If you’re in recovery, you may already be familiar with this incredibly helpful acronym because it’s a tool to help prevent relapse.
But every single one of us could use HALT. It’s a simple way to help us stay aware of our needs, so that we can care for ourselves more effectively and create better outcomes during stressful or upsetting moments.
Here’s how it works:
When you’re feeling your stress levels rise or a funk coming on, HALT is a reminder to stop and assess your true needs, before you do something that you’ll regret.
If you’re in recovery, the thing you might regret doing is using again. If you’re not, than the thing you might regret doing is yelling at your dog, saying something unkind to a loved one (including yourself), eating a whole box of cookies, being impatient or judgmental with a client at work, writing an inappropriate email, or firing off a hurtful social media rant.
Before you behave in a way that feels out of control or breaches your integrity, ask yourself if you’re:
Hungry: When was the last time you ate? Was it something healthy? Is your blood sugar low? Are you dehydrated? Hungers come in all forms: Are you hungry to have your emotional needs met?
Angry: Are you feeling resentful or angry right now? Towards another person, a circumstance at work or in the world, at yourself?
Lonely: When was the last time you talked with a friend? A counselor? A supportive coworker? Are you feeling isolated? Disconnected?
Tired: Did you get enough sleep last night? Do you need a quick nap instead of a caffeine blast? Do you need a day off?
All of these things may be influencing your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Rather than just pushing through or ignoring your needs, identify if any of these are true for you at the moment, then take action to address them. Have a snack, talk with a friend, go for a brisk walk, take a nap.
If you can’t do anything to address your needs in that moment, acknowledge that your real needs are not being met right now.
Offer yourself some kindness and compassion. Remain aware that being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired increases the likelihood that you will act in a way that you may regret later, so tread lightly.
Or it may be the reason why you just did something you already wish you hadn’t done. Don’t beat yourself up (that never changes anything). Pause to breathe deeply. Consider how you can stay aware of your needs and better care for yourself in the future, so that you don’t allow yourself to get too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.
The next time you snap at a customer, get frustrated with your dogs, feel hopeless about something, or just feel “off”, take a moment to HALT and ask a truly self-compassionate question:
What do I really need in this moment and how can I give it to myself?
“…By choosing food as your drug—sugar highs, or the deep, soporific calm of carbs—you can still make the packed lunches, do the school run, look after the baby, stop in on your parents and then stay up all night with an ill 5-year-old—something that is not an option if you’re regularly climbing into the cupboard under the stairs and knocking back quarts of scotch.
Overeating is the addiction of choice of ‘carers,’ and that’s why it’s come to be regarded as the lowest-ranking of all the addictions. It’s a way of screwing yourself up while still remaining fully functional, because you have to. Fat people aren’t indulging in the ‘luxury’ of their addiction, making them useless, chaotic or a burden. Instead, they are slowly self-destructing in a way that doesn’t inconvenience anyone. And that is why it’s so often a woman’s addiction of choice.
I sometimes wonder if the only way we’ll ever get around to properly considering overeating is if it does come to take on the same perverse, rock ‘n’ roll cool of other addictions. Perhaps it’s time for women to finally stop being secretive about their vices and instead start treating them like all other addicts treat their habits. Coming into the office looking frazzled, sighing, ‘Man, I was on the pot roast last night like you wouldn’t believe. I had, like, POTATOES in my EYEBROWS by 10 p.m.’.“
My cat and my dog died just a few weeks apart from one another.
I was already pretty exhausted from pushing through my final semesters of grad school, including grinding out my capstone (on resilience building for caregivers – oh, the irony), while working and teaching.
Then I fell into an ocean of grief, bringing a cruise ship full of vegan Ben & Jerry’s and ALL THE CARBS with me.
If you were working with me over the winter, spring, and summer, you probably didn’t notice I was snorkling through pint after pint of PB & Cookies, because, as Moran so astutely points out, you can be fully functional and overeating.
I did good work, I got straight As, I walked the dogs.
In August, I graduated from school. I was able to really rest for the first time in a very long time. The grief began to lift and I started taking better care of myself in all ways, including physically.
Last week I took part in a online photography experience with a group of brave, creative women. Among other things, we dared to share our bodies as they are, so we could reclaim our wrinkles and rolls. It was life-shifting. I wouldn’t be writing this otherwise.
Today I’m feeling good AND I have a big belly.
I’ve been trying to be really kind to this part of my body because it’s a tangible expression of how sad I’ve been and how much I love the family members that I lost this year.
My fat is a physical manifestation of my grief.
I talk to my sad belly sometimes. I tell it I don’t blame it for being here. I don’t hate it or want to punish it away. This is a new approach for me. I usually just beat myself up.
I’m not doing that right now, because:
I’m just glad I made it through a really hard time. If I’m a little fatter for it, oh well.
I’m committed to talking to myself with more kindness. I don’t want to be mean to myself anymore.
But I do want to feel better, stronger, more flexible. And for that reason, sad belly and I are, with deep affection, saying a long, slow goodbye to each other this winter. We’re working out and taking long walks and eating just a little ice cream.
This is what I know about myself: eating is my drug of choice when I am depleted, overwhelmed, and stressed. It’s how I numb out and self-medicate.
As I fill my life back up with fun, friendship, art, and relaxation it’s easier for me to unhook from the freezer aisle.
My personal work is to more consistently nourish myself in ways that are authentically sustaining during these times of intense stress and heartache.
My professional work is helping others do the same, so it always feels a little dicey sharing how I still struggle.
But that’s really the point, isn’t it?
We can know all the things and yet, we’re human. So we’re going to stumble (and if you’re like me, you fall face first into a slab of cake from Silly’s), but we can still reach out to help one another.
Each year that I’m lucky enough to be alive I understand myself better. I meet myself with more kindness and skillful care. It’s a practice.
Whatever we’re struggling with, all we can do is practice as we go.
Maybe for the first time, I feel really okay with who I am and how I make my way through the world. I am doing the best I can, sad belly and all. That’s good enough for me.
Friends, tell me: do you have mashed potatoes in your eyebrows too?
If you do, here is resource that might support you on your journey:
And I bet it’s working overtime these days. So many compassionate people I know, who already work so hard as helping professionals, have recently become even more engaged in service and activism work in a multitude of efforts to protect the people, animals, and environment we hold dear.
Self-care is more important than ever. Activism, just like animal welfare and care work, is a long game. If you want to keep going, you have to take care of your tools, starting with your heart.
It beats approximately 100,000 times in one day and about 35 million times in a year. Even at rest, the muscles of your heart are working hard – twice as hard as your leg muscles when you’re sprinting to the ice cream truck. You are so strong!
Figuratively speaking, your heart is just as powerful as your source of empathy, kindness, and compassion. Your role as a caregiver and healer is work of the heart – meaningful, connected, sensitive, and life-affirming. You are so loving!
All of this is to say, your heart is magnificent and essential. Please don’t forget to take care of your powerhouse, as you take care of the world.
Go to the doctor. I know you go to the veterinarian’s office every other day (I see you there!), but now it’s time for your annual physical exam. And while you’re at it, go to the dentist, since gum disease and heart disease are connected. Medical care is self-care.
Move your body. Exercise helps cuts your risk of heart disease, but it also helps you shake off the stress that builds up all day at work. I recently stumbled on this guy and I can’t stop laugh-dancing. That’s a thing, right? I dare you to do this with your co-workers the next time you feel like pulling your hair out.
Sync your values. I bet most of you would consider compassion to be one of your core values. Many of you work in “humane” societies. But really: how humanely are you treating yourself? How much of that compassionate care are you offering yourself? You deserve and need just as much, if not more, love and care as you give to others.
A few of the alums from my Compassion in Balance course have been doing a 30 Days of Yoga practice together this past month. Since New Year’s Day, we’ve been following a series of free yoga videos and checking in online every day to help each other stay accountable to our commitment to take care of ourselves in 2016.
External accountability is the bees knees.
One of the booby-traps that we’re being mindful of as we practice is all or nothing thinking.
It’s been really interesting to see how we mess with ourselves. Some of us miss a few days in a row and think we can’t show up again. Some of us feel weird about doing the daily practices out of order or one day behind everyone else. Others have trouble when they need to adjust their schedule.
We all want everything to be perfectly on point, so when it doesn’t go that way (spoiler: it never does), we start thinking we should just stop. Try again some other day when that stuff won’t happen.
A lot of us struggle with this common mind trap in our work and personal lives. We absolutely do this in our work as helping professionals. We set very high, unrealistic standards that we can save them all, then we feel like constant failures that we only saved some. All of our good work gets negated by not being able to get that impossibly perfect score.
The sense of never being good enough, of always falling short of your goals, is so defeating and depressing. It’s a fast-track to Burnoutville.
But just for now, let’s take a look at how it messes with our self-care in particular, because that’s one way we can start to navigate this mind-trap more skillfully. With practice we can take it into all aspects of our lives.
It goes something like this:
I was going to go to bed earlier, but now is such a bad time! I’ll wait until work isn’t so busy to start my new routine and then I’ll be able to do it right every night.
I missed 2 weeks or 2 months of yoga classes because things got crazy and now my routine is ruined. If I can’t go every week, what’s the point? Maybe I’ll try again later when things settle down and this time, I won’t slack off.
I wanted to run five miles each morning before work, but I never actually did it. I suck at self-care.
You see the problem with this way of thinking right?
First, we’re tricking ourselves into thinking there will be this magical time when our to-do list is 100% done (second spoiler alert: that magical time never happens).
Then we fool ourselves into thinking that as soon as that happens, we’ll have tons of free time and the ability to finally do it perfectly.
Last, we set the bar super high for ourselves which almost always guarantees that we’ll fail. Then we think: why even bother?
This all or nothing thinking winds up being yet another excuse for not taking care of ourselves. Either we do it all perfectly (whatever that means) or we don’t do it at all.
Our little yoga group is pushing back on this defeating, distorted thought pattern. If you missed a day or three of yoga. No problem. Come on back.
If you didn’t start on January 1st with the rest of us, make today your Day One. If you can’t do the whole practice yet, lower the bar and do what you are able to do now.
As our BFF Voltaire would say: We are not allowing perfect to be the enemy of the good.
Instead we’ve become what I’m affectionately calling The Good Enough Club.
Here are our club rules when it comes to self-care:
We believe doing something is better than nothing (unless that nothing is meditating, in which case, rock on with your being-not-doing self).
A slip up or a lapse isn’t a failure. In fact, there are no “failures” – big or small – that will keep us from showing up to try again another day.
Instead of harsh criticism and judgement, we offer ourselves self-compassion and kindness.
Instead of rigidity and perfectionism, we stay flexible to accommodate the wackiness that is life.
We commit to taking care of ourselves, even though we can’t do it perfectly.
We adjust our expectations and question the stories we tell ourselves about how we “should” do things.
We pull back a little, so we can keep going for the long haul. Operating at 100% effort, 100% of the time isn’t possible (or necessary).
We accept that there are times when we will need to do less. We allow things to change.
You can join The Good Enough Club too! To be a card carrying member all you have to do is keep trying despite hitting bumps in the road, practice being kind and forgiving to yourself when things don’t unfold perfectly, and remain aware of how your thoughts are influencing your actions.
Basically, just keep on truckin’ baby.
Here’s something to think on (or take 10 to write about it, if you’re inclined to journal your way to new insights):
Has all or nothing aka black and white thinking caused you stress in your personal life? At work? Maybe even with your pets (like your DINOS)? How so? What will you do ito lessen that stress?
p.s. Read this if you’d like to understand the difference between perfectionism and healthy striving, plus tips for coping with this particular mind trap.
By the way, this blog was originally shared in my e-letter that I sent out a month ago. If you’d like to get this sort of stuff, plus other tidbits, right in your Inbox, you can sign up for my monthly-ish newsletters here.
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.
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 workand 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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!
Last month I started teaching a session of my online compassion fatigue class for animal care workers. The group of women that I’m working with right now inspire and humble me each week. I feel really privileged to be taking this walk with them.
As you can imagine, we talk a lot about self-care in class. That’s because it is the foundation for being well while we do good in the world.
Self-care is deceptively simple in that the basic stuff really works. The hard part is that we have to convince ourselves we’re worth it and then commit to practicing it. Easier said than done for almost all of us. That’s why I built the class.
For those of us who work or volunteer in helping professions (as animal care workers do), there are actual Standards of Self-Care Guidelines which serve as a constant reminder that self-care is our professional obligation. That’s because there’s a correlation between ethical violations and compassion fatigue (Gentry & Figley, 2007). And what’s one of the ways we effectively address compassion fatigue? Through self-care.
Of course, when you talk about self-care, lots of questions come up. Like what the hell is it and do we really deserve it? So with that in mind, here’s a Self-Care primer!
What Self-Care is NOT:
What Self-Care IS:
Our ethical obligation
You Don’t Need To Earn Self-Care By:
working the hardest
saving a million lives
giving until it hurts
putting yourself last
finishing the to-do list
waiting until everyone else’s needs have been met
You don’t have to earn it at all. It’s your right to take care of yourself.
Who Is It For?
Self-Care Is For EVERYONE.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman, old or young, black, white, or brown, rich or poor. If you are alive, self-care is for you.
What Self-Care Looks Like:
Authentic, healthy self-care is much more than just comforting or treating ourselves. That stuff is ok too (bring on the massages and Netflix!), but healthy self-care goes much deeper than that.
It is sustainable. This isn’t about extreme makeovers and impossible New Year’s resolutions.
It meets our basic needs. That’s stuff like fresh foods, rest, exercise, medical care, etc.
It is a regular daily practice. It’s not something we save for vacations or when all the work is done (which is never).
It meets our needs in a variety of areas: physical, spiritual, psychological, social, professional, and emotional.
It is thoughtful, intentional, and it feels alright. Self-care isn’t punishment. It’s stuff we enjoy or benefit from.
It is given to ourselves guilt-free and with enthusiasm (you know, like how we give to others all the time).
It means we say no, set limits, and respect our personal boundaries, so we have enough time and energy left for ourselves.
How Do You Know If It’s Really Self-Care?
If you’re not sure if eating a bowl of ice cream or watching a movie or exercising is self-care or numbing/avoiding/[insert unhealthy coping method here], ask yourself why you are doing it and how it feels.
Are you mindfully eating that ice cream and enjoying every last bite, stopping when you’re full? Do you feel refreshed and alive? That’s self-care.
Are you attacking a gallon of ice cream with a soup ladle while zoned out in front of the computer, totally unaware that you’re even eating it until the container is empty and you feel sick? That’s not self-care.
Not sure? Ask yourself: How does this sustain me?
How Do I Start?
You start by picking something that matters to you and making a commitment to do something about it.
After you are successful, you move on to the next area you’d like to address. One step at a time. If you’re not sure, then I think getting better sleep is usually a good place to start. Being sleep deprived is no joke.
Expect to drop the ball sometimes. That’s life and, in our line of work, there are always crazy circumstances that throw us for a loop. Whenever you find that your self-care practices aren’t what you’d like or need them to be, just be kind to yourself and start again. You’re not a failure. Don’t waste time or energy beating yourself up.
Begin again, wherever you are, and start taking baby steps back towards your self-care practices or goals. Make it easy to succeed by lowering the bar and just get back to it in whatever way you can.
Because you deserve it. Because you’re alive. Every one of us deserves to reserve enough time, energy, and money to take care of ourselves. All of us. No matter who we are or what we do for a living.
But if you DO choose to work in a helping profession, then you have to engage in self-care as a professional obligation. It is not selfish and it doesn’t hurt or take away from those who need your help. Self-care is simply putting your own oxygen mask on first, ya dig? It’s what keeps you in the game for the long haul, doing good work.
Looking for ideas to help you get started? Take a look at these super University of Buffalo School of Social Work’s free resources.
And if you work or volunteer with animals, perhaps you’d like to take my self-study course Compassion in Balance or connect with me 1-on-1 for some coaching on self-care and compassion fatigue!
I love this quote so much that I use it in all of my presentations. Why? Because I’m trying to convince a bunch of stressed out animal shelter workers that taking a few deep breaths really is the single best way to lower stress and change the outcome of a challenging situation.
The next time you want to jump over the intake desk to grab a member of the public who is excited about “donating” their dog to your shelter, pause to breathe deeply. Doing so allows you to pump the breaks and slow down, influencing your body’s automatic response to the stressful situation.
When we take the time for a few deep breaths not only does it change our physical reaction to stress, but it also buys our brain – specifically the frontal lobe (the part of our brain that we need in order to consider our options and communicate clearly) – the time it needs to snap into gear and produce a thoughtful response.
We need our higher thinking brain to be online in order to influence the outcome of the situation in a positive way for everyone involved. This takes a few seconds to happen and in the meantime we’re in reactive mode!
Each one of us reacts to stress differently, but I bet I’m not the only one who, when my stress levels are rocketing, becomes reactively rude. That’s a nice way of saying I snap at people.
Deep breathing allows me to get a handle on my reactive behavior and gives my brain time to catch up to my internal knee jerk reaction, so that I can choose to respond instead.
In his book Full Castrophe Living Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn shares the difference between a stress reaction and a stress response.
A stress reaction is when we react habitually and automatically to a situation. We aren’t fully aware of what we’re doing. We just react.
A stress response means that we give ourselves a few seconds to stop, become conscious of the situation, and then choose how we want to respond.
Reacting = stressed and not thinking
Responding = mindful and thinking
You know, just like dogs. Reactive dogs aren’t thinking when they’re over threshold. They’re just reacting to the trigger or stimulus that makes them feel aroused, anxious, or fearful.
We’re the same. When someone or somethings triggers me, my stress levels go up. If I’m not aware of and managing my stress, then I’m likely to show a habitual stress reaction and behave rudely.
But when I’m paying attention to my stress levels, monitoring the sensations in my body and the thoughts in my mind, and I address my needs by taking a few breaths to give my brain a moment to collect itself, then I can more easily access a calmer response.
Remember to focus on what you can control when you’re experiencing stress. It’s you. That’s it.
You always want to give yourself the opportunity to move from reactive to responsive. You’ll feel better and you’ll get better results.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who, when stressed, anxious, or angry, has said things that only made the problem much worse. Instead of helping to put the fire out, our stress reaction only fans the flames. And so our stress cycle continues, because now we have to resolve the original problem and need to deal with whatever fallout we’ve caused by our knee jerk reaction.
Allowing ourselves a moment to calm down means that we give ourselves the opportunity to choose to respond instead of react. Our response might be that we are more thoughtful, compassionate, or effective in how we communicate.
It might also mean becoming aware that we need to ask for help from our co-workers or boss. Or that we need to implement other stress management techniques ASAP. But breathing creates the…wait for it…breathing room to make those mindful choices.
Like Viktor Frankl says in that gem of a quote, it’s our response to our triggers that leads to our growth as human beings. Thoughtful responses will lead to better outcomes for all of us. But first, we have to give ourselves the space for that important reactive-responsive shift to occur. The easiest way to do that is to pause and breathe.
How will you create the space you need to respond instead of react in stressful situations? Think about it now, while you’re at ease, so that when the hot spot shows up, you know what you’re going to do to create enough space to allow for a response that will be more beneficial for the animals and people you work with and healthier for you!
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