Zen and the Art of Social Worker Maintenance

by Paula Cummings, MSW candidate

December 31, 2014

With a new year dawning, we offer this post to encourage balance in our lives — both professional and personal — in 2015. Guest author Paula Cummings has established a comprehensive self-care regimen; here she reviews what she finds helpful in building and maintaining such a program.



image ChocalateBar

Take a piece of chocolate. Unwrap it as slowly as possible. Breathe in the scent. What memory does it conjure up? Place the chocolate on your tongue. Let it melt on your taste buds. Take the time to experience how it feels and tastes.


This was an exercise in the Mindfulness and Movement class I take weekly at Sati Virya Yoga & Therapy in Rochester, New York. Being in this class helps me to center myself, so that I am grounded in the present moment. It reminds me to stop and breathe. But most importantly, it helps to buffer the stress of working and studying in the field of social work.


While social work is rewarding and fulfilling, it can also be emotionally draining. We are often drawn to this profession. Our compassion for our fellow human beings and our sense of duty for improving the human condition drives us. However, our compassion and commitment can leave us vulnerable to work-related stress. Without proper attention to our own wellness, we can find ourselves in a position where we are giving too much.


This can lead to a loss of meaning, connection, and awareness, causing us to focus only on getting through the day-to-day activities of living, losing sight of the bigger picture of human rights and social justice.

image aim-for-social-justice










The majority of people who receive social work services have experienced trauma. As social workers, our secondary exposure to trauma can have a tremendous impact on the well-being of the worker. Ellen Arledge and Rebecca Wolfson explore the impact of trauma work in their article, Care of the Clinician.  “It can distort and change their worldview, threaten their sense of personal safety and foster paranoia, disrupt their sense of spiritual connectedness, and physically and emotionally exhaust them, thus depleting much needed inner resources” (Arledge and Wolfson, 2001).

Developing a personalized self-care plan


Recognizing the importance of creating and maintaining wellness, the University at Buffalo School of Social Work has assembled an online Self-Care Starter Kit.


image stress free zone


“The term self-care refers to activities and practices that we can engage in on a regular basis to reduce stress and maintain and enhance our short- and longer-term health and well-being” (UB School of Social Work, 2014). To help students and professionals to develop their own personalized plans, the kit includes multiple components, including assessment tools for creating self-care plans, inspiration, readings, and resources. A printable infographic serves as a friendly reminder to practice self-care.


The Self-Care Starter Kit serves as a launch pad for a journey of self-discovery and well-being. A solid plan encompasses many different dimensions: mind, body, emotions, spirit, work, and relationships. You can complete self-assessment checklists, learn how to cultivate a support system and about activities to enhance your self-care. This all culminates in the development of an emergency self-care plan, which can be written on a note card and carried as a reminder of what to do (and what to avoid) in times of stress.


The kit’s section on Inspirational Materials segment features photographs, quotes, poems, and stories which are self-nourishing and reaffirm faith that the work we do matters. For example, you can find a single flower blooming in a desert which can be used as a screensaver.


Single orange-petaled flower rising from a rocky desert landscape

Photo credit: Denise Krause


A poem by Thich Nhat Hanh invites meditative breathing. The goose story underscores the power of mutual support. Quotes and stories can be printed, posted, shared, and become conversation-starters on self-care. These are guideposts for discovering what makes you smile, what warms your heart and replenishes your soul.


To learn more about professional well-being, reducing the emotional impact of helping, and learning about mindfulness, explore the sections under Self-Care Readings and Self-Care Bibliography. Resources offers links to a variety of helpful places. Online resources include websites with visual imagery, meditations, yoga, and additional health information. There are training and professional resources offered. Also included is an extensive list of helpful sites within the University at Buffalo and the Greater Buffalo Area, including relevant UB departments, local self-help groups, and fun activities. I appreciated the link to the Gaiam Life Meditation Rooms, where I can take a break online to listen to relaxing sounds set to a slide show of peaceful images.



SelfCare InfographUBSSW







The How to Flourish in Social Work Infographic serves as a visual reminder to find balance in our lives by getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and taking time off. It also suggests meditation, plants, reading for pleasure and laughing as activities which promote wellness.



My self-care plan


Because I used the tool kit, my own self-care plan is diverse and fulfilling. I am drawn to Zen practices such as yoga and meditation, taking a weekly class and practicing daily.



I have the Relax Melodies app on my phone, which helps to set the stage for relaxation. Guided meditations on the Meditation Oasis podcast are also part of my repertoire.

image water-room

I have started exploring aromatherapy, adding scents such as lime and eucalyptus in candle diffusers, and making my own scented oils, bath salts, and linen sprays. image Aromatherapy

I eat three meals a day, which includes taking a lunch break when at work.image lunchPita

I set aside time to spend with friends and family – and color code my calendar so that I can see at a glance if I am taking time to foster the meaningful relationships in my life. image CalendarCircledDate

I wrote a self-care plan reminder on an index card to carry in my wallet to refer to when I feel stressed. It reminds me to avoid negative habits such as overspending or overeating, and to call a friend or family member, breathe, nap, meditate, or have a cup of tea or piece of chocolate.  image chocolateSquares

Through using the kit, and engaging in self-care, I’ve learned that sometimes chocolate is just chocolate, but sometimes chocolate is a Zen experience which replenishes our souls.




Paula Cummings received a BA in Communications from St. John Fisher College. Prior to attending UB, she worked as a Family Advocate and Family Peer Support provider. Paula is on the board of directors for the Children’s Mental Health Coalition of Western NY. She will receive her MSW in 2015.


Tell us about your self-care regimen! We’ll post a summary of all we receive at the head of our Comments section.



Arledge, E. & Wolfson, R. (2001). Care of the clinician. In M. Harris & R. D. Fallot (Eds.), Using trauma theory to design service systems (pp. 91-97). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Meditation Oasis http://www.meditationoasis.com/

Relax Melodies http://www.ipnossoft.com/app/relax-melodies/

Sati Virya Yoga & Therapy http://www.sativirya.com/

University at Buffalo School of Social Work (2014). How to flourish in social work: infographic. Retrieved from: http://socialwork.buffalo.edu/resources/self-care-starter-kit/how-to-flourish-in-social-work.html

University at Buffalo School of Social Work (2014). Self-care starter kit. Retrieved from: http://socialwork.buffalo.edu/resources/self-care-starter-kit.html


  • Thanks for sharing (and using my photo:))

  • UB School of Social Work Professor Denise Krause is a nature photographer. She captured the beauty of the desert bloom used in this post.

  • HI Paula:

    It sounds like you are off to an amazing start on your self-care practices as a therapist. Developing a good foundation early on is so important. It sounds like you have used the Self-Care Kit to good advantage and have covered all the bases. Thanks for all the wonderful links and useful self-care information.

    Self-care is something I focus on a lot both in my private practice with clients, and also with supervisees. In my experience, part of the key to success with self-care is creating what i call a “self-care attitude.” When you make it a part of your daily priorities, look for opportunities to care for yourself and look out for triggers, no matter what is going on, you will find ways to care for you.

    Thanks for all you shared and good luck.


    • Thanks for reading! I agree that self-care is an attitude, not an action.I visited your site at http://foxboroarttherapy.com/, and was fascinated by how you integrate wellness in your practice. I enjoyed receiving your Self-Care Guide emails, and I would encourage others to sign up for them as well!

  • Pingback: Best in Mental Health (12/29/2014 - 1/11/2015) - Social Work Career.Tips

  • Paula, I’m so impressed with your solid foundation of self-care practices, not to mention your insights. You are certainly entering your social work career with a great perspective on this core skill.

    Thanks for taking the time to share what you do. It will be great resource for many of us!

    • Thank you for taking the time to read and respond. I need to give credit to the UB School of Social Work for providing the emphasis on self-care. Without encouragement and empowerment provided by staff, professors, and through the toolkit, I would not be as far along in my development of wellness strategies.

  • Wow Paula, You know so much more than I did about self-care when I was in grad school! In addition to some of your ideas, I like to do aerobic exercise and tai chi, and take time for quiet solitude and reflection. During the work day, I take breaks in between clients to release stress and replenish myself. I also have various meaningful objects placed strategically around my office to remind me of beliefs and values that help me take care of myself when I am faced with difficult clinical situations. One is an art print of a beach path going off in an unknown direction that reminds me that everybody has their own unique path to healing so I don’t get too invested in any particular treatment strategy. Another is a screensaver that says “Mindful Presence” as a reminder to try to stay as fully present as possible.

    • Andrea, thank you for sharing your self-care plan. It illustrates how each individual can personalize his or her own plan, and how plans can evolve over time. I’m glad you mentioned symbolic items, because I think I forgot to include them in my blog post. Surrounding ourselves with touchstones can help us to stay grounded in an increasingly hectic world. My favorite is a polished stone engraved with the symbol of The Man in The Maze, signifying life’s journey. It reminds me that life is full of twists and turns, and to accept challenges as part of life learning. I may steal your idea for a screensaver with a message of self-care to add to my collection of comfort items!

  • This self-care plan actually opened up my eyes.This post, not only gave me tips on the self-improvements I could make but also the explanations that follows it. Thanks for that, Ms. Cummings

  • I am inspired by this post because the self-care plan made me feel peaceful. I was almost able to taste the chocolate and seeing the colorful flower in the picture gave me a sense of warmth. Even the thought of color coding dates on the calendar made me feel encouraged. Sometimes stress is inevitable but it is important how people cope with it. I will be focusing more on my wellness!

  • I’m glad that you found this post inspirational. The Self-Care Starter toolkit was a catalyst for me to devote more attention into my own wellness. My hope in writing this was to help others, like you, to also experience self-care as a higher priority.

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