The Importance of Self-Care in Avoiding Burnout
Updated: Nov 25, 2022
For more helpful blog posts or to book an appointment visit click the link here: Tim Robinson Counsellor- men's wellbeing Christchurch.
In today’s busy world there is plenty to keep us distracted. We can check work e-mails on our phones, news is 24/7, and social media is constantly pushing for the next set of eyeballs to read its content. The fact we are more accessible creates extra pressures that wouldn’t have been there two decades ago. This increased demand for our attention can make it hard to “switch off” or take time for ourselves, and this tends to lead to elevated stress levels. In short, we don’t “unplug” enough. We don’t stop to fully rest ourselves, and this can be detrimental to both our physical and mental wellbeing.
In addition, the last two years have involved lockdowns, less social connection, some horrific events overseas, and a collective heightened state due to Covid-19. It is no wonder I am seeing an increase in clients who are burnt out, tired, frustrated, disconnected or simply exhausted, and this is exactly when mental health issues are more likely to “pop up”. To put it in very basic terms: the less mental capacity we have to deal with things, the harder it is to deal with the issues that are troubling us. You might be able to keep them “at bay” usually; add a good dose of stress and that becomes much more difficult.
In this blog I’m going to talk about what we call in the health field “self-care”. You could call it anything you like really: time for me, time out, supporting myself, a mental refresher, a mental “tune up”, whatever sits well for you. I almost avoided the term self-care as although it’s a common term among health professionals, I’ve noticed some men find the term a little “whimsical” or find the practice self-indulgent (the thought of it at least). In fairness we are not often taught what self-care is so it’s fair enough that there might be some misconceptions.
What is Self-care?
Self-care can be anything you get enjoyment out of that helps you relax, helps you re-connect with yourself, and is generally something you get a personal sense of satisfaction out of. It’s this personal satisfaction that helps you reconnect with who you are, what you value most, and what is important to you. It’s something that is meaningful to you and this can serve as a break from life’s pressures, allow you to rest, and gain levels of energy and happiness back.
It’s not a “fail-safe” way to avoid burnout, but it “stacks the deck” in your favour. This means when stressors do arise you are more likely to be resilient in dealing with them.
Here are some examples of self-care clients have mentioned to me over the years: Surfing, playing the guitar, painting, sculpture, woodwork, metal work, working on or restoring a favourite car, nature walks, meditation, a spa or bath, reading a book, journaling, relaxed breathing, camomile tea, connecting with friends, wood carving, exercise/strength training, swimming, social sport, social connection (especially with those who care for you most) and some form of mental stimulation if you have the energy to do so as sometimes we can get stuck in a rut where life becomes mundane. (Maybe you want to learn a new hobby or skill, learn to cook a particular cuisine, learn an instrument or do something mentally challenging like a crossword).
The Importance of Sleep and Nutrition
Diet and sleep are also a part of good self-care. The less sleep you have, the more likely you will feel anxious and irritable. The more you eat badly, the harder it is for your brain to get the nutrients it needs for daily functioning and this can make it harder for you to process stress. In terms of sleep, the figure we often hear is 7-8 hours sleep a night but it can be different from person to person. Exercise is also important not only for your physical health, but also because it's a quick and efficient way of "burning up" any anxious energy or tension,
Ask yourself: Are you feeding your mind and body the right nutrients through your diet? Do you feel energised each day or sluggish? Do you exercise? Do you take pride in your overall health? All these factors combine to create better outcomes for your overall wellbeing. Healthy body = healthy mind. (If you’d like to learn more about how nutrition impacts your mental wellbeing I recommend this book: The Better Brain: Overcome Anxiety, Combat Depression, and Reduce ADHD and Stress with Nutrition: Kaplan Ph.D, Bonnie J., Rucklidge Ph. D, Julia J., Weil M.D., Andrew T.: 9780358447108: Amazon.com: Books)
Recharging your Battery
I often use the analogy of a battery when I’m talking to clients in session. If your battery is full it’s quite easy to give your attention, your time, your patience and your compassion to others. If your battery is low you can find the same activity demanding, irritating, tiring and frustrating. If the battery goes “flat” we experience burnout or compassion fatigue (as it’s sometimes called in the health professions). Essentially, you haven’t made enough time to slow down and ensure your own needs are being met. This is important. If you meet your own needs first, you are of better assistance to others, not less.
This can be especially important if you are in some form of helping role where you give a lot of time and energy to others. At the start, a lack of self-care can show up as: irritation, being quicker to” snap” than usual, restlessness or trouble with sleeping. Further up the scale, it can lead to burnout, increased anxiety, physical exhaustion, dissatisfaction with activities previously enjoyed, or dissatisfaction with life in general. You might start to doubt yourself in terms of your career or your competence in general. At the extreme end panic attacks may develop.
Regularity is Key
If you were born in the mid 80’s like myself we weren’t taught to do self-care, it was more a case of here’s a troubling feeling, let’s burry it as soon as possible and hope nobody sees I’m struggling. The trouble is it might get buried, but it usually “leaks out” in one way or another. It might show up as chronic stress, anger, doubt in ones worth or abilities, or high anxiety. What we really need to do is the opposite. Recognise your feelings are just “alarm bells” nothing more, and take a break.
All too often when it comes to men (I only work with men so I’m coming from that perspective) they keep pushing, persevering and trying to “beat” their feelings. It’s not until things get to the point where they are unsustainable that help is sought or a change of lifestyle is employed. In the worst case scenarios, the “final straw” is a heart attack, “mental breakdown” or the breakup of a marriage. We are better as people if we make time to take care of ourselves and this has a flow on effect to all areas of your life. It is a practice worth investing your time into.
As men we don’t have to leave it until the last minute to sort things, or wait until it’s all too big to handle, we just need to build self-care, self-reflection and self-compassion into our life on a regular basis. Regularity is key. If you just take a week off, feel better and then go back into life as usual, a month or two down the track you will likely end up in the same position: tired, irritated and dissatisfied. The mental tiredness shows up in such a way that you feel physically exhausted and this is due to your adrenal system being on “full blast” 24/7.
Interestingly, aversion to taking a break can be so well ingrained that when asked the question “what do you enjoy doing just for yourself?” it’s not uncommon for men to pause and say “you know I’ve never really stopped to think about that” or “I used to love doing (insert activity here) but I haven’t done it in years” or “I don’t know what I enjoy anymore”. Some men have become so accustom to persevering at all costs that they lose touch with themselves and what they enjoy.
In counselling we then go through a process of figuring out what the client enjoys. Often it becomes more about reconnecting the client with memories of what they used to enjoy or what used to make them happy, but at times they might be stopping to figure this out for the first time in their life. Every time a client I see has made more time for themselves, or become more self-compassionate, they have felt better. In my experience it has always been beneficial and often quite dramatically so.
Improving your Internal Dialogue
Self-care can also involve improving your internal dialogue. Are you supportive and encouraging of yourself? Or do you tend to berate yourself as soon as you make a mistake? Do you feel energised by how you talk to yourself or feel deflated? They are important things to consider as our internal dialogue is 24/7; it may as well be helpful not a hindrance.
I often ask my clients “Would you speak to a loved one like that? Or if they have younger siblings get them to reflect on how they might encourage their sibling to learn something new. I then ask “Would you treat yourself the same way?” The answer is often no. They then proceed with telling me how they talk to themselves and all too often it is harsh, belittling and totally void of compassion. It will probably come as no surprise that along with their harsh internal dialogue comes a lack of self-worth, low self-esteem, and a general dissatisfaction with who they are.
The other point to consider is how you react to compliments. Do you easily accept a compliment? Do you think to yourself: I guess they’re right I am quite good at that? Or are you more likely to dismiss it? “They only said that because they have to” “it was ok but I did stuff that bit up”. You’re allowed to accept compliments and have self-belief. It is a lot easier for self-esteem to grow if you learn to accept compliments and praise.
I assume some of you will be thinking “that’s arrogant” or some version of “I need to remain humble”. Arrogant would be assuming you are better than others because of your achievements. Accepting them on their own merit is not. It’s more of a personal/ internal exercise. Arrogance would be voicing your achievements to anyone who will listen as a validation exercise, or revelling in others “lack of skills” as a way of affirming how brilliant you are. I’m not saying do either of those. I’m saying just say “thanks” in response to a compliment, reflect on what you did achieve, own it, and then move on with your life. If you’re readily dismissing compliments it doesn’t tend to foster good self-esteem and as New Zealanders we almost have an epidemic of “be humble at all times”.
Breaking the Stigma around Self-care
There can be apprehension for some clients at the prospect of doing self-care as I mentioned earlier, that it is somehow weak, self-indulgent or selfish. I suspect some of this is a product of societal views of men, work and certain emotions being thought of as “soft”. I explored this idea in relation to counselling in my Master’s thesis: Robinson, Timothy_Master's Thesis.pdf (canterbury.ac.nz).
If I was to use the term "strategies for peak performance” or “strategies for mental toughness” I’m sure it would be more easily accepted than the term self-care.
Yet looking after yourself with some of the ideas outlined above puts you in the best position to be at your best. It allows you to approach life from a place of balance, strength and resiliency feeling well rested, content, energetic and sharp. Instead of waiting until life “falls apart”, allow space for yourself so you can be more giving, kinder to others (and yourself) and happier with who you are. As far as I’m aware this is something we all want to achieve, yet we don’t readily do one of the cheapest most basic activities we can do to achieve it! (Self-care).
The benefit of “self-care” is it tends to be something of a “grounding” exercise. The stress levels go down, and you begin to see life just as it is with a feeling of contentment. It doesn’t mean your life is perfect, or that there aren’t things you need to get done, or that there won’t be other stressors that come your way. What a good self-care plan will do is restore a level of balance that helps you deal with life’s challenges in a more measured, less stressful way. It is setting you up for success to be a more likely outcome.
A good analogy might be “stretching” before you go for a run. This helps avoid injury, it doesn’t mean you will never get injured. Consider self-care as “stretching” for the brain. It puts you in a much better state to deal with life’s challenges and helps you recover from them more quickly too.
Hopefully, I’ve made a case for you to start adding self-care (or another term that suits) to your day/ week. At the very least I hope I’ve “peaked” your interest in such a way that you look into the practice further. Your life will be better for it and in turn this will improve the life for those around you.
Tim Robinson – Counsellor
MCouns. Msc Psych. PGDipHealSc (Health Behaviour Change)
Registered Provisional Member with NZAC
For more helpful blog posts or to book an appointment visit: www.timrobinsoncounsellor.com