Self-Care: Preventing Burnout

As a social worker, the topic of self-care is probably as important to my personal wellness as a bulletproof vest is to a police officer. When doing this work, if I don’t care for myself first I’m in deep doo-doo. I’ve had to learn this the hard way (like most in the helping profession). When I teach a class on this topic, I’ll get in front of a group and say “what does self-care mean to you?” I will get some blank faces that have literally never thought of it before and a few brave souls will blurt out things like “taking my medication every day!” or “eating food that isn’t from a fast food place!” Gold stars. These folks are totally on track but just grazing the surface. Self-care isn’t just important for me. It’s important for the stay-at-home mom, the retired woman caring for her disabled husband and the grad-student with lupus. Really, it’s for everyone. The problem is that we live in this culture where self-sacrifice is promoted to the devastation of physical and mental health. This is how we show love to each other.  It doesn’t make any sense but you know what I’m talking about. I see it in subcultures of faith too. I’ve had so many women of strict faiths take on endless responsibilities until their bodies just don’t work anymore. Making things perfect perfect perfect. “I will make my bread from scratch and quilt and run church groups and do all of it with a smile on my face while I’m swallowed by depression.” These stories are tragically common. There is some stigma that says asking for help is a sign of weakness. Saying no is the end of the world as we know it. Suffering will be rewarded. That’s a bunch of malarky. What good am I to my family if I’m worn down and bitter about my role? Zero good. 

Burnout looks an awful lot like depression

Self-care usually becomes an issue when things have started to fail. People will go and go until they are faced with true burn-out. Burnout looks an awful lot like classic depression but the cause is different and recovery a little easier. The trick is to be able to identify it when it hits. Some people have been slowly sinking for so long that they aren’t aware that it is even an issue until they have gained thirty pounds, their immune system is shot and they have spent the majority of the winter months on their couch binge-watching Netflix and eating Ben & Jerry’s. We’ve all been there. It’s a sneaky little condition. Your mood may become akin to a “Negative Nancy”, motivation is distant memory and you’re taking less time and effort on your looks. You may become less interested in being on time in the morning and leaving work early if you can. Maybe you have avoided your friends and generally withdrawn from life. Some people describe bizarre memory loss or a fuse so short that their anger BURSTS like a pressure cooker and they don’t know why. These are all symptoms of burn out.

I’m betting that a good share of people reading this can relate to some or all of these symptoms of burn out- at some point in your life. Maybe even now. If that’s the case, I have some hope to share with you. This can be fixed! It takes some time and effort, but it can be completely reversed. There are four components to self-care: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Some people tend to focus on only one aspect of this.  I will see a middle-aged man for counseling and sure, he runs every single day but doesn’t even think about these other areas and he doesn’t know why he feels crummy. I love seeing the lightbulb go off in people’s heads when they realize they have been given permission to take care of themselves. For some reason, self-care is framed as selfish. NO WAY! It’s self-preservation folks!

Engaging in risky behavior....bejeweling your wardrobe

The physical aspect of self-care is kind of a no-brainer. If you feed your body with fast food, get horrible sleep and sit on the couch all day, you’re going to feel like a lump on a log. I’m not a preacher. I may work in healthcare but I know how hard it is to make good food choices when you’re tired and overworked. That being said, your food is fuel. If you don’t put real food in your body, you’re going to run down fast. Next up- exercise! If you aren’t in the habit of regular exercise, this can be pretty daunting. It involves sweating, possible muscle soreness and (perhaps most importantly) it takes time out your day that may have been strictly dedicated to more enjoyable things. The good news is that after a few weeks of this, your body starts to crave exercise. It seems next to impossible, but you will find that it becomes what I call a coping skill. A coping skill is essentially something that makes you feel better when you are stressed, depressed or otherwise in a place of emotional unrest. There are bad coping skills like doing drugs, gambling, engaging in risky behavior, smoking or bejeweling your wardrobe (always a bad idea). A good coping skill is something that improves your general well-being but also elevates your mood. Good coping skills are exercise, journaling, calling a friend or listening to your favorite music. 

I haven't become a state fair celebrated knitting guru


Mentally, self-care is essentially feeding your brain. I read a study a few years ago that stated people test happier after learning something new. I took this article to heart and headed down the public library with my daughter for the Tuesday night knitting club. There are fewer things funnier than me- trying to figure out the knit/pearl exchange with wooden needles and impossible patterns. I was able to successfully knit a scarf after several dozen casting foibles. My daughter tried it for approximately 15 seconds before getting bored, annoyed and otherwise "over it." I'm proud of my attempts and although I haven't become a state fair celebrated knitting guru, I tried by best and I felt great after all was said and done. I have also taken piano lessons, submerged myself in art projects I have no point of reference for...and oh. I learned how to be a mom- maybe the most exciting thing I have ever learned. Some of my patients are obsessed with sudoku, reading romance novels, taking Zumba- the list is endless. My point is- engage your brain in activity. I mean it when I say "if you don't use it, you lose it." It saddens me to meet a new patient that only watches TV and takes naps. Engage in life people! This is a sacred and special gift.  What are you going to wake up and learn today that will create joy in your life? I challenge you to identify something you've always wanted to learn. Make space for the ballroom dancing class! Learn to roll your own sushi. I am giving you permission to do that thing you've been putting off for a rainy day. Go forth and feed your brain with juicy new thoughts!

You aren't getting any empathy from your cat


Emotional wellness is overlooked more than you would think. Emotional self-care encompasses many things but perhaps the biggest piece that I focus on is the concept of a support system. Do you have someone that you can openly talk to about things that make you feel vulnerable? No one likes to feel like their soft underbelly is exposed, but in this case it's important to have at least one person you can call comfortably to express uncertainty, or to buy you a gatorade when you have the flu. In the show Sex and the City, there is an episode when Samantha has a fever and she's calling through her little black book to find someone to care for her and she ends up just sitting there alone, crying and drinking her cough syrup/orange crush smoothie? It's like a cautionary tale to the masses- YOU WANT A SUPPORT SYSTEM! Some people are particularly isolated, introverted, depressed and burned by poor friendships. Some people just have a cat. Speaking from experience, you aren't getting any empathy from your cat.

Finding a piece of heaven in my favorite song

Spiritual self-care gets people nervous. I say the word "spiritual" and folks start getting  worried about religion, church attendance, anticipated judgement and even political innuendo. Here's the thing. Religious people can be spiritual, but spiritual people don't have to be religious. Spirituality can be found in a million different places, wrapped in different boxes. It doesn't have to do with who you vote for or if you warm the pew on Sunday. For me, spirituality means that I'm attending to my core self. Our culture perpetuates chaos. We rush from place to place while connected to every device in the world. If we get time alone, we fill the space with music or TV. It's uncomfortable to be "still" in the silence. Even as I write this, I'm in a bustling downtown coffee shop listening to Pandora on my earbuds to overpower the roar of the crowd. Spirituality is separating from the chaos and connecting to your core self and/or a higher power. If that comes through church attendance, awesome. If that comes from going to the local hot spring and soaking in the nature, fantastic! My definition of spirituality has changed over the years. As a child and adolescent, it would definitely be associated with church every Wednesday and Sunday. As a young adult, it would be journaling in the foothills and finding a piece of heaven in my favorite song. 

Cathartic flailing for truth and purpose

Now- after a good share of life, I can say that spirituality can be found everywhere. It's a constant internal monologue with my higher power, a prayer for my daughter's safety or peace when she's scared. It's music, meditation, yoga, nature walks and showing love to other people. I have made a pointed effort to incorporate these things into my lifestyle because I have learned the importance of spirituality at this place in my life. For you, it may not be a priority yet. I work with heart patients. After a massive heart attack, a patient will say, "Why am I still alive? What does this mean?" This is followed by a cathartic flailing for truth and purpose. No need for an existential crisis for facilitate this evolution within you. I would challenge you to ask a few simple questions. Where do I find peace? When do I feel like my "tank" is full? When I'm overstressed, what do I wish I could feel like? How can I get there? Often times people will say "I just need to go to the mountains." Others will tell me "I need to make time for my church group." There isn't a wrong answer here.

Engage in a pleasurable activity

The goal is to be able to identify that there is a problem, implement some simple changes in your daily life and build stress resilience that will protect you from future burnout symptoms. I learned this in graduate school when a professor of mine would open every class asking "how many of you have engaged in a pleasurable activity today?" I'm thinking- what? I just wrote a 25 page paper on human trafficking and you want to know about a pleasurable activity? It didn't compute. She continued to ask. Every class. Then it hit me. She was trying to train us to check in with out self-care every day. How valuable! Social workers are notorious for burnout. We usually give too much over such a long period of time that a person could walk up to us with a suicide plan and we'd wish them luck. That's bad. This is a priceless gift she gave us. I still ask myself everyday what I need to do to care for myself. It may be a piece of chocolate. It may be an hour to journal at a coffee shop. Some days, it's just sitting in my care for an extra 30 seconds as my favorite Fleetwood Mac song wraps up. I challenge you to start focusing on your own self-care. Do it every day. After a couple of weeks, you will start to see the resilience building and symptoms of burnout melting away. Isn't it worth a shot? Have you engaged in a pleasurable activity? What can you do to fill your tank? Give yourself this gift. You deserve it.