This past summer, Bridges of Hope hosted an excellent community training for those of us working in the “helping profession,” called Healing the Heart of the Healer presented by Chris Henley, MS, Licensed Psychologist. Chris says everyone is “hard- wired” for empathy, and as a result, we can be pulled in to another’s feelings by the work we do or the circumstances we experience in our life. We can become so focused on the other person’s feelings that we forget ourselves and the state of our own body and mind. Chris teaches that when we learn to identify our own signs of hyperarousal, we can calm both ourselves and the other person too. Signs of hyperarousal can include an increased heart rate, increased respiration, a sense of not thinking clearly, sweating, and high blood pressure.
One of the lasting concepts that Chris shared that day was that we–those of us whose work is primarily focused on helping others–are the tools of our trade, so we need to take care of ourselves. She impressed on us the importance of maintaining our overall well-being and balance while continuing to facilitate our clients’ healing. The training also gave us several hands-on techniques to use when we are feeling stressed or fatigued, which are easy for anyone to use. If you experience a stress-filled situation or conversation, it’s time to “put on the brakes” mentally and begin to become aware of yourself and surroundings. Here’s how to do that:
1. BREATHE: Breathing is key. Take three slow deep breaths, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.
2. RUB AND SHAKE: Rub the palms of your hands together quickly for three to five seconds to create heat, and then shake your hands to get rid of the energy. This helps clear your mind and release stress.
3. CHANGE YOUR POSITION: If you feel yourself being “pulled in” to the other person’s experience, deliberately change your body’s position by crossing your legs, picking up you pen, or diverting your eyes.
The take-home message of the workshop was we need to be aware–aware that we’re hardwired for empathy, and aware that we can “catch” each other’s emotions. Once we’re able to identify our body’s signs of hyperarousal, we can practice ways to deactivate some of the stress and can maintain a healthier sense of well-being. If you start with the simple techniques described above, you will be taking the first steps to healing your own heart.
Other Self-Care Resources:
Self-Care Starter Kit from the University of Buffalo
A 2009 Paper on Self-Care from the National Association of Social Workers
12 Self-Care Tips to combat Compassion Fatigue
Caregiver’s Bill of Rights from the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project
Local Counseling Resources from Bridges of Hope