By Sarah Carstens, LCSW, LCADC
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned countless lives upside down. For women in particular, it has added numerous challenges and stressors to an already heavy load, while making their traditional social outlets less available.
And it has taken a toll on their mental health.
In fact, according to a study released this spring by the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than half of women in the United States reported a negative impact on their mental health related to the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to 38 percent of men.
The Women’s Program at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health helps women struggling to cope with the life’s stressors build and practice self-compassion so they can regain control of their lives.
Focused on Taking Care of Others
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes, 2 out of every 3 caregivers in the United States are women, meaning they provide daily or regular support to children, adults, or people with chronic illnesses or disabilities.
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, women who were caregivers had a greater risk for poor physical health and mental health, including depression and anxiety.
With the pandemic, those risks have been exacerbated, and many women have had trouble meeting even basic needs like getting enough sleep and adequate nutrition.
Put another way, women are stretched thin, and their personal well-being is taking a backseat.
No One Can Do It All
The idea of self-compassion is rooted in an understanding of and openness to your daily struggles and difficulties.
It’s about realizing that you’re not going to get everything right all the time and being OK with that. It’s about recognizing no one can do it all and that sometimes things are beyond your control.
Yet while the idea of self-compassion may be easy to understand, practicing self-compassion, especially while juggling work, at-home schooling, finances, and other concerns, can be incredibly difficult.
Now, perhaps more than ever, it is important for women to recognize that the pre-pandemic “rulebook” of what needs to be accomplished on any given day may no longer be realistic.
Self-Compassion Takes Practice
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to practicing self-compassion, and for many women, it is a gradual process of learning how to be more self-aware and using certain skills and techniques to help them cope with stress and more intense negative emotions.
In the Women’s Program at Princeton House, therapists help women in the Emotional Regulation track, to:
• Ask themselves if what they are doing is working for them in the present moment. Very often, the answer is no.
• Imagine what it might be like to do things a little bit differently, even if that means simply getting up five minutes earlier to start the day with a mindfulness activity.
• Establish realistic goals that are within reach and make changes gradually.
• Be mindful of the way emotion is experienced in the body and explore coping skills to match. For example, if a bodily response to anger is muscle tension, deep breathing may not be enough to help regulate that emotion. Instead, a more physical release such as intense exercise may be needed.
• Try engaging the five senses — from using aromatherapy to wrapping up in a blanket that was warmed in the dryer.
• Look for balance and delegate when appropriate. For example, children in middle school may be able to prepare their own lunch or help with laundry.
• Identify positive affirmations and use them daily. For many women, believing positive things about themselves can be a challenge. Positive affirmations can help shift their thinking. Examples include affirmations such as: “I am enough for today,” and “I have all that I need within myself.”
• Stay present in the moment and notice when their attention is straying to other things so they can bring it back to what’s in front of them.
As women continue to rise to meet life’s complexities and challenges, creating a baseline of self-care and self-compassion can help them cope with the stress and manage their emotions.
Every day brings different challenges and different expectations. Recognizing that you are doing the best you can with what you have is the first step toward practicing self-compassion.
For more information about Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health, visit www.princetonhouse.org. Princeton House admissions clinicians can be reached at 888-437-1610.
Sarah Carstens, LCSW, LCADC, is a licensed clinical social worker and licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor. She is the clinical manager of the Women’s Program at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health’s Eatontown site.