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.
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.
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
“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.
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.
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 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.
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