Self-care for burnt-out health care professionals
Feeling a sense of purpose and meaning in our work, we work endlessly to improve the mental health and well-being of others, but are not always that good at looking after our own needs. Counselling, nursing, parenting, teaching, being in a relationship...somehow we always tend to be the last person who is in need of care, compassion and self-care. A life of helping others is indeed a commendable one, but it is not much good if we end up exhausted and burnt out. We can only care for others if we care for ourselves, and there is there is only so much giving before you reach a state of exhaustion. In other words, if we struggle to justify caring for ourselves, remember we can only do good enough work if we nurture and take care of ourselves first. In the world of healthcare professions, including counselling and psychotherapy, resilience is the main topic at the moment. Therapists and healthcare professionals have come to realise that the vulnerable and those working on the front line are prone to burn out and compassion fatigue. More importantly, once they have reached a state of extreme exhaustion, it can be difficult for them to pull back in time from going right over the edge. Prevention is of upmost importance and there are ways to help us navigate the way:
Know your own strengths and weaknesses
We all know ourselves better than we think and need a bit of self- awareness to realise when we need to take a break or time out. For example: is there something you feel in your body? Does your head ache? Do you have back pain? Has your eczema flared up? Has your IBS has come back? Do you feel anxious, angry or overwhelmed? Have you lost your motivation in doing things you once enjoyed? Have you lost your sense of humour, your sex drive, have you interest in others?
Have other people noticed changes in your behaviour - your family and friends for example? Are you withdrawing from pleasure activities, friends and family? Our bodies will warn us that something is not right in our way of being; but, caught in the frenzy of life, it is at times hard to step back and take stock of where we are.
Ask for help from those around us
Don’t be afraid to ask a colleague to cover you at lunch time so you can take a break, or ask your partner to watch the children so you can take that luxury bath. Counsellors: if you are feeling tired and overwhelmed, consider referring a client who has just called you to another practitioner who will be able to support them while you recover. Remember: self-care is a sign of a good therapist.
Take time to recharge
If you are working, leave on time and take those allotted breaks to recharge and refresh your mind and body. In today’s culture many people say: “I am far too busy to take breaks and I eat at my desk” - however, this does not do your employer any favours, because without adequate rest they will not get the best from you. Counsellors: take adequate breaks between sessions so you can recharge your energy for the next client who walks through the door of your consulting room.
Nurture ourselves with quality food, sleep and rest
When life feels overwhelming it is easy to reach for ready-made meals and processed foods. But sometimes it is the simple things like cooking from scratch, drinking plenty of water and getting enough sleep that makes all the difference to our health and well-being.
Mindfulness encourages us to stop, breathe, and focus on our bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings without judgement. Mindfulness experts would advise us to take 10 minutes to focus on our bodies, without attaching any meaning to our aches and pains, thoughts and feelings. Benefit: it takes us outside of ourselves long enough to create space in a very rushed and hectic lifestyle and to give ourselves time to think.
Finally, embrace nature! If you live in the countryside listen to the leaves on the trees rustling in the wind, notice the colour of the leaves, feel the long grass and smell the flowers. If you live in the city, look out for signs of the sparrow and nightingale, admire the verges full of plants and wheat fronds that still grow.
Even if you live in the most concrete of places, take heed of the smallest weed pushing through the cracks on the pavement; you might be lucky enough to spot the little chamomile plants that have sprung up recently!