The importance of self-care for service providers

Self-care is kind of a strange word isn’t it? It’s as though the word “care” on its own doesn’t include caring for ourselves. And yet that’s often what happens for those of us who work in the service sector. We care for others because it’s what we’re trained to do, but we often ignore ourselves in the process and risk becoming depleted. The truth is, we can’t care for others effectively if we aren’t taking care of ourselves too.

Flight attendants tell us to put on our own oxygen mask before putting it on another. Lifeguards carry floatation devices to extend to the drowning to avoid risking their own lives. First responders survey a scene before jumping in to help so they don’t become victims themselves. In a non-emergency we might be able to ignore our own needs and coast for quite a while, but if were to do that for too long it would be like squeezing every last bit of battery out of our cellphone and expecting it to operate at full capacity. Eventually we must recharge. If we don’t our health will be compromised.

Rather than drain ourselves completely, which requires extra effort to rebalance, why not develop healthy habits of self-care throughout the day to offset potential depletion? To do this, we need to pay attention, become more mindful of our own experience, and cultivate a caring approach inwardly towards ourselves while we focus outwardly on others.

Assessing just where you stand in relation to all of this is a good place to start.

  • Do you tend to put others’ needs before your own?
  • Are you aware of when you’re feeling depleted, or tense?
  • Do you get sick often or feel emotionally out of sorts?
  • Do you include yourself throughout the day, or are you only focused on what needs to be accomplished and deal with your own needs later, or not at all?
  • Do you make time for yourself?
  • Do you neglect yourself?

Understanding stress and its impact, good and bad

Not all stress is the same. In fact, some of it is really good for us. If we didn’t experience certain kinds of stress we wouldn’t be alive or engaged in life. Our bones and muscles need to be stressed so they get and stay strong enough to hold us upright and allow us to function optimally. Challenges and problems can be viewed as “stressors,” but addressing or solving them can also stimulate positive ideas, ambition, and appropriate action.

So when does stress in our lives turn negative, and how can self-care help us prevent or deal with the negative effects of stress? When we overspend our energy in caring for others without replenishing it, or when we have difficulty discharging tension that builds up, we end up experiencing negative physical and emotional consequences. These can range from irritability to exhaustion, poor judgement to foggy thinking, sleep disturbances to digestive upsets, poor muscle coordination to systemic dysfunction, and emotional distress to compassion-fatigue. These symptoms are messages from our nervous system that we need to give ourselves more care—ideally long before they present themselves.

Recognizing how stress affects us

There are numerous ways to care for ourselves and alleviate stress, and each of us needs a different approach. Chances are you have some “go-to” activities for recharging when you’re feeling depleted—be it exercise, socializing, sleeping, nutrition, disengaging, or just getting lost in a hobby. But, what about “in the moment,” when you’re faced with an experience that makes you reactive, stirring feelings of distress, overwhelm, or uncertainty—how do you respond? Some of us are motivated by stress, while others are shut down by it. The magnitude or gravity of a particular stressor will also affect our response. When you “notice” how you’re responding, you pave the way to practising better self-care. But it’s not automatic for our brain to think this way in the moment. We have to make a conscious choice to recognize what affects us negatively and the type of self-care we need, when we need it.

For service providers in the health and wellness industry, it’s all too common to push aside personal needs because the desire to care for others is central to why we’ve chosen our professions. Before long, if we minimize our own needs throughout the day, this will take a toll. Ignoring what’s happening inside us can deplete our energy, leaving us vulnerable to overwhelm, doubt, fatigue, illness, apathy, or emotional distress if left unchecked. This jeopardizes our own health and wellbeing, and ultimately makes us less effective as professionals. In short, our overriding desire to help others can undermine how we “show up” for our clients if we’re not considering ourselves along the way. So how the heck do we do start doing something about it?

How to assess YOUR stress response

A simple way to assess whether or not the stressors you’re faced with may be impacting your wellbeing in a negative way is to rate your feelings in the moment. Why? Because feelings are a good indicator of where you’re at emotionally, mentally and even physically. Using the metaphor of a stoplight is a simple way to assess these feelings and give you the power to choose how to respond differently. Are you in the green, yellow, or red zone?

• Green: If you’re in the green zone you’ll feel affected by an event but able to stay in tune with yourself. You’ll be equipped to take thoughtful action in the moment and to alleviate your distress because your brainpower is fully accessible. Green is a healthy place to be because you can discharge the stress you’re experiencing in the moment, and it won’t accumulate.

• Yellow: If you’re in the yellow zone you’ll feel more reactive and begin to feel a heightened tension in your body (and distress in your mind), but you’ll be able to function (even if you may appear a little out of sorts). In the yellow zone, your nervous system has become unbalanced and unable to respond calmly and clearly in the moment. If you don’t address this state of being at some point soon, in all likelihood, negative symptoms will start to present. Taking some time out to refocus and find your center, away from the situation, is a good idea when you find yourself in the yellow zone.

• Red: If you’re in the red zone you’ll be very reactive and will have lost the ability to think straight and make clear decisions. Your body will likely be very tense, your breathing shallow and constricted, and you may feel over-emotional. In the red zone, your brainpower has significantly decreased and you cannot get to green easily from here. You don’t feel like yourself and everything feels exaggerated and intense. When you’re in a state like this, you need time to “come down” gradually or wait for the stressors and/or the resulting symptoms to subside. If you operate in this zone for too long, it will require significant discharge and recharge practices to return to your healthy self.

Using this evaluation tool is a way to consider your own needs in the moment, even while you’re in service to others. No matter where you land on the continuum of feelings, the act of noticing them is a critical first step towards regulating them and countering their effects. The simple act of noticing sends a message to your brain that you’re aware and willing to take care. Don’t underestimate the power of doing this as a first step in managing stress.

How to discharge stress

Adverse effects of stress will accumulate when we’ve been in the yellow or red zone, even for short durations. We can’t immediately change zones, but we can implement healthy ways to discharge stress which involve breath, movement and “vocalizations.” For movement educators breath and movement is integral to our work, so be sure to practice these while you’re teaching others—so that you’re discharging stress throughout the day, especially in moments when you need it most. Vocalizations may not be socially acceptable in certain contexts, but if you’re teaching a class or working one-on-one you can incorporate vocal sounds on the exhale. If this isn’t practical, make sound whenever you’re able: in your car, in the shower, on a walk, in your home, with your kids and your pets. Stifling our breath, movement, or voice can undermine our wellbeing.

Notice and address “where you’re at” in the moment to improve your long-term wellbeing

To summarize, take time in your day to notice yourself and your emotions while you’re in service to others. If you neglect yourself throughout the day, you’ll end up being less available to the people you serve and will ultimately suffer the consequences. You matter too, and sometimes that only becomes apparent once your body forces you to step back and take care. Stepping back may seem to help in the short-term, but if it’s long-term health and wellbeing you care about, be mindful of the moments throughout your day that need your attention. Be sure to take care of yourself in those moments to the best or your abilities, and, at the very least, address any stress you’ve built up later that same day, or as soon as you’re able. You can’t afford to deplete yourself or disregard your own wellbeing. As the world reels with concerns of COVID-19, there’s never been a better time to think about and practice self-care.

Please, take note of yourself and your needs. You will benefit and, ultimately, so will those you serve. It is the little moments that count.