self care

7 Ways We Can Support Mental Health in the Animal Welfare Community

“Look how involved we all are just under the surface, and let’s try to help each other.” 

– Jennifer Michael Hecht

Doing animal welfare work is intense emotional labor. It takes a toll on every single one of us working to meet the needs of animals and people who are suffering, traumatized, and in need of our ongoing compassionate care.

We can and must take daily actions to care for ourselves as we engage in this challenging work. Only we can take care of ourselves. No one else can do that for us.

But we also need each other. We need the support and understanding that only people who do this unique work can offer one another. We can’t thrive in isolation. Connection is critical to our health.

The quality of that connection matters. For example, research reveals that having coworkers who are supportive and collaborative can increase our compassion satisfaction levels, which helps to lower compassion fatigue.

The flip side of that coin is to acknowledge that we are also capable of, and often do, cause each other as much pain as the work itself does.

Rather than feed into an environment of horizontal violence, we can instead choose to create a culture that supports well-being and where our values of compassion towards animals extends to the human animals around us as well. Even when we disagree with each other, we can choose to reduce the amount of harm we inflict on ourselves and those around us.

Here are just a few ideas for supporting mental health in our community:

1. Stop bullying. The hateful comments attacking individuals and organizations that are being posted on Facebook and beyond aren’t benign or helpful. They are causing extreme suffering in our community.

Our actions can create painful conditions for others which may have a serious impact on their mental health. Let me put it this way: Suicide is often the result of multiple risk factors and while there is no particular set risk factors that accurately predicts imminent danger of suicide, there are a number of stressful situations or events that may increase the likelihood of a suicide attempt or death, such as: a previous suicide attempt, extreme loss, harassment, an active suicide cluster in a community, mental illness, bullying, isolation, and severe stress.

While we can’t control if someone has a mental illness, we can control our own actions and make the choice not to bully or harass others, no matter how much we disagree with them.

Before you post a nasty comment do this: Pause. Take a deep breath. Direct your awareness inward. What are you feeling right now? Pain? Sadness? Anger? Hopelessness? When we lash out it’s often an attempt to pass the pain along and avoid our own difficult emotions.

What pain is the bullying and trolling temporarily numbing out for you?

Take responsibility for yourself. Feel your emotions. Be sad. Be angry. Have compassion for your own suffering. You will do less harm to yourself and others if you process your emotions. Then use your energy to make concrete positive changes for animals in your corner of the world.

2. Organize peer support groups. We need to talk about what we experience at work on a regular basis, so that we can process and let go of what we see and do in a healthy and constructive way. We understand each other’s trauma and sorrow. Friends, family, and others may be traumatized or have a hard time understanding our work. We can’t expect them to be the only source of support for us or be able to listen to our stories each day.

Form a support group that meets weekly or monthly. You can do it online with peers in your field or at work (managers, make sure there is time for this). Bring in a counselor to facilitate one or more sessions to help you get started. Connect with professionals, mentors, managers, and peers who can bear witness and help you process both the details, but even more importantly, your feelings about your work.

Learn four different ways to debrief, including what managers need to know about having a critical incident debriefing plan.

Here’s some advice on creating a peer support group.

Also of note: In Defense of Animals has a free support hotline for animal rights activists.

animal welfare mental health

3. Help create healthy boundaries. Can’t stop thinking about work even when you’re off the clock? We can help ourselves and others by creating a ritual to download and decompress before we leave work.

Here’s one way to do that: Jackie Burke, clinical director of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia recommends meeting with your boss, a supportive work peer who is still on the clock, or a notebook to talk or write about the upsetting things that happened that day and what you will do to try to feel ok about it, before you go home.

Do this every day. Record your feelings related to the work day before you punch out (literally or figuratively, if you work at a home-based rescue). The goal is immediate reflection to avoid repression of the traumatic content you’ve accumulated all day and to avoid getting stuck in rumination later.

Organizations also need to step up their boundary game, so that staff can care for themselves. Read more here.

4. Be #StigmaFree. Help break down the misinformation and stigma around mental illness and seeking mental health help. Mental illnesses, such as depression and PTSD, are not the result of personal weakness.

1 in 5 adults in America lives with a mental health condition and suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. So many of us are suffering. No one should feel alone, shamed, or stigmatized.

Mental health, just like physical health, exists on a continuum. At one time or another, due to many factors, all of us will need a doctor’s help to maintain or treat our physical body. It’s the same with our mental health! Many of us would benefit from having some outside help from a professional to support our emotional well-being. There’s no shame in that, just like there’s no shame in having strep throat and seeing your physician for treatment.

We can break down stigmas by sharing our own experiences and resources. If you have a great therapist that understands your work with animals, let your coworkers and friends know that you are receiving help in this way and share your counselor’s number. Make sure your staff knows about their mental health benefits and if they don’t have any, see what you can do to fix that. Let those around you know that you understand what they’re going through, that they’re not alone, and that help is available.

Learn how to be a light in the darkness.

5. Get proactive about your own mental health. This work is so tough. Although compassion fatigue is a normal consequence of the work we do – it is not a mental illness – many of us would benefit from some extra support at one time or another.

Do some research and get help now, before you are in crisis. It’s smart and courageous to get yourself into therapy or reach out to a pastor or counselor while you are still pretty much OK. You can start by investigating what your insurance does or doesn’t cover and researching therapists in your area that have experience with secondary traumatic stress or the human-animal bond.

Set yourself up with support today, which will not only help you stay well, but if the poop does hit the fan in the future, you’ll already have someone competent in your corner. Be aware that you may not find the right therapist the first go around. It’s a relationship and you may need to meet a few people before you find the right match for yourself.

Get your mental health plan in place now.

Here are some resources for getting help:

Look up therapists on PsychologyToday.com or GoodTherapy.org

A Beginner’s Guide to Therapy

6. Create a martyr-free zone. Suffering is not a competitive sport. Animal welfare doesn’t need any more self-sacrificing heroes. The people I admire most are the ones who recognize their limits and commit to taking care of themselves, so that they can perform ethical, effective work for the long haul.

Instead of bragging about not sleeping or being too busy to care for ourselves, let’s encourage each other and our staff to take bathroom and lunch breaks, vacations, and make regular visits to the doctor or the gym. No guilt trips or unnecessary interruptions when others are off the clock or need to say “no.” We can can celebrate limits, rest, and renewal, knowing that this investment in ourselves is what allows us to show up and do great work for many years to come.

Let’s put an end to praising and promoting poor quality of life. We can be well and do good. In fact, we must do both. We’ll save more lives (including our own) that way…

7. Increase understanding of suicide prevention. Many people are uncomfortable with the topic of suicide. But too many of us are taking our own lives, so we must talk about it openly. If it’s left hidden in secrecy, then we can’t implement effective prevention. Let’s commit to dispelling the myths around suicide, understanding the risk factors, and increasing our competency in helping to prevent suicides.

Get familiar with the warning signs, know how to take action, and always remember that connection – knowing that someone out there sees and cares about us – makes a major difference.

Going back to #1: your actions matter. Suicide prevention is up to all of us.

Resources for prevention training:

QPR Institute

A state by state guide to suicide prevention trainings and resources

A comprehensive list of gaterkeeper programs

Important numbers to know if you or someone you know is having suicidal ideations:

911: call if an attempt has been made, a weapon is present, and/or the person is out of control.

800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 24-7 help that’s anonymous, connecting you to local resources that can help if you or someone you know is in crisis.

State crisis hotlines: Research your local hotline numbers. For example, there is Maine Crisis Hotline answered 24-7 with crisis workers who are mobile and can go to any site that is safe.

These are all steps that we can take to increase positive conditions and support mental health in our community.

We all need to make an effort to shift to a more healthy and positive workplace culture, which includes characteristics such as: providing support for one another, offering kindness and compassion when others are struggling, avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes, and treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust, and integrity.

Let’s make a commitment to one another to help create a culture, within the larger animal welfare community and in our daily work, that promotes health, wellness, and respect for each other. Because we’re all in this together.

What else can we do? Tell me in the comments.

Do Not Lose Heart, We Were Made for These Times by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés

written by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Mis estimados:

Do not lose heart. We were made for these times.

I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world right now. It is true, one has to have strong cojones and ovarios to withstand much of what passes for “good” in our culture today. Abject disregard of what the soul finds most precious and irreplaceable and the corruption of principled ideals have become, in some large societal arenas, “the new normal,” the grotesquerie of the week.

It is hard to say which one of the current egregious matters has rocked people’s worlds and beliefs more. Ours is a time of almost daily jaw-dropping astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.

You are right in your assessments. The luster and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is — we were made for these times.

Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement. I cannot tell you often enough that we are definitely the leaders we have been waiting for, and that we have been raised, since childhood, for this time precisely.

I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able crafts in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.

I would like to take your hands for a moment and assure you that you are built well for these times.

 

Despite your stints of doubt, your frustrations in righting all that needs change right now, or even feeling you have lost the map entirely, you are not without resource, you are not alone. Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. In your deepest bones, you have always known this is so.

Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a greater forest. That long-grained lumber is known to withstand storms, to hold together, to hold its own, and to advance, regardless.

We have been in training for a dark time such as this, since the day we assented to come to Earth. For many decades, worldwide, souls just like us have been felled and left for dead in so many ways over and over — brought down by naiveté, by lack of love, by suddenly realizing one deadly thing or another, by not realizing something else soon enough, by being ambushed and assaulted by various cultural and personal shocks in the extreme.

We all have a heritage and history of being gutted, and yet remember this especially: we have also, of necessity, perfected the knack of resurrection.

bird in hand

Over and over again we have been the living proof that that which has been exiled, lost, or foundered — can be restored to life again. This is as true and sturdy a prognosis for the destroyed worlds around us as it was for our own once mortally wounded selves.

Though we are not invulnerable, our risibility supports us to laugh in the face of cynics who say “fat chance,” and “management before mercy,” and other evidences of complete absence of soul sense. This, and our having been “to hell and back” on at least one momentous occasion, makes us seasoned vessels for certain. Even if you do not feel that you are, you are.

Even if your puny little ego wants to contest the enormity of your soul, that smaller self can never for long subordinate the larger Self. In matters of death and rebirth, you have surpassed the benchmarks many times. Believe the evidence of any one of your past testings and trials. Here it is: Are you still standing? The answer is, Yes! (And no adverbs like “barely” are allowed here). If you are still standing, ragged flags or no, you are able. Thus, you have passed the bar. And even raised it. You are seaworthy.

In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. Do not make yourself ill with overwhelm.

 

There is a tendency too to fall into being weakened by perseverating on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.

We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn’t you say you were a believer? Didn’t you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn’t you ask for grace? Don’t you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the Voice greater? You have all the resources you need to ride any wave, to surface from any trough.

In the language of aviators and sailors, ours is to sail forward now, all balls out. Understand the paradox: If you study the physics of a waterspout, you will see that the outer vortex whirls far more quickly than the inner one. To calm the storm means to quiet the outer layer, to cause it, by whatever countervailing means, to swirl much less, to more evenly match the velocity of the inner, far less volatile core — till whatever has been lifted into such a vicious funnel falls back to Earth, lays down, is peaceable again.

One of the most important steps you can take to help calm the storm is to not allow yourself to be taken in a flurry of overwrought emotion or despair — thereby accidentally contributing to the swale and the swirl.

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.

 

Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts — adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take “everyone on Earth” to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. A soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.

The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of the soul in shadowy times like these — to be fierce and to show mercy toward others, both — are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

There will always be times in the midst of “success right around the corner, but as yet still unseen” when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it; I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.

The reason is this: In my bones I know, as do you, that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours: They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here.

In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But … that is not what great ships are built for.

This comes with much love and prayer that you remember who you came from, and why you came to this beautiful, needful Earth.

 


Do Not Lose Heart, We Were Made for These Times,” (a/k/a “Letter to a Young Activist in Troubled Times”) Copyright ©2001, 2003, 2004, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, All rights reserved. This particular work is released under a Creative Commons License by which author grants permission to copy, distribute and transmit this particular work under the conditions that the use be non-commercial, that the work be used in its entirety and not altered, added to, or subtracted from, and that it carry author’s name and this full copyright notice. For other permissions, please contact: projectscreener@aol.com

 

with love + hope,

Learning To Surf: Resiliency and Compassion Fatigue

This week the Diane Rehm Show aired a terrific program called The Science of Resilience and How It Can Be Learned and it got me thinking about why resiliency, being able to bounce back,  matters so much for those of who are caregivers or work in helping professions.

What is Resilience?

According to the American Psychological Association, “Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.”

So how resilient are you? Here’s a quiz to help you get an idea of where you’re at these days.

For people who work in helping profession, resiliency is essential. It’s what allows us to engage with people and animals who are suffering each day and cope with the challenges of doing this complex work that is so often filled with adversity.

 

Resilient People Cope Better

People who are resilient cope with negative experiences differently than those of us who are less resilient. According to Barbara Fredrickson PhD, resilient people are more hopeful, engaged, and connected to others, which helps them to avoid a major depression (or recover from it) after experiencing something negative.

And they also approach uncertainty, something we face a lot of in life and especially at work, differently as well. Less resilient people tend to brace themselves for a negative outcome and they are slow to recognize when things turn out not to be bad. In other words, they were expecting the outcome to be negative and they have a hard time noticing that things turned out ok.

On the other hand, more resilient people tend to wait to see what happens. They don’t automatically assume a negative outcome and therefore are better at discerning the positive and negative in a given situation. And, they don’t project negativity onto a neutral situation.

That’s a mighty handy skill when our work life is filled with situations where we don’t have all the facts and so often, will never know the end of the stories that we glimpse during our day, right?

 

What Are The Characteristics of Resilient People?

So what do resilient people tend to have in common with one another that allows them to relate to the world in this way?

They tend to have strong social support, are more adaptable, have an internal locus of control, and nurture a spiritual life (sometimes this includes religion, but not always). They actively look for and acknowledge the positive (this shouldn’t be confused with blind optimism, pretending negative things don’t exist like a Pollyanna, or a denial of emotion), and often find meaning in helping others.

While some people are born naturally resilient, many of us are not. But thankfully that’s not the end of the story.

You Can Build Resiliency.

While a small portion of our resiliency may lie in our genes, as Dr. Dennis Charney says in the Diane Rehm program, “…your genes are not destiny here…you can become a more resilient person by challenging yourself and working on things that are out of your comfort zone. So that eventually you develop a psychological toolbox that help you overcome tough times.”

This toolbox is an important concept because it would be misleading to think we simply acquire resilience over time. While the passing of time does allow for us to potentially develop a deeper perspective which can lead to increased resiliency, just as might lead to wisdom, the accumulation of more years on the job or on the planet, isn’t a guarantee that we’ll develop either. Resiliency is a more active and complex process than simply clocking in to life each day.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, captures this idea in one brilliant sentence, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”

surf

 

Life is filled with challenges that we work to bounce back from – losses of loved ones and jobs, illness and injuries, violence and heartbreak. And if you work in a helping profession, then the waves of adversity never stop coming. Each day we show up to meet the needs of those who are suffering and in need, we are confronted with loss and grief regularly, and we struggle to do our work with resources that often are far too small to meet the needs in front of us.

But rather than trying to run from or fight the waves in a futile attempt to get them to stop hitting us, we can learn to meet those waves more skillfully. And in doing so, we can ride the waves in such a way that we not only survive, but have the opportunity to thrive among life’s many challenges.

How Do We Increase Resilience?

According the the experts on the Diane Rehm show we can work to reduce our stress levels, face our fears (in small steps), practice mindfulness, build our social bonds, consciously look for the positive, avoid ruminating on the negative, and find purpose in giving to others.

In doing this for ourselves it’s not that we’ll prevent difficult things from ever happening, but it will increase our ability to bend and bounce, instead of crashing and breaking when the waves of adversity blow through our personal and professional life.

Despite our history, past experiences, and present difficulties, in each moment we have the opportunity to make a choice about how we will perceive and respond to our circumstances. When we build resiliency skills, we strengthen our ability to relate to the circumstances and challenges in our life in a more optimal way.

Like actual surfing, increasing our resilience isn’t easy and it takes time. But choosing to become more resilient is possible for all of us, no matter how old we are or what we do for living. So why not learn to ride those waves with skill?

 

Want to build your resiliency? Here are some resources you might like:

10 Ways to Build Resilience from the American Psychological Association

The Science of Bouncing Back from Time Magazine

Becoming More Resilient from PBS This Emotional Life

5 Things Resilient People Do from Kripaulu

If you’d like to explore resilience further (along with many other topics) with a community of animal care and welfare workers, you may be interested in my 8 week online classes Compassion Fatigue Strategies and Compassion in Balance. Together, we’ll explore strategies to help you be well, while you do good work, including building resilience. The next session begins soon! 

 

Hang 10!

“Self-Care is Not a One-Time Activity” an Interview with Enid Traisman

Earlier this year I came across an article about compassion fatigue that introduced me to the fabulous work of Enid Traisman, CT, MSW. A certified grief counselor and Director of the Pet Loss Support Program at DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital in Portland, OR, Enid recently co-founded the DoveLewis wellness program to support the staff in the benefits of self-care and work-life balance.

Research has shown that in order to effectively manage compassion fatigue, changes must happen at both the individual and the organizational level. So I was thrilled to learn that DoveLewis was making staff wellness a priority, incorporating different approaches to supporting staff as they engage in this challenging work. Eager to learn more, I reached out to Enid.


Jessica: Can you tell us more about Wellness Month at Dove? How did this idea become a reality?

Enid: Over the years I have seen amazing veterinary professionals pour their hearts and souls into their jobs, and I have seen countless numbers of these wonderful folks suffer from compassion fatigue and burnout. Some leave the field, others continue to practice but no longer enjoy working.

Veterinary care is high stress for a variety of reasons, including the shorter lifespan of animals, economic restraints inhibiting optimal care, difficult clients, cranky coworkers and long, long hours. Many veterinary professionals are born to be caregivers. Caregivers by nature thrive on helping others, often at the expense of taking care of their own needs that they may deem unimportant or even selfish.

As a certified grief counselor and compassion fatigue specialist I have seen firsthand and studied the importance of teaching self-care and work-life balance to veterinary professionals. For years I have been providing workshops teaching these skills to facilitate veterinary professionals in continuing and enjoying their career helping animals.

The workshops, complete with self-assessments and tools to build a viable self-care routine were well received and helped people understand why they were feeling fatigued. BUT, it is hard to put into action changes necessary for combating and healing from compassion fatigue – and that is where the idea for bringing Wellness Month to our staff came from.

Along with my co-worker, CVT and certified yoga instructor Josey Kinnaman, we designed a month full of activities and opportunities that would be easily accessible for our staff. Our goal was to encourage and make it easy for our staff to experience a variety of self-care practices in hopes of starting new healthy habits.

Some of the opportunities provided at the hospital:

* Fresh healthy snacks and drinks daily to help sustain their physical bodies.

* Yoga sessions twice weekly to support a healthy mind and body.

* Onsite massages to sooth sore, tense muscles.

* Guided imagery with a Buddhist monk to teach relaxation of the mind and body.

* Art activities to unleash creativity, including scented bath salts and neck warmers.

* A contest to encourage exercise, hobbies, and replenishing activities outside of work.

Enid and Dogs
Enid with her dogs


How has the response from staff been so far?

Many of the staff were enthusiastic and appreciative of the many activities we brought to the hospital for them to participate in. We had upwards of 70% participation in some of the activities. We heard many great comments and requests to continue with wellness activities every month.


What advice do you have for management, of animal shelters and vet practices, who would like to support their staff’s emotional health and to encourage workplace wellness?

The support of management is essential for impacting positive changes in the culture of work environment. By providing the expectation and allotting time for employees to take good care of themselves it is more likely to happen. Even small changes like implementing regular breaks for the staff so they can eat a healthy snack, hydrate and take walk around the block for some fresh air will make a huge difference.

I have heard managers say that it is too busy to take breaks…I disagree; staff members will be more effective, make fewer mistakes and be more pleasant with their co-workers and patients if their basic needs are being met.

Managers can support work-life balance by limiting overtime scheduled. With a tough job like veterinary care, it is very important to have time away from the stressors of the job to unwind and replenish between shifts. They must have time to catch up on sleep and have some fun and exercise to be at the top of their game.

In the long run, supporting self-care and work-life balance will come back to the hospital tenfold, happier staff, well cared for patients and clients and less turnover.

Euthanasia plays a big part in our experiences of compassion fatigue. Many of us are grieving the deaths of the animals we’ve cared for, at the shelter or at our vet practices, as well as comforting our clients who are grieving the loss of their pets. What, if anything, can we do to make this part of our jobs less traumatic?

Acknowledging how sad euthanasias are and recognizing that they take a toll emotionally is a good first step. Too many veterinary professionals push the sadness down and shrug their shoulders thinking this is just part of my job. Yes, it is part of the job, a sad part that needs to be consciously attended to.

Additionally, I try it instill in our staff that grieving clients do not need to be fixed; their sadness need not weigh heavily on us because grief is a normal, healthy response to loss. The people who are grieving loved their animals deeply and experienced the joy of the human animal bond. In this field, we love those people for taking good care of their companions. And, people will heal from their grief in time and with support. I explain to the veterinary staff that by providing a compassionate euthanasia and expressing heartfelt condolences for the family they are providing a meaningful service and setting the groundwork for a healthy healing process. Trust that these folks will heal, but first they need the space and support to grieve, not to be “fixed”.

Are there any rituals or practices that might help veterinary hospital staff to cope with the challenges of the work and let go of painful emotions?

Each individual and/or hospital will benefit by creating a ritual to deal with the buildup of sadness. Some hospitals dim the lights for a moment to signify a euthanasia will be taking place to acknowledge the reverence of life and death, a moment of silence instead of background chatter about weekend plans. For some people, taking a moment at the end of each shift to say the names of those who died, writing their names and a special quality about them in a book or reciting a prayer. For others it may be getting a weekly massage to release the sadness and tension they were holding in their bodies. Someone else may take a hike to a beautiful spot and lay stones in memory of each family who has suffered a loss.


What’s a simple self-care act that consistently replenishes and sustains you?

I practice healthy eating, exercise, and sufficient sleep regularly. I enjoy the guilty pleasure of watching TV in the evening with my cats and dogs on the couch with me. My hobby is fused glass work, creating in my studio replenishes me. I hope to hike more this summer and plan a trip to somewhere exotic.

Is there something that gets in the way of your self-care? How do you move through it?

Not enough time is a constant struggle. I remind myself that I must prioritize and make time to eat healthy, exercise and sleep. It is a continuous struggle to put my basic needs first, so that I don’t become cranky and irritable about helping others. When I feel I am going off course, I remind myself to be mindful, to do some easy, quick deep breathing exercises, and schedule in a nice bath or movie night in the immediate future as a gift to myself.


Do you have a mantra or favorite quote that serves as a guidepost in your work?

The heart first pumps blood to itself before it pumps blood to the rest of the body; I must take good care for myself if I want to take good care of others.

 

How would you finish this sentence?

Self-Care is: essential to sustain our ability to help others.

 


Any other words of wisdom?

Self-care is not a one-time activity. It’s not a finite project like building a house. It’s more like the ongoing creation of a garden. It’s never done. It requires ongoing attention. Yet, like the joy of tending and continually creating a garden, there can be great contentment and satisfaction in tending to our own bodies, hearts and souls. Service to the animals is sacred. And so is taking great care of ourselves.


Yes, that’s so well said. Thank you Enid!

 

For more of Enid’s work, visit her DoveLewis blog, or pick one of her five books, which includes My Pet Remembrance Journal designed for bereaved pet owners.

 

p.s. If you’re outside of the Portland, OR area and would like to deepen your understanding of compassion fatigue, you may be interested in my 2015 summer class, Compassion Fatigue Strategies, at the University of Florida’s Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program or one of my other online courses.

 

Be well,

What Are You Practicing?

Psst, I have to tell you something: Even though I’m teaching people about reducing stress and increasing self-care, there are plenty of days when I struggle to practice those very things for myself. I mean I really, really struggle. So much so that I worry that one day I’ll be outed for not having my life in perfect Zen-like order. The headline might read:

Self-Care Sham: Woman Busted Yelling at Old People in Traffic While Eating Fistfuls of Swedish Fish.

 

That’s when I try to remember to use a little self-compassion and I talk to myself the way I would talk to a friend – you know, lovingly – I remind myself that it’s OK that I’m not perfect at these things. I’m practicing.

Truth is, committing to helping others and changing how you take care of yourself is not easy work and no one is perfect at it.

The first couple of weeks of my class, Compassion in Balance, are challenging ones for the students as they become aware of the many ways our work has had a negative impact on their lives. During this time, I want, very badly, to wave a wand over each of them and “POOF!” their stress and troubles away.

And there are days when I feel pretty crappy myself and wish someone would “POOF” it all away for me too.

But there is no “POOF!” There is only practice.

To change our lives and how the work impacts us, we have to practice self-care, practice building resiliency, and practice managing our stress.

The word practice is so important. A practice (noun) is something we repeat over and over and become more proficient in it, though not necessarily perfect. I have a yoga practice. I’m so-so at it, but I practice (verb) yoga regularly to build my competence. Almost every morning that I choose to do yoga, my overall practice gets stronger and I reap more benefits from it.

Some weeks I struggle more than others. Like when I got back from a trip to New Orleans recently and hadn’t done yoga in a couple of weeks. I suddenly didn’t have an iota of balance and tipped over every time I tried tree pose. But I kept showing up for myself and bit by bit I’m strengthening my practice.

Engaging in the process is the thing the supports me, even when the results aren’t perfect.

practice balance

 

It’s the same with stress reduction, mindfulness, or self-care. These are practices that we build, one baby step at a time. When we regularly choose to eat fresh foods, talk with friends, take a break, set healthy boundaries, or pause to breathe deeply when we are stressed, then those choices add up to a self-care practice that supports and sustains us. They may not fix the whole problem right there on the spot, we may take a few steps backwards now and then, but these choices do have a positive impact – both in the moment and as they build up over time.

Here’s the thing about practices: we’re doing them all the time, whether we are intentional about it or not.

 

For example, in addition to having an awkward yoga practice, I also have an Eating-a-Pint-of-Ice-Cream-When-I’m-Stressed practice. And a Get-Reactively-Rude-When-I-Feel-Overwhelmed practice.

Every time I choose to grab ice cream, instead of feeling my emotions and coping with them in a healthy way, I’m practicing (and strengthening) this unhealthy practice of numbing out. The more aware I’ve become about my unhealthy practices, the more able I am to notice them quickly and can choose to do otherwise. Every single time I make the choice to step away from the cookie dough, I practice taking care of myself in a more authentic way.

It’s not easy. I’m very competent in those unhealthy practices, since I’ve been doing them for most of my life! But I know that each step I take is either one little step closer to compassion fatigue or one step closer to wellness. So I choose more carefully.

We could all benefit from taking a look at what we practice every once in a while. What are we repeating, strengthening, ingraining in ourselves?

Upon inspection we might find that some practices serve us well, or used to, and some of them aren’t so helpful. We might need to consider gently letting them go and making some changes.

I recently read an interview with Brigid Schulte, author of the book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. Here’s what she had to say about changing our behavior, “I wish I’d known how powerful baby steps are. I would think of something that needed changing, and feel like I had to do it all at once, and I’d start, make a herculean effort, and usually give up.”

Don’t try to pull a Hercules. Build your practice of self-care one small, but effective step at a time. You don’t have to do it perfectly or get it right all of the time. Just keep practicing.


p.s. my classes can help. small steps, new ideas, with support along the way. 

 


 

Sending you a love-filled high five,

Why We Should All Take “Smoke” Breaks

Back when I used to smoke there was nothing that came between me and my cigarette breaks while I was at work. It didn’t matter if I worked at a restaurant, a corporate office, or at a Cancer Support Community (criminal, I know!).  Every 90 minutes or so, I stepped outside for a 5-10 minute smoke break.

I never questioned whether or not I deserved this break. Or thought about what else needed to be done that would be a better use of my time. I didn’t justify these breaks to myself or anyone else. I didn’t consider it optional or feel guilty about it. I “had” to smoke, so I always made the time to do it.

I quit smoking more than a decade ago, so obviously, I’m not suggesting that anyone should start (or continue) smoking, but I am wondering:

How do smokers easily find time to take 2-3 smoke breaks a shift, but the rest of us can’t find the same amount of time for stress reduction and self-care breaks?

 

Even at the animal shelter, I used to see my coworkers running around with a cigarette and lighter in their fist, so that they could step outside as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Smokers took their breaks come hell or hoarding case.

In my online class, Compassion in Balance, the group and I look at ways to monitor and manage our stress levels at work. We start off small: noticing how we experience stress and trying simple, effective stress reduction techniques like deep breathing or taking a few minutes outside.

Overwhelmingly, the initial response to this is that nobody feels like they have time to stop for a break, even when their stress levels are going through the roof. Every moment feels urgent and so the idea of stopping, even for five minutes, seems impossible.

I totally get it. For years, I felt the same way, especially when I was working at the animal shelter, but also when I was dog walking in Philadelphia. The stress of the job and the enormous workload had me functioning at one speed: overdrive.

It took me many years to recognize this truth:

 

In fact, I’d wager that about half of my energy back then was being wasted running in circles, trying to multitask, forgetting stuff as I sped by, fixing mistakes I’d made because I’d rushed through the work the first time, and, of course, taking frequent stops to complain to others about how much there was to do.

Over the last couple of years I’ve worked hard at building a different response to stress. I’ve learned that the only way I can calm down and do better work is to slow down.

 

lily tomlin

 

Even when I’m really busy, I try to take a few short breaks throughout my day. This practice – and it is something I have to practice because it doesn’t come naturally – pays off for me, as well as the people and pets around me each day.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. The New York Times wants you to take breaks too:

“Employees who take a break every 90 minutes report a 30 percent higher level of focus than those who take no breaks or just one during the day. They also report a nearly 50 percent greater capacity to think creatively and a 46 percent higher level of health and well-being.”

See? Taking short breaks throughout the day is good for business and it’s good for us.

Everyone (myself included) hopes there’s a magic pill or killer karate move we can employ to bust stress once and for all.  Sadly, no one has discovered that move yet, so we’re stuck with what we know works: Becoming aware of how we personally respond to stress, then taking the time to address our needs by using simple  and effective stress reduction and self-care methods. Doing so throughout our day, every day, keeps us from burning out.

You might be thinking that you function pretty well when you’re stressed. That’s probably true, but only for short periods. There are negative consequences when we don’t engage in stress reduction, says everyone,  including the Harvard Business Review:

“Our bodies sends us clear signals when we need a break, including fidgetiness, hunger, drowsiness and loss of focus. But mostly, we override them. Instead, we find artificial ways to pump up our energy: caffeine, foods high in sugar and simple carbohydrates, and our body’s own stress hormones — adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol.

After working at high intensity for more than 90 minutes, we begin to draw on these emergency reserves to keep us going. In the process, we move from parasympathetic to a sympathetic arousal — a physiological state more commonly known as “fight or flight”.

One consequence of relying on stress hormones for energy is that the prefrontal cortex begins to shut down. We become more reactive and less capable of thinking clearly and reflectively, or seeing the big picture.”

Take a look at the last sentence. Does that sound like anyone you know in animal welfare? It was me to a T, I know that much.

So that brings me back to the smoke breaks. We could learn a thing or two about self-care if we deconstruct that break:

First, the breaks are short, but regular. Second, they’re outside and away from work. Third, they activate breathing that’s different and deeper. Fourth, they’re usually not taken alone, so there is some social support during the break too. All good for us.

We need to do the same for ourselves, minus the cigarettes. Every one of us would greatly benefit from taking 5 minutes away from work to go outside for some fresh air, to breathe deeply, talk with a friend, or just look at the sky and feel the sun on our faces. Doing this every 90 minutes or so will lower our stress which will lead to higher quality work from us and better health for us.

I’m guessing some of you are saying that there’s no way you could take 5 minute breaks every 90 minutes. Honestly, I know how busy you are and I know the to-do list is endless, but I still say you have the time.

The perception that we don’t have time to take short breaks is just that – our perception. We feel like we can’t, but the truth is that there are plenty of times throughout the day when we can excuse ourselves for a five minute stretch or a few minutes of slow, deep breathing.

We just have to believe that it’s non-negotiable. It is. Because if we don’t pause to lower our stress levels, our work suffers and so do we.

So the next time you think you don’t have time, consider your five minutes of stress reduction the equivalent of a smoke break. And like any smoker, you’ll find a way to do it. Getting addicted to self-care breaks is a habit we should all pick up.

 

Try it: Set your phone’s alarm to go off every 90 minutes and see if you can disengage for a few minutes of stress relief. I double dog dare you.

 

P.S. for the smokers: May I suggest that you substitute just one of your smoke breaks for a cigarette-free self-care break instead? Taking 5 to care for yourself in a healthy way now, while you’re still smoking, will make it easier for you to cope when you decide to quit. And I do hope you quit. Because as much as I appreciate the benefits of the breaks you’re taking, all the good stuff is negated by the nicotine you’re sucking down. Talk to you doctor about quitting. It was the best thing I ever did for myself.

 

Sending you a stress-busting high five,

7 Easy, Affordable, Fun Ways To Increase Self-Care

Some days I don’t know where the time goes. Before I even look up from work, I realize it’s time to call it quits for the day. I didn’t do yoga or meditate or anything I had planned to do for myself. Blergh.

Self-care is tricky, not because it’s all that complicated, but because most of us put it at the bottom of our list of things to do. One reason (among many) for that is because we’ve aimed too high and made it hard for ourselves to meet our self-care goals.

I’m a big fan of underachieving, so I wanted to share some easy ways to add self-care into our lives.

Those of you who subscribe to my e-letters already know what’s up, since you got a version of this list over the holidays. But for those of you missed it, here are some of my favorite, simple ways we can all take care of ourselves:

 

1. Rent or download a free audio book from the library and listen to it while you commute to work. Make your journey an entertaining one. I just listened to Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. Listening to a story that isn’t related to work is stimulating and refreshing. Plus, it makes the commute a pleasure instead of one more chore we have to do.

2. Buy a humidifier/aromatherapy diffuser. Use with lavender oil. Put it near your bed. Sleep well.

This one is rocking my world lately. I cannot wait to go to bed, so that I can turn this gadget on. Which means I’m not staying up late to watch one more TV show or to surf the web. As soon as I can, I hit the sheets, so I can huff some lavender. So I’m increasing the quality and quantity of my sleep: that’s some excellent self-care right there.

I got mine here.

MIU-COLOR-300ml-Aroma-Diffuser-Ultrasonic-Humidifier-300-0-0

 

3. Take an online drawing class with the super talented Lisa Congdon. It’s free for a 2 week trial, after that it’s $10 a month (cancel any time). Get your imagination and creativity rolling on your day off. I’ve been doodling like a maniac since taking this class which is relieving some of my stress and connecting me to a part of myself that I let slide over the years. It’s important that we all have hobbies outside of our work.

4. Grab a book that has nothing to do with work or school and read for pleasure. I just finished Outlander (thanks for the recommendation Nat!). It was light and entertaining which kept my attention, even when I was stressed out. Stories like this help me let go of obsessive thoughts so I can rest at night.

5.  Subscribe to a new free podcast and listen to it on the way home from work or while you’re making dinner. It’ll help you decompress after a tough day. On Being is my daily bread. I just finished listening to Serial too and it rocked my world.

6. Ask a friend to join you for a class you’ve wanted to take, like yoga or painting. Then book it. No backing out. I look for Groupons for classes to save money. And I found a yoga studio that is donation only. Search your local area for sweet deals, so money isn’t a barrier. Being with friends helps us feel less isolated and learning something new helps us to feel more competent. Both build resiliency.

7.  Do nothing. Treat your self to some rest. Really. Sit down, be still, and breathe for 5 minutes (or more). Allow yourself some quiet time. Listen to the birds. Be present to the moment and let the rest go. Cultivating calm is self-care.

So those are a few things that replenish and sustain me. But maybe you prefer knitting cat sweaters or laying someone out in roller derby. Whatever it is, add it to your to-do list or your schedule and make time to do you in 2015.

Self-care doesn’t have to be overwhelming. But we do need to plan for it and stick to our commitment to ourselves, so we don’t let weeks and months go by without taking care of our own needs.  So before any more time slips by, brainstorm a few easy ways that you’ll care for yourself in the coming months and make it happen. You deserve it!

Giving you a love-filled high five, 

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