By Holly Arroyo It’s a term that seems to be mentioned daily in almost every aspect of my life whether it be school, work, home etc. My social work field seminar class discusses the topic frequently and its importance is constantly emphasized by professors and practitioners. But if self-care seems to be discussed so often, why is it that most people, including myself, tend to neglect the practice of self-care, even when its essential that everyone, not just those working in helping professions, incorporate some form of self-care into their routine to avoid burnout? My personal struggle with self-care has been brought to my attention in several different ways over the past few weeks. I am entering the last month of my graduate education and the pressure is on, so I have been hyper-focused on completing assignments while attempting to keep up with my practicum responsibilities. But in my effort to stay focused on school, I have neglected the signs in the other aspects of my life that are telling me to slow down and practice some self-care.
One most recent example of my tunnel vision on school impacting my health happened a few days before Spring Break. While working on a paper in the computer lab, I went to retrieve some printed materials when I failed to notice what was directly in front my feet. I proceeded to run my foot right in to the metal leg of a desk chair. Although initially the pain was like any other pain that might occur when one stubs their toe, when the pain did not subside after 10 to 15 minutes, I looked down at by foot and, sure enough, my pinky toe had begun to turn blue and black. I broke my toe, not while running, climbing, or falling, but while writing a paper for school. Who does that?! During this time, I also apparently missed a meeting with the same professor whose class I was writing a paper for and when I wobbled my way up to her office to inform her that I would turning in the paper late, she was very understanding and even got me a bag of ice for my pitifully injured toe. As she was helping me she said, “You know, Chinese medicine says that when you injure yourself like that, you are too focused on something and may need to take a step back”.
While my professor’s observation may make perfect sense, I find it hard to not be focused when it seems I have a lot to accomplish in a short amount of time. When I was an undergrad and would pull all-nighters during finals week, I would often joke, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!”. But as I make jokes and push through things like no sleep or a broken toe, I see how easy it is to justify not taking care of myself, especially if the justification is deemed a worthy or noble cause, like pursuing higher education, helping clients, or putting someone else’s needs before your own. But the over-used example of the flight attendant instructing you to put your own oxygen mask on before you assist others really does visualize the importance of self-care. You must put yourself first before you can help others. For myself and I am sure many others in social work and helping professions, this is easier said than done.
If you google the term “self-care”, you are sure to find lots of different tips and ideas on how to practice self-care. There’s exercise, DIY spa tips, read a book, see a movie, go for a walk, meditate, yoga, healthy eating, drink water, disengage from work on weekends, and the list goes on. The problem is not that people do not know what to do for self-care, most of us can find something that gives a joy. The issue is that people have a hard time making self-care an intentional, regular part of their routine. If a person has high blood pressure, they may take daily medication or change their diet. They typically do not only take medication or stop eating fried chicken when their blood pressure is high, they make these changes a regular part of their routine to prevent their blood pressure from getting out of control. The same concept goes for practicing self-care. By making self-care a regular part of your routine, the risks of overstressing and burnout can be reduced and when things come up that are particularly stressful, you can be better equipped to tackle those challenges. For myself, and I am sure for others as well, routine self-care takes practice. There are some small forms of self-care that I have already incorporated into my routine already such as solving puzzle games daily or watching my favorite comedy shows every night. My bigger self-care goals that I struggle with include eating healthy, exercising, and seeing a therapist regularly. It’s important to remember that although self-care may seem like a selfish practice, taking time out for one’s self gives us the ability and skills needed to care for others. We can’t take care of everyone, but if we can take care of ourselves then maybe we can help others to do the same.