Today’s post features Shannon Stirrup, BS. Shannon is a Licensed Occupational Therapist and Clinical Supervisor to Occupational Therapy students at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa (total geek moment for me that my blog has reached people from other parts of the world!). Shannon’s professional passions include community and mental health, and she’s here to share invaluable lessons that she has learned through her work. If you want to learn more about tricks from her trade that are super easy to apply, keep reading!

Most people have heard about or are familiar with the profession of Occupational Therapy, but what exactly does an Occupational Therapist (OT) do?

No, they can’t help you find a job, they do not just play with children all day, and their role is different than that of a physical therapist.

Occupational Therapists receive extensive education and training to help support and provide treatment to individuals with varying physical, and/or cognitive challenges. Occupational Therapists work with clients to identify their goals and help them regain their ability to participate in life through “occupations,” which are defined as everyday activities that bring meaning and purpose to one’s life. Some examples of occupations include one’s career, going to the gym, playing with friends, eating, sleeping, or even caring for one’s pet.

There are 8 areas of occupation that OTs look at, when helping clients to identify goals:

1. Play

2. Activities of Daily Living (ADLs)

a. Sleeping, hygiene, eating, etc.

3. Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADLs)

a. Caring for others, community mobility, financial management, etc.

4. Work

5. Leisure

6. Rest & Sleep

7. Education

8. Social Participation

Occupational Therapists utilize a holistic approach. When looking at the limitations interfering with a person’s ability to function independently, OTs consider the social, cognitive, physical, cultural, and environmental factors, which all contribute to a person’s functioning.

In OT, the goal is to heal the mind, body, and soul, through the practice of helping clients to identify their occupations and set goals which lead to desired outcomes, ultimately empowering clients to live purposeful, meaningful lives. Witnessing how this works has impacted the clients I work with, and I’ve learned that many practices of the OT profession are applicable to general life.

Here are 7 lessons I’ve learned as an OT, that you can easily try on your own:

Lesson #1 Set SMART Goals:

Goals are important because they help to get a person from where they are to where they hope to be. They provide us with a sense of clarity, direction, and motivation, to make our dreams a reality. When determining goals, it’s helpful to have SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-based), instead of immediately jumping to those big goals.

Having consistent, smaller, and attainable goals can result in big changes over time, and reduce the feelings of being overwhelmed, which often come from trying to tackle bigger goals. For example, if one has the goal to meditate for 30 minutes, but they have never meditated previously, this would be really challenging! Setting a big goal like this, will likely discourage the individual from continuing on with their goal. Here’s what can be done instead:

· Day 1: meditate for 2 minutes

· Day 2: meditate for 3 minutes

· Day 3: meditate for 4 minutes

Continue increasing the frequency as the days go on. By starting with smaller goals and gradually building up, it’s easier to reach that overall goal of meditating for 30 minutes. Any desired goal can be broken down into smaller steps.

Lesson #2 Patience Leads to Perseverance:

Most things that we are good at, we were not magically good at from the onset—it took time and practice to get there. This will likely be true for future goals as well. The more you do something, the better at it you will become. It’s ok to feel frustrated, but try not to become discouraged after experiencing difficulty; take a step back from the situation and breathe. It can also be beneficial to clear your mind from chaotic thoughts. Remember, challenges are how we learn. People who are able to persevere through upsets, are more likely to transcend challenges and reach their desired goals.

Let’s look at an example: learning how to drive. Most individuals learn to drive at some point in their life. With new driving, anxiety and stress levels are high. New drivers have no clue what to do or how to operate a vehicle that has the potential to cause harm to themselves and others. If new drivers gave up, no one would know how to drive, which isn’t the case. Instead, new drivers are committed to the process; they continue to practice and take lessons before passing their driver’s test. Most people who drive, get in the car every day, free of that initial stress they felt when they sat behind the wheel for the first time.

Think about a time where you have persevered through something difficult which resulted in a positive outcome of growth and development. Reflect upon how you initially felt, and how you were able to master that goal.

Lesson #3 Acknowledge What You Can and Cannot Control: 

The truth is, no matter how hard we try, there are some things that are just out of our control. While we might not have control over external factors or situations, we usually have some options of how to respond. Examples of what one can control are one’s actions, reactions, forms of expression, use of time, and effort. Examples of what one cannot control are things such as other people’s reactions, the weather, and traffic.

People find themselves overwhelmed with stress and worry because life can be really challenging. However, this ultimately doesn’t help the situation and can even cause the outcome we fear most because it takes time and energy away from those things we can control and focus on.

Let’s try an exercise to practice:

1. Get a piece of paper and pen.

2. Draw a large circle on the paper.

3. Draw a smaller circle in the larger circle.

4. Write down what you cannot control in the large circle and make it as specific as possible to your life.

5. Write down what you can control in the smaller circle and make it as specific as possible to your life.

Refer to the example diagram below, for possible guidance:

Once this exercise is completed, challenge yourself to acknowledge what you cannot control. Try to shift your focus to what you can control, and determine how these things can be improved.

Lesson #4 Stop Comparing Yourself to Others and Capitalize on Your Strengths:

We are all imperfect humans living in an imperfect world. We each have flaws—yes, AND we also have strengths. It’s hard not to focus on what we don’t have or what we wish we could do, which can lead us to stagnation. It’s essential to identify our strengths and play off of them. Remember, everyone is better at something than someone else.

This will help to shift the mindset and focus on how to make better use of those strengths.

You can recognize your strengths through becoming more aware of what you enjoy doing every day, by physically writing them down. Another way to recognize your strengths is to ask for feedback from others.

Once you have figured out your strengths, spend time developing them. If you find yourself in a certain scenario or challenge, ask yourself how you can use these strengths in this specific situation.

Lesson #5 Practice Empowerment:

When we empower, we assist in making ourselves and others feel more confident, which leads to an increased sense of control. Practicing this is powerful, because it can lead to a sense of achievement, purpose, and fulfillment.

Here are some ways to practice empowerment:

· Challenge yourself to answer your own questions and try solutions first, before asking for help. This doesn’t mean you should not ask for help at all; instead, challenge yourself before seeking assistance. This will assist in gaining a level of confidence and independence.

· Become more conscious of the world around you and your position in it. Increased awareness of surroundings and understanding how certain factors influence life can be essential to the shifting of power dynamics.

· Honor your core values. Sometimes it can be difficult to go against the crowd, but challenge yourself to say, “no,” to things that do not align with your values.

· Exercise self-expression. There are multiple ways to express yourself; whether it be through speech, drawing, dancing, or how you dress. Expressing yourself is a way for you to connect to others and the world around you, as well as communicate your thoughts and values.

· When empowering others, do not just give them the answers. This will increase their dependency, and likely make them feel insecure. Empower them by offering support, encouragement, and teaching them how to reach their own goals.

Lesson #6 Embrace Fear:

Fear is an unpleasant emotion that usually holds us back, preventing us from taking action. Negative thoughts or past experiences usually cause the emotion of fear to arise. It is a known fact that fear can protect us from dangerous situations, as it causes a person to operate out of flight, fight, or freeze, making fear crucial to survival. On the contrary, in ambiguous situations, one may choose to operate out or flight, fight, or freeze even though the situation may not be life threatening. People tend to be fearful of the thoughts that take place in the mind, whilst in reality nothing has yet taken place.

Here are some helpful ways for you to embrace fear:

· Challenge yourself to face your fears directly instead of avoiding them. This instils confidence and will help you begin to learn that your negative thoughts often hold you back. The possibility of this fear recurring is likely, thus be ready for it.

· Slowly ease yourself into the fear, for example: if you hate public speaking—first practice in front of a friend or partner, then practice in front of a few friends, and so on.

· Practice visualization. Visualize yourself performing with competence and confidence, as this image will eventually be accepted by your subconscious mind. This is a technique I highly recommend and one that I personally use.

· Attempt new things, confront your thoughts and challenge yourself to take risks in situations because this is how we move out of our comfort zone.

Lesson #7 Find Meaning: 

A core belief in OT is that occupation brings meaning to people’s lives. The idea of doing is the remedy for self-actualization and purposeful action. Meaning can easily be linked with finding purpose in life. When you look for meaning or purpose, look to the things that drive you, energize you, and make you excited to get up in the morning. You can start by writing down 5 things that are important to you, and asking yourself these questions:

· What do I enjoy doing in my life?

· What brings me a sense of joy, fulfillment, or a sense of contribution to the world and the people around me?

· Is there something that specifically connects me to people and instils a sense of belonging?

What you find meaning in can be integrated into your life at some point in time, whether it’s now, daily, weekly, or sometime in the next few months, or even years. The point is that striving for a meaningful life will bring a greater sense of purpose and accomplishment than merely just surviving day-to-day. Practice prioritizing the above named 5 things into your life and be mindful of your thoughts and feelings during this process.

So, you’ve read this post—now what? Well, friends, it is time to challenge yourself! What 3 things can you do today, to start making changes? It’s never too late to make changes, because all you have to do is try.

For more tips on increasing cognizance and living a meaningful life, check out Shannon’s blog, and connect with her on social media!

Written by Shannon Stirrup, BS, Licensed Occupational Therapist