Take the Mindful Path to Self-Care
Imagine a self-care strategy which relies solely on you. It can be done in a quiet space or on-the-go; it can take place individually or with like-minded others; and it can be flexible to your needs and circumstances. Furthermore, in a time when uncertainty never feels too far away, it is unlikely to become a casualty of lockdown or physical distancing. Within a working context, if utilised properly, this self-care strategy can enable you to become a better helping professional, as well as inform and improve upon your interactions and practices with clients. Welcome to the world of mindfulness.
The topic of mindfulness has become increasingly popular among helping professionals over the last few decades. As a result of this, many professionals have been integrating mindfulness skills and techniques into their client work. A developing area of interest is in using mindfulness as a form of self-care. While there are many forms of self-care that are employed by professional helpers, mindfulness strategies seem to stand out within this context. This is in part, due to a compatibility of common underpinning values. One of the core features of mindfulness, for example, involves paying conscious and non-judgmental awareness to the present moment – these same skills are central to effective helping practice.
Now, you may be visualising a person meditating in a ‘Zen’ environment as you read the word ‘mindfulness’ (you’re not alone!). Whilst they do overlap, not all meditations are mindfulness practices, nor is meditation the focus of this article. Whilst mindfulness can be practiced in a variety of ways (including formal meditation practices), the aim of this article is to provide you with some brief, informal strategies that you can use at any time.
Tune in to Yourself
A fundamental part of self-care is to be aware of what we are in need of, and when to seek further support. Practicing mindfulness can be beneficial in this aspect because it aims to help increase awareness of what’s happening both inside and outside of “ourselves”. Think for example, do you know how stress feels like for you? What does it tend to do to your body? Where do you usually feel the stress? What are your typical reactions when feeling stressed? Mindfulness practices which involve directing attention to parts of our body, such as a brief body scan, can be a useful way to learn about your ‘stress zones’ and help you monitor the stress warning your body is issuing.
Not only do we become more aware of stress signs, practicing mindfulness is also about accepting these experiences as a normal, human part of us. Often, we tend to jump into judging whether a particular feeling, emotion or experience is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing. Once something is perceived as a ‘bad’ thing, we react by wanting to eliminate or escape from it. A mindful awareness, however, is “non-reactive” (Zarbock, Lynch, Ammann, & Ringer, 2015, p.14). Instead of trying to suppress or escape from undesired thoughts or emotions, we learn to stay with them, and then let them go.
Practicing mindfulness also helps us to take a step back and experience these emotions and thoughts from a distance instead of getting overly attached to them. This means that we will have more energy and mental capacity to attune to our clients or other important things in our life, rather than defensively worrying about what others may think of us, or ruminating over things we cannot control (Barker, 2013).
Furthermore, attuning to our own needs also helps us to be aware of when and whether we have been habitually dismissing what we personally require to remain well and healthy. Helping professionals can become desensitised towards their own needs if they are overly used to putting their clients (or others) first (Zarbock et al., 2015). The irony here is that our ability to self-attune (i.e., being in touch with our inner experiences) relates to our ability to attune to clients’ experiences (Shapiro, Thakur, & de Sousa, 2014). Essentially, what this means is: it is unlikely that we can be fully mindful of clients’ experiences when we fail to do so, with our own. Indeed, as we all juggle competing priorities within busy life schedules, many helping professionals can often use a reminder, to give themselves the same level of care and respect that they show to their clients.
Now take a moment to think over situations in your everyday life, private and/or professional, where watching your everyday impulses may be helpful. Don’t just think about situations where you regret your behaviour. Think about situations where you may no longer even be aware of these impulses anymore. For example, people in the helping professions may be a little too forgiving at times. Have you said to yourself ‘he can’t help it, he’s behaving this way because of “X”, I can’t be angry’? By doing this our natural needs are dismissed and over time may no longer even be perceived. This, in turn, may lead to frustration and a loss of self-esteem, which may cause us to be less satisfied with our lives. Becoming aware of our natural reactions can be really helpful. You could check in with yourself after each session with a client or at the end of the day. You could try asking yourself questions such as ‘Was I pushed beyond my limits – if so, how did I react?’ Or you could ask yourself ‘Have I tended to my needs today?’ Most of us in the helping professions are focused on providing the best possible care for our clients, regardless of the cost to ourselves.
(Zarbock et al., 2015, pp.65-66)
Take a Mindful Break So You Won’t Break!
Imagine that you arrive at work and skim through your schedule. Immediately you take a big sigh and notice a thought: Guess I won’t have time for lunch today…. You feel a heaviness weighing on your shoulders while you walk toward the waiting room for your first client. Three clients later, you finally get to take a fifteen-minute lunch break, but are finding it hard to switch off from what your last client had discussed. The clock is ticking, and your next client will arrive in ten minutes…There is a rising tightness in your chest.
We all know that taking reasonable breaks is important for our wellbeing, but this can also be rather challenging in helping work for many reasons. The scenario above is a hypothetical one, and may not represent all helping professions, however, we can all relate to the occasional heaviness and dread experienced within our work roles, despite the enthusiasm and passion for what we do. Taking breaks mindfully can be beneficial to helping us stay grounded, assist in settling us down in between clients or tasks, and then setting us off on our way again.
You could consider setting reminders for yourself to have a mindful break each day, setting up cues to practice, or perhaps developing the habit of taking mindful moments. These bite-sized informal practices involve just a short pause to ‘check in’ with ourselves – when you notice stress, distress, or tension starting to build. Become aware of your posture, movement, thoughts, and emotions; take a few mindful breaths; explore the sights and sounds around you – the potential for mindful moments is endless.
Depending on the setting of your profession, you may find it beneficial to conduct a brief mindfulness exercise before seeing your client or between clients. Informal mindfulness practices such as mindfully walking to the waiting room, mindfully introducing the session, or mindfully having a glass of water may also be integrated into the general working day…. like ‘mini-breaks’. You may also consider:
- Doing a five or ten minute guided practice during a lunch break, using a mindfulness app or guided tracks available online and via streaming services.
- Taking a mindful moment between clients or tasks.
- Doing some mindful walking during a meal-break (it’s great for breaking sedentary work too!)
- Using down time, such as waiting for the kettle to boil or for food to heat in the microwave, as a cue to take a few mindful breaths.
Taking a mindful moment is also a useful strategy to wind down, so you can leave work behind and focus on your home life, relationships, and the other things that make your life worthwhile. This can be particularly relevant if you are working from home, or whenever your usual wind down strategy is not accessible (given that all you need to practice mindfulness is yourself!). Also, although we know mindfulness is not technically a relaxation strategy, it might just help you relax – and who in the helping professions doesn’t need a bit more of that?
The Mindful PPE
Apart from increasing self-awareness and stress reduction, mindfulness practices may have more to offer as a professional self-care regime. Pollak, Pedulla, and Siegel (2014) suggest that mindfulness skills offer a layer of ‘protection’ to helping professionals in amidst the challenges of helping work.
Imagine that during a session, you notice that your client is starting to raise their voice because they are unhappy with the discussions taking place. You notice that your heart starts pumping quicker and anxiety is rising within you. There is tension around your shoulders, your palms are starting to sweat, and you are not sure what to do. In these situations, mindfulness skills can be used to create a space for choosing the most appropriate response:
Before formulating a response, you could try pausing for a moment to return to your breath, the sensations of sitting, or the sounds in the room. Or, you can silently say to yourself, May we both be well. May we both be free from suffering. May we both live in wisdom and compassion.
Connecting with your breath or your compassionate intention gives you a chance to pause, to come back into the present moment, to dispel the clouds of fear and confusion, and to let your innate wisdom inform what you do next.
(Pollak, Pedulla, & Siegel, 2014)
The capacity to check in with oneself – to be aware of sensations, thoughts, feelings, and reactions – in stressful or challenging moments, is a vital self-care skill for helping professionals. You might use mindful focus within sessions to help when challenging conversations are happening or difficult material is coming up; to ground you in the moment; to help you identify thoughts that are unproductive; and to enhance self-regulation.
Many helping professionals are already familiar with using grounding exercises with clients experiencing heightened emotions. These exercises usually involve directing one’s attention to a particular thing in the present moment, such as feeling your feet on the ground or focusing on breathing. The same techniques can be equally useful to helping professionals to remain grounded as well as to discern the most helpful responses in those challenging moments.
Cultivating Empathy and Compassion
Empathy and compassion are both considered to be core qualities of helping professionals. Ironically, helping professionals who work empathetically with clients are also prone to experiencing compassion fatigue, which puts their ability to empathise at risk.
The capacity for compassion and empathy seem to be at the core of our ability to do the work and at the core of our ability to be wounded by the work.
(Stamm, 1995, cited by Barstow, 2016)
It has been suggested that mindfulness practices can help us develop or increase empathy (Barker, 2013). For one, mindfulness helps us to attune to our wellbeing needs and improve self-empathy and self-compassion, which is essential for extending to empathising with clients’ experiences. However, such empathy is not likely to be sustainable if we become unable to differentiate ourselves from clients’ experiences, which can lead to feeling overwhelmed or becoming overly attached to what belongs to the clients (Thomas & Otis, 2010). A mindful helper is likely to have more psychological flexibility in regards to how they relate to internal and external experiences of the clients as well as within their own life. As Thomas and Otis (2010) comment, mindfulness awareness offers a potential double-edge protection by enhancing “the capacity for empathetic attunement… while offering protection from distress” (p.87).
Similarly, our compassion to clients very much relates to our capacity for self-compassion, which can be further developed through practicing mindfulness. In fact, developing more within this area is the aim of some of the commonly used formal meditation practices, such as loving-kindness meditation. These practices help us to acquire a modest, non-reactive viewpoint on suffering, which is a common human experience, that “neither ignores and avoids nor amplifies painful thoughts and emotions” (Smeets, Nefff, Alberts, & Peters, 2014, p.1).
Here’s a brief self-compassion practice for you to try (The Centre of Mindfulness Studies, 2015):
- When you notice you’re under stress, take 2-3 deep, satisfying breaths.
- Gently place your hand over your heart, feeling the gentle pressure and warmth of your hand. If you wish, place both hands on your chest, noticing the difference between one or two hands.
- Feel the touch of your hand on your chest. If you wish, you could make small circles with your hand on your chest.
- Feel the natural rising and falling of your chest as you breathe in and as you breathe out.
- Linger with the feeling for as long as you like.
Self-Care at Work and Beyond Work
So far, we have mostly discussed mindfulness strategies which helping professionals can use at work, but there is really no need to limit these to work time only. Aiming to practice mindfulness in your non-work life, can then allow your work-life practices to happen more naturally. Like forming any new habits, the key is regularity. If you’ve been using active listening skills with a client, chances are you’d be applying the same skills in your interactions with your partner, friends, and family too.
To put it simply, there are endless opportunities to ‘being mindful’ in our day-to-day lives. The easiest way to start is to integrate mindfulness into any existing tasks that you are already doing, but to start doing them mindfully instead. Next time, when you are taking a shower, washing dishes, folding laundry, doing exercise, or walking your dog…. try to pay attention to all the sensory experiences around you – what can you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch? Try to make these experiences…. mindful experiences.
It is important to remember that mindfulness is not only for coping with difficult moments, it is also simply a way of living; a way to interpret and interact with the world, with our thoughts and feelings; and a way to respond differently. By doing the most ordinary tasks, in a mindful way, you may even start to appreciate these moments or see things that you would have otherwise missed.
Ultimately, self-care is not something we do only at work but something that we need to consciously foster beyond our work lives too.
A Mindful Note
Before we send you away to try some mindfulness self-care strategies, it is important to emphasise that mindfulness is not to be considered a panacea, and as such, it should never be used to excuse a lack of structural, organisational, or management-related attention to the drivers of work-related stress. To reiterate, practicing mindfulness will not ‘fix’ situations such as heavy workloads, stressful working conditions or insecure or underpaid employment – nor will it provide emotional support. Ultimately, as an individual, it is important to reflect on the sources of where stress may be coming from within your own circumstances and make appropriate work adjustments – this is not the role of mindfulness.
On the other hand, do not forget to look after your physical wellbeing needs, eat well, foster some good sleeping habits, stay physically active, as well as engage in activities which enhance your emotional wellbeing – as these are all important aspects of self-care!
In summary, mindfulness can be a valuable addition to the self-care regimen for helping professionals and we hope that this article has assisted you in developing a broader understanding of mindful practices, as well as provided you with a greater vision as to how mindfulness could look in your life.
Editor’s note: Learn how to live mindfully with AIPC’s Living a Mindful Life program. It’s a six-week, self-paced, flexible program for people who want to learn how to integrate mindfulness practices into their day-to-day life. The program can be started at any time and delivers two lessons a week in the privacy of your own home. Learn more here.
- Barker, M. (2013). Mindful therapy: The client, the counsellor, the relationship. In Mindful counselling & psychotherapy: Practicing mindfully across approaches and issues (pp. 36-46). London: UK: SAGE.
- Barstow, C. (2016). A guided self-care assessment for helping professionals. Retrieved from: Website.
- Pollak, S. M., Pedulla, T., & Siegel, R. D. (2014). Three ways to bring mindfulness into therapy. Retrieved from: Website.
- Shapiro, S., Thakur, S., & de Sousa, S. (2014). Mindfulness for health care professionals and therapists in training. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches: Clinician’s guide to evidence base and applications (2nd ed)(pp. 319-345). London, UK: Elsevier Inc.
- Smeets, E., Neff, K., Alberts, H., & Peters, M. (2014). Meeting suffering with kindness: Effects of a brief self-compassion intervention for female college students. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 70(9), 794-807. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.22076
- The Centre for Mindfulness Studies. (2015). Self-compassion and mindfulness. Retrieved from: Website
- Thomas, J. T., & Otis, M. D. (2010). Intrapsychic correlates of professional quality of life: Mindfulness, empathy, and emotional separation. Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research, 1(2), 83-98. https://doi.org/10.5243/jsswr.2010.7
- Zarbock, G., Lynch, S.., Ammann, A., & Ringer, S. (2015). Mindfulness for therapists: Understanding mindfulness for professional effectiveness and personal well-being. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons.