You hear it over and over when flying: “When the oxygen masks drop, put your own mask on first, before assisting others.” Why is this such critical advice? Because if you can’t perform it, you can’t help others. The same stands true in life as a healthcare worker. If you don’t take care of yourself and practice well-nurtured types of self-care, you can’t help others. You will make mistakes and perform unfavorably with the result being disappointment and frustration. How do you prevent this downward spiral? By taking care of yourself and making self-care a priority.
Self-Care Isn’t Selfish – It Is a Strategy for Success
Practicing and prioritizing self-care in your life is the best short- and long-term strategy that you can adopt. The National Register of Health Service Psychologists calls self-care an “ethical imperative”. Without attending to our own care, we will not be adequately able to help others and prevent harm to them. Self-care is not restricted to intervention after professional competence has been compromised; it is a continuous, proactive process throughout our careers.
Here Are Some Ways to Care For Yourself
- Sleep. Staying awake to get more things done is an exercise in diminishing returns. The less you sleep, the less productive you will become. Ask any veteran doctor or nurse, and they will tell you that sleep is essential to performing well and thinking clearly—the essential ingredients to treating your patients skillfully and safely.
- Eat well. Don’t eat primarily junk food nor rely on coffee. Sugar and caffeine highs are short-lived; you will crash when they wear off. Instead, eat foods that will give you energy at mealtime or as snacks during your shift: almonds, dried fruit and nuts, Greek yogurt, water, dark chocolate (just a bit!), bananas, apples or celery with peanut butter, and whole grain crackers with hummus. These are all good energy boosters.
- Stretch and/or walk: Keep your body as free of stress as possible, and it will thank you. We all hold stress in different places in our body. Walking and stretching can loosen up those tight spots and move the stress up and out. The fresh oxygen and blood that moves to your brain will give you more energy and help you to think more clearly.
- Make friends. There is no substitution for the support of good friends. If you are to get through your shifts successfully, you need a strong support network of people who understand what your days are like. You need people who have your back, can listen to your stress, share your frustrations, and then encourage you to get back up and keep going.
These can include sensory, pleasurable, spiritual, physical, and social activities. The key is to choose the one you love. Self-care must be something you yearn to do, not something you have to do.
- Sensory: Wrap yourself in a warm blanket, practice deep breathing (especially in the fresh air), get a massage, or listen to music.
- Pleasurable: Go to lunch with a friend, visit a museum, lounge in a coffee shop, or see a concert.
- Spiritual: Meditate, spend an hour in a place of worship, pray, or read poetry.
- Physical: Yoga, running, walking, dancing, and biking. Take a nap!
- Social: Stay in close touch with friends and family. Do things together. Share how you feel.
Self-care for healthcare workers isn’t a choice. It’s a mandate. On the flip side stands burnout, fueled by exhaustion, overwork, and too many patients to care for. It results in dangerous disassociation, dread going to work, professional sub-performance, and sometimes mistakes in patient care. You can avoid that by making self-care a non-negotiable part of your day. Put your own mask on first so that you can care for those around you.