How Social Work Students Define and Practice Self Care—and What They Cared for Most on the Day (2/2)

Self Care collage

Social workers cannot be of much use to their clients if they are stressed, sick or exhausted, and have not made time for self-care. That's what I picked up from CUSSW's Self-Care Day, held on Monday October 22 (see Part 1).

In Part 2 of this post, we move on to how current CUSSW students define and practice self-care. I asked the following 16 students to share the best and worst tips they've received, along with their impressions of this year's event.

  • Ashley Adams (2014): Law minor and thinking about Advanced Generalist Practice and Programming concentration
  • Liandra Aptekar (2014), Advanced Clinical Practice, with a concentration in School-based and School-linked Services
  • Lauren Bachman (2014): Interested in doing AGPP/Mental Health, dual degree with Mailman School of Public Health
  • Robyn Chazen (2014)
  • Chris Eagar-Finney (2013): Advanced Generalist Practice and Programming, with Law minor
  • Marissa Fielstein (2014): Interested in doing Advanced Clinical Practice, with a concentration in School-based and School-linked Services
  • Kyndra Frazier (2014): Already an M.Div and planning to specialize in Family, Youth & Children’s Services
  • Diana Gutierrez (2014)
  • Amanda "Mandy" Hine (2013): Interested in doing Advanced Clinical Practice, with a concentration in Mental Health and Disabilities
  • Jayson Jones (2014): Most likely Advanced Clinical Practice, with a concentration in Health, Mental Health and Disabilities
  • Esther Kwon (2013): Interested in Advanced Clinical Practice
  • Hana Myjer (2014): Hoping to concentrate on School-based/linked Services
  • Katie Porter (2014): Thinking about Advanced Clinical Practice
  • Jocelyn Singer-Sargent (2013): Advanced Generalist Practice and Programming, with a concentration in Contemporary Social Issues
  • Elizabeth "Libby" Steinmeyer (2013): Advanced Generalist Practice and Programming, with a concentration in Health, Mental Health and Disabilities
  • Ashley Stewart (2014): Thinking about pursuing Advanced Clinical Practice.

As a social worker, you have to learn how to manage stress so that you can care for others. But many people are fuzzy on what self-care is and how to practice it. What's the best advice you've ever received on practicing self-care?

ASHLEY ADAMS: Know your boundaries and when to stop, because unless it is urgent, it can wait. I can practice this in different ways—for example, by not taking work home with me at the end of the day or by making sure I take lunch and not working straight through.

LIANDRA APTEKAR: No matter how much work you have to do and how little time you have to do it, take a break and do something you enjoy—whether it's watching a TV show, taking a nap, or going to the gym. It will help you re-focus, and ultimately you'll be able to produce at a higher level.

LAUREN BACHMAN: Pay attention to both body and mind. We can often tell when we're about to get sick, but sometimes we feel we are too busy to listen to it. I've learned to pay attention to my body (do I feel tired, am I getting headaches more frequently, am I sleeping all right...) as well as my mind (do I feel emotionally drained, do I feel sad sometimes without knowing why...). These are indicators that I need to give myself a break, find ways to incorporate more rest and "me" time.

ROBYN CHAZEN: Do at least one thing a day unrelated to work/school be it exercising, watching TV, or any other hobby. Taking an hour for yourself even when you are stressed by a million things can be enough to refresh and rejuvenate. After that, you can give 110 percent to your work, stay alert and be focused.

CHRIS EAGAR-FINNEY: Make time for self-care in your daily schedule—whether it's ten minutes of silence when you get home from your internship/work, a quick run in the park, a work-out at the gym, or a television show. Vary the activity from day to day but whatever you choose, allow yourself some time each day to practice self-care. While helping your clients succeed, help yourself by maintaining the habit of self-care to meet your needs and maintain quality of life.

MARISSA FIELSTEIN: Self-care is a process!  Different techniques work for different people, at different times, and for different reasons. My favorite expression is "different strokes for different folks." I love viewing self-care in the way I view other aspects of my life: as an opportunity for learning and growth. I continue to learn about myself and my own needs for self-care.

KYNDRA FRAZIER: Remember why you choose to take care of yourself. My own particular "why" is because without taking care of myself, there is no way I can thrive and continue to support and care for others. Without knowing the why, self-care can feel superficial.

DIANA GUTIERREZ: Assign at least 15-30 minutes to do something you enjoy whether it be reading, going on a walk, or whatever—just to get your mind off things. This can be accomplished by actually putting "self care" on your calendar or phone. That way, you can avoid backing out at the last minute or getting caught up in another task.

MANDY HYNE: Be sure to set aside time to do something that makes you genuinely happy.

JAYSON JONES: My mom has always told me to do something that I love and do it often. It's the best advice I have ever been given. She told me I should always take a few minutes—an hour or even a day—to do something for myself. It is hard advice to follow, but I'm doing my best.

ESTHER KWON: I have several pieces of advice that I cherish:

  1. Self-care can be simple—e.g., on a nice day, take a walk instead of getting on public transportation.
  2. Self-care doesn't have to be all day; it can be taken in small moments, as when you stop to say hello to someone, smile at a child, etc.
  3. Self-care is personal to you. Some find breathing helpful, whereas others respond to mindfulness, cooking, exercise, etc.
  4. Self-care is integral to our work—it makes us be better clinicians and helps us to avoid compassion fatigue.
  5. Self-care can be creative—don't be afraid to try something new like an art class, photography or something.

HANA MYJER: Find something you enjoy and make time to do it, even if it's just once a week. Doing something that you enjoy helps relieve stress, which, even though it is temporary, helps.

KATIE PORTER: Take care of yourself so that you are more able to take care of others.

JOCELYN SINGER-SARGENT: Be gentle with yourself—and prioritize self-care. Taking an hour for self-care actually gives you more time in the day. It doesn't make sense numerically, but that has been my experience. By taking that hour, I am more efficient and have more perspective on the other tasks in my day. I actually get more done!

LIBBY STEINMEYER: Always take a break during the day! Even if it is only a five-minute break to stretch or walk around the office, taking a few minutes away from the desk has a powerful effect on my mood. I try to take a walk every day during my lunch break because it clears my head and gives me a moment to step back and think things through.

ASHLEY STEWART: Evaluate what you have control over, and don't stress the things over which you have no or little control; instead, challenge yourself to find ways to grow from the situations that affect you adversely. I exercise self-care by identifying my daily frustrations and taking the time to acknowledge how I feel. Usually, I talk out my feelings with family and friends. If you let all the little things build up, it can have a large impact. Fortunately, my family provides a wonderful support system. I can call them for comfort, and they bring me instant happiness! Something else I would like to add: In our profession, we get gratification by making ourselves available to help others. If we don't take care of ourselves, it reflects in our interactions with our clients.

What's the worst advice you've ever received on practicing self-care?

ASHLEY ADAMS: "Connect your company e-mail to your cell phone." When I did this, the work never stopped! It became stressful and eventually encroached on my private life,

LIANDRA APTEKAR: One piece of advice I personally can't relate to is the one about trying out different types of reading, unrelated to classwork. Personally, when I need to take a step back and take care of myself, the last thing I want to do is read! If I'm going to read, I'd prefer it to be Policy or HBSE assignments.

LAUREN BACHMAN: I can't say that I've ever received any awful self-care advice. What I can say is that I believe everyone is different, deals with stress in different ways, and as a result may need to develop their own method of self-care. I think it's great to have a range of suggestions so that individuals can decide what works for them.

ROBYN CHAZEN: Someone once told me that sleep is overrated. I disagree. In find it impossible to be functional for my clients whenever I do not get a good night's rest.  

CHRIS EAGAR-FINNEY: I've been told that my time and energy should be dedicated to helping clients and advancing my career and that the minute I lose focus and take time for myself, someone else will take my place at the job or get the promotion.

MARISSA FIELSTEIN: I haven't received much "bad" advice on self-care—just advice that might work well for others, but not so much for me. For example: I tend to enjoy quiet activities (meditating, painting, having tea with a friend or two), whereas others might prefer loud and busy activities! We're all different, and feed our spirits in different ways.

KYNDRA FRAZIER: The worst advice I've received is to practice self-care when you've reached your stress limit. This makes no sense because the best self-care is preventative. It should be built into your schedule. The idea is to minimize stress so you can continue to be productive.

DIANA GUTIERREZ: I didn't appreciate the advice that I should care for myself whenever time presented itself and/or have a couple of drinks, which will help me forget about the stresses of the day. Sometimes people also tell me to take a vacation—which is a good idea in the short term; but long term self-care is what we all need in this career.

MANDY HYNE: Someone once said that the danger of taking time out to rest was that you might become lazy and unproductive—not true!! Sometimes you need a day of doing nothing to regroup and recharge the body.

JAYSON JONES: Fortunately, I've never been given any bad advice on this topic.

ESTHER KWON: I wouldn't say I've received bad advice, but I think oftentimes we delude ourselves about how long we can go without self-care. When we have field, school work, and a personal life, life can get hectic—and there's no time left for the self. Until the stress catches up with us, we don't notice we're becoming fatigued. Sometimes it helps to have friends, family, or peers who can speak the truth and tell us when we seem irritable, fatigued, etc., and hold us accountable.

HANA MYJER: The worst advice I've received concerned putting a time limit on self care. Everyone is different—and some of us need more time than others.

KATIE PORTER: Sometimes people have tried to get me to do self-care when I wasn't in the right mindset. If you are too stressed, worried or drained to engage in self-care, you should first take care of whatever is stressing you. Engage in self-care when you are ready.

JOCELYN SINGER-SARGENT: "Work hard, play hard."

LIBBY STEINMEYER: I was once told that you really need to push yourself to the edge every day in order to establish yourself in your career field. If you push yourself to the edge every day in social work, and don't take care of yourself, most likely you'll experience burnout a lot sooner than someone else who practices self-care!

ASHLEY STEWART: The worst self-care advice I’ve ever received was to “let loose." For me, “letting loose” implies that I'm not taking my responsibilities seriously. Self-care should empower you to move forward. One way to do that is by rewarding yourself for good work. This makes you feel good about yourself.

What was your very favorite part of this year's Self Care Day, and why?

ASHLEY ADAMS: The "Train the Brain" workshop, led by Kerry Docherty, on mindfulness and meditation. It was so amazing to learn the different breathing techniques that can really help a person achieve calmness and peace. Kerry's session was the absolute best!!

LIANDRA APTEKAR: I didn't attend because I commute to Columbia and my field placement is closer to my house and quite frankly less exhausting.

LAUREN BACHMAN: Sadly, I missed Self Care Day. I was all set to go, but came down with a stomach bug the day before. I took it upon myself to exercise "self-care" and stay home and rest. It was the best thing considering midterms the week prior and the many things coming down the pipeline in the next few weeks.

ROBYN CHAZEN: Being able to sleep in and enjoy the day with my peers. It was such a beautiful day to be walking around Riverside Park. And after the walk, I thoroughly enjoyed doing zumba! It reminded me of how great exercising can be for de-stressing and building up energy. We have to take care of our bodies.

CHRIS EAGAR-FINNEY: The chance to interact with my peers informally. I spent most of day in the video and board game room as facilitator for this workshop. Having the opportunity to sit down with my peers in a non-stressful environment and engage in fun activities allowed me to build personal relationships, something I do not often have time for when I'm in field, studying, or writing that daunting assignment.  By the end of the day, a number of my peers had become my friends.

MARISSA FIELSTEIN: The Train the Brain workshop on mindfulness and meditation. Lately, I have found these practices to be deeply fulfilling. Learning how to breathe deeply, I can now find peace anywhere—even on a NYC subway! I love the knowledge that with the right tools, self-care can happen anywhere.

KYNDRA FRAZIER: Catching the tail end of the breathing meditation workshop and receiving a oneness blessing from the facilitator, Kathleen Booker. Engaging in spiritual practice is one of the best ways for me to practice self-care. It was refreshing to have someone extend the spiritual resource of prayer, strengthening my awareness of community and reminding me that I am not alone.

DIANA GUTIERREZ: The salsa dancing because I love to dance and I use dancing as a form of expression. So by learning a little salsa on Monday, I was able to identify a new form of dance I can begin to express myself in. Besides giving me some exercise, it reminded me of how much I enjoy dance—but have lost that by allowing myself to become overwhelmed by day-to-day stresses.

MANDY HYNE: I loved zumba!! It was so much fun to get a good workout while learning some new dance steps in a supportive environment. I definitely felt energized and inspired afterwards!

JAYSON JONES: The session on meditation and breathing—my first. Not only was it informative and stress relieving but it reminded me that it's okay to take a little time out for myself every now and then. My peers and I entered the room a little anxious and not knowing what to expect—but we left with smiles on our faces, our heads held high and inspired to continue doing the work we all started a couple of months ago. I felt as though I'd been holding my breath for the past few weeks, and Self Care Day gave me the opportunity to exhale, keep going...

ESTHER KWON: I led the walk/hike workshop with a peer to Riverside Park. It was a great way to meet new people and get exercise at the same time. The weather was beautiful—the leaves were changing colors. It felt as though we'd gotten away from city life for an hour. I also attended the TV/Board Games workshop and played a card game with a few of my peers. I enjoyed engaging in a group activity that wasn't school related while munching on popcorn.

HANA MYJER: I didn't attend Self Care Day. I went to field placement instead.

KATIE PORTER: Playing Taboo with students I had never met. We had a great time, and it was nice to see other social work students outside of the classroom or library. We could talk and unwind.

JOCELYN SINGER-SARGENT: Interacting with first-years because, as a second-year, I feel I have very few opportunities to do this. If I had made it to the art lounge, I'm sure that would have been my favorite. I think it's important to allow myself to enjoy completely "unproductive" activities that aren't about my social work practice and are just about me being creative and making things with my hands—I find that really relaxing. It gets me out of my head, which is a welcome relief!

LIBBY STEINMEYER: Both of the morning sessions I attended: 

  1. The art room—it was so relaxing and therapeutic to just sit with paper, scissors, stickers, and glue and create art. I really think that we should have an art space at school similar to how we have a quiet space.
  2. The meditation workshop. Even though the class was only an hour, I learned helpful techniques about breathing and meditation that I will utilize in my professional and personal life.

ASHLEY STEWART: The discussion that came after the Intake performance. It allowed for a critical conversation on diversity as it directly impacts us as students. We learn about diversity and how it affects the clients we work with, but these issues also have an impact on us students in our daily lives. I enjoyed having a collective conversation that challenged people to think about diversity issues in the here and now. Self-expression and assessment is very important for self-care.

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NOTE: Commenting is now enabled (via your Facebook account). We welcome your feedback on these suggestions, as well as further recommendations on self-care techniques. Stay well!

—ML Awanohara