In the human service arena, organizations are getting better at recognizing the need to encourage self-care for their employees. Indeed, taking care of oneself is an essential element in combatting compassion fatigue. Those that suffer from chronic exposure to stress and secondary trauma are left exhausted and can feel a need to shut out the source of their pain.
Unfortunately, this leads some to choose activities in the name of “self-care,” that involve numbing our emotional connections. This can create a disconnect when what we need is to reconnect.
I’m not just referring to drinking or other substance use. Numbing can also include “vegging” in front of the television, playing repetitive games on your phone, or mindlessly scrolling through social media. None of these activities are necessarily harmful in themselves. They just might lack the nourishing connection that real self-care can provide. Even worse, it is difficult to selectively numb negative emotions without losing the positive ones. Thus, we are inadvertently denying ourselves the source of genuine healing and revitalization.
There is a valid need to transition from work to home, but this should involve identifying feelings not numbing them. For human service workers, it is useful to develop habits to help process the events and emotions of the day. Transition rituals, like routine debriefing, creates a healthy boundary that allows us to put the day behind us and be present for other aspects of our life.
Additionally, we all occasionally need to unwind from a challenging days’ work, especially those who work in stressful environments. However, there is a fine line between what is relaxing and what is numbing. When we are effectively caring for our mind, body and spirit, we should feel a sense of rejuvenation. Remember, it is not the activity itself that is the problem, it is how you are engaging in it. It is up to you to determine if you are engaging in an activity to numb or to connect. When choosing to unwind, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does this activity help me to feel rejuvenated?
- Does this activity help me to focus?
- Does this activity increase my awareness?
- Can I keep track of time during this activity (as opposed to time slipping away without our knowledge?)
- Does this activity help me to sleep better?
Try to choose activities that you can answer yes to.
Of course, effective self-care involves developing habits that incorporate self-care strategies into our regular routines. Here are just a few self-care ideas that are connective:
Engaging the senses: Activities that engage our senses ground us to the present. This might include listening to music, appreciating visual art, noticing beauty in nature, or savoring a nutritious meal. Enlivening the five senses of touch, sound, sight, smell and taste, heighten our awareness as well as our appreciation of our surroundings.
Rest and relaxation: Ensuring a good night’s sleep is one of the most compassionate things we can do for both our bodies and our minds. In addition to committing to a reasonable bedtime, it is also important to learn relaxation techniques that incorporate body awareness. Techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and meditation, help us to switch on our parasympathetic nervous system to decompress from our stress responses and increase our bodies ability to rest.
Taking walks: We all know exercising is good for the body, but it doesn’t have to involve going to the gym. Just get moving. A walk around the block can help you process your thoughts, fill your lungs with fresh air and increase circulation. Doing it outdoors gives you the added benefit of connecting with nature.
Being creative: Write, sing, paint, build, sew…being creative in any form involves emotional expression at some level. Besides, there is no denying the surge of positive energy that comes from creating something.
Recreation and leisure: I like to lead participants in my self-care trainings in an exercise that involves naming the activities that they did as a child or young adult that brought them joy. So often we push play or other amusements out of our lives because we view it as unimportant. When in fact, it can be a valuable contribution to our overall well-being.
Though, choosing effective self-care strategies like those mentioned above might involve a little more thought and planning, there is an added benefit. Practicing self-care that is connective instead of numbing can increase our ability to connect with others; and social connectivity is one of our most powerful sources of healing and resiliency.
To learn more about compassion fatigue and how to build resiliency in individuals and organizations, check out my book The Compassion Fatigued Organization: Restoring Compassion to Helping Professionals.