You’ve probably heard the saying that doctors make the worst patients.
As a chaplain, I can testify that caregivers are the very worst at taking care of ourselves. Prioritizing self-care is hard for a lot of us.
We live in a society that encourages and praises workaholism, so when we speak up for our need for days off from work, for example, we risk falling behind or being seen as less dedicated than our peers who happily take on extra hours.
But working too much and neglecting our own needs inevitably leads to burnout. No one can keep giving and giving and giving when their resources are depleted.
Self-care looks a little different for each of us, but there are some things we all need. Here are five suggestions to care for you:
1. Make sure your days off are days off.
Working from home does not count as a day off. Constantly checking and responding to office emails on your vacation is a good way to make your vacation ineffective. Going in for a couple hours to finish up a project on your weekend can become a draining habit.
God instituted Sabbath not only as a time for us to replenish ourselves for more work, but also as a time of celebration.
We remember and celebrate that we are loved for who we are, not just what we do. We remember and celebrate that, while our work is important, the world will not come to a screeching halt if we take a break. We all need time to focus on those truths.
2. Learn to recognize what nourishes your soul.
Only you can know how best to take care of yourself. Pay attention to those times when you feel relaxed, content, invigorated, joyful. Whatever you’re doing at those times, find ways to do it more often.
Find what is helpful for you and make time to do it regularly. It’s as important as anything else on your calendar, I promise.
3. Learn to recognize your own warning signs for burnout.
Most of us who have been in the workforce for a few years have pushed ourselves too hard at least once. If we’re lucky, we can see that we’re headed for danger before we end up causing real harm to our physical and mental health.
What are your red flags?
For me, it’s numbness. I have learned (the hard way) that if I find myself sitting with patients and families facing tragedy and don’t feel some pangs of compassion, then I am very close to burnout. Recognizing that I have nothing left to give tells me that I have to go refill my own tank immediately.
For other caregivers I know, their warning signs can be an unusually short temper, a steep increase or decrease in appetite, lack of ability to focus or insomnia. Figure out what yours are, and be on the lookout for them.
4. Find someone who listens well, and talk to them regularly.
This could be a counselor, a pastor, a trusted friend or colleague, someone you know you can say anything to without fear of judgment.
Particularly if you’re in a caregiving profession, you will have some heavy stuff you need to unload because we always take on part of the burdens of those we care for.
Don’t try to carry all of that alone. None of us can and none of us should try.
From the very beginning, God said it wasn’t good for any one of us to be alone. Remember that you’re not alone. Find your “tribe” and let them take care of you as much as you take care of them and others.
5. Don’t neglect your body.
It’s easy to get so busy with work and family that we don’t take good care of our physical health. Most of us don’t get enough sleep or exercise. And a lot of us find ourselves eating whatever we can grab from the drive-thru while we’re going from point A to point B.
Eating healthy does take more time and forethought, at least for me. But the way I feel when I’m filling my stomach with fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains is so much better than when I’m quickly downing a bag of chips and a soda that it is worth the effort.
As an adult, I am the person God has placed in charge of my care. Feed yourself nutritious foods. Take yourself for walks (or whatever form of exercise works best for you). Put yourself to bed in time to get eight hours of sleep (or more if you need it). Get yourself checked out by a doctor at least once a year.
When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he said to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We sin in pretending that caring for ourselves is optional. Loving and taking care of ourselves is not selfish; it is sacred.
Stacy Sergent is a chaplain at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. She is a CBF-endorsed chaplain and a graduate of Gardner-Webb Divinity School in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. A longer version of this article first appeared on her blog, Chaplain Jesus Lady, and is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @StacyNSergent.