Marianne Elliott continues the discussion on self-care practices:
In my last post I talked about getting to know our own ‘healthy’ baseline, so we can recognize when we deviate significantly from that base. Which raises two further questions:
- How can I cultivate the self-awareness I need to know what my own baseline looks like and to notice when I’m moving further and further away from it?
- How can I build myself a ‘stickier’ baseline? How can I become more resilient to both the chronic stressors of aid work and the more acute experiences of high stress and trauma?
In my experience, mindfulness or contemplative practices like meditation and yoga can help with both these key elements of aid worker self-care. And, increasingly, research supports my experience.
Develop keener and more subtle self-awareness
Know thyself –
With information coming at us at increasing speed and frequency, around the clock, how can we tune in to the sometimes subtle signs of our own well-being? Our body is a great place to start. Our body has many ways to let us know when we are tired, hungry, scared, or even sad. Intuitively we know what those signs are, but many of us have stopped listening to them.
How can we know how we really feel when we’ve made it a habit to ignore what our body has to say?
I’ve had yoga students confess to me that they’ve been ignoring their own physical signs of hunger and fatigue for so long, they now barely recognize their own body’s signal that it is time for a bathroom break.
Yoga is a great way to get to know your body again – and to get back into the habit of listening to what your body is trying to tell you. Through yoga I’ve learned, for example, to tell the difference between the kind of physical fatigue that will be cured with one good night’s sleep and the kind of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion that won’t go away without a longer break.
Meditation also helps me know myself better, not least because it has helped me develop me the skill and the courage to stay aware of what I’m feeling, even when its uncomfortable. Whereas in the past I might have ignored or distracted myself from physical or emotional discomfort, meditation has helped me be aware of it, even turn gently towards it – knowing that it won’t go away just because I refuse to look at it.
What I’m aware of, I can do something with. In my own experience as a humanitarian worker, it was the discomfort I chose not to look at which had the most detrimental effect on my work and my relationships.
Build a ‘stickier’ baseline
Meditation and yoga have also helped me build more resilience. I call this having a ‘stickier’ baseline because it takes more to move me away from my baseline and when I do move away from well-being, I return faster. These days I still feel the physical and mental effects of being exposed to chronic stressors – like being on the road constantly, or struggling to pay the bills – but I find I can return to my baseline more quickly.
This is at least partly because I notice the effect of stress sooner – because I’m more tuned to my own physical and emotional state – and partly because the practices of yoga and meditation are helping forge new pathways in my brain which help me return to both a state and a sense of well-being.
How much do you have to do to make a difference?
People often ask me how often they should practice yoga and meditation, or at which time of the day they’ll get most benefit from their practice. Research suggests frequent practice, even if only for reasonably short periods, has more benefit than infrequent practice.
A recent study suggests that as little as 20 minutes of mindfulness practice, five days a week can begin to affect levels of the stress hormone cortisol. So a good general guide is to incorporate at least twenty minutes of yoga, meditation or some other contemplative practice into your day, five days a week.
The good news is that it appears you can do this cumulatively and still benefit. So if you spend ten minutes on your yoga mat in the morning, and then do ten minutes of meditation in the evening, you are likely to be getting similar benefits to someone who sat for 20 minutes.
Where can I go to learn more?
There are lots of free guides to yoga and meditation online. Here’s a free course I put together with some simple breathing and meditation practices, which you might find useful, and some free sample yoga videos, which you are welcome to download and – most importantly – use.
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