Eve Ekman (MSW '06, PhD '14): Cultivating Emotional Balance for Social Workers and Helping Professionals
Berkeley Social Welfare alumna Eve Ekman (MSW ’06, PhD ’14) describes her research as focusing on the application of “emotion regulation and basic mindfulness and meditation techniques” — techniques that she is currently teaching to both medical-resident trainees and the general public as part of her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine.
Noting the Osher Center’s uniqueness within the medical institution as embracing an “Eastern, contemplative approach to healing,” Dr. Ekman says that her work with the residents is a briefer version of the evidence-based Cultivating Emotional Balance (CEB) trainings she offers throughout the world. Developed by her father, Dr. Paul Ekman, and Dr. B. Alan Wallace, CEB is a mindfulness-based intervention (MBI) that she first started teaching in 2010 while still a PhD student at Berkeley Social Welfare.
“I did my doctoral work in a juvenile jail with people I consider to be care providers — the guards,” Dr. Ekman explains. “Now I’m working with care providers who are physicians. There are a lot of differences, but I think in these institutions — hospitals, jails or schools —you have workers whose everyday empathy and compassion make a big difference for the people they work with.”
She notes that the UCSF residents have taken a particular interest in her trainings because “the scientific evidence of why this works definitely resonates, and they’re excited about how they can use it for their patients, as well.”
Dr. Ekman emphasizes that social workers and others on the frontlines of the helping professions, in particular, are “susceptible to so much empathy fatigue because of the work and the systems they work within. My kind of pithy line is, ‘If you really want to manage your stress, you have to understand your emotions,’ because stress is just the over-arousal of emotions. Nothing more and nothing less,’” she explains.
“My work is helping workers prevent burnout, and there are so many different things that can work for people. I’m not going to say that meditation and emotional regulation are the only things, but I do believe there are components that work — some form of social support and communications, some form of inquiry and reflection and some form of getting close to your intention, aspiration and meaning.
“I can walk into a room with all MSWs, and they would be able to quickly tell me their core motivations,” she continues. “They will be able to reflect on their experiences and share with each other. What they tend to have more difficulty doing, however, is prioritizing and practicing self-care," which Dr. Ekman contends is vital for both personal and professional development. “To make time for it or believe in some way they deserve it is a big obstacle for social workers and healthcare providers. The idea, ‘I deserve to be cared for, too’ is a big leap.”
Dr. Ekman, who is the first and only social worker to have researched and served as a postdoc at the Osher Center, is hopeful that CEB becomes included “as part of therapeutic interventions or trainings that caregivers already have.”>
“I am consistently researching how to use Cultivating Emotional Balance [tools], especially for high-stress caregiving populations,” she says. “It’s very intimidating to think about sitting for 20 minutes with your own mind when you’re truly struggling with secondary traumatic stress, lack of sleep and all sorts of other complex grief, or dealing with things happening in your daily work.
“I think brief moments of meditation — this aspect of regularity and coming together — are really where it’s at and supported in classic contemplative practice. There’s this idea of many moments of awareness, which is a truly awesome practice.”
Dr. Eve Ekman and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet