheduled; they’re defined by a calendar. Self-employed folks feel pressure to work nonstop in order to bolster or maintain business.

These days, every peek into Twitter seems to demand a social media hiatus (and I speak from a privileged position—it’s worse for marginalized communities), and many of our checkbooks ache for more hours on the job— forget manicures or weekend getaways. The calendar’s demands can be just as restricting.

This series will explore the quest for continual self care: the why’s, how’s, and common positive practices, discussed by counselors and workplace wellness experts, students and teachers, writers, parents, meditation devotees, volunteers, and gamers. I’ll be journaling some of my own adventures on the side, too.

Here’s hoping for more self care that doesn’t require my body to dissolve into a puddle of germs first.

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More in the self-care series