Chances are good that you’ve served in a helping or caregiving role for someone else at some point in your life. My definition of “helper or caregiver” is pretty broad. It includes not only those who work professionally in a helping role (health care workers, counselors, therapists, teachers, clergy, first responders), but also family and friends who provide care for loved ones with health issues, disabilities and other limitations or challenges.
We’re learning more and more how stressful these helping and caregiving responsibilities can be, as the tasks involved often require long hours, physical stamina, sustained concentration, and emotional investment. In return, helpers and caregivers may receive little thanks or gratitude for their efforts.
Much has been written about the importance of self-care for helpers and caregivers. As it’s been often said, you can’t take care of someone else if you don’t take care of yourself first. The common analogy that may come to mind is that of putting your own oxygen mask on first in an airplane before attempting to assist others.
Without proper self-care, many negative physical and emotional consequences can occur, variously labeled “burnout,” “compassion fatigue,” and “secondary or vicarious traumatization.” In some prolonged or severe circumstances, even post-traumatic stress disorders may arise.
I recently reviewed the book “The Resilient Practitioner: Burnout and Compassion Fatigue Prevention and Self-Care Strategies for the Helping Professions” (2016; 3rd edition) by psychologists Thomas M. Skovholt and Michelle Trotter-Mathison. This excellent resource includes a discussion of one dozen areas for “nurturing one’s self” to proactively manage and reduce stress and to prevent some of the more extreme negative consequences from helping or caregiving.
Let’s take a quick look at these 12 strategies for helpers and caregivers to improve their overall self-care.
1. Handling emotions
One approach to improve emotional self-care is to foster self-compassion, which includes being kind toward yourself in the face of adversity and to not be overly self-critical, as well as accepting your flaws and forgiving yourself for your shortcomings. Emotional self-care can also include seeing a professional counselor or psychotherapist to bolster self-esteem, self-awareness and self-understanding.
2. Financial management
Even though the work can be very satisfying, many helpers and caregivers are not well compensated financially. Financial self-care includes practicing basic financial wellness strategies such as budgeting, sensible investing, and not falling prey to cultural messages that career or personal success should be equated with financial wealth.
Having a healthy sense of humor can be a great way to manage stress. However, it can often be difficult for helpers and caregivers to find humor when constantly faced with overwhelming demands. It’s important to actively look for jokes, funny stories, and humorous media which can bring a smile or a laugh to help break some of the everyday tension.
Having love and supportive relationships is a tremendous asset which helps one cope and manage life stressors. This can be found through intimate relationships, close friendships, supportive family, and through raising children or by caring for pets. These types of loving relationships have been shown to increase personal resilience and coping and overall health.
Making healthy nutritional choices and following a balanced diet brings countless physical and emotional health benefits. Nutrition basics to follow include not skipping meals, staying hydrated, keeping healthy snacks at hand, and understanding how to read and interpret nutritional labels on foods.
6. Physical activity
The wide array of health benefits from regular physical activity are well known. It’s important to intentionally plan for several periods of concentrated physical activity each week and to include a variety of aerobic and strength-building exercises to provide optimal health benefits. Adequate sleep and rest is another vital component of overall physical self-care.
We certainly know about the effects of “all work and no play.” To combat the overwhelming stresses of helping and caregiving, activities which incorporate deliberate playfulness should be part of one’s overall self-care plan. Look for opportunities to get outdoors, explore new destinations, and most importantly, have some fun.
8. Setting priorities
Let’s face it; there’s never enough time to get everything done. With today’s technology, it’s easy to be “on-call” 24/7/365 and to fall prey to information and media overload. Therefore, it’s critical to take time to set priorities to separate work from home and to carefully manage our time in a way that’s consistent with our most important personal values.
Having active interests and hobbies can be another great way to promote self-care. You can get lost in your Star Wars or decorative china collections, or spend an enjoyable afternoon bird-watching or playing the guitar. Or perhaps it’s time to take up a new hobby to immerse yourself in to bring a renewed sense of excitement and personal satisfaction to your life.
While helpers and caregivers can be great teachers of stress management and relaxation techniques to others, they sometimes forget to use these beneficial practices on themselves. Remember to incorporate times for relaxation, mindfulness, or yoga, as these can be tremendously effective in reducing stress and bringing greater focus and clarity.
Since helpers and caregivers spend a large amount of time working around others, it’s vital to build in some alone time each day or at least a few times per week. Periods of solitude can be used for reflection, planning, or to incorporate some of the previously mentioned strategies such as exercise, hobbies, relaxation or play.
Spirituality means different things to different people, but including faith-based activities such as church, spiritual reading, or prayer can help one connect with their own spiritual or religious beliefs and provide avenues for social connection and support with like-minded others.
Collectively, these 12 strategies for promoting self-care for helpers and caregivers encompass the four key dimensions of emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual health. While I have characterized these strategies as important for the well-being and self-care of helpers and caregivers, it’s probably no surprise that they can help almost anyone cope better with personal challenges and stress. Give them a try and see.
Here’s a question: What self-care strategies have you found helpful, and what new strategies could you consider trying in the near future? Please leave a comment. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Finally, if you enjoyed this article, please share it with a friend. Thanks!