stress management

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, 

A Simple Self-Care Primer

This month in The Lab we’re working on self-care basics together.

As you can imagine, we talk about self-care a lot (we even have self-care accountability hours!). That’s because it’s part of 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, set boundaries to do it, and then commit to practicing it.

Easier said than done for almost all of us. That’s why I built The Lab.

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:

Indulgent

Selfish

Pointless

Lazy

Weak

Avoiding problems

Mindless

What Self-Care IS:

Courageous

Compassionate

Mindful

Restorative

Thoughtful

Necessary

Brave

Challenging

Radical

Self-preservation

Our ethical obligation

self care quote

You Don’t Need To Earn Self-Care By:

working the hardest

saving a million lives

being perfect

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. 

If you are alive, self-care is for you.

What Self-Care Looks Like:

Some self-care feels great and is effortless (think: watching a sunset). Other self-care is a drag, but necessary (think: going to the dentist).

Authentic, sustainable self-care is much more than just comforting or treating ourselves. That stuff is okay too (bring on the 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 doing.

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.

It often needs to be done in community. Who do you spend your time with every day? That matters a lot.

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 questions like:

What do I need right now and how can I give that to myself?

How does this sustain me?

How will I feel after I do it? 

How Do I Start?

Some self-care takes time to plan and execute. Sometimes this can be overwhelming and an immediate roadblock. So, a great way to start is by following your natural impulses and/or focusing on what you already do that brings you joy and pleasure.

Pee when you have to pee. Eat when you’re hungry. Drink when you are thirsty.

Pause for a moment and enjoy the feel of the breeze and the sound of the birds with the intention of being restored.

See? Simple, not easy.

You can also start by picking one thing that matters to you and making a commitment to do something about it.

Commit to a walk after dinner or getting your phone out of your bedroom.

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.

Why It Matters:

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.

It helps to keep you in the game for the long haul, doing ethical, effective work.

Looking for more ideas to help you get started? Take a look at this PDF. 

And if you work or volunteer with animals, join us in The Lab or connect with me 1-on-1 for some coaching on self-care and compassion fatigue!

Are You Reacting Or Responding?

 

birds quote name

 

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.

Deep breathing sends a message to our brains to relax. Then our brains relay that message to our bodies, which lowers our heart rate and blood pressure, among other things. Check out this handy infographic from Dr. Emma Seppala on the science of the benefits of breathing.

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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