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Rethinking Self-Care: For Youth AND Allies Who Think They are “Too Tough or Busy”

AUGUST 22, 2017
BY: RISA REHMERT, WICHITA STATE UNIVERSITY CENTER FOR COMBATING HUMAN TRAFFICKING

“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self-indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival.” – Audre Lorde

I have never known another passion, another career. I imagine a combination of how I am “wired”, life experiences, and opportunity catapulted me into the world of human services. I have worked with youth and families in crisis for 35 years. Before joining WSU Center for Combating Human Trafficking as the Director of Program Development, I was in direct service—with the last 20 years coordinating services for runaway, homeless and trafficked youth ages 12-21.

If you asked me 3 years ago about self-care, I would have briefly talked about why it was important for staff, mentors, and youth in our program—I would not, however, have talked about my personal self-care plan. Even though I knew I was “stressed”, I didn’t think I was “fragile” enough to need a self-care plan. I was too busy. I just needed to “suck it up,” “pull myself up by my bootstraps” (as my dad would say), and keep going.

Then about 2 ½ years ago, I couldn’t turn my neck, I struggled with anxiety, I had a knot in my back/shoulder that nagged at me, and I wrestled nightly with sleeping. Of course, I had explained all this away.

  • I was getting older.
  • This must be what aging does to you.
  • Hormones.
  • Arthritis runs in my family—this must be my “new normal”.

Then through a free “5-minute massage” at a health fair, I ended up at a wellness center. Long story, short…it wasn’t aging or arthritis…it was STRESS.

This experience began my self-care journey…and it was not just about my own experience. It was bigger than that.

I knew the youth in our street outreach program encountered stress far beyond what I had experienced. Most grew up incubated in stress and then experience the added stress of homelessness and human trafficking. I knew in order for the youth we serve to be healthy, they needed to learn about self-care. I also knew staff and mentors were impacted by stress—especially those working with runaway, homeless, and trafficked youth. The demands of this work push us beyond ourselves. So how could my knowledge of stress impact our work with runaway, homeless, and trafficked youth? I knew in order for us to stay in the work long term—in order for youth to “get our best,” self-care had to be a priority.

So what do I mean when I say self-care? For this discussion, self-care is anything we do intentionally to take care of our mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health. It is the holistic, on-going process of self-regulation. Yes, we need to reduce the stressors in our life, but we can’t always change circumstances. We can, however, change our approach to how we deal with stress.

Learning to calm ourselves down and cheer ourselves up (especially during times of stress) is emotional self-regulation. In Promoting Protective Factors for In-Risk Families and Youth, self-regulation is identified as a top individual protective factor for “in-risk” youth populations served by Administration on Children, Youth and Families programs. Research such as this reframed the issue of self-care for me. Self-care isn’t just a way to care for yourself—it is more than that. It is an evidence-informed practice that strengthens protective factors for some of our most vulnerable youth. Self-regulation, when your daily normal is securing basic needs and being safe in vulnerable situations, can be the difference between life and death.

So, if it is that important for youth, it is likely equally important for us as allies. We too need to be “protected”.

Too often, we see self-care as simply “pampering” ourselves, doing something special—getting a massage, taking a day off, taking a vacation. These are absolutely types of self-care! However, this is only a part of it—effective self-care requires much more. We need an intentional, informed, and ongoing plan for us as allies and the youth we interact wih and care for. Simple strategies that can be accessed in real time.

Whether mentor, staff member, or youth—an intentional, holistic self-care plan will help protect our hearts, minds, spirits, and bodies. The following is a sample of ideas from my self-care plan—I hope it will inspire you to consider some regular practices of your own.

1. Maintenance.

This is a combination of regular practices that become “normal” in your life. Practices are routine. An example of an easy way to incorporate maintenance self-care is:

  • Make it a priority to DRINK WATER (other beverages do not count here ☺)
    • Why drink water?  Even mild dehydration can alter a person’s mood, energy levels, and the ability to think clearly/focus. Insufficient water intake can cause anxiety or worsen anxiety. Muscles can begin to get tense. Brain tissue is 85% water, if dehydrated, brain function is impacted.

This is an example of how simple it can be! It is not expensive, it is based on how the body was designed to work, and it can easily be incorporated into everyday living.

2. Emergency.

This is First Aid for Stress. As the name implies, it is a self-care practice that you train yourself  to use ahead of time when you are in “stress distress”. An example of a simple practice that I benefit from at these moments is:

  • Practicing 4-7-8 Breathing. This is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system as it tames the fight or flight response.
    • Why focus on breathing? When stressed, our breathing is shallow. Long term chronic stress results in mild oxygen deprivation. Under breathing can lead to buildup of carbon dioxide in tissues which contributes to oxidative stress, inflammation and acidification in the body (foundation of disease).

3. Pampering.

As mentioned previously, these are special things that “fill us up”, relax, and energize us.

Mentoring relationships provide the perfect opportunity to integrate self-care practices. Prioritizing our own self-care not only helps us, but modeling these practices for youth can also help them develop healthy strategies to cope with stress. Considering the level of stress youth experiencing homelessness and trafficking encounter on a daily basis, self-care is of critical importance.


Risa Rehmert is the Director of Program Development at the Wichita State University Center for Combating Human Trafficking (CCHT). Risa comes to CCHT with over 30 years of experience serving youth and families in crisis. Prior to joining CCHT, Risa was the Coordinator of the Street Outreach, Crossroads and Safe Place programs at the Wichita Children's Home. In this role, she was responsible for coordinating services, program development, grant writing/reporting and oversight of daily operations. Learn more about the Wichita State University Center for Combatting Human Trafficking here.

Comments (2)

  1. Matt Lafreniere

Great piece that's important for youth professionals.

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  1. Mandy Howard

Great read for all youth-serving professionals!

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