MANKATO — The COVID-19 pandemic piled heaps of stress onto so many lives this year, which made Jenna Londgren’s passion for sharing self-care strategies all the more important.
Londgren, an assistant professor in Minnesota State University’s health science department, made a difference in 2020 by leading numerous self-care workshops or trainings for colleagues, health care professionals and other groups.
Knowing anxiety and burnout levels are so high these days, Londgren said her passion for the work comes from the idea that people can’t effectively care for others if they’re not taking care of themselves.
“I really believe that if counselors are healthy and the directors of clinics are healthy, then that trickles down into clients getting the help they need,” she said. “It’s supporting the frontline workers so they can continue to serve.”
Londgren, also the coordinator of MSU’s alcohol and drug studies program, was honing her expertise in self-care strategies well before the pandemic started. Back in fall 2019, she worked on a proposal to present at a conference for children’s mental health counselors scheduled for April 2020.
At the time she knew it would be a needed discussion. Burnout was already common in the mental health and addiction fields.
The pandemic only amplified those concerns. After her presentation in April, she started getting more requests for trainings and workshops focusing on self-care with other groups.
And her work went beyond people in the mental health and addiction fields. She led workshops geared toward interns, clinic leaders, college students and faculty, and hopes to focus on parents next — a group she’s worked with as a licensed marriage and family therapist.
All the while, she was incorporating the strategies into the seven classes she taught last semester. Navigating the switch to remote learning was a challenge for professors and students alike, making self-care a necessity.
Thad Shunkwiler, Londgren’s colleague as an assistant professor at MSU, called her a “real leader” in behavioral health who cares deeply about her students’ success.
“To have that resource right here in our community is such a cool thing,” he said.
He participated in a recent training she led for behavioral health professionals and remembers how she spoke about the need to weave in self-care throughout the day. In a field where workers experience vicarious trauma, not caring for yourself could make for a short career — further limiting the field’s ability to care for growing mental health and addiction issues.
“People hit a wall and they can’t help anymore,” Shunkwiler said. “ … From my perspective, (self-care) is one of the single biggest skills students need.”
For mental health and addiction counselors, the self-care lessons she shares might’ve been reminders of tools they forgot. For other groups, the strategies are more likely to be brand new.
“I might dial back on the research,” she said of how her approach changes to fit newer audiences. “For students I apply it more to their life and make it more about their habits.”
Londgren came back to work after the birth of her third child — she has children ages 6, 4 and 1 — knowing she needed to apply her research on self-care into her life. Helpful strategies for her include trying to limit sources of information that cause stress and anxiety, including news and social media.
Social media in particular, she said, could be contributing to an anxiety pandemic among younger adolescents. Heightened anxiety also could be causing more overdoses and suicidal ideations among the general populace this year.
As Shunkwiler pointed out, Londgren’s work comes during a time when stress levels are rampant.
“The research is very clear that as a society we’re more stressed than we’ve ever been,” he said. “That’s why these concepts and what Jenna does is so important.”
Being intentional about feeling appreciative is another strategy Londgren uses for self-care, she said. She gave the example of how she talks to her children every night about what they were grateful for that day.
“Your brain cannot feel anxiety and appreciation at the same time, so if it’s flooded with gratitude, it can’t think about anything,” she said. “It’s not just cognitively saying, ‘I’m grateful for my house, my kids, my life;’ it’s going back to moments and feeling them again.”
Self-care doesn’t have to feel like you’re adding more to your plate, she added. Physical activities like running help many people take care of themselves, for instance, but they can also feel like barriers to newcomers.
Self-care isn’t about drastic and hard-to-achieve life changes, but rather the addition of minor perspective shifts over time, she said. Along with her workshops and trainings, she also spoke about self-care this year in a “Well Mind” podcast episode hosted by Bethany Lutheran College professor Ben Kohls.
Londgren’s work on self-care will continue next semester with a class on successful habits in a digital world and more workshops planned for various groups. If 2020 was a year of frustration as people were forced to shift to a more digital world, what she’d like to see come next is a focus on how to thrive again as things settle down.
There’s an urgency to the work considering the great need for mental health and addiction services. Londgren said she needs to teach her students about self-care to get them out of survival mode — which makes it hard to care for others — and into parts of the brain providing the compassion and empathy they need to thrive in their future field.
“My students are going into the addiction field and we don’t have time to waste,” she said. “We need to train competent counselors, so I’m doing everything I can to adapt to the environment while still giving them the information and support they need.”