Looking after yourself – October 2007


Avoiding burnout is key to being a continuously active and able person.  When that person is involved in activism of any kind, avoiding becoming exhausted is essential.  Believing in and promoting a cause can be exhilarating and also debilitating, especially when causes are close to the heart.  Successes against all odds are a huge high and failures are very hard to take so it is easy to slip into a state of exhaustion.  When other lives are involved, the memory of the lives you have been unable to save, the animals that have suffered and died without you being able to help them or because you made the wrong decision can keep you awake at night and can propel you into a state of continual semi-grief.

I grew up in South Africa in a family who became gradually aware of the true state of South Africa and its people under Apartheid and who once aware, could not remain uninvolved.  Both my parents campaigned openly for Apartheid’s demise and worked to help people who suffered as a result.  We attracted the attention of the security police on an almost constant basis and we lived for years under the threat of being one of those families who just disappeared overnight.  When it was over, we looked at this fact in wonderment – it seemed miraculous that we hadn’t been killed, blown up or imprisoned.

We had strong ethic of just picking up and getting on with it.  There was no time for self-indulgent whimpering as there were people who were far worse off and who were suffering much more than we were.  A lot of the time, these were people we met and interacted with every day.  We covered up our worry, fear, strain, grief and exhaustion with a cheery and sardonic sense of humour which in most cases, carried us through.  When it didn’t, we relied on each other to pull through.

It led to one of my greatest strengths – getting on with the business of life, no matter what the circumstances – and also led to my greatest weakness – pushing myself beyond my natural physical boundaries no matter how awful I was feeling mentally or physically.  I am on first name terms with burnout and exhaustion so I thought it would be useful to share ways that I deal with it and to encourage you to take care of yourself regardless of the circumstances under which you are working.

Recognising when you need to take a break …

The symptoms of stress and exhaustion are fairly well-documented and I won’t go into them here.  There are some other signs which are less obvious and act as pointers along the way.  These include:

–                not being able to let a situation go in your mind once you have come away from it.

–                continuously kicking yourself for not being better, quicker, more intelligent, not being able to save the animal or person you tried to rescue

–                being overly-emotional about the death or suffering of an animal or person with whom you had no connection

–                harshly judging others who work with you or others in your field when they make a mistake or do something of which you are not in favour

–                hating beyond all reasonable measure the perpetrator of intentional or unintentional harm towards an animal or person.

All of the above are fine in moderation.  Not being able to let go and re-examining the facts and circumstances of a situation are key to learning from them, so it does no lasting harm if you do this for a time.  Likewise, kicking yourself occasionally is healthy too; else you might think yourself omni-potent.  Being emotionally affected by a situation or circumstance is often the start of becoming involved in preventing it recurring, so this is also not necessarily a bad thing.  Neither is judgement or hate, as they can be used as a motivation to carry on.

It is when all or any of these become all-consuming that you need to take time out for yourself.  This is difficult too, because there is so much harm perpetrated in the world and there are so few people who are prepared to stand up against it.  It is easy to convince yourself that, if you step away for a minute, someone will suffer.  You may be right.  What you need to think about is how many would suffer if you were permanently unable to work for the cause you support because you drove yourself into an early grave.

Eating and drinking …

This is common sense but I’ll say it anyway … eat the best, healthiest food that you can, drink as much water as you can and try not to continue any bad habits such as smoking or drinking heavily.  Of course, when you are busy and stressed, you are likely to eat more junk (“it’s quick and tasty”) and smoke and drink more (“but I need them to unwind”) but these are both traps easy to fall into and horrendously difficult to climb out of (this is coming from a heavy smoker who has found it impossible to quit so I know what I’m talking about!)

Easy ways to unwind …

A few ideas which work for me include …

… having a hot bath laden with relaxing and protective essential oils (a nice recipe includes 2 drops of frankincense, 2 drops of myrrh, 3 of sandalwood, 1 of rose or jasmine and 2 of neroli – throw them in after you have run your bath and just before you get in – expensive but effective).

… reading a book you really enjoy, especially if it is one you’ve read before.  It helps if your brain indulges in a bit of escapism.  Going to see a good movie helps in the same way.

… If you are very wound up, an evening with friends might also be just what you need.  However, be aware that sometimes these have reverse effect and you spend the evening talking about what’s on your mind, boring your mates stupid and resenting them for not being as fired up as you are.

… relaxing with your companion animals.  Animals have such an honest way of living, even when they are being a little devious, it is hard not to relax when being with them.  I am lucky with my four cats as they are pretty instinctive when it comes to me.  They know when I am feeling down or cheesed off and they respond accordingly.  I’m writing this at 4am, with one cat on my back dribbling down my neck, another sitting washing and purring at the back of my laptop, occasionally getting down to bite my toes and another sitting on the chair, making squinty eyes at me.  It is hard to feel upset when I am surrounded by so much love.

… recognise what is important and what isn’t.  That housework will still be there tomorrow, those dishes won’t multiply in the night and no real friend is going to judge you harshly if occasionally your house is a tip.  That said, I got through my father’s illness and death and simultaneous discovery of my husband’s affair by not stopping – I worked at work, I worked at home, I dug continuously on my allotment and it feels like I didn’t sit down for months.  However, it helped me cope and sometimes this can be beneficial, provided that you don’t forget about the animals and people around you.

… take a holiday or short break.  It doesn’t have to be expensive – camping for a long weekend in nice surroundings can be as beneficial as staying in a posh hotel with room service for a week.

… have a good look round you at your friends, workmates and acquaintances.  See who might be behaving in negative, draining ways around you and take action to shield yourself from the affects of this.  Some people are natural emotional vampires but they tend to be quite rare and easily spotted over time.

Not as easy to spot or admit to is the person we have all been at some point and will be again – the person who is having a hard time and who needs support, love and acceptance from their friends.  If one of your friends is in this situation and you are in a similar place, you could affect each other negatively.  It is important to acknowledge this and work with each other to prevent it.

A quick strategy is to be up front with them – something along the lines of “we are both having a hard time at the moment and are having difficulty supporting ourselves, never mind one another.  I am worried we are draining each other.  Can we agree to spend five minutes each talking over what is bothering us and the rest of the time having a good laugh?”

My best mate and I often twin – she or I will pick up the phone to have a good moan, to find the other in a similar situation.  There are only two occasions when this has happened and we haven’t ended on a laugh.  Both were heartbreaking and traumatic for both of us.  M is however a very special lady – funny, strong, gutsy and instinctive and not everyone is blessed with a friend like her.  So sometimes you may need to spell it out.

When the going gets tough …

There are going to be times when life gets you down, when nothing you do makes a real or lasting difference, when you feel you are not good enough to make a decent contribution or that others are not as good as they could be.  This is when you need to take real time out, not just an hour here or there.  When you are continuously stressed you are vulnerable to negativity, both your own and other people’s and exhaustion and depression can become self-perpetuating as a result.

If you do any ritual work, one of the first things you learn is how to protect yourself.  Yet it one of the lessons most often forgotten once you are underway.  You work ritual for people, animals and circumstance and forget that you are also a person and that you are part of the circumstance.  So I thought it would be worth repeating a simple ritual here.

(i)      Take the phone off the hook and switch your mobile off.  Put some relaxing music on so you don’t hear the doorbell.

(ii)           If you don’t have dedicated ritual space, clear up and clean a corner of a room or a table.  It doesn’t need to be fancy, it just needs to be clear of clutter and clean.  Find a new, white candle and place it in your ritual space or table, with a lighter or matches and a candle holder to place the candle safely.

(iii)          Take a nice hot, relaxing bath, preferably with some nice smellies (the essential oil mix above really does work but if you don’t have these to hand anything you enjoy and that relaxes you will do fine).  Breathe deeply and consciously whilst bathing and picture washing all your cares away.

(iv)          Get up out of the bath and let the water drain away.  Dry yourself calmly and continue your conscious breathing,

(v)            Go straight to your space and light the candle.  Look at how the candle lights up the area you are working in and ask that you might similarly be a light and force for good.

(vi)          Close your eyes and envisage a white light encircling you, pushing negative energy away from you.

(vii)         At this point, if you are used to doing it, try some self-healing by placing your hands on your solar plexus and then moving one of them to a part of your body which you feel needs it.  If you haven’t tried this before then don’t – the last thing you want to do is get stressed because you can’t do it.

(viii)       Then envisage a blue light around you, mingling with the white to create a light blue, healing light.

(ix)         Blow out the candle and imagine your stresses, strains and worries dissipating in the same way, with the light shielding you from negativity.

(x)           If you have specific deities, ancestors and/or guardians you work with, then thank them for your wellbeing and ask that they continue to guide and guard you.

(xi)         When you feel ready, get up and join the world again.

The above can be enhanced by using essential oils above or those of your choice and a handful of sea salt in your bath, with the same essential oils being used to dress the candle.  Planning the ritual so that you can go to bed straight away afterwards helps to capitalise on its healing effects.

If the going gets really tough …

You can experiment with different colours.  However, be aware of what these colours signify – for instance, if you surround yourself with red light instead of light blue, you may give off rather angry energy.  Black is a great shielding colour but as it sucks up negative energy unless you are feeling quite strong, you could feel the effects of that around your body.

Don’t be afraid of asking for help from friends or professionals.  If you are feeling stressed, put-upon and depressed you may find therapy useful both now and in the future and it can be a very helpful tool in discovering more about yourself.

Finally …

Remember that small amounts of stress are good for you.  Remember also how easy it is to become over-whelmed and how exhaustion is self-perpetuating.  The most important thing in your life should be you.  Easy to say, difficult to put into practice all of the time.  Without you, however, the animals and people you love would mourn.  Equally, a happy, balanced person is able to contribute far more to the world than a stressed, exhausted, over-emotional one.

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About titflasher

Writer, blogger, animal activist, people activist, dream-catcher maker, mommy to 9 cats and a roving band of foxes ... Blog name comes from my father's suggestion for the title of my autobiography ... after my mother's and my awful habit of flashing whenever the security police took our photo in the dark old days of apartheid South Africa. I love nature, including creepy crawlies and people, find life fascinating and frustrating and have two terrible weaknesses - nictotine and animals in distress ... can't abide the latter situation and can't give up the former. I'm Pagan but not anti-Christian, funny but quite serious, light-hearted but can be annoying. I am warm-hearted until someone p*sses on me too much, then I get soggy and even. Feel free to link me but all the words on these pages is copyrighted, so copy it and take the credit and I will find you and slap you upside the head, hard. The blog is probably best read via category as there is loads on here already, and I just got started :-)
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