Finding Healthy, Building Resilience And Other Life Lessons: A Working Mom's Self-Care Story

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Written by Tricia Miller, M. Ed, LPC

I really didn’t know about self-care until I was well into my 30s.  Even after all the years in graduate school and attending many counseling related conferences while pursuing my career as a therapist, the concept of self-care often came as friendly reminder at the last slide of a presentation.  From the academic standpoint, we really never delved into the practices of taking care of one’s self, but as a mental health professional, it was critical due to the nature of our work in helping clients. 

Even after having two small kids, and barely surviving toddler life, I really never had time to think about taking care of myself.  Big mistake.  I can only imagine in hindsight how life would have been different if I knew simple practices of self-care.  For many of those years in early motherhood, life was mostly a blur on top of a constant flow of stress circulating our household of four.  I was just surviving and not living. I really did not know what it meant to actually practice self-care until I faced several hardships. 

Battling Health Issues

My 2nd ACL Surgery in September 2014.

In January 2013, I got on my first blood pressure medication when I developed preeclampsia with my second pregnancy.  After delivering one month early, I would continue to be on blood pressure medication for the next three years.  My normal medication routine over three years was popping that pill in the morning, and going on about my day.  To compound my health issues, I underwent a second ACL surgery in September 2014 that reduced my activity levels for months. 

On a routine doctor visit In January 2015, my blood work revealed elevated sugar levels, posing a close threat to diabetes.  My primary care physician warned me that if they continued to be at that level, then I would be put on another medication.  At that time, I was about thirty to thirty five pounds overweight weighing in about 176 pounds. 

The doctor recommend that I work on weight loss to avoid the diabetic condition.  He even offered me a weight loss pill.  At age 37, I freaked out!  I did not want to be another family member with diabetes.  Only in my 30s, I couldn’t believe I would be at risk of developing diabetes, and I didn’t want to be another medication.  I had seen the effects of hypertension and diabetes with my parents and several family members, and I didn’t want to follow in their footsteps. 

I was also mad at myself.  How did I get here?  Was I really unhealthy?  I felt I was out of control.  I was killing myself softly with so many unhealthy food habits.  It was common for me to eat out all the time, frequent fast food drive-thrus, and "reward" myself with food.   Something needed to change. I needed to change. 

Asking for Help Is Okay

My "before" picture. (January 2015).

 When I did finally look in the mirror and accept my behaviors--it was shameful and embarrassing even to accept the behaviors of indulgence  and mindfulness eating.  It was clear that whatever I was doing wasn’t working.  I needed help.  And I had to learn to ask for help to get myself out of this miserable health hole.  

In one of my local Facebook communities, I asked around for nutritionists in the area.   In February 2015, I made that first appointment with a nutritionist at Advice for Eating, and it wasn’t too long before I could both see and feel positive change.  Over time, I let go of the many unhealthy eating habits and developed a new relationship with food.  Food served many purposes in my life: it was a constant companion, readily available in times of comfort, celebration, boredom,  adventure and stress.  It was a success when I finally let go of my daily 3 p.m. cookie time (with milk)!   Oh, there were struggles, mood swings, internal battles and cheating moments, but learning to cook, eat, and shop healthy made a powerful impact in my life.  Eating healthy has become way of life in how I take care of myself, and how our entire family eats.  Educating myself on proteins, carbs, fats, calorie intake, mealtimes, etc. has empowered me to make the best choices in nutrition.  

I also started an exercise routine with the help of a friend at my gym.  I had to share my vulnerabilities with someone in my life who knew my struggles with weight, and allowed me to be accountable for my own actions.   My exercise now included intention and purpose.  Previously, I would just show up to the gym without a plan, without a goal in mind--and looking back--I wasted time.   If you want to lose weight, you need to have a plan. 

With my invigorated mindset, I hit the gym just starting out with 30 minutes of cardio, and from that point on, I realized I couldn’t live without my morning exercise routine.  There’s something about getting up in the morning (even when you want to talk yourself out of it), and getting in a good sweat that sets me up for the rest of the day.  I feel strong, energized, positive, and accomplished.   I remained consistent and focused for months, and I eventually incorporated weight training.

With a  solid exercise plan, I was able to lose about 20 pounds that first year in 2015.  Whether it's working out of my garage or heading out to the gym, exercise is something I can't live without.   It’s been three years since I started, and even after turning 40 this past year, I feel the best mentally and physically than any other point in my life.  I have been able to get off blood pressure medication and get my blood sugar down to optimal levels!  Looking at old pictures of me--I can hardly believe that was me!    

Dealing with Change from a Person Who Hates Change

I do not like change. I operate best with a routine.  My mealtimes occur at the same time every day, and I live by my calendar.  In fact, I juggle between several calendars: my Outlook, iPhone, Giant whiteboard in my kitchen, and fancy calendar notebook all spell out different events from my work, family, church, and social life.  I know a little overboard.  I like knowing what’s ahead, and preparing for them.  When something comes up and disrupts even a minor kink in my schedule, I can often get irritated, and it takes me awhile to transition to the new plan.  However, these last several years life has taught me I can’t control everything nor plan for everything for that matter. 

In the fall of 2015, our family experienced a huge change when we learned my husband would be laid off from his job as a petroleum engineer.  Here in Houston, oil and gas companies experienced a downturn in oil prices which affected jobs.  Many prominent oil companies faced big reductions in their work force with the economic downturn. At that time, I was working part-time in private practice trying to fulfill clinical hours required to become a Licensed Professional Counselor in Texas, and so the loss of our main income would no longer be able to sustain our way of life.  Working part-time was a luxury that our family could no longer afford. 

My sense of security and the life that I knew was threatened.  This was a first for me.   My husband and I faced new territory here, and talks on selling the house, moving, and finding new jobs worried me as the months continued.  Would we have to sell our house?  Would we lose our community?  How long could we last with paying our current bills using our savings? Would I have to jump in the workforce full-time again?  All these questions weighed heavily on me, but I couldn’t focus on all these unknowns as they would damper my spirit. 

How Self-Care Helped with Anxiety

Even though I had the exercise and nutrition routine down, it wasn't enough.   I had to find a way to manage my anxiety in an uncertain future.  And I felt uneasy for many months. Developing a self-care routine would help me build my emotional resilience with this transition, manage my anxiety, reduce stress, and increase positive thinking amidst the chaos.  I wanted to be as supportive as I could for my husband who decided to start his own company.   It had always been a vision for him, and I wanted to support him in this risky endeavor.  We were both facing new territory here. 

During this time, my self-care routine would include more meditation, prayer, and monthly visits to my therapist.  Practicing guided meditations on my Calm App allowed me time for 12 minutes of peace and grounding every day.  Because there were so many unknowns, I really focused in on the present. If I were to focus on the future, I would often think of negatives scenarios—fueling my anxiety. 

I chose to stay positive, and find blessings every day amidst the chaos.  I was grateful every day that my family was together.  We were healthy, and we were blessed with supportive friends and family.  I had to get over the luxuries that I was accustomed to with letting go of summer vacation plans and going out to dinner.  My husband’s lay off taught me what really is important for our family, and what and who we value. As a result, my social circle shrunk to include people who were positive, supportive, and real.  I didn’t have time to maintain superficial relationships, and attend frivolous events that wasted my time.  I didn’t have time for bullshit.  What was important to me was family, faith, health, and having a sense of purpose. 

In the fall of 2016, my husband and I both returned to the workforce full-time.  My husband launched his company, and I went back to Education as a high School Counselor while continuing to see my clients in private practice.  Now—more than ever—I had to practice self-care due to the new demands of our work and family life.  

Self-care is year-round for me!  Keeping up with my self-care routine allows me to not only feel positivity, joy, and relaxation, but it allows me to have the reserves to help others, and to be connected with the people I care about the most.   As both a Mom and mental health professional, I have to nurture my emotional reserves so I can be present in all the roles I have in this season in my life.   Whether it’s playing catch with my son or walking alongside a client facing hardship, the present is the most powerful experience we can experience with someone. 

 “Rest and self-care are so important. When you take time to replenish your spirit it allows you to serve from the overflow.“ -Eleanor Brownn

Finding Your Self-Care Routine: Practicing Mindfulness

Ultimately, self-care in practice allows you to make space for joy—amidst the inevitable changes and transitions in life.  Self-care does not just mean a spa day, or going to get a manicure/pedicure—which can be very relaxing and enjoyable, but it includes simple practices that allow you to be in the present.  The act of being present, other wise known as Mindfulness, can change the way you work, parent, connect with others, worship, and live.  

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When thinking of developing you’re your own self-care routine, think about mini mood-lifters.  Listening to music is a simple way to practice self-care as often it can lift your spirits.  For example, listening to your playlist can instantly lift your mood, and can serve as the prelude to a great day!   Whether it's turning up the sounds to Bruno Mars, the Beatles, or Bach--the rhythm and melodies of something familiear can snap you in the present. 

In addition, connecting with friends or loved ones is also therapeutic.   For me, there’s something therapeutic about meeting a friend for coffee.  When’s the last time you checked in with someone who really knows you?  When’s the last time you had a good laugh? I love checking in with best friend from college.  Although she lives in another state, our occasional and spontaneous conversational check-ins enrich my life with laughter amidst the stress of being a working Mom.   

In the therapy room, I often help clients develop their own self-care routine in response to the stress in their lives.  It’s often a process of tapping into the things in life that you can’t live without.

Here are some examples of the self-care practices that you may consider or some you may already be doing:

●      Cooking

●      Playing a sport

●      Connection with a Friend(s)

●      Taking a Walk

●      Listening to  an Inspirational TED talk

●      Reading

●      Exercise 

●      Meditation

●      Listening to Music

●      Expressing Gratitude

●      Journaling

●      Gardening

Need help in developing your list?  Click HERE to develop your simple Self-Care Routine.  I often use this exercise in helping clients developing their self-care plan.    The best self-care routine is one that is practical for your lifestyle.  Self-care is not specific to one group.  Anyone can benefit from a self-care routine.  Whether you’re a working or stay at home Mom, teenager or senior citizen, male or female, the benefits of taking time to take care of yourself can benefit your life immensely!  

Tricia Miller is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Educator in private practice in Houston, TX with Miller Counseling & Wellness.  She often works with adolescence and adults who experience anxiety, depression, trauma, relationship issues, and life transitions.   She has over 14 years of secondary education experience, and has been in private practice for four years.  

5 Things To Know About Therapy (From A Therapist)

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Written By Tricia Miller, M. Ed, LPC, CLPC

What is going to therapy really like?  What do you picture in your mind?  Talking awkwardly to a complete stranger?  Sitting in a waiting room of “crazy” people?  Lying down on an unfamiliar couch while someone feverishly writes down notes about your issues?  Or perhaps you envision someone like Dr. Phil telling you what you should do-or shouldn't do--in your life?   What other images come to mind? 

People who may greatly benefit from a seeking therapy/counseling often contemplate reaching out to someone but may shy away from seeking therapy due to cultural stigmas, social perceptions in the media, and bad experiences with a previous mental health professional.   Even someone who had a bad experience sharing a personal experience with someone—not necessarily a therapist--may have a hard time seeking therapy.  The idea of being vulnerable with someone is too scary and risky.

As a result, many people can miss out on a powerful opportunity that can positively change their life.  My hope is to dispel some of the common myths about therapy, provide insight on the role of a therapist, and I hope this article helps you to dispel common myths about therapy, provide insight who can benefit from therapy, and share with you what prospective clients can expect in the process.

1. We are not in the Business of Fixing Your Problems. 

Ultimately, therapists are in the business of listening.  Therapists are not supposed to tell you what to do.  Hollywood often provides false representations on the therapy and client-therapist relationship.  Often, my therapist colleagues and I often shake our heads in disapproval when we see ethical boundaries on film and television.

For example, in the 2016 comedy, Bad Moms, Mila Kunis’s character and her spouse finally go to couples’ counseling, and the therapist played by comedienne, Wanda Sykes, witnesses the building tension between the couple that results in a gridlocked and unproductive argument.  In response, Wanda Sykes’ throws her hands up in frustration, and tells the couple, “You need to get a divorce as soon as possible!” 

It is not our job to pass judgment on your world nor take sides in a couples’ session.  Often, people will ask me in therapy, “What should I do about this situation?  Or “What would you do if you were me?” Clients maybe disappointed when they find out that we don’t have the answer.  Instead, WAIT FOR IT. We believe you hold the answerGood therapists listen intently to their client’s stories, empower them with skills and knowledge, encourage clients to take on alternative perspectives, and help clients tap into their own courage and strength.

2. You Don’t Have to Be Batsh!t Crazy To Seek Therapy.   

The notion that there is something inherently wrong with you that needs to be fixed is a common misconception.  While therapy is highly recommended as a form of treatment for people experience anxiety, depression, trauma, addiction, loss, divorce, relationship issues, etc. the power of talk therapy can be useful for people needing help with chronic stress, conflict, and decision-making.   There is something therapeutic about venting, sharing, connecting, and talking to objective person outside your current social or family circle.  There is a beautiful dance that occurs when a client and therapist share a trusted and caring relationship. 

You want to feel that your therapist gets you, knows you, and cares for you.  If you don’t feel the sincerity and real connection in your time together, find another therapist.  Therapists can help you identify which area in your life you want to focus on and why.  Often, people come in seeking balance in their life, and are at their wit’s end.  Therapy can be a safe and positive place to share your hopes and aspirations as well as your disappointments, stresses, and fears in life. 

3. You are Not Weak if you Seek Counseling.  

Because of cultural stigmas related to counseling, seeking help for personal and/or mental health issues is often looked down upon.  Specifically, within the Asian American culture, Asian Americans are three times less likely to reach out for help for mental health related issues for fear of bringing shame to families and feeling ostracized in the community. 

Growing up in a first generation Filipino American family in the 1980s, we really didn’t open share our feelings with one another.  I felt that “talking about feelings” were only reserved by families similar to those portrayed in popular family sitcom shows like The Brady Bunch, Family Ties, and Growing Pains.  Our large, close-knit Filipino-American extended family expressed appreciation, love, and gratitude through action—not necessarily words.  We ate together, traveled together, helped each other in times of good and bad but we never really expressed our feelings toward one another.  On the flip side, if Filipinos were upset or angry at one another, I would often see the cold shoulder or silent treatment.  The Filipino snub was real—and often substituted hard conversations.   

In the hit Netflix show, Master of None, the difference in communication among generations is highlighted between immigrant parents and first-generation Millennials.  While the space for expressing emotions may be limited for immigrants, I find their first generation offspring is open to talk, communicate, and share more their lives than their parents.  Young Asian Americans are more likely to lean on personal social networks such as friends and family rather than seek professional help of a counselor/therapist. 

Men, too, maybe resistant to seeking professional help for mental health concerns.  Social norms in Western society have often defined a man to a certain masculinity, bravado, and super-hero like strength.  To be a man means you have to handle your shit.  As a result, a man seeking therapy may be considered weak because is expressing vulnerability, sharing emotions, and seeking help—all counterintuitive to the behaviors of a “real man.”  As a result, this dissonance has caused men to shy away from counseling. 

Unrealistic socio-cultural expectations set up men to internally carry the emotional burdens in times of stress.   For example, men often feel the pressure to be the main breadwinners of their family, and so, for example with job loss, or job uncertainty, males often experience a wide range of emotions in times of transition and crisis. With therapy, men can expect a different type of language in therapy.  Therapy can be about helping achieve a certain goal, increasing communication skills with a relationship and/or family members, coping with a loss of a relationship, and/or dealing with difficult situations in the workplace, reducing different types of anxiety, etc. 

Ultimately, therapy is not for just one group—it’s not just for women, addicts, couples on the brink of divorce, or someone who has been traumatized.  You are not weak if you go to Counseling.  In fact, you are brave because you recognize the truth, and you can’t do this alone.   You shouldn’t be able to.  Therapy can be for anyone—you don’t have to be going through a life crisis to seek the benefits of counseling. 

4. We hope that therapy is something not something you dread. 

You don’t have to be in therapy for the rest of your life!  Therapy is not meant to be a prison sentence.  Depending on what brought you to therapy, you could just be in temporary in need of talk therapy, or until you’ve resolved your issue, or gotten to a place where you are self-sufficient.  One of the approaches of therapy, solution-focused therapy, is only meant for a limited time.

Therapy is not a bad place.  And we hope you weren’t forced into, although many times, someone may have suggested you go see a therapist for your issues.  In fact, we want you to look forward to your session.  Perhaps your best friend, spouse, co-worker or family member suggested you go to therapy because they recognized you may need help with something you can’t handle alone.

Think of it as maintance for the mind.  In our society, we seek maintenance for a variety of things: cars, air conditioning units, electronics, and even our phones to make sure things are running well, and don’t break down over time.  Well, thinking of therapy as a way of making sure your emotional reserves, thought patterns, internal regulation and are running healthy.  If you go to the doctor’s for a physical check-up, why not check in for a mental check-up as well! 

5. No, We Can’t Be Friends on Facebook!

This last piece is for your benefit.  Often, the therapeutic relationship feels so good, comfortable, and real, that clients wonder if they can be friends with their therapists.  Just like when you saw your teacher in high school at the grocery story, and felt weird about it, the same goes from therapists. 

We enjoy you to pieces, look forward to our conversations, and care about your well-being in your life, but drawing the boundary on social media means that you don’t ever have to worry about me “liking” one of your posts and/or pictures on Facebook. Ultimately, we are your therapist, and not your friend. 

Trust me you would have a different view of me of me if you saw my vacation posts and random selfies.  You may even unfriend me if found out my political and/or religious viewpoints.  Ethically, therapists cannot engage in dual relationships with their clients.  In many states, there are rules that you can even after the therapeutic relationship has ended over a period of time, but for me, once a client always a client.  It’s better for you—and I wouldn't want anything that would damage or discrupt your progress in therapy.  In the end, therapy is all about YOU! 

Tricia Miller, M. Ed, LPC, CLPC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified Life Coach, and Educator in private practice in Houston, TX with Miller Counseling & Wellness.