When self-care feels impossible as a social worker, try these five easy tricks

Essy Knopf social work secret self-care tips
Reading time: 4 minutes

Working in a demanding profession like social work, I’m often reminded that self-care is a commitment many of us struggle to make. 

Certainly, there may be factors that interfere with our ability to perform this vital activity. We may for example experience a time crunch at work and miss a lunch break in order to help a client in crisis.

When such a situation becomes routine, we should be worried. Many however refuse to take action, claiming they simply don’t have control over the circumstances.

Addressing self-care, however, is less about external circumstances than it is about certain problematic beliefs we hold to be true.

Common mental barriers to self-care

Chronic overwork usually happens because we permit it to.

For example, boundary issues may convince us we are obligated—if not morally bound—to take on more than our own share. 

This can stem from low self-esteem or distorted self-perception, which are in turn fed by negative self-talk. 

If given too much latitude, our internal critics will demand we constantly prove our self-worth, leading to workaholism, perfectionism, and other forms of grandiosity

This is not a sustainable way of life. We can’t ignore our feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion forever. But in the absence of self-compassion, we will likely dismiss self-care as “unnecessary”, “wasteful”, and “selfish”.

Another contributor to overwork is time anxiety, a phenomenon by which we come to believe there is simply never enough time in which to complete all of our assigned tasks.

Like other forms of anxiety, time anxiety follows a simple premise: 

if you do or fail to do X, Y catastrophe will happen 

If you’re struggling to overcome one or more of these obstacles, or if the suggestions in my previous guide to self-care as a social worker didn’t quite hit the spot, I would suggest the following approaches.

1. Snack on self-care

Incorporate brief, “snack-sized” activities into your daily routine. For example:

  • Watch a humorous segment from a late-night talk show host on YouTube while eating breakfast
  • Check your favorite news website during work breaks
  • Watch a fun TV show while cooking dinner
  • Listen to an enriching podcast while cleaning or exercising
  • Do school readings while enjoying a hot bath
  • Practice a grounding exercise during moments of peak stress. For example: box breathing, belly breathing, or body scans

While multitasking has been linked to higher levels of stress and fatigue, self-care snacking in this fashion is a start…and thus progress.

2. Try gratitude & affirmations

Studies have found that practicing gratitude can significantly boost our mental health

One common example is gratitude journaling. This involves writing down five things you’re grateful for each day. 

Alternatively, you can share this list with a designated “accountability partner” either daily or weekly, in-person, or over the phone.

Another fun way to practice gratitude is with a freewriting gratitude exercise. Set a timer for five minutes, suspend your critical thinking, and start writing down anything and everything you could be grateful for.

When the timer ends, set down your pen and review your work. Does what you write check out? Are you surprised by the number of things you were able to list?

Another proven way to nip stress in the bud is by practicing affirmations. Consider opening or closing your day with an affirmation that emphasizes a positive aspect of your life or celebrates your strengths or achievements. 

Here are some examples of affirmations you can use as part of a daily practice. 

Thankfully, practicing gratitude nor affirmations are not time-intensive activities and can be performed during natural lulls that occur throughout the day.

Essy Knopf self-care ticks social work

3. Lean into self-compassion

Self-compassion refers to the willingness and ability to comfort oneself in moments of distress. This is a vital skill we typically learn by internalizing the soothing offered to us as children by our primary caregivers. 

When our attachment to these caregivers is disrupted, however, through misattunement, invalidation, neglect, abuse, loss, and trauma, we may develop insecure attachment styles.

This impedes future relationships and deprives us of the chance to learn self-compassion, which can bolster personal resiliency.

Thankfully, self-compassion can always be developed through practice. To get started, check out some of the brief guided meditations, videos, and exercises available on Self-Compassion author Kristin Neff’s website. 

Again, these activities can be done almost anywhere and don’t require a lot of time.

4. Get your body moving

Exercise may maintain our general health—but it can also help protect us against anxiety and depression.

As someone who has suffered chronic anxiety, I have found daily exercise goes a long way to helping me manage this condition.

While I don’t always achieve the 30 minutes of moderate activity daily recommended by scientists, I do make sure to take 20-minute walks around the neighborhood at the very least.

Slower exercise should ideally be supplemented by higher-intensity workouts. For instance, I try to cycle for an hour one day, hike for a few hours on another, and do an hour of weights and jogging on a third.

If your mind tells you that taking time out to exercise will eat into your productivity, consider listening to a podcast or audiobook at the same time.

Should venturing outdoors or going to the gym demand too much from your schedule, try exercising from home with free-to-view YouTube aerobics classes.

5. Sleep hygienically

How is sleep a self-care activity? Usually, when we are consumed by work, we may not get our seven-hour minimum.

If our sleep is too short or the quality of it is poor, we may quickly find ourselves running on empty.

Practicing sleep hygiene is how we create the ideal conditions for sleeping. Some examples of good sleep hygiene are:

  • Going to bed and getting up at a regular time 
  • Ensuring our bedrooms are quiet, dark, relaxing, and comfortable
  • Using our bedroom exclusively for sleeping 
  • Removing electronic devices from our sleeping spaces
  • Employing blue light-free bulbs and the wellness feature on our Apple or Android devices (sometimes referred to as “night light”)
  • Avoiding large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before rest 

Wrap up

Whatever your career choice, overwork is a possibility that can always sneak up unexpectedly. 

Boundary issues, fierce internal critics, and time anxiety are just a few forms of mental resistance that can leave us especially vulnerable in this regard.

Danger arises when this resistance persuades us that the rightful place of self-care is on the chopping block. 

Over time, such beliefs can become hard to shake. But by making some of the adjustments proposed above, you can take small steps towards becoming a personal wellbeing champion.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

How to keep mentally well during the coronavirus pandemic

Essy Knopf coronavirus pandemic
Reading time: 5 minutes

The coronavirus pandemic reached new and chilling heights shortly after I arrived in Australia to visit family.

Friends and the media had told me to expect the worst – sprawling supermarket queues, panic buying, fights over toilet paper – but upon my return to Los Angeles, I found calm and order. 

Lockdown had brought a range of unexpected benefits, the reduced traffic being one of them. There were the smog-free skies also, and the appearance of new public works projects.

But after a few days of self-imposed quarantine, my initially positive attitude began to fade.

I normally work from home and tend to mix up my daily routine with a range of physical and social activities. Twice a week I’ll go for a run down at the local park, explore a new hiking trail, or catch up with a friend.

Social distancing however now made these impractical, if not impossible.

As my motivation ebbed, I began sleeping in and stopped exercising. And gradually my mood took a turn for the worse.

Connect with loved ones

With many public areas now closed and regions under coronavirus pandemic lockdown, a collective retreat indoors has resulted in social isolation seemingly overnight. 

But the coronavirus crisis is not one that must be endured in solitude. For this reason, we should reach out to family members and friends. Chances are they’ll be equally grateful for our conversation and company.

If texting, calling, instant messaging, social media, or online multiplayer gaming aren’t doing it for you, consider throwing a virtual party over Zoom or Google Hangouts.

You can even screen-share a party game collection like Jack Box.

Manage your mental health

Modern hyperconnectivity right now cuts both ways. It means we can communicate with a tap of the thumb, but it also means we are bombarded around the clock with the latest coronavirus-related development.

The unprecedented nature of the global pandemic and the changes it has already wrought is likely to leave even the hardiest among us shaken. 

Left to ruminate on these extraordinary circumstances, our minds will naturally tend towards anxious and depressive thinking. 

“What if I catch coronavirus?” we wonder. “What do I do if shortages continue?” “Am I going to lose my job?” “Will things ever go back to being normal?”

The coronavirus pandemic, however, is an unprecedented development for which no individual can possibly be fully prepared. 

A more proactive approach involves striving to be aware of, and responsible for, our own mental wellbeing. We can do this by taking the following steps.

essy knopf coronavirus pandemic mental wellbeing

Keep exercising

Exercise improves the brain’s resilience to stress while combating anxiety and depression

If you don’t have a treadmill, exercise bike, or weights bench at home, don’t despair. The sun may be setting on TV aerobics, but intrepid YouTubers have already stepped in to fill the workout void.

There are countless free-to-view exercise channels and subscription-based apps offering access to exercise classes.

If high-energy aerobics or low-intensity Pilates isn’t your thing, you can always take a brisk walk, jog or run around the neighborhood.

Sunlight is a primary source of Vitamin D and getting your daily dose will help guard against depression.

Whatever you choose, set a schedule and stick to it. With most of us now homebound, establishing an exercise habit is more crucial to our well-being than ever.

Try yoga and meditation

Yoga and meditation are the kinds of practices most of us find ourselves putting off indefinitely. 

“Not today,” we say. “Tomorrow.” But when tomorrow rolls around, we become caught up again in the other distractions of daily life and continue to postpone indefinitely.

With productivity in Western society often treated as the only measure of success, slowing down – especially for the grandiose among us – is often equated to personal failure.

The coronavirus pandemic has placed a moratorium upon many activities, suspending out memberships with the cult of busy

Having more time than ever on our hands, combined with the stressors of a global pandemic, can result in a perfect storm for catastrophizing.

Meditation and yoga offer guaranteed relief from this kind of thinking. Not only do they support mental wellbeing – they strengthen our capacity for withstanding the travails of life and allow us to “cognitively reframe” life situations.

Those keen to explore meditation, yoga, and mindfulness can find a handy list of resources at the bottom of this article.

Practice gratitude

Gratitude is a form of emotional intelligence that doesn’t merely shift our thinking towards optimistic thinking. Rather, it counters what scientists call “hedonic adaptation” – our tendency to take things for granted – while improving mental fortitude.

A daily gratitude practice may involve something as simple as writing down five things that you’re grateful for, or free-flow writing for a period of time or specific length (e.g. five minutes or three pages). 

A phone call with a friend, a nice cup of coffee, enjoying perfect health – anything and everything goes. 

Practicing gratitude may feel difficult or “fake” at first, but remember you are learning to use a mental muscle. And like all muscles, gratitude atrophies from disuse, so maintaining the habit is crucial.

As The Upward Spiral author Alex Korb reminds us:

You can’t always find something to be grateful for, but just because you can’t find it doesn’t mean it’s useless to look. It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place… With gratitude, it is often the searching, the looking, the fishing for gratitude that activates the circuitry. You can’t control what you see, but you can control what you’re looking for.

essy knopf coronavirus crisis tips anxiety coping

Remember to laugh

If there is an antidote to the pervasive atmosphere of grim paranoia the coronavirus pandemic has brought, it’s humor. 

All the more reason to indulge in a golden oldie sitcom, browse YouTube’s many funny vid compilations, sample top joke tweets, catch up on a comedic podcast, or dust off a copy of your favorite comedian’s memoir.

For more ideas, check out these suggestions by blogger Marelisa Fabrega.

Enrich your life

A coronavirus lockdown is as much an opportunity to safeguard your wellbeing as it is a chance to enrich yourself.

That self-help book you were always planning to get to? Now’s the time. The environmental documentary your friend recommended? Well, what are you waiting for?

The new career path you wanted to explore? You’ve got no excuse now. 

Time to get cracking.

Takeaways

  • The coronavirus pandemic has changed the pace of daily living – embrace it.
  • Treat this as a chance to bond with those not-so-near but still dear.
  • Maintain mental health with exercise, yoga, meditation, gratitude, and laughter.
  • Now is the time to pursue the interests and activities you’ve been putting off.

Resources for the coronavirus pandemic