For an aid worker deployed to a disaster or humanitarian crisis, self-care might seem like a distant dream. Long hours, limited resources, communal accommodations and being immersed in an intense environment can make it hard to find a time and place for yourself. But, even with these obstacles, there are ways to help keep yourself in balance and prevent or reduce burnout, compassion fatigue and secondary trauma. This is important not only for your mental health and career longevity, but also for those you are there to help.
Here are some of my tips for caring for yourself in the field and at home:
Think about self-care before you deploy
While you can definitely start new self-care practices any time, even in the field, it will be a lot easier if you've thought about it ahead of time. Make a self-care plan and then think about what you will need to make it happen.
Do you need to pack something you might not have thought of? Should you download extra books, music or apps now in case you have to deploy on short notice? Having some yoga videos downloaded on your laptop or relaxation exercises on your ipod could come in handy when you're stressed out and without internet access.
I know that if I am not sleeping well then I will get burnt out fast, so I make sure that I pack what I need to get a good night's rest even if I'm sleeping in a tent or on a floor. I have a pillow that is comfortable, but compact enough that I can bring it with me anywhere. It's been a lifesaver!
Know your organization’s policies
Most organizations have policies about R&R and how frequently field staff can and should take breaks. Knowing these policies before you go will allow you to plan for self-care. Expectations and pressure can be high when working in crisis situations, but knowing your rights and what is standard practice will help you advocate for time off when you need it. Ultimately you will be of better service to your clients and your organization if you are not totally fried.
Figure out what works for you
There are a lot of suggestions out there for what you should do for self-care: meditation, yoga, reading, exercise, writing. While a lot of these are based on research (meditation causes a relaxiaton response in the body, exercise reduces stress, etc.) that doesn't matter if the practice doesn't work for you.
Self-care can be a game of trial and error: try a bunch of stuff until you figure out what works. Meditation makes you feel more stressed? Forget it. Playing heavy metal for an hour on full blast calms you down? Go for it (with headphones, please). This is your self-care so make it about you.
For me making sure that I eat (somewhat) healthily helps me prevent burnout and fatigue and watching a half hour of mindless TV helps when I'm feeling stressed.
Don’t beat yourself up
When I wrote my first self-care plan I was ambitious. "Exercise for one hour, five days a week", "don't eat junk food" and "stop working by 6:00PM every night" were all on the list (and more). Needless to say, I didn't succeed on the plan for very long. The problem was, not only did I feel bad about not doing the things on the plan, but now I felt like I had failed and it added even more stress.
There are always going to be times when you end up working too late, have to meet a deadline or can't make it out the door to exercise. Don't let your self-care plan cause you even more stress. Be realistic with your goals, but also forgive yourself if some weeks you don't meet any of them. I would have felt great if I had done all of the things on my self-care plan, but I also probably would have lost my job.
Want an easy way to set achievable self-care goals? Read our method here.
This is the simplest item on the list, but probably the easiest to forget. Not only do we need water to function, but it can actually relieve stress by reducing cortisol levels in the body. Make sure you keep a water bottle handy and keep drinking throughout the day, especially if you're working in a warm climate.
Get help when you need it
Even with the best self-care plan in the world, you might start to experience signs of burnout or compassion fatigue. This doesn't mean that you're bad at your job or you can't handle it -- it means that you're human. People who respond to disasters, deliver much needed humanitarian aid, or counsel trauma survivor's are often witness to extreme tragedy and are at risk of vicarious traumatization. Learn to recognize the signs in yourself and seek help when you need it. This may mean talking to a colleague, friend, or mental health professional. You can ask if your organization has counsellors available for staff or, if you're worried about privacy, seek out someone on your own. If internet access is an option, you may even be able to find a professional who will provide therapy via video chat.
Help change the culture
Even in professions where helping others is the main objective there can be a stigma that goes along with taking care of one's self or seeking mental health services. There are signs that this might be changing, but as aid workers it is our duty to push for change and to support our colleagues. Even if you're not "the boss", there are ways that you can influence the culture of your organization to help yourself, your colleagues and future employees. Bring up self-care when appropriate and in non-judgmental ways. Organize group activities that promote wellness. Set an example for those who work under you by taking time for yourself. If you notice that a co-worker is showing signs of burnout, talk to them about it and offer your support. Change might be slow, but it will benefit everyone in the long run.
Need more ideas for creating a self-care plan? Try these links:
What are your tips for maintaining self-care while far from home? Share in the comments.