Being involved in social change is a very rewarding job. Having the ability to help others in their times of need not only makes a difference in their lives but can make a tremendous difference in our own. However, social work and social justice can be extremely taxing on our mental health over time. The stress of serious situations or disasters, the demand for aid, and – at times – the inability to do anything other than the bare minimum; all of this can lead to extensive stress on our minds and our body.
A veteran counselor of sexual assault victims, Cyndi Amato knows the struggles of burnout during social work from her 20 years in the field:
“Burnout is real and can be a debilitating outcome of the professional stress of the social work field. Symptoms vary among individuals, and stages of burnout may differ, but the most common symptoms include feelings of physical and emotional exhaustion. When this happens the social worker’s ability to do their job becomes compromised and so does their physical and emotional health. Other symptoms could include irritability, rigidity, and lack of adaptability as the social worker experiences a low tolerance to frustration.”
It’s vital that you know your limits before reaching burnout and potentially negatively affecting those you are trying to help. This is why it is so important to put self-care of yourself above the care of those you are trying to help through social change.
Psychologist Ellen K. Baker, Ph.D., defines self-care as three different things: self-awareness of our mind, body, and spirit; self-regulation of physical and emotional impulses (both conscious and unconscious); and finding a balance between ourselves, others, and the greater community.
There are many different ways to handle and manage our stress before reaching burnout, including the most common ways of alleviating anxiety. However, as Cyndi Amato points out, the best method is “preventative in nature.” By practicing self-care regularly, you can make it easier to yourself to avoid reaching full burnout. Take advice from Amato and other professionals in social work on the best ways to care for yourself in the field during strenuous situations.
Meditation is an essential tool to have in your arsenal as a social change advocate. Being able to focus inwardly can help us determine how we should interact with our world. Peace Revolution offers meditation walkthroughs with Inner Peace to focus on creating peace internally so we bring that peace into our world.
When burnout seems to be fast approaching, meditate on your emotions and your ability to do your work. Ask yourself these questions:
- Are you the best you can be right now?
- What do you need to focus on?
- What do you need to remove from your life right now to relieve your stress?
If you find the result of your stress is the work you have been doing, then it is completely acceptable to take a step away from social change for a bit to focus on yourself. You should not feel guilty for re-centering your focus on your personal well-being.
Meditation and breathing tend to go hand in hand. But breathing exercises can be performed even when your mind is unable to dive into a fully meditative state. The most recommended breathing exercise that I have come across is the 4-7-8 technique, also known as the relaxed breath. Dr. Andrew Weil is a strong proponent of the relaxed breath, and recommends it for times when we lack focus, have panic attacks, or even suffer from sleeplessness.
You cannot help everyone. This is the unfortunate side of social work and social justice. It is an uphill battle, and not everyone that you come across will be willing to accept help, or will benefit from it. We may try our best, but even that is not enough at times. In those cases, it is paramount to remember that you cannot help everyone. Letting go of your inability to control every situation can be hard, but is extremely cathartic when you can achieve it. If you fail to do so, the overwhelming burden and stress that you are placing on yourself can speedily lead you down the path to burnout.
Take Time to Yourself
One of the easiest ways to prevent burnout is to dedicate a day to yourself every week. Whether it’s staying home for a whole day, or turning off your smartphone and avoiding social media; by resting, meditating, and focusing on your well-being you can release all the pent up stress from the past week and prepare for the next. Drink water, go for a run, and treat yourself. You’ll be grateful you took the time, and the serenity you’ll achieve will reflect in your work.
By Katie McBeth
About the author: Katie McBeth is a Freelance writer out of Boise, ID. She enjoys reading teen novels, eating mac ‘n cheese, discussions on intersectional feminism, and attending indie concerts in small bars. Her love for reading is only trumped by her love for cats, of which she has three. She also has a dog, and he helps keep her grounded. You can follow her animal and writing adventures on Instagram or Twitter: @ktmcbeth.