We are drawn to service work for many reasons. We want to help others, we find human beings fascinating, and we are called to make ourselves available to the suffering of others. The work can be engaging, demanding, and draining. For those of us who are introverts, the energy expending and restoring aspects of the work can be critical.
The introverted brain is more active and stimulated relative to the extroverted brain. Because of this, extroverts will feed off the energy of social interactions while introverts will get drained. The type of interaction matters such that superficial banter is more exhausting than a deeper conversation. However, social energy expenditures need to be followed by periods of restoration in order to prevent burnout. The quality of our attention also matters to how energy is spent and during work time. We can bring mindful attention to our practice and, through that presence, engage in higher quality care and self-care simultaneously.
The default mode of the brain is self-talk. Neuroscientists have confirmed this self-referential thinking as the default mode network of the brain (DMN) and have mapped its pattern of activation. This is how we spend much of our time—engaged in storytelling, projecting ourselves into the future, dragging along the past, and generating opinions about the present. As introverts, we may be more prone to this internalized self-talk.
In clinician groups that I train in mindfulness that often include social workers, I survey the participants and ask them how often their DMN is active during sessions with clients. The range spans approximately 30 to 70 percent of attention on the task at hand and the rest rattling around loose in imagination. The average tends to be 50 percent. We are all well-meaning and care for the people we serve, but these informal surveys reveal that we can do a lot to improve our attention. Closing this gap and shifting from the DMN to the experience of the encounter-at-hand will, no doubt, make us more empathetic.
A regular practice of mindfulness meditation can help us to be more present. Studies by Yale’s Judson Brewer and others have shown that experienced mindfulness practitioners can more readily withdraw attention from the DMN and redirect to the embodied experience of the present moment. In addition to a regular meditation practice, you can bring mindful attention into your work hours.
Mindfulness works by focusing attention on something happening in the present moment such as the physical sensations of breathing. Each time attention moves away from the breath to the DMN, you refocus your attention on the breath. This process is repeated as needed, which is usually quite a lot!
I teach a technique that I simply call “divided attention.” If, as the survey suggested, a large chunk of our attention is not with our client, then we can take let’s say 10 percent of that attention and ground it on the breath. That is, we aim to be mindful during the service time such that we speak and listen with an awareness of our breathing body. Now, close to 90 percent of our attention is with our person because we have steered our attention away from the DMN.
This kind of attention takes practice. It’s easy to get caught up in the stories of the moment—our own and those of the people we treat. Having a regular daily silent meditation practice can help us to develop the skills necessary to be mindful while communicating. When we bring our full presence to the work, it tends to be less exhausting because we are getting the benefits of mindfulness practice through the service hour. Mindfulness helps us to bring a sacred attention to the work. It conveys that we care deeply enough to be present and becomes the vehicle of that presence. Compassion, empathy, and equanimity will follow.
We can also take the moments between sessions to have mindful breaks. Instead of peering into your smart phone, take three minutes to be with your body and mind. These little mindfulness hits can help to keep your energy tuned during the workday.
Mindfulness practice is a form of quiet solitude that is especially important for those of us who are introverts. It can be beneficial for everyone, but we need it for restoration of energy. Being mindful during sessions, as suggested above, can help to offset the energy drain that inevitably occurs in social work. Getting yourself on the cushion on a daily basis will also help to build a foundation of energy that can be drawn upon in all the challenging situations of your life.
Colin Kaepernick and How Self Care Must Go Pro
For years, permanently injured players have been left to figure out how they will financially support their families and how they will carry on with their lives after committing years to football. Currently, the NFL is settling numerous lawsuits from former players who claim that their disabilities resulted from injuries on the field. But that’s not the only controversy stirring in the NFL.
In Fall of 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem. At the time, many believed the media would quickly move on to another more trendy story. Afterall, he wasn’t chanting or picketing. He was simply kneeling. But as weeks passed, white anger slowly unveiled itself, and patriotism took the main stage. Critics saw Kaepernick’s quiet gesture as a radical protest. Yet, he still knelt game after game.
Kaepernick proved his physical ability early in his professional career by leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2013. At that time the public didn’t know that Kaepernick had a metal rod placed in his left leg prior to his rookie year. Still, he attended and did well in practices. But in 2015, he injured his left shoulder and would later report injuries to his thumb and knee.
Working with such disabilities would prove challenging to most people, particularly for professional athletes who are required to demonstrate physical grit day after day. When Kaepernick’s scoring record took a hit, questions arose as to whether he was worth his contract. But Kaepernick saw himself as more than just damaged goods. He had something else to offer: a perspective on the value of black lives in America.
By kneeling, Kaepernick demonstrated ownership of his body, a black body that has been endangered for a time that is too long to measure. That is a radical act of self-care. The concept of self-care, for a long time, was viewed as a luxury accessible to an elite few. And, self-care is publicly declaring that your life matters beyond what your performance on the football field.
In a recent interview, Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy said he thinks that Kaepernick was released because he’s not a great player, not because he didn’t stand for the anthem. He added that from the perspective of a team owner, Kaepernick isn’t worth the distraction if he can’t play well. However, star quarterbacks Aaron Rogers and Cam Newton came out in support of Kaepernick. Both stated he should be starting in the NFL, but he isn’t due to his protest of the national anthem.
I’d argue that even when athletes play well, there is a general discomfort with them expressing resistance to racism. They usually are told to stick to the game, proving once again that a working, non-resistant black body is most favorable (and profitable) in this society.
The NFL has a longstanding history of utilizing bodies for financial gain, in particular, black bodies. It is a marketplace for bodies. Bodies that can be negotiated and sold and traded in the name of increasing revenue. I hear sports fans say often that certain teams don’t win because the owners ‘don’t want to spend the money’. However, Kaepernick was recently released from his contract, something for which he seemed prepared.
According to the New York Times, NFL players are becoming permanently disabled after suffering head traumas. Those injuries have caused concussions, dementia, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Now, some players’ wives have created at least one space, in the form of a private Facebook group, where they share their experiences and gain strength from each other as they become caregivers and advocates for men who once were larger than life. I believe that this generation of athletes will begin to demand more than money for play. They will demand the right to safety and self-care, and they will begin to plan for their legacies and quality of life off the field.
Athletes are human and imperfect. For many, they are heroes which must be a compliment, but it must also be a lot of pressure. This next generation of athletes will need to employ a high degree of self-care if they want to have a productive career and higher quality life after retirement.
Athletes inspire us because of their consistency and their unmatched desire to win. I’ve never met an athlete who thought second place was good enough. They want to be the best. Their drive is a metaphor for how many of us want to live our best lives.
Self Help Tips and Advice For Social Workers
There is no denying the positive impact social workers have on hundreds of families and individuals throughout their career. They will tell you about the rewarding experiences they have helping others in need. Unfortunately, for every success, there is at least one case in which they could not help. Social workers see the best and the worst of society every day, and even the strongest among us can crack under the pressure. That is why self-care is so important. Being mindfully aware of your needs as well as the needs of those around you can keep you healthy and able to be there when you’re needed.
What is Self Care and How Can You Do It Every day?
Self-care is a practice that becomes a lifestyle. Understand and commit to the idea that it is not something you do once, it is something you do every day. The key is to be mindful and aware.
It is important to be mindful of where you are and what you are doing as you go about your day. Whether you are in a meeting or at the grocery store, notice how you are feeling in the moment. This can range from listening to your body and noticing your state of health to recognizing an emotional situation in your life.
Become aware of your breathing. When we are feeling stressed, emotional, or run down, we forget how to breathe. Our breath can become fast and shallow which deprives our bodies of the oxygen it needs. Pay attention to your breathing and focus on slowing it down. Allow the air to fill your abdomen, not just your lungs. You will find that mindful breathing exercises calms your thoughts, allows for greater clarity, and lessens your anxiety.
Now That You Are Aware, How Do You Improve?
It’s one thing to be mindful and aware of how you are feeling, but doing something about it is another matter. Improving your physical and emotional state requires some life changes as well.
Many social workers have the stress relieving habit of smoking or grabbing an unhealthy snack from the vending machine. It makes us feel like we’re taking a moment for ourselves. Instead of grabbing a cigarette or a bag of chips, try an e-cigarette starter kit or grab a granola bar. This gives you a moment away while making healthier choices through controlling the nicotine and sugar you intake. The idea is not to deprive yourself but to make small changes that will make you feel better over time.
Changing the way you approach daily tasks is another life change that will give you some added peace of mind. For decades we have been taught to multitask but all we’ve learned is how to start tasks but not finish them in a timely manner. By focusing on one task at a time you’ll allow yourself to finish a job before moving onto something else. This creates a sense of accomplishment and boosts your confidence at the job you are doing.
Maintaining Your New Found Awareness
Creating a support system is important when attempting to care for yourself. By relying on your friends and family you are willingly accepting love and nurturing that you simply cannot give to yourself. When meditating on an issue in your life doesn’t result in answers, one of the best things we can do is turn to our support system for help. It’s not necessary to face every challenge alone and often times, they can see from a perspective that you cannot. You may also find that the more willing you are to receive care from others, the easier it becomes for you to provide care for the people you’re working to help.
Self-care is difficult for those who spend their lives taking care of others. By allowing yourself the care you need you will find that it not only feeds your soul but it will improve your ability to care for the people around you.
National Survey Reveals the Scope of Behavioral Health Across the Nation
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) report provides the latest estimates on substance use and mental health in the nation, including the misuse of opioids across the nation. Opioids include heroin use and pain reliever misuse. In 2016, there were 11.8 million people aged 12 or older who misused opioids in the past year and the majority of that use is pain reliever misuse rather than heroin use—there were 11.5 million pain reliever misusers and 948,000 heroin users.
“Gathering, analyzing, and sharing data is one of the key roles the federal government can play in addressing two of the Department of Health and Human Services’ top clinical priorities: serious mental illness and the opioid crisis,” said HHS Secretary Tom Price, M.D. “This year’s survey underscores the challenges we face on both fronts and why the Trump Administration is committed to empowering those on the frontlines of the battle against substance abuse and mental illness.”
Nationally, nearly a quarter (21.1percent) of persons 12 years or older with an opioid use disorder received treatment for their illicit drug use at a specialty facility in the past year. Receipt of treatment for illicit drug use at a specialty facility was higher among people with a heroin use disorder (37.5 percent) than among those with a prescription pain reliever use disorder (17.5 percent).
The report also reveals that in 2016 while adolescents have stable levels of the initiation of marijuana, adults aged 18 to 25 have higher rates of initiation compared to 2002-2008, but the rates have been stable since 2008. In contrast, adults aged 26 and older have higher rates of marijuana initiation than prior years. In 2016, an estimated 21.0 million people aged 12 or older needed substance use treatment and of these 21.0 million people, about 2.2 million people received substance use treatment at a specialty facility in the past year.
Rates of serious mental illness among age groups 26 and older have remained constant since 2008. However, the prevalence of serious mental illness, depression and suicidal thoughts has increased among young adults over recent years. Among adults aged 18 or older who had serious mental illness (SMI) in the past year, the percentage receiving treatment for mental health services in 2016 (64.8 percent) was similar to the estimates in all previous years.
“Although progress has been made in some areas, especially among young people, there are many challenges we need to meet in addressing the behavioral health issues facing our nation,” said Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use. “Fortunately there is effective action being taken by the Administration and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services with initiatives to reduce prescription opioid and heroin related overdose, death, and dependence as well as many evidence-based early intervention programs to increase access to treatment and recovery for people with serious mental illness. We need to do everything possible to assure that those in need of treatment and recovery services can access them and we look forward to continuing work with federal and state partners on this goal.”
“Addiction does not have to be a death sentence – recovery is possible for most people when the right services and supports in place, including treatment, housing, employment, and peer recovery support,” said Richard Baum, Acting Director Office of National Drug Control Policy. “The truth is that there’s no one path to recovery because everyone is different. And frankly, it doesn’t matter how someone gets to recovery. It just matters that they have every tool available to them, including peer recovery support and evidence-based treatment options like medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction.”
NSDUH is a scientific annual survey of approximately 67,500 people throughout the country, aged 12 and older. NSDUH is a primary source of information on the scope and nature of many substance use and mental health issues affecting the nation.
SAMHSA is issuing its 2016 NSDUH report on key substance use and mental health indicators as part of the 28th annual observance of National Recovery Month which began on September 1st. Recovery Month expands public awareness that behavioral health is essential to health, prevention works, treatment for substance use and mental disorders is effective, and people can and do recover from these disorders.
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