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Shainnaupdatedpic Apr 16, 2020

Self-Care & Social Distancing: Helping Clients Adjust During COVID-19

As the world is adjusting to a new normal, many are recognizing the need to alter their lifestyles in order to continue to foster wellness during this time. While self-care strategies tend to be subjective, one constant that’s difficult to deny is the essentiality of coping during times of high stress. Whether clients have previously addressed the concept of self-care or whether it is a new and timely topic, it is likely that a discussion with a focus on self-care could help your clients manage their COVID-19 a step-by-step process that I have found helpful in my practice and I share it here with you in case it helps you to better help your clients too.

Define Self-Care

While it may be tempting to jump right into skills, make sure you’re on the same page first. For clients who have experience with self-care, here’s their time to shine with this pop quiz. Nevertheless, it’s important to recognize the possibility that clients may have learned about the topic, yet may not have embedded the practice into their lives. In a scenario such as this, circling back to the topic may be more important that you may realize.

It’s also possible that clients may be familiar with the term even if they have not had the opportunity to explore self-care in session. Regardless, caution assuming your definitions are the same. As counselors we are aware of our ethical and moral obligations to invest in self-care, value the process, and may falsely presume that others understand and value self-care as well. There are a lot of misconceptions around self-care, such as it being selfish, expensive, or neglectful. Misunderstandings impede the process and perpetuate miscommunication in counseling as well. Therefore, when addressing self-care in session, start with good old Self-Care 101.

Remember, we all need self-care, however, it is subjective. What works for one person may not necessarily work for another. Similarly, definitions may vary a bit from person to person as well. I will share my view, but when exploring with your clients feel free to choose vocabulary that honors their individuality.

Self-care is the active process of acknowledging and tending to your needs in order to foster your wellness. This can include preventative measures such as eating nutritious foods, staying active, and getting adequate rest. Self-care can also include intervention strategies that are utilized when stress is high in the moment, such as deep breathing or taking a break. Hence, the strategies that are selected vary and are best with tailored to the current context. For example, the methods you may have used in the past may not all be applicable while social distancing.

Explore Current Strategies

After assuring you are on the same page with your client regarding the semantics of self-care, you can then delve into an assessment of methods that have been used to date. Some clients may have examples ready to go. When this happens, see if you can explore their awareness of what need this meets. It’s also common for clients to undermine the methods that they have used in the past. For example, if you generally ask about self-care they may draw a blank. On the other hand, if you specifically ask how they coped with a recent difficult situation they may then realize that they went for a run, called a friend, or scheduled their next appointment with you.

Another angle is to explore common needs, and then pair methods. With this approach you can start with general human needs (e.g., rest) and delve into specific needs for the client (e.g., calming skills for a client who has anxiety). As a counselor, an important role that you have it to expand the client’s perspective of what has already been done to date, and if possible, what has shown to be effective. Self-care may seem simple, but addressing this need can be intimidating. When possible, recall and utilize past examples that your client has shared with you to help them create a toolbox with lots of handy devices.

Acknowledge Consistency

We are in a time of tremendous change. When exploring self-care, it is possible that a client may be tempted to hyper-focus on a skill that has been effective that simply does not fit into social distancing guidelines.  Beware of the trap of exacerbating the adjustment process by overlooking the things that are consistent. While we are all adapting in several ways, some things may be consistent. While it is important to honor loss, it is also important to avoid distortions. Self-care does not have to be taken off of table altogether just because of social distancing. Is it possible to acknowledge strategies that have been used in the past that may still transfer during this time?

Here are some ideas:

  • Baths
  • Coloring
  • Cooking
  • Counseling
  • Crafting
  • Deep breathing
  • Digital detox
  • Gratitude practice
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness
  • Music
  • Painting
  • Praying
  • Reading
  • Sewing
  • Writing

Highlight Opportunities

As noted, clients may experience a sense of disappointment when they realize that some of their go-to skills do not align with current COVID-19 precautions. While they may have to forego some of their skills, don’t be so quick to negate them altogether. Consider the ways that you can meet the need of that strategy in a similar context.

Let’s consider the example of someone who enjoys their trips to the gym to foster mind-body wellness. While fitness centers may be closed, that does not necessarily mean exercise is no longer an option. Depending on your location and social distancing guidelines, you may have the option to go for a walk or enjoy an outdoor routine. If you are confined, perhaps you can video chat a workout buddy, use a fitness app to guide you, or find a studio that is streaming a class you enjoy.

Explore New Strategies

When highlighting opportunities for self-care, help your client consider new strategies that match the current context. Tying together the previous steps, prompt a reflection of current needs. It may be helpful to consider common needs related to the client’s history. Another option could be to provide an open-ended reflection pertaining to the different domains of overall wellness.

From there, review the toolbox of skills explored in the previous steps to help illuminate an understanding of which self-care strategies may help current needs. There may be needs that do not have a corresponding skill, or perhaps you wish you strengthen the ability to meet those needs by increasing the variety of options. This is a great opportunity to help the client brainstorm about brand new skills that can be added to their toolbox. This may include things that the client has hoped to do for self-care, however, the busy pre-COVID 19 world may not have easily allowed for such as naps, home improvement projects, or virtual dinner parties.

Often, self-care is easier said than done. Self-care can be tricky, particularly when facing a pandemic. However, counselors can serve as a great aid in helping clients continue to foster wellness during this time. Finally, be mindful that in order to genuinely help your clients cope during this time; you must also do the same. Perhaps a parallel process of this method may work for you. To explore this further, read this piece on Seven Sets of Self-Care Counselors Could Benefit From During COVID-19.

Shainna Ali is a mental health counselor, educator, and advocate located in Central Florida. Dr. Shainna is passionate about highlighting the importance of mental health awareness, assessment, and care in living a happy and healthy life. Her areas of focus in research and practice include identity and culture, emotional intelligence, trauma, and creativity in counseling.  For more information on Dr. Shainna please visit

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