You must take care of yourself to effectively support others. (This is not about “putting the oxygen mask on first” - you are flying the plane!) Self-care is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. It’s not easy to prioritize your own needs, but this is an essential part of sustainable Work of Care.
Creating a self-care plan before you need one helps you make (and model) healthy choices. Proactively caring for your own needs will ensure you have the energy and spirit to care for others, and helps to prevent ‘burnout’ and ‘compassion fatigue.’
The experience of caring about and for others can utilize a lot of your energy. You need people who can love and accept you, and who will support you and your family through challenging times. (Hint: These may not always be the people you expect!) Caregivers and people in caring professions can experience social isolation, unhealthy stress, marital problems, depression, and financial difficulties. These circumstances can adversely affect close relationships. When possible, set aside time to strengthen your friendships. Know whom you can count on for support.
Define “well-being” on your own terms. It is common to think of being “healthy” or “well” as the absence of illness – but health is an ongoing process! For some people wellness may be the ability to go for a long walk, take a watercolor class, effectively manage a chronic condition, or comfortably enjoy family gatherings. For children, wellness may be an improvement in social skills, attending school regularly, or being able to participate in a team sport.
Wellness is an ongoing, non-linear, process. You can aim to be “well” in a way that is specific to your current circumstances, priorities, and needs and your definition of "health" may change as an illness, context, relationship, environment or workplace changes.
Care professionals, caregivers, and pretty much everyone need environments that support their well-being. A safe place to relax, a quiet room to sleep comfortably, food that is nourishing and opportunities to enjoy time with family and friends.
Attending to these details when under stress can be challenging, but planning and creating a healthy environment will support your emotional and physical well-being.
Stress affects your body especially at times when so much feels beyond your sense of mastery or control. A home environment that is orderly, safe, and predictable can create balance when the outside world feels chaotic. In our culture it is common to live more reactive, busy lives that may not encourage rhythms that promote health and well-being. Rituals, routines, simplicity and order can help you and your family feel more at ease amidst the challenges of caring about and for others.
People who care are not the only ones affected by stress or compassion fatigue. Their family members may experience related stressors. Social opportunities can be limited, schedules changed last-minute, energy diverted, and relationships strained. Consider the specific needs of yourself and your family, and how your Work of Care might affect the people you love.
Health care providers, mental health professionals, coworkers and family members may be useful resources to help you determine the best path to well-being, but feel empowered to advocate for your own perspective, needs, values and priorities. Also, your needs and priorities may change – and that is okay.
Trust your gut, and work to collaborate knowing some people may require help understanding the nuances of your work and/or personal circumstances along with the specific needs of you and your family.
During difficult times you may not be able to maintain your current schedule of commitments and activities. A good rule at a time of crisis: some of your energy that was spent elsewhere needs to be redirected towards your well-being. This includes attending to your mental and physical health as you continue to work and support others.
Personal and professional goals may need to be put on hold temporarily. Family plans can be redesigned to accommodate special circumstances, or physical and psychological limitations. Try to make each day count in its own way – knowing that an accumulation of small, good choices will keep you on track for when you are ready to fully recommit to bigger goals and plans that have been put on hold.
For anyone who cares, and people who have caring professions, multiple areas of health and well-being require attention. Interventions and activities such as massage, naturopathy, environmental medicine, support and affinity groups, mindfulness, mental health days, and more can promote well-being. While a healthy skepticism is important, be open minded about non-medical interventions and lifestyle choices that are accessible to you and could support your overall well-being.
If you need to regain your sense of balance and well-being, a reduction in work hours, extracurricular activities, and travel or social plans may be helpful. As much as possible, revise your lifestyle to allow for flexibility. Days off work or school, travel to doctor and therapist appointments, and time to rest, will all be more challenging if you are trying to ‘fit them in’ to a normal, established routine. If your circumstances change on a day-to-day basis you may not always be able to plan ahead, and will sometimes need to make last minute changes to your schedule. Having a "Plan B" and "Plan C" in place for when this happens can help you feel more in control.
It is challenging to care for others, support a healthy lifestyle, and meet your family's expectations and needs. You may need support in building the skills necessary to manage these different areas of your life (especially if your family is affected by illness, addiction or disability). Many caregivers or care professionals feel overwhelmed or believe they are failing when all they really need is help learning skills like time management and planning.
Caring for people in our culture is challenging. Do not compare yourself to people around you who do not choose compassion, or who work in fields where they do not need to care for or about others. Know that you can make changes to support Work of Care and your values.