Self-care Advice from First Responders

By Lisa deRamos

Articles about self-care are widespread in the media today, but few focus on what first responders such as therapists, medical workers, and clergy do for their own self-care. I recently had the opportunity to speak with some first responders to gain insight into what they do to re-energize themselves when they are feeling depleted from the daily stresses of their occupations. Below are the general questions asked of them, and their responses.

1) What kind of work do you do on a daily basis?

2) What are some of the signs that you are running out of steam and need to recharge after doing your kind of work?

3) What are some hobbies, activities, and/or self-care rituals that you participate in to help you recenter and recharge yourself?

Above: Rev. Shonagh
Rev. Shonagh, Minister of Social Justice and Diversity

I am a woman of color and an immigrant working in professional ministry, a vocation historically reserved for men, usually white men. I am a mother of Black American children, raising them in the US through an incredibly difficult time as we all become aware of the reality of systemic racism, police brutality, and the increasing polarization around acknowledging our painful racial history. In the past year I had to navigate the shift to working from home, schooling from home, all while dealing with the anxiety and fear around the pandemic and its possible impact on my family. I work in social justice and pay close attention to systems and situations of oppression and marginalization, and do what I can to address some of those. Thus, I see and often feel the pain of the oppressed. Self-care for me has become a matter of survival. 

Over the years, I have discovered practices that help with different situations. The most important one for me is paying attention to my body and its needs. Neglecting this has resulted in illnesses and seasons of exhaustion. I have to be intentional about getting enough rest, eating healthily, and physical exercise. Most of us over the past couple of years have experienced the toxic effects of the daily news cycle, and for some of us, the trauma of being one of the people in groups being demonized. This can take a toll, thus self-care means setting boundaries on what news and information I consume. I’ve had to decide what I want from social media, and what my news feed should look like. Unfortunately, around the time of the last election, I realized that I didn’t have the capacity to deal with angry exchanges, alternative facts, and conspiracy theories in my news feed, so I had to clean house. I do, however, advocate for trying to maintain relationships with people of different political views, but this should be done in person, with a desire to learn from the other, and with mutual respect for differences.

When the pain of the world becomes too heavy, I find that journaling gives me a great outlet. These past couple years have been incredibly stressful for so many of us and yet at the same time increased our capacity for empathy and compassion. I previously served as a hospital chaplain supporting those struggling with mental health issues. With the advent of the pandemic, I found myself regularly using some of the spiritual practices and tools I used to share with people suffering from anxiety such as breathing exercises, grounding techniques, and the practice of self-compassion (Kristin Neff’s work).

With all the uncertainty and the need to constantly change course and adapt, I found myself at times feeling mentally and physically exhausted. As a result, I am a strong advocate for regular naps. There’s nothing like a good nap to put an end to those ruminating thoughts and feelings of hypervigilance. When sleep is a struggle, I turn to my favorite soothing playlists that normally have the power to take me to a more peaceful place. Sometimes, when I find myself wrestling with frustration and anger, I turn to physical activities like cleaning my house from top to bottom, or gardening. 

More recently, I have found it essential to maintain a strong sense of identity and agency as I navigate a world in which I can be perceived as being different or other, without authority, or just inferior. I do this by regularly remembering and honoring my ancestors, the people who made me who I am, and by celebrating the journey to this point in time. Very often we forget to look back to see how far we’ve come, and all the challenges that we’ve survived, as well as our achievements. If we pause now and again to reflect on the past with self-compassion, we realize just how fabulous we all are to still be here today doing what we do, and that can give us what we need to keep pressing on.

Above: Breanna
Breanna, Therapist (LMSW)

I am a clinical social worker and an outpatient mental health therapist. I work full time with children, teens, and adults. Though we all have some days when we don’t want to get out of bed or have adult responsibilities, I find that when I have several days in a row of feeling tired and wishing I could skip my work day that I am in need of a break. I am mindful of my mood; if I’m feeling overly frustrated or overwhelmed by tasks, I try to evaluate my need to recharge. I also notice physical signs of stress, including headaches, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping.

Spending time with friends and family, gardening, crafting, and working on home projects are all helpful for me. When I am feeling especially tired or need to recharge, I love spending time with my nephews who are great at enjoying the moment and finding joy. I enjoy playful activities like board games or video games. Gardening and crafting projects are so helpful for me because they provide a tangible sense of progress or completion. Gardening has been an especially helpful self-care activity for me during the pandemic because it is disconnected from technology and has given me some rhythms for my days; there is always something I can focus on in my garden, whether weeding, watering, or watching the growing process. I also have been working on building a mindfulness practice with meditation and journaling, along with checking in with my own therapist as needed. 

Sara, Therapist (LPC)

As a therapist, I talk to people every day about the importance of self-care and ways of showing ourselves care emotionally, physically, and spiritually. As an introvert, alone time to read, watch TV or go for a drive is an important way for me to recharge. Making sure I get quality sleep is another way to help keep myself in check both physically and mentally. Occasionally, I find the need to detox from social media for a few days to reconnect with my own values, priorities, and connection with people in person. When I begin to feel irritable, annoyed or in a low mood, I know it’s time to readjust my self-care routine and amp up my efforts.

Rich, Hospitalist (MD)

I work as a hospitalist at a large hospital. As a hospitalist, I care for sick patients who require support and treatment in the hospital, including patients with COVID-19 infections. My job is frequently stressful, as the work of the day can be highly unpredictable, and I frequently have to care for patients who may have sudden changes in their status that require rapid assessment and management. Typically, my workday may last anywhere from 12-14 hours, and a typical schedule consists of 7 workdays in a row, then 7 days off. By my 7th day of work, I am usually quite exhausted.

Over the years, I have developed ways to maintain balance in my life and recharge in the evenings or my days off. My daily commute consists of a 25 minute walk to and from work through a busy neighborhood. I enjoy spending this time outside, experiencing both the quiet crispness of the empty streets at dawn, as well as the exciting bustle of the same streets in the evenings. When I have a day to myself, I enjoy reading books, especially those that others recommend to me, as I find it is a great way to learn something new, and make a deeper connection with a friend as we discuss the book. I love to work on puzzles, and the way they demand attention from parts of my brain that would normally be worrying about things at work. Finally, this year I began running more routinely, initially because I wanted my lungs to be in “good condition,” for when I inevitably got COVID-19. I ended up liking it so much that I kept it up, and now enjoy long runs through scenic locations.

About the author: Lisa deRamos serves as the Community Programs Coordinator for NAMI WC, is a trained and certified Peer-to-Peer class instructor, and a volunteer. She is passionate about mental health awareness and ending the stigma against mental health conditions. In her free time, Lisa enjoys crafting, going on nature hikes, and spending quality time with her loved ones and pets.

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