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Self compassion: it’s a survival skill

Burn-out, drug use and mental health problems – stories of health care professionals falling prey to the very ailments they treat is increasingly common. Reports of paramedics’ use of drugs and rise in mental distress is already national news[1].

In my own work with the public health system, I witnessed medical staff dealing with increasing aggression from patients, stretched resources and lack of ‘down-time’. I often talk with psychologists and counsellors who listen daily to the complexity and layers of trauma in their clients’ lives with scant support for their own challenges.

Outside the public health system the signs of increasing stress are evident too. I’ve seen the worry in the eyes and body language of my own kids’ teachers. It’s no wonder – they are on the front line of managing learning difficulties and mental health concerns among children and adolescents, which has seen a 20 per cent increase from five years ago[2].

The central question for support workers and carers is this: ‘How do we reconcile such sadness, such loss, such trauma in other people’s lives?’ Our challenge is to keep on saving people’s lives even as resources get scarcer and demand soars. It’s a tall order.

Where do the helpers go?
The truth is, when you’re on the front line of mental health and trauma in the community, you need specific skills to survive. Too often, when we call out for help as professionals our credentials and stamina are questioned.  Are we ‘cut out’ for this work, or not?

In my own work in family violence advocacy, I struggled with an endless cycle of night shift and recovery while caring for women and children in crisis. Victims’ stories and trauma compounded in me. I began to have nightmares and constant migraines. I developed a hyper-vigilance that saw me rarely returning to a state of nervous system equilibrium and restoration before the next shift came around.

Something needed to change, in me, and for others in similar types of work. Especially those dealing with crisis and trauma, day after day. Telling ourselves we needed to ‘toughen up’ or attend more professional training isn’t the answer.

I surmised that the clients and situations weren’t going to get less complex, nor were organisations going to be more forgiving and compassionate to staff (even though it’s ethical to do so). Instead, we needed to find our own solutions, to take some of our own advice.

In short, we need to practice more compassion – not for others, but for ourselves.

Why self-compassion helps
Compassion isn’t a finite resource. We can always grow and develop more of it. But having compassion for others also requires us to practice self-compassion. Without it, we become exhausted, feel helpless and turn to quick fixes to keep us going.

That’s why I developed art therapy workshops for carers and support workers. It was a positive way to set aside a few quiet hours with like-minded humans, to reflect on the skills we need to live and thrive with complex work demands.

In self-compassion workshops we explore what that concept means for us as workers, and how we can develop more of it.

We reflect on how and where those in caring roles recharge. We brainstorm about how we can turn the focus to what our own needs are, with more regularity.

I’ve found some consistent themes: participants say they turn to nature, gardening, reflection, art making and solitude to recharge. They look specifically for places to contemplate in order to regain a sense of who they are, aside from their work pressures. Remembering characteristics in us that counters the seriousness of our jobs, like playfulness or adventurousness helps. But taking more ‘me time’ isn’t the whole answer.

Being reminded of our own goodness, that we were enough, that we can and must let go are skills easily lost amid the chaos of a stretched health system. And they are skills we must consistently re-learn.

>>>See upcoming workshops on self compassion.

[1] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-05-24/the-rise-of-narcotics-use-among-paramedics/9788134

[2] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-11-27/schools-at-crisis-point-mental-health-concerns-among-students/9192386