Many of us feel that there’s a guilty pleasure associated with taking some “me” time. Whether it’s asking for a vacation day, deciding to take a personal day, or just going off the grid for a while, something about time for ourselves just feels wrong. However, knowing how to care for yourself is just as important as knowing how to care for the other people in our lives. You wouldn’t think twice about helping a friend or close relative in need of support. But when it comes to your own emotional needs, chances are you’re a little more reluctant.
Unfortunately, the notion of self-care has acquired a pretty bad reputation. It makes it sounds like you’re weak, needy, or in some way lacking inner strength when you admit that you need some mental “R&R.” The irony is that the very factors that prevent you from caring for yourself ultimately make you weaker and in more need of being “fixed.”
Failing to take care of yourself may also lead to careless decisions that put the people who rely on you at risk. We’ve all heard stories of medical students and residents who, after working two or three days without a break, made fatal or near-fatal mistakes. You can probably recall a time when a child in your care faced a serious risk because your attention was diverted, or you were preoccupied with other responsibilities.
Psychologists know from studies of people caring for an older relative that it’s crucial for a caregiver to recognize and respond to signs of their own stress. However, guilt often gets in the way. They complete their round-the-clock care without taking a break, not realizing that they’re putting themselves at risk of exhaustion, poor health, and social isolation. Fortunately, the perception that caregiving must by its very nature command a 24/7 routine is changing—word is getting out that self-care is in fact essential.
Eventually, as they gain experience, many in the helping professions are able to find ways to leave work at work and attend to their own needs when they’re off the job. However, it may take time and training to learn how to make that adjustment. By finding out what factors facilitate their transition from students to professionals, the rest of us can gain valuable insights into learning the why’s as well as the how’s of getting adequate self-care in high-stress posts.
It was with this background in mind that a team of graduate students in clinical psychology at West Virginia University studying under the guidance of their professor, Daniel McNeil, put out a “call to action” for graduate programs in the field to help their students facilitate the self-care process (Bamonti et al., 2014). In surveying the clinical training handbooks of 136 programs across the country, they could find mention of self-care in less than one-third (32.4%). Only 1 in 10 general graduate program training handbooks discussed possible self-care practices for distressed students. Even the self-care advice they provided was minimal at best, consisting of suggestions that students seek mental health interventions.
If graduate training programs in a field devoted entirely to mental health fail to provide adequate guidance for self-care needs, there’s not much chance that the rest of us are getting the advice we need to handle our own stresses. However, if we take some pages from their playbook, there are some strategies we can translate into terms that can be useful for you, whatever your situation might be:
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Bamonti, P. M., Keelan, C. M., Larson, N., Mentrikoski, J. M., Randall, C. L., Sly, S. K., & ... McNeil, D. W. (2014). Promoting Ethical Behavior by Cultivating a Culture of Self-Care During Graduate Training: A Call to Action. Training And Education In Professional Psychology, doi:10.1037/tep0000056
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2015