Self-Care and Care for Others in Challenging Times

Resilience is a constant theme of podcasts, online courses, and conferences in these challenging times.  One outstanding example of this is the interview podcast conducted with Michelle Maldonado  by Mindful.org.  Michelle discussed Resilience for Divided Times – the challenge of maintaining equilibrium in times of divisions on the grounds of race, nationality, gender, wealth and health.  The pandemic has unsettled everyone and challenged our way of operating day-to-day and, in the process, heightened anxiety and unearthed deep divisions previously hidden by the routines and busyness of daily life.  IN the interview, Michelle highlights the need for self-care, self-awareness, and pursuit of our own individual contribution to the service of others.

Self-Care for resilience

Without self-care we are unable to care for others and are more likely to contribute to divisions rather than their resolution.  Michelle emphasises the need to get in touch with our challenging emotions and not push them away or ignore them.  She quotes her father who used to say, “No way to it but through it”.  Michelle suggests that with escalating personal challenges, the need for self-care increases and demands that we increase the frequency, duration, and variety of our self-care approaches and mindfulness strategies if we are to build resilience and maintain our balance.   

Many people are finding it difficult to sleep in the current challenging times because of worries about health, finances, employment or restrictions on movement and access.  Michelle shared her own approach to overcoming the inability to go to sleep.  She maintains that often sleep eludes us because our mind is unsettled or constantly ruminating.  Her recommendation is to meditate or write a journal before going to bed to provide a “dump” for the mind and to still the mind’s incessant activity.  This mental activity can be complemented by a “body scan” to identify and release points of tension.  If you wake up prematurely, Michelle encourages you to practise a form of breathing involving exhaling longer than you inhale (e.g. a count of 7 on the exhale and 5 on the inhale) – an approach that activates the parasympathetic nervous system.  An alternative is to get up and write.

Self-awareness to take wise action

Michelle argues that if we lack self-awareness, we can unconsciously inflame divisions by our words and actions.  She maintains that each of us is constantly engaged in perception and prediction – both of which are influenced by our past experiences, including our childhood.  Our perception and prediction can generate a wide array of emotions including anticipation, sense of hopelessness, exhaustion, and excitement. 

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of our biases, predispositions, and distorted perceptions and create the space to think and act more consciously, skilfully, and compassionately (towards our self and others).  Michelle tells the story of how working closely with Federal Enforcement Officers totally changed her perception of these officers – an erroneous perception built up through newspaper and TV reports.  She saw their humanity, kindness, and concern for others. The danger is that we tend “to lump all people together” – whether they are of a particular location, race, profession, political affiliation, or gender orientation.  We need to challenge our assumptions through curiosity and honest self-inquiry so that we can create the space to understand where others are coming from and be able to take “wise action”, not action fuelled by ignorance, fear, hatred or misunderstanding.  

Contributing to the service of others

When we are confronted with the magnitude of suffering, mental illness, and uncertainty in these pandemic times, we can have a strong desire to help others but can feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task.  Michelle assures us that there is a unique way for each of us to make a contribution to the welfare of others.  She suggests that you can sit with the challenge of identifying your role and contribution to the service of others, think about it and attempt to write it down (to provide clarity and order for your thoughts).  With patience and persistence, you can gain the necessary insight to take the first steps and have the courage to “concretize and manifest what is yours to do”.  This may involve overcoming your natural tendency to procrastinate.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through self-care and developing self-awareness, we are better placed to identify any distortions in our perceptions and projections and to manage challenging emotions.  We can build resilience and contribute in a unique way to healing divisions and helping others to achieve the ease of wellness.  

Michelle offers a brief G.R.A.C.E. meditation by way of reflection and integration of her discussion (at the 29-minute mark).  The meditation encompasses gathering attention; recalling intention; attuning to self and others; considering what would serve your self-care needs and the needs of others at this moment; and engaging ethically through deciding one wise action you can take (a first step).

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Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Working from Home and Staying Mentally Healthy

Many people have been thrust into the situation of working from home because of the Coronavirus and related Government restrictions on movement and contact.  As a result, numerous people are ill-prepared for the challenges and opportunities involved.  However, there is plenty of advice available through blog posts, videos and podcasts to help us acquire the necessary information to work effectively from home.  There are also specific suggestions for particular groups of people, e.g. teachers working from home and working from home with kids. Many of these sources of information stress the need to stay mentally healthy as well as look after your physical welfare.  Here are some strategies to achieve both effectiveness and sound mental health.

Strategies for working from home healthily for mind and body

The pattern you create needs to meet your personal preferences (e.g. a morning person vs. night person), your lifestyle, family situation and location.  Here are some suggestions that may help you to make choices that are relevant to your needs and those around you:

  • Negotiate arrangements – this entails reaching at least a tentative agreement at the outset with other affected parties such as your boss, you partner and your colleagues – having some clear understandings and groundrules at the outset can pave the way for a relatively smooth transition to working from home and avoiding unnecessary conflict at a time when everyone is feeling stressed.  If you have a partner living at home with you, it pays to negotiate arrangements about working space, quiet time, coffee buying or making and eating arrangements (e.g. getting your own breakfast and lunch but sharing dinner preparation and eating).  It is often the little things that can bring daily angst if they are not sorted out early.  If you have had an extended marriage or living together arrangement, groundrules get established unconsciously and it pays to explore how these might change with one or both of you working from home.
  • Establish a routine: this gives you a sense of agency, the feeling that some aspects of your life are under control when everything else is changing constantly and creating uncertainty and anxiety.  It is strongly suggested by many authors that you maintain your daily routine of getting ready for work (e.g. showering, getting dressed well, and beginning work at a set time).  I think some flexibility here can be healthy without jeopardising your ability to work effectively and not waste time.  You might, for example, wear more comfortable clothes, introduce a morning exercise routine (to take advantage of the time saved in not having to travel to work), occasionally sleep in when you feel tired from the extra stress created by the Coronavirus) and take time for conscious reflection (e.g. writing a journal about what you are experiencing and how you are responding). Sleep is particularly important at this time to enable your body and mind to recuperate from the stresses that you will be experiencing.
  • Develop an exercise program: physical exercise reduces stress and builds positive mental health.  It is wonderful to see so many people making the most of their additional time at home to walk, run or ride in the open (particularly along the bayside where I live).   Yoga and Tai Chi, offer physical, mental and emotional benefits in these times of stress and anxiety. Getting some fresh air is important – there can be a tendency with social isolation and safe distancing to become stuck in your home and not take in the benefits of time spent mindfully in nature.  Activity is a great antidote to anxiety and depression.
  • Don’t sweat the news: in times of uncertainty, there is a strong tendency to become obsessive about news reports (via newspapers, emails, social media or podcasts).  This not only dissipates your focus but also exacerbates difficult feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness.  Obviously, some information is important to know (e.g. available relief packages for individuals or businesses and Government advice/directives/legislation relevant to the Coronavirus).  Experts in the area of mental health suggest that establishing a set time or times during the day for catching up on the news can be a useful way to proceed (do you really have to be the first to know?).   It also pays to take note of the positive news, e.g. the many random acts of kindness that are occurring everywhere in the world as people struggle to cope with the present crisis.
  • Stay connected: with your work colleagues and boss – establish a routine for checking-in (preferably daily) as well as strategies to effectively employ electronic communication for planning, sharing and product/service development.  There is a need here to maintain the balance between work and task – not oversharing social information but not being overly focused on work alone.  Some work-from-home groups institute a set time each week to share recipes, a virtual lunch experience or happy hour, a sing-along or coping strategies. 
  • Undertake special projects: there are often work-related, home-based projects that have been put off because of lack of time or prioritising.  These projects can improve your work-from-home situation and enhance your productivity.  They could involve, for instance, clearing up the clutter in your “office”, strengthening the security of your computer system, improving recycling in the home (including disposal of sensitive work information) or establishing a home-based coffee-making machine or a filtered water system such as the Zanzen Alkaline Water System.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, recently participated in a Ted Connects© interview and provided deep insight and very sound advice about dealing with the overwhelm of the current Coronavirus crisis.  She advices strongly against substituting the busyness of the workplace environment with a new form of busyness in the working from home environment.  Elizabeth argues that we spend so much time running away from ourselves, not fronting up to ourselves including our fear and anxiety.  She argues that the present situation of enforced or voluntary working from home creates a wonderful opportunity for developing self-awareness and self-regulation through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection.  Often our greatest, unconscious fear is being-alone-with-our-self.  We seek distractions and fill up our time with multiple tasks only to find that we have no time to truly find ourselves. 

Reflection

The current working from home situation that many of us face has inherent challenges and opportunities compounded by the requirements around social distancing, safe distancing and avoidance of unnecessary travel (local and international).  Clarifying working arrangements, establishing a routine, developing an exercise program, avoiding obsessing over the news, staying connected and undertaking special projects that enhance a sense of control over your environment, are all important for a healthy mind and body. 

However, the real challenge and opportunity lies in developing self-awareness and self-management through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection.  As we grow in mindfulness, we enhance our focus (at a time of intensified distraction), our resilience (at a time of extreme mental and emotional stress), our creativity (when we appear lost for personal and community solutions) and our compassion (when so many people worldwide are suffering and grieving).  In all of this turmoil and uncertainty, there lies the opportunity to truly find ourselves.

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Image by Igor Ovsyannykov from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Can You Experience Compassion Fatigue?

Kelly McGonigal in her presentation for the Mindful Healthcare Summit challenged the widely held belief that you cannot experience compassion fatigue. Many people contend that compassion fatigue does not occur because the heart is capable of endless kindness and love for others. Kelly maintains that motivation and goodness of heart are not sufficient to prevent the depression and burnout that can result from compassion fatigue. She asserts that compassion has to be supported by adequate self-care if it is to be sustained.

Compassion and the stress response

Kelly argues that compassion is like the stress response when viewed physiologically. Compassion floods the body with hormones such as dopamine and marshals the body’s energy to relieve the suffering of others. However, while this can be very energising and exciting in the short term, compassion takes its toll in the longer term both bodily and mentally, as we do not have endless physical and mental reserves.

The possibility of compassion fatigue can be increased where a helping professional or carer experiences vicarious trauma or moral distress – the latter being defined as being required to do things that clash with a person’s values or moral perspective, a frequently occurring ethical dilemma within the medical profession.

Compassion fatigue

Kelly suggests that compassion fatigue occurs when a person lacks the energy and resources to pursue their motivation to care in such way that it achieves personal satisfaction (activates the reward system). Outcomes achieved fall short of personal expectations and/or the expectations of others, despite the strength of the caring intention. The compassionate person feels exhausted and feels that the more they give the less they experience satisfaction – the gap between input of energy/time and the expected satisfaction increases, leading to burnout. The depletion of energy and satisfaction could be the result of factors outside the helper’s/carer’s control – such as structural blockages, breakdown in information exchange, overwork or under-resourcing.

Compassion needs nourishment

One of the issues that exacerbates the problem of compassion fatigue is the belief in the endless capacity of an individual to be compassionate through the goodness of their heart or the purity of their intentions. As a result of this false belief, helpers/carers fail to take the necessary actions to nourish themselves (and their compassionate action) and/or are reluctant to accept compassion extended to them by others.

Personal nourishment can take many forms – getting adequate sleep, meditation (especially self-compassion meditation), listening to relaxing/inspiring music, prayer (whatever form it takes) or drawing strength and healing from nature. It also requires an openness to receiving compassion from others – challenging false beliefs such as “no one else can do this”, “I will be seen to be weak if I accept help from others”, “I really shouldn’t pander to my own needs by having that short break or having a reasonable period for lunch”, “I can’t afford to become dependent on others for assistance”. Additionally, positive social connection– to offset the tendency to withdraw under extreme stress– is a critical source of self-nourishment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation our awareness of others’ suffering and our motivation to help are heightened. The capacity for compassionate action is not limitless and needs nourishment. Central to this nourishment is self-compassion.

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Image by DarkWorkX from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Body Scan Meditation

Body scan meditation is a quick and easy way to access your relaxation response, an effective counter to stress and your automatic fight or flight response. Body scan meditation has the advantage of being flexible – you can use it anywhere at any time. You don’t have to undertake an extended body scan to realise its benefits.

Different purposes for the body scan

Olivier Devroede, author of the Mindfulness Based Happiness blog, explains that body scan in the yoga tradition is used for relaxation, whereas in some mindfulness traditions, the purpose is the development of acceptance. Jon Kabat-Zinn also provides a “bodyscape meditation“, incorporating a body scan, that is designed to enable you to become more aware of your body and its sensations and, through this meditation practice, become grounded in the present more readily.

Diana Winston, Director of Education at the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC) offers a brief, 3-minute body scan that can enable you to quickly wind back your disabling response to a stressful situation. It can serve as a regular practice, too, that can progressively build automatic awareness of body sensations and emotional responses. Diana also offers a 13-minute body scan meditation for sleep when you are going to bed. At other times, you might actually be trying to avoid sleeping during meditation.

The basics of a body scan

Body scan is something that can be short or extended, incorporated into other forms of meditation and used flexibly for different purposes. While the intention of body scan meditations may vary, they have several basic elements in common. These relate to being grounded bodily and mentally, noticing your breathing and paying attention to your body and its sensations.

  1. Being grounded bodily – often this is achieved by paying attention to your posture, ensuring you are comfortable and relaxed, and upright if seated in a chair. There may be many times when you are unaware of your posture which can be a form of slouch, whether you are sitting or standing. Focusing on becoming grounded bodily, can help rectify this tendency to slouch throughout the day.
  2. Being grounded mentally – this basically involves bringing your full attention to the process of a body scan and your specific intention in undertaking it.
  3. Noticing your breathing – this can be a simple act of being aware of your breath and its characteristics (such as slow or fast, deep or shallow), without any effort to control your breathing. It can also be a more conscious approach where you take a couple of deep breaths to aid the process of relaxation and being grounded in the present. A deeper breathing approach is lower-belly breathing which can be incorporated into your body scan.
  4. Paying attention to the pressure on your body – this initial approach to increasing bodily awareness, involves noticing the pressure from the floor or your chair on your body at different points, e.g. on your back, feet, buttocks, shoulders. This is a form of conscious grounding – noticing the impact of your immediate physical environment on your body.
  5. Paying attention to your bodily sensations – this is the core activity in a body scan, the other activities serves as a warm-up or preparatory exercise. Here you are exploring your body, looking for any points of tightness, tension, pain or contraction. The aim is to progressively release or soften these points to free your body from its stress response. Developing your awareness about these points of tension, can help you to more quickly become aware of a negative emotional reaction to a stressful situation.
  6. Paying attention to your feelings – becoming aware of your bodily sensations can give you insight into how you are feeling about a situation or interaction. Often, we hide negative emotions, which further exacerbates the tension in our bodies. If you can get in touch with your negative feelings through a body scan, you can name these feelings and, over time, successfully control them. This last step represents the deepest approach to body scan meditation and the most time consuming method, as you need to undertake the precursor activities to get in touch with your bodily sensations and be in an open frame of mind to name those feelings.

As we grow in mindfulness through the different forms of body scan meditation, we increase our capacity to focus, enhance our self-awarenesss, develop our relaxation response, improve our self-regulation and increase our capacity to be in the moment.

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Image source: courtesy of Ataner007 on Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.