In the past year or so Cypress has been fielding more and more requests for workshops focused on toxic stress management, avoiding burn-out and self-care. Many of us have been on some kind of “front line” during the pandemic. Maybe we have been trying to save a small business, or we have been working in healthcare or education. Maybe we have been responding to the many needs in our communities and are feeding folks or working on housing issues. Maybe we have been covering for others who have been sick or we’ve been holding a toddler on our lap while trying to host a meeting on Zoom. And that’s just our professional lives! Many of us are exhausted, drained and not sure exactly what to do about it.
Most people don’t like to use the word trauma when describing what we are going through. I get it. Many of us think of trauma as acute – a significant life event that has deep impact – and that can certainly be trauma and is for many.
But trauma is also a series of events and/or a set of circumstances that consistently and persistently activate the body’s survival stress response. And that constant barrage of stress chemicals has both short-term and long-term impact on our health. These chemicals are directly related to leading chronic diseases and causes of death – things like hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. They weaken our immune system and make it harder for us to fight off disease. They increase inflammatory processes in our body and are linked to autoimmune diseases. They are linked to coping strategies like self-medicating behavior, and to mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. Trauma and toxic stress are a public health crisis – one that we are already feeling.
When we are in this space many people will then say “Well then you just need to practice self-care” and although that isn’t wrong per se I think it can be misplaced.
The phrase “self-care” puts the responsibility back on the person who is already burned out and struggling. Self-care to someone experiencing burn-out feels unmanageable – like just one more thing on the to-do list. And unfortunately, self-care is something that is very difficult to manage for those of us who are people-pleasers or if we work in systems that don’t support it. Many of us grew up in families or cultures where “self-care” feels … well, selfish. And we often have an image of self-care that requires tons of time and cash – Instagram versions that feel a long way from our realities. Most burned out people in my workshops these days just end up feeling resentful or ashamed about self-care – like they have failed or can’t keep up.
At Cypress, what we advocate for instead is “community care” or “collective care.” Building communities where folks check in on one another, where our institutions create systems and conditions where there is a culture of support for stepping away, where we have partners we can turn to when our wellness takes a back seat. On an individual level this could be finding a partner at work and walking during lunch or having a pact with a friend to tell the truth if today is a bad day. On an organizational level this can look like supervisors approving flex-time or shutting an office down for the entire team. There are so many creative things I have seen people doing to help one another. But the main thread is – we cannot rely on individuals alone when we are each so depleted.
Maybe during this time we need to stop talking so much about self-care and start talking about “us-care.”