This past weekend I was in Toronto as part of a series on Contemplative End of Life Care put on by the good folks at the Institute of Traditional Medicine. My area of focus was grief, specifically the approach I use and have highlighted in my books. It occurred to me that I've been taking care of the dying and grieving for over 15 years. I feel like I just got started and nowhere near burned out. I was asked several times in different ways what's worked for me in being able to sustain high intensity mental health care.
When I'm discussing end-of-life care and grief therapy with other professionals, I like to point out that we need to tap our own inner resources of compassion in order to be able to help others. To do this, we have to build up these inner resources in the first place.
The way to do this is fairly straightforward to describe, but harder for many to put into practice. We'd much rather take care of someone else than ourselves. If we listened to half the advice we give others about how to take care of themselves, we'd be twice as healthy.
What works? In 2014, there's very little mystery in answering this question. Here's the list, again, culled from decades of health and well-being research (done by others) and my own personal experience:
1) Treat yourself as a whole person. This means balance different aspects of your life-- body, mind, spirit.
2) Eat right. What's that mean? Science is telling us more and more how important it is to eat plants, use common sense portions and avoid processed foods. For me, this means going to the grocery story to buy ingredients rather than meals to re-heat.
3) Exercise. If you can do an hour a day most days of the week, wonderful. If not, 20-30 minutes 3-4 times a week of moderate cardio exercise is a good goal.
4) Meditate. This doesn't mean read about meditation or enjoy spending time in your garden or playing with your pet. It means cultivate a daily sitting practice. It's the purest way I know of to nurture heart and spirit.
5) Create a community. If you work in health care, start talking about self-care. Give hugs to tired colleagues. Spread the word that we matter. You don't want to become the nagging missionary, but better yet, let the changes you're making be their own example. People will notice you're doing something different. If you work as a solo practitioner, reach out on social media or try to arrange meetups in or near your community to find like-minded people that can help you feel connected. The key to preventing burnout is feeling that you're part of a bigger whole, a tribe of fellow caregivers moving in the same direction with the same priorities. Don't wait for a community to form spontaneously, change the system to be one you like.
6) Limit your reliance on alcohol, television and other drugs. We joke a lot in health care about happy hours. But there's no evidence to suggest people who drink regularly are more emotionally resilient or spiritually centered than those who drink very little or not at all.
7) Don't be afraid to grow into your potential. Many of us started out working as professional caregivers with mentors or teachers we looked up to. Mentors aren't born, they're made out of experience. Don't be afraid to make changes in how you work and how you live so you can become an expert at what you do. Remember the gratitude of others as a guide to keep you going. What helped your patients the most? Keep doing that.
We are blessed to do what we do for a living, but chances are no one has taught us how to be in it for the long run. Health care providers who are balanced and healthy can provide better care for others. My goal in caring for others is to be able to do it for as long as I can and stay healthy in the process. I hope you can, too.