During a Pandemic and overwhelming racial injustice, counselors, healthcare workers, and other helping professionals may find themselves experiencing secondary traumatic stress and self-deprivation. Secondary traumatic stress (STS) is a concept that is closely related to post-traumatic stress. The difference between them is that PTSD results from direct personal exposure to trauma, whereas STS results from working with victims of the trauma and being indirectly exposed to trauma (Manning-Jones, Terte, & Stephens, 2016). Since the pandemic helping professionals have worked with many that may be directly or indirectly affected. Now we add working with those that have experienced racial trauma. Hearing the traumatic stories from clients or media, viewing traumatic videos, witnessing those with COVID-19, being a part of a minority culture that is targeted for racial injustice, and feeling the stress of a hurting society can take a serious emotional toll on helping professionals. It is this emotional toll that compromises professional functioning and can diminish helping professional’s quality of life. Therefore, self-care can no longer be ignored if we are to prevent STS, function properly and maintain a quality of life during such uncertain times.
What is self-care?
Self-care is the intentional act to take care of one’s mental, emotional, spiritual, relational, and physical health. In theory, the concept of taking care of oneself would seem to be an expected priority. However, it is often sacrificed by helping professionals to take care of others. It’s a myth to think if you don’t take time to care for yourself you will be your best self to care for others. Good self-care is the essential key to great mental health and wholeness. It is only when we begin to intentionally embrace our self-care that we can experience a true state of wholeness where there is nothing missing, and nothing broken. Audrey Lorde said, “Self-care is not about self-Indulgence it is about self-preservation!" While we may take care of ourselves a little differently, we all must cater to self-care because our survival depends on it.
How should you apply Self-Care?
Daily Self-Checks: Take the time to be still and really listen to what your spirit, mind, and body need. Throughout the day we receive so much information and much of it can be overwhelming or negative. You must be intentional about attending to your needs. It is also vital to encourage and inspire yourself. Ask yourself two questions How do I feel at this moment? Do I know what I need at this moment? If so, apply it, if not be still until you discover it.
Grieve: Allow yourself to grieve the life you previously knew as normal. As we continue to experience uncharted waters it is easy to slip into denial or ignore the loss of the way things were. We must not forget to mourn, grieve, or simply express our sadness about not being able to socially interact with family, friends, favorite hobbies, faith worship, and exercise routines, as we did prior to the pandemic. Acknowledging your loss can help you move forward into the new normal.
Adult Play Time: Embrace balance by allowing yourself to experience some fun with family, friends, or peers. Playing games or sharing jokes can be done virtually. Consider virtual dinners or social gatherings using FaceTime, Zoom, or Skype.
Check-Out Time: Allow yourself to physically, mentally, and emotionally check out a few selected times a week. Checking out is a form of escaping the negativity and stress in our society. Include shutdown time in your weekly schedule. This can be healthy time alone, turning off news media, taking a break from social media, gratitude reflection, or quietude.
Mindful Meditation Breathing: This does wonders to keep us calm, relaxed, and focused. Mindful breathing is done by slowly inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth with a relaxed posture. Deep breathing for 5-10 minutes daily can clear the mind, release anxiety, manage anger, decrease negative emotions, and increase positive emotions. You should do yourself a favor and truly exhale each day!
Exercise: Committing to exercise at least 30 minutes a day can be extremely helpful to experience happier moods, balance moods, and decrease stress and sadness. Exercise releases endorphins which I like to call the happy chemicals in the brain. Due to the pandemic many gyms are closed which allows for more time to exercise in your home or outside. Examples include walking, jogging, running, cycling, aerobics videos, and housework/repairs.
Proper Sleep: Your body needs adequate sleep in order to function. Having a scheduled bedtime and awake time is important. Eight hours is the suggested best amount of sleep to allow your body to go through all the stages of sleep and awake refreshed and rejuvenated.
Healthy Eating: In these uncertain times stress is increased which can easily cause you to emotionally overeat or eat less. Neglecting nutrition and healthy eating is the worst thing you can do during these times. Fueling our bodies with nutritional eating and taking vitamins daily can help to prevent and fight illness. Great immune boosting foods such as dark green leafy vegetables, berries, beans, and seeds are important to include in your diet daily.
Faith Meditation/Prayer: Meditation can help us create an atmosphere of peace and joy. Take time for your faith daily by listening to audio faith messages, sermons, books, or videos. Many faith leaders since the pandemic are utilizing YouTube to live stream messages. YouTube is a good daily resource to search for faith messages. Read faith-based short passages, articles, quotes, scriptures, or books. Share faith principles during virtual faith meetings with faith peers. Apply prayer or prayer journaling daily.
Music/Dance/Laughter: Music, dance, and laughter all reduce stress and release endorphins: Consider listening to soothing music to relax, listen to fast pace music to dance, and watch a good funny movie a few times a week.
Peer Support: Join a professional support group such as counselor support, healthcare worker support, racism trauma support, or first responder support. Support groups are uplifting and remind us we are not alone. I have seen the value and profound benefits of counselor support groups. As standing President of the American Counseling Association of Georgia, I developed the first counselor support group in collaboration with NAMI Georgia to offer support related to the pandemic, clinical practice, resources, and personal concerns.
Professional Counseling: Seek counseling when needed. Counseling is a good outlet for healthcare and other helping professionals to release. Counseling will help process your emotions, clear your thinking, provide direction, and help you grow!
Why a self-care plan?
Understanding self-care, its importance and the different types of self-care is essential, the next step is to implement a plan. Developing a self-care plan is one of the best ways to hold yourself accountable to apply self-care consistently. The self-care plan gives structure and time management to your process. Your plan can include scheduled activities from above and organization by using the below categories to simplify.
Be mindful to reassess your self-care plan every 30 days by reviewing if you have been effective in applying your self-care activities daily. Doing a self-care assessment will help you identify if your plan is realistic and habitual. After completing your self-care assessment, consider taking a brief wellness assessment answering statements like "I’ve felt happy this month," "I’ve felt relaxed this month," "I’ve ate healthy this month," "I’ve felt good about my relationships," and "I’ve attended therapy this month." The wellness assessment will help you determine if your self-care plan is working. Once you have started to apply your self-care plan, it is important to understand distractions may prevent you from being consistent. Just remember your survival depends on your self-care! I am committed to training professionals on the value of self-care. Self-care is the number-one priority in my life for a personal reason.
My beautiful late Grandmother Lillie Bell Izzard of Greensboro, NC was the greatest servant leader I will ever know. She served her family, church, neighbors, community, and on her job. My late Grandmother dedicated her life to the service of others so much so that she failed to learn how to take care of herself, which caused her to have several health challenges. My Grandmother transitioned in 2005 at the tender age of 68. As part of her legacy, I have vowed to teach others how to balance service and self-care!
Manning-Jones, S., de Terte, I., & Stephens, C. (2016). Secondary traumatic stress, vicarious posttraumatic growth, and coping among health professionals; A comparison study. New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 45(1), 20–29.
Laklieshia Izzard Ed. D, LPC, NCC, ACS is the owner of Shekinah Counseling a virtual private practice and has served in Counselor Leadership for 5 years most recently as founding member and President of the American Counseling Association of Georgia. Dr. Izzard has written Avoiding Career Burnout and Compassion Fatigue: Embracing Self-Care an application book to address Burnout and Compassion Fatigue with self-care tips. Available on amazon.