You want to help people feel better. I get it. Perhaps you are in a helping profession, but perhaps you are a helper to your family, coworkers, or friends. In the helping professions, wanting others to feel their best is what drives us- seeing others learn how to help themselves and feel better in their bodies, minds, and lives. But, as a helper, we run the risk of burning out if we do not focus our attention on taking care of ourselves first. Believe me. From personal experience, I can tell you all about burnout and how it effects every aspect of your life.
As a former sexual abuse trauma counselor for children and teens, I had a choice to make. I could make some major changes in how I took care of myself or I could live a life full of compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, inflammation, poor coping and numbing, and damaged relationships. For burnout prevention and healing, self-care and daily habits are key.
Burnout is a term that has been thrown around a lot in the last few years, but in the helping profession, it is seen as a very serious issue that can require a long, slow journey to heal. Research in the field of mental health shows that the probability of burnout for professionals is pretty bleak: “as many as 2 out of 3 mental health workers may be experiencing high levels of burnout.” Burnout is also a state of being that does not just happen overnight. It is a slow, divisive, and non-discriminating process that will steal joy, passion, and energy.
It can feel selfish as a helper to express when we need time to take care of ourselves. We have dedicated our time and energy to helping others. But, we also know (and we often say it to our clients) that if we don’t help ourselves, we can’t help anyone else. In the medical field, we are seeing that burnout occurs due not only to the demands of caring for the high numbers of people in need, but also to the high expectations that are placed on doctors and nurses to be able to push through and handle erratic hours, inconsistent meal times, and the physical demands of the job. However, anyone in any helping and wellness role is also at risk for burnout if helping others takes priority over self-care. Taking time regularly to check in, notice what the body is asking for, and scheduling self-care will allow all helping professionals to keep going at optimal levels.
Practicing dinacharya, an Ayurvedic term for daily habits to align our bodies with nature, is an effective way to overcome and prevent burnout as we engage in the crucial practice of uncompromising self-care. Studies done on burnout recovery/prevention and the recommendations made for doctors, nurses, and mental health therapists all fall into line with these habits of dinacharya. Giving ourselves permission to focus on getting our minds and bodies back into sync with nature’s rhythm is just what the doctor (or mental health professional) ordered. Once we do that, we can more effectively help others to do the same.
Let’s take a look at the recommendations for burnout recovery and prevention and how those recommendations align with practicing the ancient science of dinacharya:
- Get enough sleep. When I was acting as a sexual abuse trauma counselor in a residential treatment facility for youth, I was emotionally and physically exhausted every day, but I could not sleep. My nervous system was fried and my poor sleep hygiene habits made “winding down” nearly impossible. Honoring the evening energy, reducing stimulating input like electronics and caffeine, and going to bed early (by 10 pm) teaches us how to honor the body’s natural rhythm and to take advantage of the brain’s ability to produce hormones in support of restful sleep. This will all set us up for feeling and thinking our best the next morning.
- Make exercise a priority. Moving the energy in the body can help us to better cope with mental, emotional, and physical stress. Short bouts of exercise throughout the day can help to balance anxious energy, clear stagnation, focus the perspective, and allow a time-out from everything else that is going on. And finding our own version of daily exercise- including mode and intensity- can help us to find more joy in moving our bodies, thus increasing consistency and longevity.
- Eat whole, nutrient-filled foods. Plant Based Diet teaches us about using food as fuel and focusing on feeding our cells with prana-filled plants and well-sourced, organic meats (if meat is in our diet). In addition, Earlier Lighter Dinner teaches us to work with our body’s ability to digest during daylight hours and to assimilate the food we take in by matching our eating times with our digestive system’s rhythm. Finally, the habit of Healthier Eating Guidelines educates us on eating seasonally and giving our digestive system- and our nervous system- a break between meals.
- Meditate. When our nervous system is fried and our minds seem to be in overdrive, meditation can seem challenging, but it is imperative to help us reboot and begin to rebuild. The good news is that there are many different types of meditation, so again, we want to find the version that fits us the best. Research shows that the benefits of meditation are many, including rewiring the brain, increasing calm, reducing inflammation, and directing us toward more happiness.
- Take a break from technology. The amount of stimulation our brains are receiving from electronic devices is becoming an addiction that is training us into distraction and anxiety. Both meditation and creating a sweet night time routine in alignment with our body’s need to wind down correlate with calming the nervous system and supporting better sleep, focus/attention, and emotional regulation. Find more calm and stillness by unplugging.
- Look for opportunities for self-discovery and nurture a positive view of yourself. In the habit of Self-Massage, we are learning how to literally get in touch with ourselves and to become friends with our bodies. We are learning self-love and nurturing ourselves with both self-compassion and oil. With the habit of self-massage, we have an opportunity for self-discovery built right in to our daily schedule. This habit is extremely healing for the nervous system and supports recovery from trauma, burnout, and chronic stress.
- Setting boundaries, using support, and reframing one’s view of the work to find more meaning can all be addressed in the habit of Easeful Living. As humans raised in our competitive and judgmental society, we often take on the belief that things “have to be” difficult and that we will only be “good enough” when something outside of us occurs or deems that we are. Recognizing how we make things harder on ourselves can shift everything. Giving in to impossible expectations, allowing ourselves to be taken advantage of, and putting the job before ourselves can lead to burn out quickly. We can begin to isolate and feel like no one else could possibly understand. When we are burned out and feeling fried, it can also be difficult to see that we are making a difference in what we are doing and to find the meaning in continuing at all. Taking care of ourselves first, reaching out to make connection with others, and reframing our perspective around finding value in our work all come when we believe that we can live with more ease.
Regardless of the exact helping role we are in, attending to our own needs is required to be able to effectively attend to the needs of others. In addition to the habits of dinacharya, things like spending time in nature, scheduling time for activities that bring joy, and connecting with others who can relate to what we are experiencing are all helpful ways to stoke the inner fire of joy and health without burning it out.
We must remember that burnout didn’t happen overnight and it certainly won’t be resolved overnight. Using the practice of Kaizen- small continuous improvement- allows us to take it one step at a time and to witness the small changes adding up to big progress.
If you are experiencing symptoms of burnout, you are not alone and things can get better. These habits helped me to heal and they are what I coach others through. Contact me and we can discuss shaping your daily habits around self-care and healing. Even the smallest of steps can begin to change everything. Have hope.
I will be taking the journey right along side you.
Chat again soon,