Between the political climate, soggy weather, tax season, and pervasive digital stimulants, many folks are having a hard time of it. People are sharing that they feel overly tired and more reactive. Good self-care can help. I’m increasingly appreciating, though, that self-care is not always an option, it may not even always be the best option.
Taking a walk in nature may calm our nervous system but isn’t likely to fly with our boss in the midst of a heated work meeting. When we read triggering news while commuting we can’t just stop the bus to take a warm bath. Even our asana practices have their limitations. Doing a few sun salutations upon waking may support overall emotional reserves but isn’t really a tool to pull out while getting a traffic ticket.
It’s not simply the impractical nature of many self-care practices that has given me pause, it’s the sometimes underlying casualty of self-care: active connection with others. Many self-care practices involve being by one’s self. In loaded times, overly relying on self-care could find us inadvertently isolated, a condition that is neither good for ourselves or community.
There’s a growing body of research on what’s commonly referred to as compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a type of burnout that arises from a particular type of imbalance: feeling empathy with insufficient resources. It’s common in caregiving fields like nursing and social work, where people help other people in distress. It emerges too in social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, a movement comprised of caring activists dialed into the suffering of black people and communities. As human beings we’re hardwired (via mirror neurons) for the capacity to feel the feelings of one another. It’s part of our survival tool kit. A sort of emotional exhaustion emerges though when we simply feel distressing feelings of others without tending to these feelings in ourselves.
On a collective level we’re seeing what appears to be an uptick of such fatigue as people try to stay awake and engaged in the midst of social injustices. This is possibly compounded by too much social media, or as Pacific Northwesters, too many days of grey skies. Studies show self-care is in fact a way to mitigate compassion fatigue. As the research points out as well though, self-care tends to take us out of our caregiving relationships. A nurse can’t, for example, interrupt her distressed patient’s appointment for a foot massage. That is, it can be tough to practice self-care in the moment while connected to others.
Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, is someone I’ve been listening to and learning from in this area. Cullors actively recognizes that to sustain activism against the trauma in oppressed communities, it also critical to tend to real-time trauma of the activists themselves, within community. Through another organization she helped found, Dignity and Power Now, Cullors champions interconnected ways to build emotional resiliency while strengthening community. Check out this video to learn more.
Inspired by Cullors, I began thinking about what the eight limbs of yoga might offer in this conversation. How might yoga help us tend to ourselves and others, in the midst of difficult experiences? I was reminded of a quote from Sharon Salzberg, “Meditation is the ultimate mobile device; you can use it anywhere, anytime, unobtrusively.”
Below you’ll find a few simple meditations to help grow mobile resiliency. I enjoy hearing what other folks find useful so feel free to email me portable practices that help you extend care inwards and outwards at email@example.com.
Spend a breath cycle or two noticing the nourishing aspects of your inhalations and the soothing qualities of your exhalations. Breathing in this manner is a quick way to extend comfort and kindness to your nervous system.
Offer yourself self-compassion through warm touch. You might hold one hand in the other or hold your forearms or elbows. You could experiment with subtly stroking a hand or arm, or perhaps gently touch a cheek or rest a hand over your heart region. Take a moment to notice the sensations in your body that arise from this touch. Whether offered by others or ourselves, warm touch calms our sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, freeze system) while engaging our parasympathetic nervous system (natural caregiving system).
Simple Body Scan
Tune into points of contact you’re making with the floor beneath you or the chair you’re sitting in. Or perhaps rest your awareness with your hands comfortably by your sides or on your lap. Get in touch, even if briefly, with pulsations and micro-sensations of your body. This helps reduce reactive mind while encouraging grounded presence.
Posted by: Ashley Dahl, MSW, Executive Director
* Adapted from practices developed by Self-Compassion Researcher Kristin Neff.