It’s time to put on your own oxygen mask before you help others
By Ashleigh Cairns
(From the April - June 2018 issue of VOX)
If you ever find yourself around The Big House Ireland team, the chances are you’ll hear the term “self-care”. As a charity, one of our roles is supporting leaders on the ground as they care for young people in difficulty within their churches and communities. What happens though when the carers face similar difficulties? When the leaders begin to feel overwhelmed, anxious and uncertain? How do they keep caring for the vast range of people and needs they meet every week without burning out? In this article, Ashleigh Cairns explores the basics of self-care, why we are not always good at it and how some of the team at The Big House Ireland put self-care into practice.
In a nutshell, self-care involves any care you intentionally give yourself that helps prevent you becoming run-down or ill (or helps you recover). Put another way, self-care helps you be at your best. It helps you remain physically, mentally and spiritually resilient, and ultimately helps you better care for people.
The basics of caring for ourselves include all the things we know we should do: a healthy diet, physical activity, time to relax and have fun, a good night’s sleep and solid relationships. Likewise, most of us can name our spiritual basics such as prayer, worship with others, reading God’s Word and receiving Bible teaching. I’m guessing most of us can even add to these, and are often the first to encourage others to pay attention to them. However, there is a difference between knowing them, teaching them and incorporating them into our own lives. We can spend all week praying or reading as we prepare for a talk but that is not for our own nourishment.
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Our physical, mental and spiritual health are interconnected in complex ways, so don’t underestimate the impact of getting the basics right. Before you skim past this paragraph because you have heard this all before, take a minute now to consider the areas of self-care mentioned above. Be honest! This is not about being harsh with yourself or setting unrealistic goals like signing up for a marathon in four weeks time when you haven’t run since secondary school! Consider what areas are first to suffer when life is busy or stressful for you. Does your sleep go out the window, or do skipped meals or “comfort eating” become normal? Now be intentional and jot down what action(s) you are going to put in place.
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Some common hindrances to self-care that we often hear are:
“I’M TOO BUSY”
It is normal to have busier periods but if busyness is making you feel frantic, is never followed up with quieter periods, or has become a bit of a badge of honour, it can begin taking its toll. The rhythm of rest and Sabbath is built into creation from the very beginning alongside work - both work and rest are necessary.
“I’VE TRIED BUT IT DOESN’T WORK”
This response sometimes comes with a description of how every time the person takes a weekend off or goes on holiday, they inevitably get sick. If this is you, it may not be a sign that self-care doesn’t work, but a sign that you have been pushing your body to the limit. Begin to pay attention to your body and start putting things in place before you get to the crashing out stage.
“OTHER PEOPLES’ NEEDS COME FIRST”
You know the analogy about putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others in crisis on an airplane? The same can be applied here. To help others in need, we have to ensure our basic needs are met first. Self-care is not a selfish act, it helps ensure we are in a healthy position to help others as fully as we can.
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Take some time to reflect on what hinders you from caring for yourself. There is no one size fits all. Everyone is built uniquely and our needs change depending on what is happening at any given time. During difficult or stressful times, we may need more time dedicated to looking after ourselves to help us cope with what we are facing. Self-care does not guarantee an easy life anymore than being a Christian does, but it will help resource you to navigate the challenges.
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To give you an idea of what this may look like, here are some of the things that the Big House team do:
Sarah: “I flip between spending time with people, and knowing when I just need time alone. Although they are both opposite, sometimes I need one and sometimes I need the other. When I am overthinking, I go for a walk while listening to an audio book. It means I need to concentrate on following the story, while also getting out in the fresh air.”
Colin: “I head for the sea, a wave-pounded beach, or to a mountain trail... somewhere wild where the power and raw beauty of creation take your breath away. Then I try to capture it with my trusty camera!”
Mark: “I have daily, monthly and yearly self-care routines. My daily is normally sitting in a coffee shop people watching or reading a paper; my monthly is a short time away, sometimes on my own; and yearly is family time away with no phone or computer access. When I speak at events on difficult subjects, I normally take someone with me so I can have a laugh and enjoy companionship on the way home.”
Ashleigh: “At the minute, my non-negotiable self-care involves at least 30 minutes alone during a day (nearly always with good coffee) reading, praying or taking a walk outside. It is that simple, but I found initially that it could slip easily because ‘it’s just half an hour.’ If a day is going to be busy, I make sure I do it before starting anything.”
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Do you have a self-care plan? Take time over the next few days to begin asking yourself what you need and what you can do to begin purposefully looking after yourself. This will require you to know yourself, and to think about any changing needs in your life at the minute. Then be intentional - put it in the diary if you need to!
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ANXIETY, STRESS AND BURNOUT
We all occasionally experience some level of stress or anxiety. However, if you are reading this article and cannot remember the last time you didn’t feel stressed, the anxiety you are feeling is negatively impacting your everyday life, or you’re on the verge of burnout, some extra support may be beneficial. You can start by talking with someone you trust and who you think will understand. It can be tempting to avoid this, and tell ourselves it will get better/ it isn’t that bad. Remember, no one is immune to difficulty or struggle, not even church leaders.
Often sharing how we are really feeling is one of the first steps in ensuring symptoms don’t worsen. Your GP or local counselling agency may be a good place to begin and will help you determine what support is right for you. Or check out some of the great Christian counselling services available in Ireland (www.iacc.ie) or Northern Ireland (www.accni.org).
Ashleigh is part of The Big House Ireland team and is currently training as a counsellor within a community-based project.