“I’ve really worked with people on regulating emotional responses to their circumstances, to the way they listen to people, the way they function in their job, the way they respond to crisis”
“Just spend maybe five breaths, breathing in and breathing out, and literally saying to yourself, ‘Today is going to be okay.’”
“The biggest practice is literally self-forgiveness…practicing flexibility of mind, but also standing firm once you do make a decision.”
“It is important to have some go-to people. Some go-to people that are in your world, and some go-to people that are maybe outside of your world that you respect. They’re not in your every day.”
“We will not make people happy all the time, including ourselves. And we just have to get used to that and feel comfortable with that, and also have a certain amount of humility to always look at and review what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, who we’re doing it for, and to humbly rework it if we feel that we’re going in a direction that we’re not right, or we need to stand up for something.”
“The one question that I ask myself and I even ask my kids is, how am I doing? … Actually say, ‘Hey, kids. I have never been in a global pandemic before and I’ve never parented you through this. How’s it going? Are we doing okay here?’”
Q: Let’s start by, if we could, could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and how you work with individuals?
A: Sure. By trade, I’m a licensed clinical social worker, and I have a family studies background. I studied in the good old state of Pennsylvania for four years in Mechanicsburg, and then I got my graduate degree, my MSW from NYU. NYU has a very clinical program in social work, so I was really trained from the beginning to be a therapist, which is what I always knew that I wanted to be. We were trained in object relations theory. It’s basically a psychodynamic approach, understanding a person within the context of their relationships in their environment.
My social work career started in medicine. I was a medical social worker, then I veered away. I always kept a private practice, but I moved into administration. I was actually a hospital administrator for years. I was the first non-nursing medical unit director. I had a staff of 125. It was a telemetry unit, a heart monitor unit. Even though my love and my joy is as a clinical therapist, I also have experience with systems and managing in large organizations. It’s an interesting blend.
Q: Yeah. And how do you work with individuals? What kinds of areas or why do folks come to you?
A: I work with individuals, couples, and families. I work mostly now with older adolescents. I used to work with children, but now in the last 10 years, I work basically with older adolescents. I’m also a meditation instructor and a yoga instructor. The way I work has changed over time. It’s traditional psychotherapy, but I do work with people in terms of emotional regulation and looking at… I’m particularly interested in their emotional responses to situations.
In the last few years, I’ve really worked with people on regulating emotional responses to their circumstances, to the way they listen to people, the way they function in their job, the way they respond to crisis, how to basically, yes, reflect on the past and how we got there, but also really radically staying in the present, and working with skills on emotional management in the present, not knowing that I’d be working with people in a pandemic, right, who are radically… yes, radically needing to stay in the present, morning, noon, evening. How are we managing our morning, our noon, and our evening?
Q: I mean, so much of what you just said applies directly to what folks are living through right now. I’m sure your support couldn’t be more needed. Anxiety, stress, uncertainty, depression, these are all emotions and states of mind that many people, most people are probably experiencing in some degree and some in a very heightened way this year with all of the challenges. There may be times when people need to bring their stress level down. But in the case of depressive states, there might be a time when they need to actually bring their energy level up. Can you talk to us a little bit about some ways that people can address both sides of those kinds of range of feelings?
A: Absolutely. There’s something that we call a mixed state when we’re trying to describe someone’s mental health. What I’m finding is that folks aren’t necessarily struggling with anxiety or depression. They’re actually experiencing both, right? For example, sometimes waking up in the morning, you may love your job. You may have always loved your job. You may always love your family. You may have always loved yourself and getting up in the morning.
But people are feeling at times like a sense of dread and heaviness literally getting up in the morning, like opening their eyes and just having that sense of, “Uh, I got to do this again.” And then on the flip side, trying to go to sleep. The mind just can’t shut down, reviewing the day. Did I do everything I could, did I make the right decisions? What about tomorrow? Who’s going to be minding the family? Everyone’s working from a different room. There’s this like managing the heaviness and the weightiness and also trying to take the brain down.
What I’m practicing myself and asking people to consider is literally when they’re in bed to have like a little teeny morning routine where you place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly and you just spend maybe five breaths, breathing in and breathing out, and literally saying to yourself, “Today is going to be okay.” You wake up in the morning and just actually tell yourself, “It’s going to be okay. You got through yesterday. You got through the day before, and you can get through today too.”
The sun has risen and just literally taking those breaths to try to kind of gently and beautifully ignite yourself for the day. And then on the flip end, when you’re up and you’re racing and everything, give yourself a time limit. If after a few minutes there are still some racing, I would actually say grab your pillow and get on the floor. This sounds silly, but if you’re working, you have to get up in the morning, so you have to get to sleep at night. We don’t have the leisure. My workday starts at 6:45. I have people that see me before work.
If you’re having trouble getting to sleep, grab your pillow, get on the floor, and pop a pillow underneath your knees. The flatness on your back, a different sensory feeling, and literally hand on heart and hand on belly and just do a self-calming practice of breathing in and breathing out. And tell yourself, “The day is over. The day is done. It’s coming to a close now. We’ll think about it tomorrow.” It’s kind of bringing yourself up and getting yourself to settle down at night.
Those are two very, very basics if you’re having a hard time rousing and facing the day in a calm way and bringing yourself down at night.
Q: And it sounds simple, but I imagine it just serves as sort of a mental reminder of what you just expressed. The day is over. It’s just a little bit of that mental reminder.
A: Absolutely. If my brain lights don’t go out by 11:30, I’m on the floor, because it could go on until 12:30, right? I just get on the floor. I grab a sweatshirt or a blanket, pop on the floor, because it’s triggering like the day is done.
Q: And even the ritual side of that, in other words, the repetitive side of that, I imagine that kind of kicks into place. Looking at the school and education community, and certainly there’s a lot of challenging scenarios in the school community right now. School leaders and administrators are making decisions that impact so much more than themselves and they’re accustomed to that, but they are dealing with brand new challenges never faced before.
With so many unknowns in the world, self-doubt can certainly creep in even to the most certain individuals, most confident decision-makers. That self-doubt may creep in when making such impactful decisions. Are there any ways that these folks can combat self-doubt in decision-making? And not just school leaders, but really anyone in that decision-making seat, how can they combat that kind of doubt that creeps in?
A: I think that anyone who is in a position of critical decision-making, and right now it’s everyone, we are in a position of critical decision-making. For example, my daughter is coming home from college and she lives in the part of the country that is not well quarantined. I would say she just lives differently than I am in the Northeast. I know that as she returns to our home in a week and a half, we’re going to have to make very different, critical decisions. I don’t even know exactly what they’ll be, but even as far as like our comings and goings.
Everyone is a critical decision maker right now, even children, in how we’re going to social distance. When you have the responsibility to make decisions over many people, and different districts are making different decisions, right? We know we have two school districts in our small town. Our elementary is under one district. Our middle school and high school has another whole district. Sometimes their days off are different. Their half days are different than their full days.
Everyone’s making decisions from top to bottom, that they’re being questioned either by themselves, by those around them, by parents. There’s always room to second guess your decisions. I would say just to know if you’ve made a critical decision and you haven’t gotten good feedback on it. And I’m sure people can relate to this. And maybe even yourself, you reflect that, okay, I don’t know if I’d make that next time, or we need to release it and change it up next time.
The biggest practice is literally self-forgiveness, like saying, “Okay, I worked with all the variables. I made the best decision with all of the information that I had at that time. And now I have different information, I will act differently.” And even in the acting differently second time around, you may reflect, okay, let’s review the tapes. This is the feedback I got. I still stand by this, or I’m open to changing this. Practicing flexibility of mind, but also standing firm once you do make a decision. The wavering. That’s the up at night wavering. You got to make the decision, review it, reflect, stand by it, but then have the flexibility, if you can, to change it up next time.
Q: That makes a ton of sense. As a person in a role where you help others, you can empathize with the desire to affect change and be solutions-oriented. What would you tell leaders or school leaders, any leaders? As you said, everyone is making critical decisions right now. Those who are coping with that of hanging in the balance of either not having a solution per se or receiving criticism for the decision or solutions that they present; how do you advise on that?
A: It is kind of on the heels of what I was just talking about. I personally have my go-to people. I have some go-to people that I’ve never even seen before that I just talk to who are not… I always say not in my Jerusalem. They’re not in my little community. I love that because I can run scenarios by these folks. They can speak to my work in a very kind of constructively critical way. I respect their opinion, and yet I don’t have to interface with them or answer to them necessarily.
I’d say it is important to have some go-to people. Some go-to people that are in your world, and some go-to people that are maybe outside of your world that you respect. They’re not in your every day. If you’re making big decisions, kind of get that accountability. I always say, “Let me run the play by you.” And there are people that call me and do the same. Okay, I have a case to run past you. I have a decision to make. Okay, run it. Let’s flow with it. Have trusted folks.
Also, like I said, sometimes you just have to stand by, “I made the best decision at the time with the information that I had at the time, and I am dedicated to reviewing my decisions and critiquing them and expanding them or modifying them.” So like having the humility. And criticism goes with leadership. We cannot make everyone happy all the time, including ourselves. It’s really hard to stomach right now the criticism because a lot is coming. In fact, when I just spoke with you a few weeks ago to set up this call, we were in the height of the election, right?
We will not make people happy all the time, including ourselves. And we just have to get used to that and feel comfortable with that, and also have a certain amount of humility to always look at and review what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, who we’re doing it for, and to humbly rework it if we feel that we’re going in a direction that we’re not right, or we need to stand up for something. I hope that answers your question.
Q: It does. I think your go-to sources, that’s important to remember, that you’re not making decisions all by yourself or required to make decisions without input. I want to ask you to talk a little bit about self-care. Our members are school leaders, but this really pertains to everyone. Often life is busy and right now it’s very busy whatever the individual.
There might be lots of things going on in their life right now, whether it’s dealing with their children doing remote learning at home and they’re having to be a teacher, and they’re having to also do their own job and lots of different circumstances. But we know that self-care is so important. Sometimes it’s hard to make that time to think of ourselves. How can someone know when they need that connectedness, when they need to take that time for themselves? I mean, obviously sometimes as a parent, you feel it, right?
When it’s less apparent and you might just be charging ahead taking care of business, what are some reminders that you might tell people to kind of take that time and how to tune into the fact that they need that time?
A: The one question that I ask myself and I even ask my kids is, how am I doing? When I’m kind of there in the morning and I’m doing the hand on my belly and hand on my heart, I actually tune in and I say, “How am I doing?” And sometimes I say, “You know what? Do not have caffeinated coffee this morning. Like no. It’s going to be decaf.” I did that this morning before this call, how am I doing? I’m doing great. But if I have that cup before I talk to Annette, it’s going to put me over the edge. So don’t do it. To literally ask yourself, how am I doing?
And I even ask my kids that I just. I’m not going to ask my kids how I’m doing. You’re kidding me? No. Actually say, “Hey, kids. I have never been in a global pandemic before and I’ve never parented you through this. How’s it going? Are we doing okay here?”
Q: Yeah. Yeah, that’s interesting. I love that.
A: How am I doing? Yes. It actually is funny, but it’s really true. A big thing is checking in. Another thing, Annette, if I could just kind of go over the list. The PSBA website has actually some good information if you look under the resources for mental health. I was looking under how to avoid burnout, right, before I got on the call. And I was like, yeah, these are the things that we say to everyone. Look at your sleeping patterns, your eating habits, your work, light exercise, do something pleasurable, self-talk.
What I’m finding is people are shutting down and they do not want to add. They cannot add one more thing, like exercise, do Pilates on your bedroom floor. Like no. What I’m saying to people is if you shower, and some of us do, take your shower time and just take your shampoo time and close your eyes and drop your chin to your chest so that the water doesn’t go up your nose and just rub your head and breathe. Rub your scalp really well. Rub your neck really well. Get into your shoulders. Reach down and touch your toes.
Let the water bounce off your shoulders and your back. Try to take a breath or two through your mouth if the water doesn’t go into your mouth. Actually use your shower time as a destressing event, because you’re going to do it anyway. You may notice that your kids are in the showers longer. I tell kids, use that time to decompress. People are not running as much. Runners aren’t running. Yogis aren’t yogiing. Pilates people aren’t Pilatiing. Weightlifters aren’t lifting weight.
Q: It’s hard. I think you mentioned some of those various areas of fitness that people might have tapped into previously. And sometimes it’s hard to replicate that in their home environment, or we just don’t because, as you say, it’s like adding one additional thing to the day just doesn’t seem achievable. It doesn’t seem viable.
Q: You’re kind of borrowing on some time there, which is a great suggestion. What techniques or practices would you offer to someone when they are overwhelmed, overwhelmed by emotions or their circumstances or whatever, just feelings of being overwhelmed? Are there some techniques or practices that you could suggest?
A: Yes. So again, in the spirit of being realistic, Annette, I’m a marathon runner, and I run for many years. And I usually have a race or an event that I’m training for. As I get older, it’s like half marathons and 10Ks and all that. And I used to run with friends, and so it would keep me on the road. It would keep me social. It would keep me doing it. Annette, the only place I run to right now is the refrigerator. I run very quickly. I run there and back. I run to the bathroom in between my phone calls. If I, a very motivated person, cannot even get myself…
I even bought new sneakers, haven’t used them. I cannot get myself to do the things that I used to do. But the one thing that I’m promising myself to do is to walk. I would say that if you’re overwhelmed or if you’re not, try everything that you can do to just even if it’s a walking up your driveway or walking, pacing in your house on a phone call. I would say, if you’re overwhelmed, get outside. Bundle up and get outside and breathe some fresh air and try to just tune in to where am I and what do I need.
Do I need to talk to someone professionally? Do I need to reach out to someone who is not in my every day to say that I’m sinking? Who is it that I can maybe text or email or connect to? I know sometimes social media is too much social media, but sometimes people find Instagram relaxing. You can look up things on Instagram, like how can I relax and breathe with somebody who’s breathing? YouTube, how to take some breaths and kind of like do that.
And in fact, before we close here, I’d like to just do a little breathing exercise with you that is a coping strategy for calming down. But I would say at the very least, get out and walk and ask, again, how am I doing and what do I need? The other thing that I’m trying to do is hugs. The people that we’re allowed to hug, hug them, touch them, squeeze their shoulder, say, “You’re doing a great job.” Text, “Awesome job. Amazing.” Use all of your euphemisms, all of your positive statements. Say them to each other.
Thumbs up constant. I mean, positive affirmation is so huge right now and physical touch to the people that we are able to touch.
Q: Yeah, that’s such a salient point. For sure, out of all of this, this odd situation that we’re all in where we’re not having contact with the amount of people that we would typically have contact, whether it be family members that you would hug or just people that you would normally be talking with face to face or shaking hands, and all of that has just been eliminated for this weird extended period of time. Certainly those who are able to do that with, that’s hugely, hugely essential not to lose sight of that.
Q: I think you mentioned a tactic that we might actually be able to try here and I’d love to know what that is.
A: Yes, okay. I’m just going to do some breathing with you to a count.
Find a comfortable position in your chair. I’m assuming you’re in your chair. And I have a little singing bowl, so I’m going to start our practice with a little gong through our singing bowl. Take a deep breath in for a moment and we’ll let our teaching begin. So from here, you can either close your eyes or keep them at a half gaze. Keep them all open. We’re going to inhale to a count of four and hold our breath just for a count of one, and exhale to a count of six.
And as we do this, Annette, I’d like you to think of the waves of the ocean rushing up onto the shoreline, swirling around at the top, a little foamy, and then going back into the water. Okay? Let us begin. Inhale, two, three, four, retain the breath, let it swirl, and then exhale, two, three, four, five, six. Inhale, fill your belly, two, three, four, retain the breath, like the waves on the shore, and then exhale release, two, three, four, five, six. On six, bring your navel into your spine to exhale.
Inhale, fill your belly, two, three, four, retain the breath at the top, and exhale two, three, four, five. Hold the spot to let the breath out. Inhale last time, expand the chest and the belly, four, hold it, count, and exhale, two, three, four, five, six. Come back to your natural breath. One last thing I want to do with you, open your eyes, look around the room. Just notice the shapes and the colors around the room. And then just for a moment, close your eyes and just feel, feel your body and space, and open your eyes.
Q: Thank you. Thank you very much. I think that’s very achievable in most people’s day. That really brings a little bit of centeredness.
Q: Thank you. Well, I really enjoyed talking to you, Dana. I think you’ve offered up some not only just great perspective on things, but given some real takeaways to our audience. I really appreciate all that you gave to us today.
A: Thank you so much, Annette. It was so good to be with you and to meet you, and even putting this activity together was really nice.
Q: Great. Thank you so much, Dana.
A: Take care.
Dana Guerrero, LCSW
Dana Guerrero, LCSW is a Psychotherapist and Meditation/Yoga instructor who has been in private practice for over 25 years in the Greater New York Metropolitan area. She holds an undergraduate degree in Family Studies, and a Masters in Social Work from New York University (NYU) where she was trained using Object Relations and Psychodynamic Theory to understand human behavior.
Dana is a highly interactive and dynamic clinician who works with adolescence, adults, couples, and families. She utilizes a blend of mind/body techniques and practical applications to help her clients strengthen, heal, and move forward in their lives. Dana’s greatest joy is taking the deep transformative work which she conducts in the privacy of her office and bringing it to larger, more accessible public platforms. She is the Co-Founder of Empower Voices Now where she and her partner, Raquel Suarez Groen of Phantom of the Opera use psychology and technique to enhance the confidence of performers.
Dana’s vision has always been to raise the consciousness of the next generation to be more secure, loving, confident and mindful as they work to reach their goals. In her free time, Dana enjoys practicing yoga & meditation, hiking in nature, stand-up paddle boarding, long distance running, and spending time with her family and puppies.