#36: Finding the Path Back to Meaning & Joy


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:02

For the past year and a half, we’ve all been challenged to rethink the way we work. We have taken on different roles on our teams, transitioned to different styles of work, and adapted to a rapidly changing environment. Currently, we’re experiencing another transition with many people returning to the physical office. Dr. Brenda Bursch joins us for a three-part series about how to optimize your well-being during this workplace transition. She’s an expert in resilience training, and a professor of clinical psychiatry and pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Over the course of three episodes, Dr. Bursch will cover three themes: remember, recover, and renew. Tune in to learn about actionable and practical tips for how you can prepare for your work transition and optimize your well-being. Dr. Brenda Bursch, it’s great to have you join us again on the UCLA Live Well podcast. You’ve joined us for an episode back in March about how we can support our frontline workers and how we can process trauma from the pandemic and find glee in the future. It’s really great to have you back on the podcast to talk about something that’s on all of our minds— how are we going to return to the workplace, and more specifically, how we can optimize our well-being? To start off: Why should we be thinking about well-being as we return to the workplace?

Dr. Brenda Bursch  01:29

Thank you so much for having me here today. I’m very pleased to be invited back and to be able to talk about these topics with you. Yeah, well-being is kind of a general term, right. It’s one that we’ve all heard before, but probably don’t know that much about the research related to it. So, you know, it’s an umbrella term that really is important to not only kind of face value (we all want to have a higher level of well-being), but there’s also a lot of research that shows that there’s benefits of well-being, including having better relationships, performing better at work, having a stronger immune system, living longer, having better cardiovascular health, better sleep, lower levels of burnout, and all sorts of other things. And so it really, there is more meaning behind that term well-being, then you might really think when you just hear it, here and there. Another thing I just want to point out about that well-being research that I find particularly helpful for my own self is that one of the factors that really contributes to well-being is how optimistic you are generally as a person. So you always hear about the glass is half full, or glass is half empty kind of person. And we know that people, you know, who do have a tendency to see the glass as half full, who are a little bit more optimistic, experience less depression and less anxiety. And they tend to do better at work, and they have fewer health problems as well. We don’t want you to ignore problems that are there, and we know that avoidant coping and just pretending like things aren’t there is not helpful. But having an optimistic view that you can conquer those challenges is a really important factor towards well-being.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:00

Well, you’ve sold me. I mean, how could you not want to practice some way of feeling a sense of well-being given all those positive outcomes. Getting to your point about optimism, which sounds like a good path towards promoting your own well-being, I understand that if you’re not naturally optimistic, some people can learn those strategies to become more optimistic. What would you recommend for those people?

Dr. Brenda Bursch  03:44

Oh, gosh, there’s so many ways to go about it. You know, I would say that many of us in our health system and the upper campus and across, you know, all different parts of UCLA, tend to be pretty high achievers, right? And so we’re perfectionistic. We’re critical of ourselves, that’s how we spur ourselves to create and to achieve more and more. But there’s a cost to that, you know, when we’re constantly problem solving and looking for problems, we do have this kind of critical thinking hat on at all times and see the negative. And so we do know that one thing that can be done is make a concerted effort to pay attention to those things that are going well. Look for them. And that can mean at the end of your workday. You know, when 800 things happen, and we’re kind of overwhelmed by the whole day, that feeling of being overwhelmed can color our emotional experience. But if you take the time to think about all the individual things that happened during the day and pull out those things that really brought you some joy, brought you some meaning or fun, those kinds of moments if you can dwell on them actually is one way to become a little bit more optimistic. Another thing you can do is you can challenge your thoughts, you know, when you find yourself saying something negative or being a little bit more pessimistic, you can say, you know, what are the facts here? You know, what is the probability that something negative is really going to happen? You can replace those thoughts with something that’s more positive as an example. There’s all sorts of both cognitive and attentional things that you can do. And you can also try to schedule in time. So there’s like this behavioral aspect to it as well, where you can put into your schedule, just moments during the day that you want to practice these things. So those are a few examples.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:30

Those are very useful. And I love the way you differentiated between cognitive and behavioral. So cognitive is like what you’re thinking and how you can be the master of your own thoughts, so to speak. And then behavioral is perhaps even very simple, was having a routine.

Dr. Brenda Bursch  05:47

Right, you got it.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:48

It’s very reassuring, because, you know, a lot of people will say, well, this person’s being an optimist. This person’s the pessimist. But that doesn’t have to define you. You can change that. And what I’m hearing too, is that you’re saying, pick things that were good part of your day. And that’s sort of like giving gratitude in a way to those moments.

Dr. Brenda Bursch  06:07

Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. If you do a gratitude practice, that details perfectly with what I’m talking about.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  06:12

Yeah. If they haven’t already started coming into work physically, what would you recommend people start to do either behaviorally, or cognitively or whatever else other strategies you might have?

Dr. Brenda Bursch  06:25

Well, there’s so many things, I have a list of about, I think 40 things that could be done. But I think that it’s helpful to think about it in stages, right? So the way that I’ve been thinking about it is first, really creating space for yourself to reflect on the past year and a half, two years almost now, coming up, you know, in January. I’m thinking of when we first started hearing about the coming of the pandemic, that was when we all, many of us started making plans for how things might shift. And so it varies by person, obviously, but everyone has lost something in the last couple years. We’ve lost opportunities, some of us have lost loved ones, some of us have not been able to see people that we normally do. And so the first set of things that I think about is how can we really honor that past and really process any emotions that we have related to that, that could be still really interfering with our ability to concentrate or to be healthy, or to, you know, that might be, you know, kind of weighing on our mind as we are thinking about going back. And then the second section of suggestions, really, is to kind of ground yourself and think about what do we know about wellness and how to cultivate it. And if you kind of go by each of the buckets of things that we know can help support well-being, thinking about, you know, what you’re currently doing, and things that you can do as you’re preparing to come back. And if you’re a supervisor, also thinking about that on behalf of the people who report to you, and how you can make that transition better for them. And so kind of thinking about it more broadly. And, you know, I guess, academically so to speak, and then really drilling down and making in the third section your personal action plan. And so figuring out how you are going to come back and set yourself up both emotionally and cognitively and behaviorally so that you will have success, and maybe it’ll even be better than before. You know, I think some people are excited to be back. And some people are fearful to be back. And some people are, you know, feeling a little angry that they have to be back. And, you know, it wouldn’t be surprising if you had all of those emotions at one time. And so trying to really sort through how to create a return to work that optimizes the things that you’re excited about, and maybe, you know, allows you to tweak some of the things that you are not looking forward to so that they’re a little bit more appealing.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  09:01

So let’s today dive more deeply into the first theme: remember. So how can we honor the challenges and sorrow from the past year?

Dr. Brenda Bursch  09:10

So let me start by just saying why that might be important, you know, as I mentioned before, it takes time to really integrate some of our emotions with our memories and things that have happened, especially if they’re painful. And if you haven’t really had that much opportunity to talk about what you’ve gone through or for some people who journal, who write about it. If you’ve really just been mostly spinning in your own head about it, or if you’ve been ignoring it, or you’ve been working too hard to really think about it, then what you might notice is that you might, you know, have some lack of energy, you might have a down mood, you might be more irritable than you normally are. You might find that you’re thinking about it when you really don’t want to be, and, you know, it just makes it harder to do everything. It’s like wearing a 15 pound backpack everywhere you go. It’s just extra weight that you’re carrying at all times. And for some people, they’ve been working really, really hard and haven’t even taken a vacation in the last year and a half. For those people, when you take a vacation, you’ll notice that, oh my gosh, you’re suddenly thinking about all of these things that you haven’t thought about, and it’s not exactly the vacation you intended to have. For some people, they’ve had time, but they haven’t had any opportunity to, you know, actively really process what’s happened. And so to take that time to really do that is helpful. And, you know, I think before I kind of launch into the, how you do it, I want to just kind of take a little detour, if it’s okay with you, and just talk about the concept a little more abstractly in terms of suffering. Is that alright? If I do that for a second?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:44

Yeah, absolutely. And one of the things that you mentioned, this integrating your memories with your emotions, reminded me of our last podcast with you and how that is how you build resilience. So again, this is an opportunity for all of us to build more resilience as we move forward.

Dr. Brenda Bursch  11:02

That’s right. That’s right. We know that if you’re able to talk about some of those stories with people who would understand and be able to provide support to you, or if you journal about them, it’s a better way to tell the story than just to yourself. And when you tell it to yourself, we don’t dive as deep. And so we don’t do as good of a job of integrating our emotions with our memories. And that takes a longer time to move forward. But if we can share those stories in a meaningful way, and have some of those difficult emotions, or, you know, if you’re not someone who likes to chat, you can do it in as a journaling exercise. And for some people, painting or, you know, some other venue can work as well, to just really try to move through some of the suffering that you’ve endured. Yes, that was something we talked about in our last podcast. One of the things that I really started thinking about is the nature of suffering, you know. We in Western culture are, you know, oftentimes so privileged and so comfortable, that we can kind of get into a space where we feel that we should never suffer. And we forget sometimes the value of suffering. And you know, I don’t want to belittle in any way the immense suffering that some people have gone through over this past year. But I do think it is helpful to think about how it is that our frame of reference really can make suffering even worse in certain circumstances. And, you know, it’s all about expectation, right? So, and this is going to sound a little bit contrary to what I said earlier, which is that people who are a little bit more optimistic, you know, they tend to have this protectiveness around them, that helps them be a little bit more resilient. But on the other hand, if you’re so optimistic that you don’t think anything should ever go wrong, then it’s very disturbing when something does, and it feels unfair. It feels unjust. And that adds another layer of suffering. And so one of the first things about suffering that I think is important to kind of reflect on is that there is value there, it’s not easy, but it is possible at times for us to find value from things that we’ve gone through that are very difficult. And, you know, it’s how we learn. How we develop trust from somebody is working through difficult problems together. We suffer together. Some people even choose to suffer. I think it’s, you know, to me, I find it hilarious that some people want to run a marathon. To me, that is torture. But we do know that if you choose that type of suffering, that it’s not quite as bad than if you did not choose it. Some people would say that I was crazy for deciding to get a PhD and suffering through my PhD program, right. But the fact that I chose that helps give me strength and conviction and got me through the difficult times because I had this inspirational goal at the end. So I think that it does help to think, you know, there are times we are going to suffer. It’s kind of amazing that we’ve not been in this type of a global pandemic in our lifetimes. The other thing about suffering is that because we can think about the past and worry about the future, as well as the present, it means that we can suffer in all three time zones, so to speak. And so some people say that when you are worrying excessively about the future, you’re suffering now and you’re suffering when it actually happens. And sometimes when the real thing happens, it’s not as bad as you imagined. So really kind of thinking, am I suffering more than I need to be? Am I worrying too much about things, especially if they’re things that might not happen? And if you are, then you might not be suffering exactly at the right time. If you can put off suffering a little bit until you really know how bad it could be, then you’re reducing your suffering. And then the last thing that I wanted to just kind of mention before I get into the more practical things, is that, you know, one of the ways that we bond with each other, and it can be kind of fun, is by complaining. We all do it, we all engage in it, but sometimes when we’re doing that, we’re not being very action-oriented. And so we’re not actually thinking about “is there any way I can mitigate or fix this problem that’s causing me pain.” Maybe we feel like we’re helpless in this larger system. Maybe we’re just too tired, you know. There could be all sorts of reasons. But, you know, if you’re not focused on the source of the pain, then sometimes we miss opportunities to improve things. And so those are just kind of three different aspects of suffering that I think are helpful to reflect on, as you are thinking about your own suffering over the past year. And as you’re trying to figure out “is there anything, anything that can really come of this that I can take forward, that will enhance my life, bring me more joy, bring me more meaning?” You know, I mean, as I think about it, at a very, very basic level, one of the benefits, very concrete benefits of the pandemic was how overnight, everybody suddenly knows how to use all these electronic communication platforms that I think many of us were pretty clunky on before. And so it allows us to connect to each other in ways that we couldn’t before. And I don’t think there’s any turning the clock back on that. And so, you know, that there’s benefits to that, that we get to keep as an example. But let me get practical. You know, the first thing I’ll say about being practical and thinking about, you know, the things we’ve missed out on over the past year, you know, when you think about grief, it’s not just about losing people or pets. It’s about losing opportunities. It’s about missing big life events. It’s about not having, you know, the vacation you wanted, not having the wedding you wanted, not being able to visit a loved one, not being able to say goodbye to somebody who died, not being able to have a memorial service, not being able to have your normal routines, not being able to just chit chat with your friends at work. I mean, there’s so many big and little things that most people have lost out on over the past year and a half, that it really means that there’s a lot to grieve. And you might not have labeled some of those things that you’ve missed out on and your emotional reaction to them as grief. But if you’re feeling kind of blah, if you’re feeling a lack of energy, if you’re feeling a little bit depressed, it could be because you’ve got kind of layers of some grief there. Might not be heavy grief, or maybe it is. It really depends on what you’ve been through. But if you think about the grief, some of you might be aware of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who had five different emotional reactions to loss that might ring a bell for you. So their denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. You don’t have to go in order. You don’t have to experience them all. But you might be feeling any number of these. And you might have over the past year and a half. I remember in the beginning, before we went on our first lockdown thinking, “Oh, I remember the H1N1 pandemic, that wasn’t that big of a deal. Like, you know, this virus isn’t going to impact us that much. In fact, if we had to stay home for two weeks, that might be a nice change in routine.” I was looking forward to that, right. I had no idea, I think none of us did, partly didn’t have the information and partly were a little bit in denial, maybe. And then, you know, a lot of people felt very angry. So, you know, I know in the health system that was maybe feeling that there wasn’t enough protective gear available. Maybe in some of their work settings, it was feeling like there weren’t other protections in place, you know. There’s so many different ways that people were fearful, you know, we did not have very much information in the beginning about how this virus transmitted, how lethal it was gonna be, how long it was gonna go on. And it just was impossible to feel adequately supported. And so feeling angry because of that is a totally normal experience. You also might have been angry about the fact that some of your family members or friends were not taking it as seriously, or were taking it more seriously than you. And, you know, were kind of harassing you about it. Then, things started kind of going on for a while. And that’s when the bargaining started, right? It’s like, well, maybe in that first surge, you’re thinking, “Okay, all we have to do is lock down really hard for four weeks, you know, maybe, okay, maybe two months.” And then that just went on and on and on. And so we slowly really had to acclimate to this new reality. And then it’s interesting, too, that when we started hearing about coming back to work, there’s also bargaining thoughts that happen then, “But I’ve been working fine at home, do I really have to go back to the office, like, tell me why this is important. And what if I just do one or two days a week.” You know, so bargaining kind of comes back up again now. Depression, a really common feeling, especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed, if you’re feeling isolated. And the worst part is having some depressive feelings. So just feeling like it’ll never go away. You know, feeling like you’ll never be yourself again. Some people, they acclimated to working remotely, they acclimated to the new normal, they actually like it or they feel like they can do it. And so, you know, a sense of self competency and agency and all of that kind of came along, and it feels like something that could be in the rearview mirror soon. I think, you know, with the Delta surge, there was a little bit of backsliding when people felt like, “Oh, but we were turning the corner, and now here we are, again.” And so I think a lot of people feel kind of a resurgence of, you know, frustration, and sometimes anger, sometimes depression, anxiety, all of those things are kind of going back up a little bit as we’re having a surge. And if we have more surges, I’m sure they’ll happen again. So some people, you might just have lots of those feelings, they might all be interchangeable. We might fly through them, you might be stuck in one, any of that would be normal. But regardless of where you’re at, which of those emotions you might be feeling, and, you know, on top of that, some of you might have some trauma feelings, too, you might have had some pretty traumatic experiences over the last year. For any of those symptoms, it really is helpful to acknowledge that you’re experiencing them, to label it. Because when you label it, that allows you to be kinder to yourself, that allows you to think about what’s helped me in previous times when I’ve been going through grief, and it allows you to get advice from what we know, based on research can be helpful in those situations. And, you know, one of the first things is to remember that you could have reminders and things that trigger your emotions in different ways that you don’t even really expect. And so when those occur, and you’re kind of surprised, like “Why did I get grouchy at that? Why am I getting irritable? Why did I get jumpy? What happened that caused that? What is that reminding me of? Is there something that’s going on that’s triggering me or reminding me of something that I haven’t really spent enough time thinking about or talking about?” You know, some people will get through it quicker than others. For some, it could take months, it could take a year, it could take two years to really process everything that’s happened in the last year and a half. But really central as we were mentioning earlier is finding people that care about you, that you can tell your story to and that you can also reciprocate by listening to their stories. You can physically take care of yourself. Just be patient with yourself and cultivate some of those same skills we talked about earlier in terms of looking for some of those things that bring you joy or meaning, cultivating gratitude, looking for silver linings. So you really like want to go on the hunt, so that you can balance out some of the more difficult emotions you’re having with some little moments of relief. And those are some of the things that you can really do to more thoroughly process everything that’s happened, and have the best chance of really cultivating some value from it in a way that you can translate into helpful new ways of thinking, helpful, new routines, and, you know, helpful new goals for your life.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:53

That summary is so rich in advice and actionable steps. Trying to sum it all up, I mean, one thing that so many people will say when you do have grief or sorrow is that time is your friend. And by you describing all these different stages that you might go through to process your sorrow, that takes time. And also one of the things you highlight is the sense of recognizing, you mentioned recognizing your feeling of sorrow, but really in a way you want to recognize each of those parts of the stages of grieving or sense of loss. So that would allow you not to be feeling hopeless, for instance, in the stage of feeling down in the dumps, you know, and not feeling very excited about your day-to-day life, knowing that is part of a normal healthy process of grieving is sort of like raising a teenager, when they’re a little bit more pushing you back in the middle of their teenage years. You know, that’s okay, that’s part of the stage of growing up. Right?

Dr. Brenda Bursch  23:58

Right, accepting all the different parts. You know, even when we’re talking about the loss of a loved one, you know, and someone’s in the very deep throes of very intense grief, if they’re also able to look at some photos of that person and smile, or tell funny stories about something that they did with that person with other friends or family, you know, and really have that range of emotions so that you can be angry, they died, you could be just utterly tortured, that they died with terrible grief, and sadness, and also have these moments of glee, then I don’t worry about those individuals. I know that, you know, they have access to all of their emotions, and as long as they can continue to tap into all of them, they’re going to move through their grief, and they’re going to be able to go on and, you know, still miss their loved one, but be able to put it in a context where they’re not always overwhelmed with that intense grief over time. And so I think can be said for, you know, the grief of other things as well, not just the loss of a loved one.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  25:05

That’s very helpful to understand those ranges of emotion. If you can feel all of those, at some point in time, that also is encouraging. That’s good. I like that a lot. So thank you. And wrapping up, I just want to say that this episode that we just covered, the first of the three hours that you’re going to be covering. We’re looking forward to your next episode on the second theme for returning to the workplace called recovering.

Dr. Brenda Bursch  25:34

I look forward to it.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  25:35

Yeah, you’re always a fountain of information, wise, and also so compelling, and practical at the same time.

Dr. Brenda Bursch  25:44

Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  25:51

Thank you again for joining us. For more information about today’s episode, visit our website at healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcast. Today’s podcast was brought to you by the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA. To stay up to date with our episodes, subscribe to UCLA Live Well on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Leave us a rating to tell us how we’re doing. And if you think you know the perfect person for us to interview next. Please tweet your idea to us @HealthyUCLA. Have a wonderful rest of your day. And we hope you join us for our next episode as we explore new perspectives on health and well-being.

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