Social Workers and Social Work Self Care
Social work self care: Some years ago I owned and operated a yoga and wellness studio in my hometown. One day when I was participating in a Mindfulness and Meditation class there was construction going on outside affecting the building and our space.
As we sat cross-legged, eyes closed I started ruminating and obsessive thoughts were taking hold. “Should I close for the week?” “Who will get angry and never come back to the studio?”
That was when the astute instructor, my mentor, and friend paused, and encouraged all of us participants to notice all the sounds just outside our window and the way we were feeling in our bodies. She said, “This is all just grist for the mill.”
I’ve been reminded of this moment frequently as of late. There is a lot of “noise” just outside all of our windows right now. Whether on the news, your social media feed or within your community or friend group.
There seems to be a general consensus that there is a great deal of conflict permeating our lives at every turn.
Self Care Is Important for Social Workers
If you are a social worker or someone considering the profession of healer, advocate, helper, researcher and bridge – you are likely accustomed to frequent feelings of stress and anxiety.
However, with so many people on edge and when even our commonly used escape mechanisms (i.e. the internet, movies, awards shows) are stocked full of provocative messages and images aimed to cause even greater feelings of urgency and upset – it becomes imperative to practice social work self care on a daily basis.
As a social worker, you may be providing services through therapy, counseling, case management or community outreach and you are going to be dealing with individuals and families who have immediate needs.
Some of them may be in current or imminent crisis.
You are better able to serve them when you are managing your own level of anxiety on a daily, if not hourly basis.
And the best part of the social work self care tools discussed below is that they are free and so accessible that you can share them with your clients or patients as well.
Some Easy-to-Access Antidotes to Stress
- Increased Sleep: According to the American Psychological Association “most Americans would be happier, healthier and safer if they were to sleep an extra 60 to 90 minutes per night.” Without a full night’s sleep, we do not reap the full benefits of muscle repair and memory consolidation. Our moods are affected, as well as our productivity at work and satisfaction in life.
- Exposure to Nature: There are literally dozens of scientific studies linking exposure to nature as decreasing one’s stress levels. Many have attributed this to greater feelings of purpose, increase in physical movement and exercise, and increased feelings of connectedness and optimism related to one simply observing the naturally occurring patterns and seasons taking place outside. Find a sunny corner to turn your face toward, observe trees swaying in the breeze or better yet, get out and take a walk or a hike whenever possible.
- Mindfulness Practices: John Kabat-Zinn gave up his job as a scientist in 1979 and started a stress-reduction clinic in Massachusetts. He pioneered the field of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and from it came Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. The use of both practices has been taught and used by thousands of people suffering from depression, anxiety, cancer, terminal illness and more.
- Mindful Eating, listed above is just a practice of being mindful while breaking bread. We all eat at some time in our work day so this is an excellent tool to use in self-care. You can think of it in terms of these three simple steps: 1) Surround yourself with quiet 2) Chew every bite thoroughly and 3) Put down your fork or spoon completely between every bite.
- Mindful Breathing is simply the act of noticing your breath and making a conscious decision to slow it down. When possible, the best type of cleansing breath is one where you breathe in through your nose while letting your stomach and chest expand and breathe out through your mouth while making an audible sigh. This type of mindful breathing sends an immediate message to your brain that you are safe which then triggers your nervous system to calm down. Think about it! This can be practiced at your desk or better yet, in your car while driving.
What I Learned About Meditation, From an Experienced Monk
Sometime before I left the studio behind in order to focus full-time on my social work practice I was extremely fortunate to host a Monk who was visiting from Burma. I was new to the practice of Mediation and I was eager to ask him so many questions about his own practice and methods for dealing with the struggles of life.
Here was a man who had been through war and poverty. He had been exiled from his own country and separated from family and culture for speaking out against an oppressive government. I could barely contain myself when we sat down to dinner.
I asked him, “Can you please tell me about the forms of Mediation you practice and which is your favorite?” He simply smiled and said, “I practice noticing.”
This was no trick or prank. This learned man, a monk who has dedicated his life to peace, calm and the projection of love – practices mindfulness as his means of grounding himself and being of service to others.
So as you move through your day running here and there, putting out fires and crossing those T’s, to me the best form of social work self care is just noticing what you are doing while you are doing it.
Simply Paying Attention
Notice your hands on the steering wheel.
Notice the way the phone feels next to your ear. Notice your back against your chair and your feet on the floor.
Notice your shoulders and your facial muscles.
Are you holding your breath? Are you clenching your fists? Slow down, breathe and carry on. This is all just grist for the mill.