Reflections on Caring for Ourselves

Reflections on Caring for Ourselves

Now, in the late autumn, I’m reminded again how seasons change.  At times predictable, waxing and waning as we expect.  At others, more sudden or surprising.  In this moment, for example, I look out to the first snowfall covering the trees around my house.  Beautiful, calming.  Cold, new.

As we move through life and in this work of understanding the impact of trauma and adversity, while deepening into trauma-responsiveness we follow the same predictable-unpredictable nature of the seasons.  We know the prevalence of trauma.  We feel the vulnerability of our humanity.  To love can mean to lose.  Caring deeply can lead us to exhaustion (compassion fatigue) and compromise our ability to extend empathy and patience to others.  To be open to the experiences of others, we risk being traumatized ourselves (vicarious trauma). 

At the same time, lives continue in a frantic pace -demands of work, of family, of relationships and commitments swirl around us.  Catching us up in the speed, the pressure to multi-task.  For many New Yorkers, moving into November means heading towards big deadlines at work -end of year reports, data review, benchmarking.  There is a flurry of holidays throughout the late fall and through the winter for many faiths and cultures adding in their own predictable-unpredictable elements.  It is a good time to remind ourselves and each other of self-care.

In some ways, self-care has become a new buzz word.  A phrase we promote but rarely practice.  The last 5 minutes of a presentation on trauma that is often hurried, rushed.  A passing reminder, “Remember Self-Care, its important!”.  I’m guilty of this in my own work and the metaphor to the place of self-care in our lives is undeniable.  So, as we launch into November, let’s take a moment.  Take a breath and invest in our own care.

Many of us don’t even know how to go about it!  Self-care is not a trip to the spa or aspirational hobbies such taking up mountain climbing.  It does not need to cost money, and it does not need to take large moments of time.  What it “is” is regular.  It is routine.  It is restorative.  As one commentator reminded us, it is taking a breath at a stoplight and reminding ourselves, “I’m ok.  My kids are ok. It will all be ok.”

The best suggestion I can offer about establishing your self-care routine is to first identify what fills your bucket.  Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, a national expert on resiliency, offers this framework… Whatever finishes this phrase for you “I ______ed it out”.  This can be… I ran it out.  I talked it out.  I sang it out.  I played it out.  I walked it out.  I laughed it out.  I drew it out.  These are things that fill you back up, that when you to them regularly you generally feel better, more in balance, and more able to manage stress in your life.  Maybe its as simple as a weekly call to family member or trusted friend to connect, share, cry or laugh.

Consider planning for self-care as a group -a family, friends, colleagues -your team or members of your department.  Here are some steps to guide this activity:

  1. Brainstorm.  Think of things you can do regularly that help you feel better.  Also think of things that you can do in the moment with no special planning, when you feel your stress start to rise.  These can include things like deep breathing, stretching, or even having a piece of dark chocolate in your desk drawer.  For emergencies.
  2. Write down your plan.  Research has shown that we are more likely to follow through with something that we’ve written down.  Use this as a strategy to help reinforce this new habit with yourself.
  3. Share the plan.  Consider posting it where you can see it regularly as a visual reminder but also share it with your family, friends, and colleagues.
  4. Prompt and encourage.  When you do this activity as a group, commit to encouraging each other to start new habits, find moments in time, and practice self-care.  This may be as simple as acknowledging a colleague’s stressful day and inviting them to take a walk with you at lunch if walking is part of their plan. 

A culture of self-care grows when we authentically encourage each other to try.  It grows when we begin to challenge the subliminal messages to avoid it -like the eye roll when someone sets a boundary and says “no” to taking on a new task.  The not-so subtle “Again?” response when a staff requests time off.  Instead, let’s celebrate these moments when we tune in, acknowledge what we need to feel full again, so that we may bring our best selves to our family, our work, our friends, and the people we serve.

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