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How to Commit to Self-Care

What sorts of New Year’s resolutions should therapists be contemplating? Committing to self-care is on that we all recognise the value of – yet often find surprisingly hard. Dr William Steele, author of a new book on reducing Compassion Fatigue, Secondary Traumatic Stress and Burnout, suggests it all hinges on distinguishing between these experiences – and responding with a self-care strategy that’s unique to you.

Every therapist, care giver and first responder today is fairly well aware of the cost of caring and the need for good self-care practices yet few engage in sustained self-care. The two primary reasons for this are:

  1. The differences between Compassion Fatigue (CF), Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) and Burnout (BO) are not always clearly understood, thereby leading to interventions/self-care practices that do not effectively alleviate each of these components of stress, and…
  2. Self-care must be personalised; there is no one practice that fits all

Let me explain.

Identify the Differences

I have been in far too many workshops that simply list the wide range of CF/STS/BO symptoms but fail to walk participants through any activity that evaluates their ability to distinguish the source of their stress. In my recent book, readers are asked to complete a pre-session activity that requires them to write out six statements that reflect the thoughts, behaviours, emotions and physical reactions for each of these three reactions, CF, STS and BO. This presents them with the opportunity to identify whether they understand what constitutes CF versus STS versus BO, as symptoms can appear similar for each yet are different.

Consider the Following Statement

“There are days I don’t return client’s calls…”

This statement would be considered burnout if the rest read something like, “… because all they want to do is talk and I don’t have the time”.

This same statement could be considered STS if the rest of the statement read something like, “… because what happened to these clients just triggers too many unwanted reactions I have trouble controlling”.

And, finally the same statement could be considered CF if the rest read, “… because I don’t think any amount of caring on my part will change anything.”

When we can identify these differences, it is so much easier to apply the appropriate intervention/self-care practices.

Self-Care Strategies Must Be Personalised

The reality is we all experience stress, but we experience it differently. This is why what works for me may not work for you. In fact, not knowing what that subjective experience is like for you, what I might suggest you need to do to relieve that stress may be of no help whatsoever or make it worse rather than better.

Developing a personalised self-care strategy requires an evaluation of our subjective reactions, our individual mindsets, behavioural, emotional and physical reactions to that stress, as well as the organisation/management practices contributing to that stress. It’s also necessary to identify:

  • your perceived levels of stress
  • engagement
  • resilience characteristics
  • spiritual
  • your specific internal responses to clients
  • the strength of your self-compassion
  • determining what matters most to you
  • evaluating the ‘wellness’ of the work environment
  • the core STS competencies of supervisors… and much more

Rarely are those responding to others in need given the opportunity to evaluate all these areas, and shown how to use the results to achieve a self-care strategy that will actually be consistently practiced. This is why the above workbook was created; it provides all the necessary tools to accomplish a strategy that fits each individual.

It is critical that you determine what matters most in your personal efforts to remain resilient, compassionate and consistently effective while daily assisting, caring for and or responding to trauma victims and those intensely emotionally challenged individuals and/or situations. This cannot be done in one day workshops, nor without the proper evaluation tools and worksheets designed to help you clarify which practices will best fit your needs.

Whatever actions you decide to take, remember there is no one way or best way; your way is what you discover in this journey matters the most to you.

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William Steele

In 1990, Dr. Steele founded the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children (TLC). As its Director for 23 years, he created a legacy of trauma specific, registered evidence-based intervention programs and resources for schools and agencies now being used in 55 countries by many of the additional 6,000 professionals he trained while at TLC. His work has been featured in such books as the Handbook of Play Therapy, Children in the Urban Environment, Understanding Mass Violence, Creative Interventions with Traumatized Children, Critical Incidents in Counseling Children, Clinical Handbook of Art Therapy and in varied journals.

His latest publications by Routledge include, Reducing Compassion Fatigue, Secondary Traumatic Stress and Burnout: A Trauma-Sensitive Workbook (2019), Optimizing Learning Outcomes: Proven Brain-Centric, Trauma-Sensitive Practices (2017), Trauma In Schools and Communities: Recovery Lessons From Survivors and Responders (2015), Trauma Informed Practices with Children and Adolescents (2012), and the 2013, Wiley Publication Working with Traumatized Children and Adolescents.

Although now retired, he continues to consult with those seeking his assistance which also led to his decision to publish his workbook on self-care for those exposed daily to others in trauma.

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