Wednesday, September 20, 2017

An open letter to those in the helping professions about self care

Are you still reading? Good. I couldn’t think of a good title for this essay.

But I do have an important point to make about getting rid of toxic energy. Especially for those of us who spend our time helping and listening to others.

Now then, just imagine.

You begin your career as a nurse, doctor, psychologist, etc. as a brand new untouched sponge. You can absorb a lot. Terrible stories, trauma, uncooperative clients, bureaucracy, problems with insurance companies, etc. The water comes pouring in again and again and again. But you can handle it. You trained for this.

But as the years go by, the water gets a little dirtier and the sponge gets a little heavier. Maybe it doesn’t even clean things as well as it used to after a while.

And you probably see where this is going by now.

The sponge needs to be squeezed out. All that dirty water takes its toll. Sure the sponge gets a little more frayed around the edges, but really, it should be rinsed out every day.

But let me back up for a minute and tell you a story.

The year was 2005, and I was looking for my first job in the realm of psychology. I talked my way into a job as a biofeedback therapist at a prominent headache clinic, and set to work teaching relaxation and coping skills to people with severe headaches. It was interesting work and I learned a lot, but all day long I heard one word. Headache. And I sympathized! I saw the pained look on people’s faces and got very involved in their lives. I listened, learned, and in many cases even helped. But you know what else happened??

I started getting headaches...

I learned I was not the only one. Many of the doctors, nurses, and even receptionists that worked there got headaches as well.

You see, hearing all of those stories about headaches was like water pouring into the sponge. Often times when we sympathize, and in particular when we empathize with people, we help them share their pain.

But we also in many ways absorb it.

Much has been said about the importance of self-care, supervision, and maintaining a level of personal detachment with our patients. It all sounds pretty good. But the fact of the matter is there are often more patients than people to help them, and I have found this to be a universal truth around the world. And often the people that care spend the most amount of time with the people they are caring for, which means less time to do paperwork, more time spent at work, and in many cases even taking work home after we stop giving paid.

I’ve found this to be true in every office, hospital, state, and even country I have ever worked in.

In many cases, this leads to caring professionals feeling completely overwhelmed, Tired. Stressed. Burned out.

We need to remember to squeeze that sponge. To let that toxic energy out. To repair and refresh ourselves.

How do we do this? Sometimes it’s getting help of our own from fellow professionals. After all, who helps the people that help? Maybe it’s something simpler like making time to listen to some of your favorite music every night, or making sure we are prioritizing time with friends and family. It could also mean taking care of our bodies by getting enough sleep and not eating on the run all the time. Maybe it’s turning your phone off when work is done and drawing appropriate boundaries around work time versus personal time. It could be time in nature, or a night out dancing, or playing a stupid video game for a couple of hours. Whatever it is for you, make sure you're making time for it!

I’ve seen many, many good nurses, doctors, cops, psychologists and teachers who had to give up something they were good at because they couldn't separate the personal and the professional. And the world lost something good because of it.

And maybe you aren't "officially" in the helping professions, but simply someone who is a good listener. Perhaps your friends and family sense this and unburden themselves to you all the time without realizing the weight they sometimes leave behind. This applies to you as well.

We can’t set ourselves on fire to keep other people warm all the time.

We need to squeeze that sponge.

So for those of you that do spend your lives helping others, please take this as a gracious thank you for all you do, as well as a bit of advice. Your family, health, and even sanity will all be better for taking some time to prioritize your own self-care.

Now rinse out that dirty water!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Here Comes the Sun

Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it's all right
~George Harrison (The Beatles)

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.
~Anatole France

If you listen closely enough, you’ll begin to realize that your life has a soundtrack. Think about it. I’ll bet there are certain songs that have kind of followed you around throughout your life.

Here comes the sun is one of the songs on my soundtrack. I often hear this song following a period when life has knocked me down a little bit. And there’s a bit of a literal connotation as well. As a long time sufferer of Seasonal Affective Disorder, I love the message of hope that the song conveys.

Even the worst winters have to end sometime.

Most recently, I heard the song while sitting in a bar on the gorgeous Riverwalk in San Antonio. I was on a great vacation, spending time with my family, and seeing some amazing things.

And yet that particular night I was feeling down. I was thinking of my vacation coming to an end, and thinking how little time I had with my mother now that I lived overseas, and a little tired from a very active vacation.

And then I heard my song! Here comes the sun. It was exactly what I needed in that moment, and I sang along with every word and then gave the singer a big tip. It was the perfect song to return me to the present moment. The only place I needed or wanted to be.

But in working with clients for a decade now, and in battling with my own issues over the years, I’ve learned the hard way that some winters last longer than others. Some of the seasons of our lives can be very stubborn, and we begin to lose hope that anything can ever change. But go back to your hometown some time and take a look around. I’ll bet you everything has changed. That’s the way life is. We never see the changes in a day but are often astounded by the changes over the years.

But in these dark seasons, we can learn to alter our responses. One of the most effective treatments for depression is something called behavioral activation. It sounds like a fancy psychological idea. It’s not. It’s basically a term for “doing stuff.” Even when we don’t feel like it. Join a group. Take a guitar lesson. Get together with some friends once a week for coffee. It’s amazing how even one little circle on a calendar can restore a little hope. For me, I ALWAYS have a trip planned. Even if it’s a little one. It reminds me that better times are ahead and that I have something to look forward to.

Sometimes it’s hard to see things clearly though. You try meds, and therapy, and exercise, and gluten free brownies and just about anything else to try and beat the blues. But it doesn’t work. None of it works. And sometimes this is because the only thing that really alleviates depression is time. The passage of time regulates seasons in the mind much like it regulates the seasons of the earth. Dark moods don’t last forever. Neither do great ones. Such is the transitory nature of time, life, moods, and seasons.

When we can accept and understand this, we can deal with it.

Even in the darkest of seasons.

And meanwhile back in the Southern Hemisphere, the first day of spring has just arrived. It’s been a long, cold, lonely, winter.

But here comes the sun.

And I say.

It’s alright….